March 2017 Archives

Dear America,

Above the fold on the front page of March 25th's New York Times appeared a picture taken in the Oval Office in the aftermath the day before of the failure of the Republican attempt to repeal and replace the eponymously named, Obamacare.  In the center, sitting at a desk obviously devoid of anything resembling work, was our illustrious president, wearing an expression that would have justified a caption reading, "Which way did he go, George?  Which way did he go?"  Flanking him, one on each side, were two of his acolytes, sycophants if you prefer, obsequiously grinning as if to connote loyalty in the face of embarrassment.  Tom Price, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services was to Trump's right, and the man too good for just two shoes, Vice-President Pence to Trump's to his Trump's left.  The scene properly reflected the haplessness of the White House in the whole "repeal and replace" debacle, but it really wasn't the story. 

Below the picture was a column on the subject of Trump's acquiescence in withdrawing the American Health Care Act, the Republican answer to the ACA, from congressional consideration embodying an account of the dialogue between Trump and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.  In the second, third and fourth paragraphs, the writers detailed the problem that has paralyzed our legislature for at least eight years; it is the manifestation of Mitch McConnell's pledge to make President Obama a one term president.  Mr. Trump apparently wanted Ryan to call a vote on the bill instead of withdrawing it so as to make everyone in The House go on record as to his position.  The idea was to make them accountable for their actions with the electorates that sent them to Washington.  But Ryan, a journeyman politician now being consulted by an abject novice, pled with Trump to reconsider.  According to the text of the article, Ryan opined that a loss on the bill could do lasting damage to the Republican' who supported it.   Think about that.  The bill Ryan and Trump had just been touting as a preferable alternative to "Obamacare"  was so objectionable to voters, Ryan thought, that those voting for it could lose their seats, and on that basis, Trump relented and the pusillanimous pair agreed to spare their fellow Republicans the spectacle of accountability.  Thus, for the first time in my memory, it has been admitted that holding Congressmen accountable just isn't done in Washington, hence the arcane rules of The House that allow bills to come and go based on back-room vote counts rather than on our surrogates in Congress taking responsibility for what they do.  And likewise, though Mitch McConnell would never admit it, The Senate's filibuster and cloture rules protect senators from the consequences of what they like to call "transparency" in Washington...what the rest of us just call integrity.  That is the problem in Washington; congressmen can do despicable things and their misdeeds never have to see the light of day.  They can vote against the best interests, and even the will of their constituents, and no voter will ever know...all in the service of conservative dogma, which conservatives think of as the medicine that the people should take, whether they like it or not.

The history of Obamacare, an appellation attached to the ACA not by President Obama but by obstructionist Republicans (and I think they will regret it some day) is significant here.  When Bill Clinton took office, he assigned his wife to run a commission inquiring into health care in this country.  She and her colleagues were leaning toward a "single payer system, which smacked of the conservative anathema of socialized medicine, so the Republicans came up with an alternative: not Obamacare, but what became its precursor, "Romneycare."  Yes, the Republican presidential aspirant who thinks as the Supreme Court does that corporations are people too, oversaw the enactment of Massachusetts's version of the Affordable Care Act.  It was Republican orthodoxy then, and if the Republicans had any integrity--any courage, for that matter--when the Democrats were floating the ACA they would have just claimed the idea as their own and gone along.  Then we could have had a bipartisan solution to the health care privation of millions instead of a vapid, partisan calumniation of the plan in the name of opposing the good for the sake of party hegemony.   But with the "Blue Dog" Democrats at their side, they undermined the bill before it became law, and where are the Blue Dogs now.

The point is that the only way for our system to return to vibrancy and efficacy, if it ever had those qualities, is for every vote to be taken in the open: no filibuster, no prohibition of floor votes without the permission of the Speaker of the House.  If every congressman had to explain to his constituents why a bill was good for them, there would be no more specious partisan vilifications...no more prevarication like that which dragged the ACA down.  Remember, during the George W. administration, more than 60% of the American people favored universal healthcare, even a single payer system like that employed by most of the top thirty industrialized nations where infant mortality is lower and the average lifespan is longer than ours.  Ryan's version of politics is the reason that deceit has ruled.  That's not what the founding fathers signed us up for.

