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Two Parties, Distilled To Their Essences

[ 44 ] October 28, 2014 |

Ah, Saint Ronnie (with an assist from everybody’s favorite genteel segregationist, William F. Buckley Jr.):

Brack Obama displayed inspiring leadership on Friday. He also promoted public health, fought bigotry, and helped calm raging paranoia. His heroic act? He hugged somebody.

Nina Pham, the first person to be infected with Ebola within the United States, had just been declared disease-free and discharged from the National Institutes of Health. Obama is a rational, science-friendly guy, so he knew she wasn’t any danger to him. It didn’t take courage to hug her.

And yet, another modern president failed a similar test. Facing the greatest public health crisis of his administration, Ronald Reagan was not heroic. He was a dithering coward.

The hateful, homophobic, racist response to the AIDS crisis is one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history. Within a few years after the first AIDS cases were reported in 1981, scientists knew the disease was transmitted primarily by sex, blood transfusions, and shared needles.

That knowledge didn’t stop the prejudice and fear mongering. HIV-positive people were fired from their jobs, forbidden from entering the country, kicked out of the military. Jerry Falwell claimed AIDS was “God’s punishment not just for homosexuals” but for a “society that tolerates homosexuals.” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in a widely syndicated column that people diagnosed with AIDS should have that fact tattooed on their buttocks. Schools refused to enroll children with HIV. When a judge ordered a Florida school to admit young brothers Ricky, Randy, and Robert Ray, their neighbors burned their house down.


But Ronald Reagan? He didn’t do a goddamn thing. He was president when the first cases were reported. He was president when Congress, the National Academies of Science, and anybody with a sick loved one or a conscience called for the federal government to do more to fight the medical and social crisis. He let his reprehensible press secretary Larry Speakes, Reagan’s face to the media, repeatedly joke about AIDS.

Read the whole etc.

The Passive-Aggressive Virtues

[ 13 ] October 27, 2014 |

Ah, I never get tired of Krugman arguing in print with a pundit who shall go nameless.  Let’s call him “D. Brooks.”  No, wait, that’s too obvious…”David B.”

The NYT policy of not allowing explicit disagreement with other people on the op-ed masthead doesn’t really make sense, and yet I hope they keep it — it’s always entertaining in this context.

The Contingency of the ACA’s Passage

[ 109 ] October 27, 2014 |

Yglesias makes a very good point here about the suggestions that Obama lacks “passion”:

January 20, 2010 was one of the very most memorable days of my eleven years in Washington. The previous evening Scott Brown had defeated Martha Coakley in a special election to fill the US Senate vacancy left by Ted Kennedy’s death. Genuinely surprising electoral outcomes are rare, so it was natural that the political community was electrified by Brown’s triumph. But to most observers the stunner also had a very concrete significance — the drive to pass an Obamacare bill through the United States Congress was dead.

Of course Republicans spun it that way. But many Democrats — including senior figures on and off Capitol Hill as well the President’s own chief of staff — agreed as well.

The message of the election was clear. Obamacare was finished. The only question was what, if anything, could be salvaged from the wreckage. At the Center for American Progress, where I was working at the time, the halls were buzzing with scenarios. Maybe a bill to cover all kids? Some kind of Medicaid expansion? Having come so far toward universal coverage, nobody wanted to give up. But the crisis clearly required some dramatic turnabout. Some grand gesture to make it clear that the President “got it.”

That’s the day that came to mind as I was reading Josh Green’s Businessweek story detailing Obama’s alleged failings as a crisis manager.

From Deepwater Horizon to Ebola to ISIS, Green alleges, Obama’s cool cerebral technocratic approach denies “the public’s emotional needs.” The president “disdains the performative aspects of his job.” Consequently, he “struggles to strike the right tone.” He is, in Green’s view, a perpetual under-reactor who has “an excess of faith in government’s ability to solve problems.”

So about Scott Brown.

It turned out that a version of Obamacare had already passed the US Senate with a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. If House Democrats were willing to abandon their own version of health reform and pass the Senate bill, then the Senate could use the budget reconciliation process to enact some limited changes. Nothing about Brown’s victory changed the fundamental reality. Democrats could have Obamacare if they wanted it, and if they didn’t pass the law it would be because they decided not to, not because Brown’s victory forced them out of it.

Nancy Pelosi was a strong advocate of this view, but it struck many party leaders as insane. Rep. Barney Frank, for instance, declared Obamacare dead on the night of Brown’s win. Ultimately, however, Obama became the hero of his own administration by coming down on her side. He refused to give into the panic gripping the Democrats and focused in on the math of the situation — and there, it turned out, Democrats had more than enough votes to pass the bill. As a response to the Brown win, it made no emotional sense. But it did make sense. And today Obamacare is law.

