Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I'm not going to pay more than six sheep for this operation

Fourth in a series of articles on the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Meet Sue Lowden. You may not be familiar with Sue, but she's on her way to becoming one of America's most talked-about politicians. Sue is the likely Republican nominee to take on Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who happens to be Senate Majority Leader. You wouldn't think that Nevadans would want to give up the clout of having a power broker like Reid represent them, but apparently they do. If current polls are to be believed, Sue Lowden is leading Mr. Reid by 10 points or more.

Sue Lowden is one of many Republican candidates trying to gin up support this year by attacking the health care bill. Congressman Roy Blunt for example, who will be the Republican nominee for the open Senate seat in Missouri this year, has suggested that it's wrong to guarantee access to health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, because some adults, "have done nothing to take care of themselves."

Mr. Blunt's comments on health care are however not half as obnoxious as Sue Lowden's. Earlier this month, Lowden said,

"I think that bartering is really good. Those doctors who you pay cash, you can barter, and that would get prices down in a hurry. And I would say go out, go ahead out and pay cash for whatever your medical needs are, and go ahead and barter with your doctor."

Initially, the media's reaction to Lowden's comments was to assume that she had used the word "barter" when she meant to use "haggle" or "negotiate." Indeed, her campaign office seemed to confirm this, saying in response to an inquiry regarding Lowden's comments that, "Usually, doctors will offer a lower payment in an agreement with patients because it saves them the hassle of dealing with insurance companies and government-administered health care." Ok, sure, that's sort of reasonable I guess. Doctors have been charging patients on a sliding-scale for centuries.

So a few days ago, I joked about Lowden's apparent blunder, writing, "Thanks, Sue. The next time I go for a check up, I'll try to pay with a chicken."

Ah ha, but it turns out that even Lowden's office had wrongly assumed that she had misspoken. In point of fact, she did literally mean that you should barter with your doctor for services! On April 19, she said,

"I’m telling you that this works. You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I’ll paint your house. I mean, that’s the old days of what people would do to get health care with your doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system."

(Boy, I was really ahead of the curve with that chicken comment.)

Lowden clearly thinks she's on to something here. Just today, she went so far as to attack her opponent Harry Reid today for not being on board with her brilliant livestock-for-medicine program, saying, "instead of producing a health care solution Americans support, Harry Reid spends his time focusing on attacking ...Sue Lowden."

Personally, I think there's a reason why Republicans are having such a hard time articulating complaints about the health care bill. And it's not because the health care bill is so wonderful that it's beyond criticism. It's because the bill is structured around requiring everyone to buy insurance from the private sector, without any public option to compete with private sector insurance, and without requiring private insurers to reform their abusive pricing practices. This should sound familiar to Republicans, because it's exactly what they themselves proposed for years.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Health care, politics, and the Democrats who keep their promises

Third in a series of articles on the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

I've written about what the health care bill will do for people. Everyone will be able to buy insurance, even those with pre-existing medical problems. Those who can't afford it will get a subsidy. American taxpayers are winners too; they'll no longer be paying out of pocket for the uninsured and indigent to use public hospital emergency rooms for all their health services. Healthy people are also more productive and pay more taxes.

Now I get to talk about the political winners and losers. Hooray! Ok. I declare the biggest loser, by a country mile, to be Fred Barnes of the right-wing rag the Weekly Standard. Just sixty-two days before the health care bill was signed into law, Fred wrote,

"The health care bill, ObamaCare, is dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection."
"Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is the new king of Capitol Hill."

I further declare the aforementioned Mr. McConnell to be the second biggest loser. In the days before Congress passed the final bill, McConnell was very vocal about his belief that Democrats would deeply damage their chances in this fall's election if they did not abandon health care reform. According to McConnell, "Just looking at the politics of it there’s nothing but pain here for the next four years. Why in the world would they conclude that would be popular?"

Jonathan Chait of the New Republic wrote what I thought was a very good commentary on McConnell,

"Imagine McConnell is correct: Republicans will gain a massive advantage if Democrats pass health care reform. Why would McConnell signal this now, before Democrats have passed it, while they still have time to heed his warning and save themselves? Since we can assume that McConnell badly wants to become Senate Majority Leader, it seems awfully inconsistent with his self-interest for him to hand out such valuable strategic advice to the opposing party. Am I cynical for suspecting that maybe McConnell is not offering this advice to Democrats in good faith?"

Ah, but was McConnell right? How happy, or angry are the voters as a result of health care reform finally becoming law? Well, it kind of depends on how you look at it. One day after passing the bill, it looked like Democrats were doing pretty well for themselves. Glynnis MacNicol of noted,

"initial polls are showing that health care approval ratings have gone up (also President Obama's). A USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that “49%-40% of those surveyed say it was ‘a good thing’ rather than a bad one that Congress passed the bill.” This is in contrast to last week when there was “a plurality against it.”"

Current polls actually show that more Americans are still against the bill than are for it. While this is not good news, it also seems that Republicans are not getting a lot of traction in calling for the actual repeal of the bill. Republican Congressman Mark Kirk, who is running in a tight race for Barack Obama's old Senate seat in Illinois, initially promised to lead the charge to repeal health care reform. When that promise didn't test very well with Illinois voters however, he immediately announced that repeal is "impossible." Other Republicans, like Iowa's Chuck Grassley, have been bragging about their role in shaping the bill and talking about their favorite provisions in the legislation. This is odd, since every single Republican in Congress, Grassley included, fought tooth and nail to make sure the bill would never see the light of day.

But these things aren't what concern me the most in terms of the bill and its political fallout. What's most important is this: Democrats in Congress needed to finish health care reform in order to re-motivate their own base and get  Democratic voters fired up to go to the polls this November.