Your friend,

Mike


I watched a panel discussion about the healthcare law being contemplated by the current majority in congress and the law it is intended to replace on Fox this Sunday.  One of the only two or three intellectually honest personalities on Fox, Chris Wallace, was the moderator, and the panel comprised guests of varying levels of authority on the subject from a medical doctor, Ezekiel Emanuel, who helped conceive the Affordable Care Act, to Rachel Compos-Duffy, a chronic reality game-show contestant and failed would-be host on network television, now a conservative shill on the staff at Fox.  Then, there were Karl Rove--I need not say more about him--and Neera Tanden, two political operatives for the conservative and liberal movements respectively.  The discussion, like all of those that purport to include both sides of a political issue these days, rapidly broke down into condescension, dismissive facial expressions and in the case of Compos-Duffy, scornful laughter, which conservatives use when they don't have an answer to the opponents point.  They were all educated, except for Rove who has no degree, but rather is a student of the Sigretti school of political campaigning, although their educations seemed availing of cogent argument less often than might be expected.  Except for Compos-Duffy, they were focused on the issues rather than on prevailing, and while one might not agree with any one or other of them, they all made points that, as opinions, merited attention.

While the colloquy did not lead to any kind of resolution, it did raise a question.  When the issue of containing healthcare costs arose, Compos-Duffy, laughing in condescension at Dr. Emanuel as he talked about the CBO critique of "Trumpcare,"  digressed to opine that one of the ways of reducing such costs was tort-reform, implying that the liberal camp was ignoring it and shouldn't because it is pivotal.  It isn't.  Her comments were significant not because they had merit in light of the fact that the total of medical malpractice civil court awards in such cases is less than $5 billion per year while the cost of healthcare in the United States exceeds 15% of our GDP, or $2.5 trillion plus.  Thus, eliminating tort cases against those who commit malpractice entirely would yield a decrease in the cost of medical care of .2% or less.  That's not 2%, it's .002 of the total...2 1,000ths of the total; it's .2%...a number so negligible as to be meaningless.  And if you consider that medical malpractice liability is the only deterrent other than morality to careless medical practice, and that in spite of liability exposure almost 250,000 Americans die in consequence of just hospital negligence every year, eliminating that deterrent, minimal as it is, would likely open floodgates of bad results emanating from our healthcare system.  No, the problem with the cost of healthcare in this country isn't that doctors get sued too often.  The problem is that the free market, on which conservatives seek to rely...again...has not worked to keep costs down for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to Republican submission to the will of pharmaceutical companies when Medicare Part D was propounded and negotiating with those companies was banned by law.  The problem is that medicine is in private hands and we pay half again what the next most expensive country, Germany, pays for healthcare, and that is because all of the top 30 industrialized nations have some form of public healthcare funding from the "Obamacare" model of subsidized funding of the insurance market to outright socialized medicine.

So now comes the Republican majority in congress promulgating a bill that is contrary to the experience of at least the 29 other most advanced nations on earth by reverting from a hybrid of the systems that those other countries use to what we gave up to get that hybrid: the free market, which led to nearly 50 million Americans being uninsured and without access to healthcare.  Why that caused Compos-Duffy to issue a haughty laugh I cannot say, but she certainly is a Republican, and a conservative one in the bargain.

You've no doubt tired of seeing these words on this blog, but I can't see my way around them: on election day, the majority of the American people get what they deserve.  I would add in the matter of healthcare though, and in the matters of most social issues for that matter, that unfortunately, the minority gets it too.  So next time you vote Republican, think with your own head, not someone else's, and vote in a way that you can live with.  You just might get what you vote for.

Your friend,

Mike


I read Charles Homans's piece in the New York Times Magazine on March 19 on the state of the Democratic Party with consternation over the fact that the Democrats don't seem to recognize their direct path back to the majority, and journalists seem to be reifying that dazed confusion.  No one seems to start from the fact that the electorate didn't reject Democratic orthodoxy; it endorsed it with a 2.8 million vote popular plurality in the presidential election and the addition of 2 Democratic senate seats and 6 Democrats in The House.  The problem with which the Democrats are faced is not lack of popular support.  The problem is a lack of judgment when it comes to strategy.