A lot of people were urging Obama to betray most of his supporters by abandoning comprehensive health care reform, including not only his chief of staff but a number of actual liberals. He didn’t, and this choice mattered.

There’s another narrative that comes up sometimes conflating Emmanuel’s timorousness with Obama’s views, and hence arguing that Pelosi had to persuade Obama to keeping pressing with the ACA although he didn’t want to. At least according to the definitive PBS documentary on the subject, this isn’t true:

CECI CONNOLLY: January 19th, 6:30 PM, about an hour-and-a-half before the polls close in Massachusetts, Obama calls for Pelosi, Reid, Biden and Rahm Emanuel to come to the Oval Office.

NARRATOR: They immediately convened an emergency meeting.

DAN PFEIFFER: From the very moment that it was clear that Scott Brown was going to win that seat, he began thinking through what the next steps would be to be able to right the ship and get health care done.

NARRATOR: The president asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi if she could get the House to pass the Senate bill.

CECI CONNOLLY: Pelosi is annoyed and quite adamant that there’s no way she can sell that to her House members, almost kind of lecturing, saying, “You don’t understand the realities in the House. This won’t work.” And Obama finally snaps, uncharacteristically for him, and he says, “I understand that, Nancy. What’s your suggestion?” And there is no suggestion.

My point here is not to deny Pelosi the enormous credit she deserves for getting the Senate bill through the House — her analysis that it would be a very heavy lift at best wasn’t wrong. I still don’t like the term “Obamacare” because it contributes to the pernicious myth that presidents unilaterally impose major legislative choices from the top down. But the point here as that Obama and Pelosi were allies against the Emmanuels and Franks. They didn’t start out on the opposite side. (And as djw observed earlier today in comments, the evidence-free assertions that Obama was the puppet of his chief of staff are not merely wrong but offensive for obvious reasons.)

The key point here is that the interesting counterfactual question isn’t why the ACA wasn’t better — as the pathetic quality of the counterfactuals trying to make an argument that the Senate could have passed something significantly better indicates, that’s not a difficult or particularly interesting question. The real contingency cuts the other way — with different presidential and congressional leadership it absolutely could have failed entirely once again. (Although I still think that Clinton/Pelosi/Reid also would have gotten it done; I suspect Clinton might have been more receptive to this kind of what-about-the-next-midterm caution in general, but not on health care specifically.) But as to suggestions that I should be nostalgic for the Golden Age of the Democratic Party when the White House and congressional leadership were 1)more conservative than Obama/Pelosi/Reid and 2)could screw up a gin-and-tonic, I’m going to continue pass.

Real, Hard-Headed Political Analysis Pretends That the United States Congress Doesn’t Exist

[ 105 ] October 26, 2014 |

Shorter Thomas Frank: Haha, silly Democrats, dreaming about post-ideological blank slates.  Look at Obama — if you completely ignore every accomplishment of his tenure in office, including signing the comprehensive health care reform Truman, LBJ, and Clinton failed to get passed, he’s exactly like Carter.  One day, Democrats will have the clear-eyed realism to yearn for a benevolent Daddy in the White House who can unilaterally cause the Republican Party to cease to exist.   

Is Upstate New York Like Alabama? (SPOILER: No).

[ 190 ] October 25, 2014 |

Murc in comments [combining two]:

That’s the flip side, yes. I enjoy pointing out that without the city, upstate New York is basically Alabama…upstate New York is economically impoverished and composed a lot of strongly conservative white folk. In other words, the south.

Well, I happen to have another upstate resident right here — myself. And I can assure people unfamiliar with the area that this is abject nonsense, even allowing for some rhetorical license.

First of all, take a look at the most recent House elections. My district, NY-20, voted for an orthodox Democrat ~70-30. Democrats also hold the House seats in the North Country and in the districts containing Rochester and Syracuse. I’m not actually wild about defining “upstate” New York as “everything outside of New York City,” but since Murc’s assertion would have no chance at all without it we’ll go with that. Even in Western NY and the Southern Tier (as well as the upstate-by-any-definition Upper Hudson Valley), the House elections won by the GOP were coin flips. Only in NY-22 did a Republican (narrowly) get even 60% of the vote. That’s more conservative than NYC, but Alabama it really, really ain’t. Metro Birmingham votes GOP like the capital region votes Democratic, the Huntsville area is 65-35 GOP, Montgomery about the same…I don’t think I need to belabor this point further.

And, of course, even this is being too charitable to the argument, because it assumes that New York and Alabama Republicans are the same. While most readers of this blog know there’s no longer any functional moderates in the Republican conference, many voters don’t know that — Richard Hanna and Chris Gibson would not win Republican primaries in Alabama. If we look at the presidential level, a more useful metric in this context, we can see that upstate New York is overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2012, Obama lost three of New York’s 27 congressional districts: NY-22 [central New York] by .4%, NY-23 [Ithica and parts of the Finger Lakes] by 1.2%, and finally one solid Romney win in NY-27 [suburban Buffalo.] In Alabama, conversely, Romney’s percentages in the 6 of 7 districts he won were 62, 63, 62, 74, 64, and 74.