Returning to the same article I linked above, I happen to agree with Jonathan Chait who believes, "that the Democrats have already suffered most or all of the damage they're going to suffer from trying to pass health care reform, and that failure will cause even sympathetic voters to conclude that Democrats don't deserve to keep their majority. Passing the bill might staunch the depression of the Democratic base and allow for a different narrative."

As I've noted before, polls from late 2009 showed that Democrats might be headed for a disaster in the 2010 mid-terms due to the enthusiasm gap. According to a 11/30/09 poll, 81% of Republicans said they definitely or probably would vote in 2010, while only 56% of Democrats did. So, did passing health care reform do anything to close this gap? It seems that for the most part, the answer is yes. The same poll taken again after the health care bill was passed showed the "intensity gap" described above shrinking from a staggering 25 points to a manageable 7.

So, does this mean that Democrats are out of woods, and can expect that the 2010 election will result in only mild losses for them in Congress? Well, no. The chances of a Republican wave this fall are actually still pretty high. This Gallup poll, which measure voter intensity in a slightly different way than the Research 2000 poll I linked above, still shows Republicans as far more motivated than Democrats.

The recent polls of hot 2010 races have also been a mixed bag. On the one hand, I've seen very encouraging polls that suggest that Democrats might hold onto the Governor's office and pickup the open Senate seat in Ohio, and even win the Governor's office in red-state Georgia. On the other hand, I've seen discouraging news from polls of the key races in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

In conclusion, while Democrats may not have staved off disaster in the coming election, I'm sure that the health care reform bill is more helpful than hurtful for them in 2010. By passing President Obama's signature legislative initiative and breaking through the Republican policy of total government gridlock, congressional Democrats have made good on the promise that got them elected. That promise, of course, was that unlike Republicans, Democrats can govern competently.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Conservatives pal around with terrorists: other conservatives

Second in a series of articles on the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

The Republican party taught me something during the 2008 Presidential campaign. The worst thing a person can do, so I learned, is to have any contact whatsoever with another person who participated in violent acts of civil disobedience.

In October of 2008, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin told a gathering of campaign donors that, "Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

Palin was of course referring to Barack Obama's association with University Of Chicago professor Bill Ayers. Obama and Ayers served on the board of a Chicago charitable organization, and apparently are friendly enough that Obama once held a fundraiser at Ayers' home.

Ayers is a former member of the radical group the Weather Underground and in the late 1960s and early 70s participated in numerous acts of violence meant to protest the Vietnam War. For the past four decades, Ayers has dedicated himself to public service, and in 1997 was named Chicago's Citizen of the Year. He has expressed remorse for his violent acts. Barack Obama for his part has condemned the acts of the Weather Underground.

Ah, but that was 2008. Condemn someone for associating with another person who engaged in civil disobedience? Not any more. Now it's 2010, and, thanks to the health care reform bill, conservatives have fallen in love with breaking the law as a form of political protest.

Within hours of the House of Representatives passing the bill, the violence began. From the Washington Post:

"In the days that followed, glass doors and windows were shattered local Democratic Party offices and the district offices of House Democrats from Arizona to Kansas to New York. At least 10 Democratic lawmakers reported death threats, incidents of harassment or vandalism at their offices over the past week, and the FBI and Capitol Police are offering lawmakers increased protection."

Among the many alarming acts of violence committed by angry conservatives were repeated attacks on the headquarters of the Democratic party of Alaska, and the sabotaging of the gas line of the home of the brother of a Virginia Democratic congressman. Why the home of the congressman's brother? The address of the home had been published on the web site of a Tea Party group who had mistaken the residence for the home of the Congressman himself.

At least some of the violence appears to have been inspired by Mike Vanderboegh, a 57-year-old former militiaman from Alabama, who urged people who opposed the health care bill to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices nationwide.Vanderboegh opposes President Obama because he believes the President has "collectivism" tendencies. His condemnations of the government are rank with irony of course: Vanderboegh lives on government disability checks.

But it would be unfair to condemn conservatives at large for the acts of a few bad apples. Any large group of people is bound to include some individuals who are not playing with a full deck. It would however be fair for me to condemn Republican leaders who have made it clear that they actually do condone breaking the law when it involves civil disobedience in response to the health care bill.

From the Hill: "Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has partial jurisdiction over healthcare, told Fox Business Network that Americans would refuse to comply with mandates to buy insurance.

"You're probably going to see a quite a bit of civil disobedience," Barton said. "Not in a violent sense, but all these people are supposed to mandatorily sign up, they're just not going to do it. They're going to say make me pay the penalty but I'm not going to do it."

Barton doesn't seem to be calling directly for people to break the law, but he certainly doesn't seem to be condemning it either. Another Republican however has not minced words in calling for American to violate the law to show their disdain for health care reform.

According to the Arkansas News, Republican Congressional candidate Gunner DeLay, a former prosecuting attorney "said in a news release that he supports efforts to oppose the health care overhaul and that “as 3rd District congressman, I would be committed to supporting this movement, including any acts of civil disobedience that may be necessary to affect change.” Kudos to the News for capping the article with this observation from an Arkansas Democratic party official, "It certainly seems a little ridiculous for a former prosecutor to be encouraging folks to break the law,” he said."

Finally, I realize that Republican leaders are talking about civil disobedience not in terms of breaking windows but only in terms of violating the health reform law itself. But consider what this means: they're suggesting that their constituents will deliberately go without health insurance as a form of political protest.

Hmm, well, people without health insurance don't live as long as people who do. I might point out to Republicans that their actions might be construed as an embodiment of the concept of "survival of the fittest." But since they don't believe in Darwin, it would just confuse them.