Bernie Sanders was the only Democrat whom polls consistently showed capable of beating every Republican handily from the start of the campaign's plenary phase all the way until he conceded to Clinton.  Clinton was never "destined" to prevail as Sanders was.  Thus, the election problem is, how does the Democratic Party chose the right candidate...a desirable candidate, which I am sorry to say Hillary is not.  That's how the White House will be regained.  As to politics between now and then, the Democratic platform is the choice of the majority of the electorate, or at least a viable plurality, and The Party should play to that strength.  The Republicans cannot say as much.  So the strategy for Democratic participation in legislation until 2020 should be to say "no" not as a matter of course--not as a function of obstructionism and partisanship--but because specific things that the Republicans want to do are inimical to the well-being of the majority of the American people, and to do so loudly and often.  Let the Republicans flounder around with, for example, healthcare, and if they pass a bill and Trump signs it, let them live with it in 2018 and then in 2020.  In the interim, now that the "Blue Dogs" are gone from the Democratic Party, put a bill on the floor of Congress or The Senate that will save "Obamacare."  Draft a bill that inserts the public option into the Affordable Care Act and let the Republicans kill it.  It won't take long for the vast majority of Americans to realize that, by comparison Obamacare with that option serves our people far better than "Trumpcare."  They will also realize that if the Republicans had just been willing to provide the modicum of support that was required, Obamacare--with the public option--was always the best solution our politics will allow, even in 2010 when it was passed. 

The potential significance of such a strategy is that policies on issues will again be the criteria on the basis of which the vast majority of votes will be cast in national, state and local elections.  If the Democrats demonstrate that partisanship is unavailing as a political modus operandi, we will return to elections in which the two poles are not Republican and Democrat; they will be liberal and conservative, which in reality is what our politics are all about.  It must be understood that the strategy won't likely succeed in just one presidential term.  It may require that the Democrats continually and consistently emphasize loudly and clearly that such is their goal for some time, and to be blunt, self-promotion hasn't been the Democratic Party's forte.  Principle doesn't have the resonance that shameless calumny and misdirection do.  But over the course of time...say ten years...a policy of candor--and by necessity such a policy entails an element of "I told you so"--if trumpeted and reiterated often could shift the emphasis of our polity from ascension to  and retention of power by party to realistic and humanistic consideration of policy and its outcome.  It is the lack of sincere belief in what we are doing that keeps us from full actuation of the American ideal.  If we are to be great, we must also be noble...and perspicacious.


Your friend,

Mike


The "wiretapping" controversy involving Donald Trump and his staff, Sean Spicer and Kelly Ann Conway in particular, but even Donald, Jr. to some extent, is discomfiting.  Of course, the unseemly...tawdry actually...nature of it all is its most obvious attribute.  But Donald Trump's lack of taste, not to mention judgment, has been long lived.  I was born in New York City and raised on Long Island, to which I returned periodically until I was in my forties, and thus, I heard of Trump's exploits early and often in his dubious career as a public figure.  Trump and I were born just a couple of months and a couple of miles apart, so his distasteful self-promotion and gauche taste and behavior have been on a television near me way too often.  I started hearing and seeing him in my thirties, and at first, I wondered, who is this guy.  But as time passed, his m├ętier became obvious and in the final analysis, I realized that he was just another fairly rich guy--apparently there are about 2,700 billionaires in the world now and he probably isn't as rich as 95% of them, so he's nowhere near the pinnacle he claims to be at, rich as he is--who was "born 0n third base but thought he had hit a triple," as I heard it said of George W. Bush once.  Braggadocio and tacky opulence aren't crimes, offensive as they may be...though some of what he did to workers on Trump Tower and to investors in his casinos may have been.  Still, in New York City hustlers like him are a dime a dozen, and such conduct is even to be expected, but in a president, it isn't just offensive, it is odious...unless...

The question I am going to raise may sound at first like just an ad hominem rhetorical device, much like the ones that Trump himself uses, but in this instance, I would be ashamed if it were.  I raise this issue out of genuine consternation.  This fixation on his predecessor suggests something when conflated with the tactics he is using to undermine our emeritus president's stature, and that is what Trump seems to be attempting.  It is a strategy, probably preconscious in light of Trump's apparent lack of impulse control and forward thinking ability, that suggests clinical--not figurative, but clinical--paranoia in the form of a delusion of grandeur.  Trump believes that he is superior to everyone, and thus, when Obama looks good in retrospect, which really means by comparison, Trump cannot allow it.  If Mr. Obama looks better than he does people might think that Trump isn't the demigod that he claims to be...or alternatively that Trump is merely playing Narcissus to Obama's Zeus.  Either way, as the "The Dude" says, in Trump's world, this aggression will not stand.  I know, I have digressed into what I said I wouldn't; this isn't about satire.  I am actually concerned that our president is mentally ill.  Consider the recent past.