Admittedly, Murc did start to walk back his claim, conceding that “[u]pstate has the I-90 corridor, and the decaying urban cores strung out along it are pretty liberal.” But at this point the claim has been narrowed to an empty tautology. “If we exclude the majority of upstate that’s liberal or moderate, it’s conservative.” I mean..I can’t argue with this, exactly, but the assertion that upstate New York is like Alabama has now been rendered inoperative.  If you have to exclude metropolitan Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, the North Country, and much of the Hudson Valley from your definition of “upstate New York” for your characterization to hold water, it’s wrong.

Saying that upstate New York is like Alabama, therefore, is like the assertion that Obama is really a moderate Republican. It’s either meaningless to the point of constituting dissembling (“look — a powerless and unrepresentative nominal Republican who has positions indistinguishable from a mainstream liberal Democrat — he’s like Obama!”), or it’s false.

Jack Bruce

[ 43 ] October 25, 2014 |

R.I.P. For the two or three readers in the audience who might be interested in that kind of thing, I quite liked the Tony Williams tribute he put together with Vernon Reid and John Medeski.

On a related note, the recent documentary about Ginger Baker — which I think is still on Netflix streaming — is a pretty remarkable watch.

When Misogyny and American Gun Culture Meet

[ 65 ] October 24, 2014 |

The results can be horrible:

Two students are dead after one of them opened fire Friday morning in the Marysville-Pilchuck High School cafeteria before turning the gun on himself, according to law-enforcement sources.

Police said four other people were wounded  in the 10:45 a.m. shooting.

Austin Joyner, a student at the school, said on Twitter that he saw the shooter come into the cafeteria, walk over to a table, pull out a gun and shoot students who were sitting there.

Jarron Webb, 15, said the shooter was angry at a girl who would not date him, and that the girl was one of the people shot.  He said he believes one of the victims was his friend since kindergarten.


Bobo’s Comedy Classics

[ 58 ] October 24, 2014 |

Shorter Verbatim David Brooks:  “The federal government should borrow money at current interest rates to build infrastructure, including better bus networks so workers can get to distant jobs. The fact that the federal government has not passed major infrastructure legislation is mind-boggling, considering how much support there is from both parties.”

Yes, it’s a real puzzle. If both Republicans and Democrats support major infrastucture investments, why hasn’t Congress passed any since the ARRA?  Why, it’s almost enough to make me think that one of the premises is false!

The same problem infects people nostalgic for the 1970s Golden Age of the Democratic Party and The Last Liberal President Richard Nixon, when we would never have gotten a neoliberal health insurance industry bailout like the ACA.  Richard Nixon supported national health care!  Democrats supported real national health care!  The fact that a Democratic Congress did not pass and Richard Nixon did not sign any comprehensive health care reform might suggest that these assumptions are not in fact true.

Friday Links

[ 63 ] October 24, 2014 |

It Is A Sordid Business, This Supreme Court Permitting States to Discriminate on the Basis of Race

[ 77 ] October 24, 2014 |

Shorter John Roberts: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. Unless racial discrimination can provide electoral assistance to the Republican Party, in which case it’s perfectly fine.”

Is Obama Any Kind of Republican? (SPOILER: No.)

[ 159 ] October 23, 2014 |

Bruce Bartlett has an American Conservative cover story arguing that Obama is best described as a moderate Republican. It is…not persuasive. I’ll leave aside the arguments about foreign policy, simply because these issues don’t break cleanly on party lines, so foreign policy views can’t really prove much of anything. (You could say that Obama is a “Republican” because his foreign policy is closer to Eisenhower than LBJ, but this is a not a productive argument.) I don’t really agree with calling Obama a “hawk” in the context of actually existing American politics but quibbling over the semantics is beside the point of his argument.

On the domestic policy questions, none of Bartlett’s analysis holds up at all:

Stimulus Bartlett makes a telling error when discussing the ARRA, arguing that “this legislation was passed without a single Republican vote.” (There were two three GOP votes in the Senate, and had to be.) In one sense, this could be seen as helping his argument — there was minimal Republican support for the stimulus makes it even more Republican! But I don’t think so, because a lot of the tax cuts in ARRA were there to appease Snowe, who had a veto over the bill. It’s obviously true that “the election of McCain would have resulted in savings of $816 billion,” but I don’t necessarily agree that under McCain there would have been “a stimulus plan of roughly the same order of magnitude,” and Bartlett concedes that whatever the magnitude it would have been tilted much more heavily towards tax cuts. So…I just don’t see how the example helps Bartlett at all. The ARRA was Democratic policy, it doesn’t reflect the priorities of any strand of Republicanism, and Obama’s proposed ARRA was more progressive than the one that needed the support of the moderate Republicans he’s allegedly interchangeable with to pass.  The fact that the ARRA was closer to a moderate Republican proposal than one might like isn’t shocking given that actual moderate Republicans had a veto over it, but this doesn’t tell us much of anything about Obama.

The ACA I’ve explained many times why Bartlett’s repeated assertions that the ACA is a Republican policy is plainly false. I will observe here only that Bartlett’s version of the argument is a particularly extreme and caricatured form. You would think based on Bartlett’s argument that the ACA consisted of one sentence saying “you must buy the health insurance kthxbi.” Just as in the version of the argument that comes from the nominal left, Bartlett ignores the historic Medicaid expansion that has resulted in more of the increase in coverage than the exchanges, despite the Supreme Court re-writing the expansion in a way that resulted in greatly reducing a scope. And this is a rather crucial omission from Bartlett’s argument, given that it’s dispositive of the idea that the ACA is “Republican policy.” Even John Chafee’s decoy health care proposal — which didn’t actually represent the preferences of any meaningful number of Republicans either — had no Medicaid expansion. Even if you want to reduce the ACA to the exchanges, they’re very different than what Heritage proposed — but you can’t do this. The ACA just isn’t Republican policy, moderate or otherwise, end of story.

Social issues As if he knows how weak the argument is, Bartlett’s discussion of Obama and same-sex marriage is perfunctory: “Simply stating public support for gay marriage would seem to have been a no-brainer for Obama, but it took him two long years to speak out on the subject and only after being pressured to do so.” Well, first of all, this still puts him to the left of most Republicans. But even so prior to explicitly supporting same-sex marriage, he opposed Prop 8, he signed legislation repealing DADT, and he refused to defend DOMA. These are not “Republican” positions. Women’s rights Bartlett just ignores entirely for obvious reasons.

Civil Rights In perhaps the most remarkable part of his essay, Bartlett asserts that “[e]ven when Republicans have suppressed minority voting, in a grotesque campaign to fight nonexistent voter fraud, Obama has said and done nothing.” This could not possibly be more ridiculous, unless you think that Eric Holder is a rogue official acting against Obama’s wishes. He has also criticized Voter ID laws. Barlett’s argument here is quite simply embarrassing, particularly in a context in which 5 Republican Supreme Court justices (including quintessential country-club moderate Republican Anthony Kennedy) are willing to rehabilitate Roger Taney to gut the Voting Rights Act.

Giving Republicans credit for Democratic policies One puzzle of the essay is exactly how Bartlett defines what a moderate or liberal Republican consists of, a point on which he is strategically slippery. Two public officials dominate the discussion: Richard Nixon and Mitt Romney (as governor, not presidential candidate.) The obvious problem with this is that the ends up giving “Republicans” credit for policies favored by overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures. One searches in vain for examples of “Republican” policies that were actually favored by unified Republican governments at either the federal or state level.

All that remains of the argument, then, is just a logical fallacy that renders the argument entirely useless. Bartlett might object to my point about reproductive rights, for example, by pointing out that liberal Republicans don’t oppose them. But so what? The fact that some Republicans support(ed) abortion rights doesn’t make everyone who supports reproductive rights a Republican. The fact that in the early 70s Republicans were not as hostile to environmental regulations as they are now does not make every supporter of environmental regulation a Republican, and so on.

This is really not complicated. Obama is a moderate liberal Democrat. He’s not any kind of Republican and in the context of American politics he’s not any kind of “conservative.” Pretending otherwise involves some combination of distorting actual Republican preferences, ignoring inconvenient facts, and simply making stuff up.

Today In the Noble Ideals of Amateurism

[ 212 ] October 23, 2014 |

But I’m sure this is a total outlier:

For 18 years, thousands of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took classes with no assigned reading or problem sets, with no weekly meetings, and with no faculty member involved. These classes had just one requirement: a final paper that no one ever read.

The academic fraud in the university’s African-American studies department was first revealed three years ago. But a new investigation shows that the fake classes were even more common than previously thought, and that athletes in particular benefited from the classes, in some cases at the behest of their academic counselors. Previous investigations had found no ties to campus athletics.

On campus, the fake classes, which at least 3,100 students took, were hardly a secret. They were particularly popular with athletes, who made up about half of enrollments. Nearly a quarter of students who took the classes were football and basketball players. And the classes made a difference: good grades that students didn’t have to work for made more than 80 eligible to graduate who otherwise would have flunked out.

In the most crucial finding, no player was paid $10 for an autograph, so it’s a minor scandal in the end.

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