This most recent twitter embarrassment started with a 5:00 a.m. tweet accusing former president Obama of "wiretapping" Trump Tower.  From there, the story evolved until there was an alleged FISA warrant, and eventually when no such warrant was found, wiretapping by a British intelligence agency at Mr. Obama's behest.  That last bit was a function of a rumor started by a Fox "consultant" who used to be a low-level judge in New Jersey but now reports such things on Fox News and wherever else he can gain someone's ear.  This erstwhile judge, one Joe Napolitano, claims to have friends in the intelligence community who are informed on such things, but the fact that he was never in intelligence himself should suggest that reservations be held about anything he says in that regard.  Forget about the fact that he is a tenant of Trump's in one of Trump's Manhattan properties and just concentrate on his credentials.  This is the kind of thing that any sycophant of Trump's knows he would relish, and thus could be used to curry favor.  My guess is that that is what Napolitano had in mind, and Trump should have had suspicions about the claim on that basis alone, if not on the basis of the preposterousness of the idea that an American, president or not, could prevail upon British intelligence to commit illegal surveillance on American shores for some third party's political gain.  But Sean Spicer gave credence to the canard, and Donald Trump didn't disavow it except to point out that Fox and Spicer said it, not he.  It is so bizarre that I cannot believe that a sane man would have countenanced the whole affair, which failure to disavow it constitutes, nor would he have initiated it with an unfathomably ill-conceived emission--and I use the term emission advisedly--on a social medium that is known for facilitating the dissemination of dubious claims all the time.

As the saying goes, the proof will be in the pudding.  Trump now says that within the next two weeks, a lot of information will be coming out to validate his claims and those of his surrogates.   So far, what passes for proof by Trump's standard is that he read that there was surveillance of Trump campaign personnel incidental to presumable wiretaps and/or other surveillance of the communications of suspect Russian officials, none of which points to wiretapping Trump Tower.  If the "proof " he adduces to support his claims is nothing more than right wing palaver or innocuous traditional reportage no less general than that on which he has relied so far, we have a problem as a nation, because as Trump himself might say, this is only going to worsen into a disaster, believe me.  This truly is "so sad." 
 
Your friend,

Mike


Finally, we are coming to a test of the true fealty of Donald Trump to his core voters: "Trumpcare," and if you don't think that the Democrats are going to hang that nameplate around Trump's neck, I think you are fooling yourself.  He intoned all those calumnies about "Obamacare"--it kills jobs, it's a "disaster," and now, healthcare is "simple, but it's complicated," implying that he knows how to get it done--and pledged to repeal and replace it, and now the Republican House of Representatives...Donald's House...has come up with a plan.  He should have been more careful what he wished for because, even if you only apply common sense to your appraisal of the plan, it will lead to the loss of affordable health insurance coverage for millions, maybe tens of millions, of voters.  That's what the Congressional Budget Office, which is putatively non-partisan, says too.  I guarantee that in the rear view mirror, Obamacare is going to look pretty good by comparison.  Tax refunds of up to a few thousand dollars are going to replace subsidies, and they will be the only help low to moderate income people will get to pay for insurance they will have to chose and buy for themselves on the "free market."  The decrement in the benefit inuring to those 20 million on Obamacare now, plus those made newly eligible for Medicaid--which the Republicans want to replace with block grants that the states tend to abuse as they did with welfare, by the way--should be an electoral hurdle over which the Republicans, including Donald Trump, cannot leap.  The Republican creed that the free market is always best has always been a convenient mischaracterization of reality, and health care proves it.  The free market for both insurance and medical care itself was what we had before the Affordable Care Act was passed, and it left more than 40 million people without any hope for personalized healthcare because doctors don't compete or barter for services and all those millions couldn't afford the price of meaningful insurance.  The poor, both working and not, and the elderly not yet eligible for Medicare will suffer, and millions of them voted for Trump, Rubio, Ryan and McConnell.  Now, they're going to get their oats, and they're going to get them from Trump, Rubio, Ryan and McConnell, among many others.

Of course, the internecine conflict within the Republican Party may prevent anything from happening anyway, regardless of the fact that the party has a majority in both houses of congress and paradoxically, that might be the best thing for the Republicans.  They will blame Democrats for not filling in the gaps that the Republican heretics leave when they refuse to vote in favor of their poor substitute for what was at least a sincere attempt to provide universal healthcare.  When the "Blue Dogs" did that to the Democratic ACA draft, the Democrats cut out the "public option," which was to be an alternative if the free market was too costly.  The Blue Dogs went along and the ACA passed with just Democratic votes.  But the conservative wing of the Republican Party is so recalcitrant, and the Democrats have been so thwarted by the Republicans, that there is not hope that the Democrats will pitch in, which the Republicans didn't when they were needed.  And the conservatives won't budge.  Flexibility isn't their long suit.  So, unless they Republicans decide to essentially repeal Obamacare by defunding it, nothing is going to happen.  And if they do defund Obamacare, tens of millions of people will be left with nothing, so their Republican bona fides will be confirmed, but they'll lose millions of votes because the common weal is a more powerful election motivator than party loyalty.

My guess is that Trumpcare will die on the vine, so to speak.  There will be fulminations from the party leadership about having tried without succeeding because the Democrats didn't save them, but no one will buy that in the end.

There has been so much propaganda about the last election that people now believe that the Republicans swept the Democrats clean.  However, the Democrat got almost three million votes more than the Republican in the presidential election.  The Democrats cut the Republican majority in The Senate by two, and in the House of Representatives by six.  That sounds like a clean Democratic sweep to me.  You don't have to add much to that to make the Republican Party a footnote for the next twenty years.  In short, this Trumpcare thing is going to work out just fine...for us liberals and Democrats, I mean. 

Your friend,

Mike


Once again, my day began with more of Donald Trump on the radio.  His latest tweet, which he issued at about 5:30 a.m. on Saturday after having a Breitbart report whispered in his ear--no doubt by Steve Bannon--the evening before according to purported White House insiders, accused President emeritus Obama  of tapping his "wires" at Trump Tower.  Since then both the former Director of National Intelligence and the current director of the FBI, the infamous James Comey, have denied that any such thing occurred.  The image that races through my mind lately when I hear these outlandish allegations from Trump and his staff is that of a man in a long coat with a bolo tie and a top hat standing on the tailgate of a horse drawn wagon trying to sell snake oil to a small, shabby crowd.  Unfortunately, Trump has millions of people in his crowd of twitter followers, and they are all as eager to believe Trump's bizarre claims as they were when they voted for them...probably fans of Sarah Palin as well.  And of course, the opposition is as busy discrediting the claim and its cognate sources, which the Trump camp no doubt will start condemning.  The result apparently will be an appendage to the Russian meddling campaign focused on the claims of Trump Tower wiretapping, which begs the question of why Trump does these things.  The answer is simple; Trump subscribes to the timeless Hollywood adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

In Trump's case, the advantages that inure to him from even the negative publicity are functions of ego, not just gullibility and proneness to conspiracy ideation.  This isn't about national security at all, this claim against the former president.  It is about narcissism...ego.  It isn't about demonstrating that Trump has been victimized.  It is about discrediting his predecessor, whose popularity soars way above Trump's own.  Trump is not the star of recent history with anyone other than his obeisant family and staff, and he is incapable of burnishing his own stature because everything he does is questionable to at least half the population.  Thus, his only recourse is to diminish the one who stands above him: Barrack Obama.   This last Twitter outburst, like many of its predecessors, is not an attempt to purify America, or even to "make America great again."  It is the tantrum of a seventy year old tyke in a grocery store.  It is the foot stomping of a privileged rich guy who can't get his way, even with money.  I'd like to say it was also the ranting of a Hitlerian autocrat, but it isn't.  It is only the pathetic outcry of an egocentric carnival barker.  It is just Donald Trump doing what he has always done--promoting himself first, and if that doesn't work, discrediting someone who opposes him with whatever cudgel is handy.  It used to be the courts, because he had the money to hire as many lawyers as he wanted to pursue whatever frivolous claims he wanted to make, but he can't do that anymore.  The president can't vexatiously sue people he doesn't like because everyone will see what he is doing.  So he has to use rumor and innuendo when he can get them because he has no other resources. 

But the explanation of motivation isn't really the point here.  The real, overarching question is, is Donald Trump amoral on account of his stunted development in the bosom of a preposterously self-indulgent family, or is he immoral and likely to do anything he wants because he doesn't believe he answers to anyone and he can thus get away with anything he wants to do.  The former is dangerous in its own right--no prudent person wants to be governed by a child king who doesn't have any moral compass.  But the second alternative is geometrically more dangerous.  A king who doesn't care what harm he does is not just hazardous to be around, he is malevolent.  And with the power of the American presidency at his disposal, he can devastate the nation.

We will know how to resolve this conundrum fairly soon now.  Trump is going on two months of incumbency, and it is becoming more and more clear what kind of a president he is going to be.  So, measuring his popularity is important because it is also a measure of his impunity, but it isn't paramount.  What we have to determine now isn't whether Trump is a hazard.  We have to determine whether he is dangerous--not whether he is a petulant child, but whether he is a ranting megalomaniac.  

Your friend,

Mike

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