Saturday, August 15, 2009

Health Care Reform Debate as of August 15, 2009

My friend Christy's Dad, Jerry (whom I also consider a friend) posted his thoughts and questions about the healthcare reform debate going on in our country as we speak.

I enjoyed reading the post and decided to respond with some thoughts of my own. Read Jerry's first for context. (And to my Republican and libertarian friends, if you'd like an example of how to make your case without becoming apoplectic, take a page from Jerry.) Quotes are his thoughts, non-quotes are mine:


"I believe one reason is that the insurance companies are the sector that the federal government can replace. The government cannot act as doctors, they can't invent new drugs like the drug companies, they wouldn't dare touch the lawyers, and they wouldn't run a hospital.... that would involve bedpans. Bedpans and bureaucrats don't mix. The insurance companies have money and power. Ripe for federal takeover."

First, assuming this observation is correct, is there anything wrong with the government acting upon the one factor it can change in order to do good? Should it do nothing because it cannot do something to each of the facets of the problem you mention?

Second, though I'll admit insurance companies draw a lot of rhetorical fire, my understanding is that doctors and drug companies are going to have to settle for lower, negotiated prices -- or at least that that is an option that's being debated. Moreover, lawyers are "touched" all the time by politicians at state and national levels -- at state levels with damage caps, and at the national level with bills that restrict rights to sue at all. (See, e.g., here.) To consider who has better lobbyists, and thus who has a better shot at a fair shake in Congress and in state legislatures, ask yourself when was the last time you heard "greedy neurosurgeon" or "dirty obstetrician" used as a pejorative the way "trial lawyer" is every day. The guys who defend the insurance companies are "trial lawyers" too, but somehow I don't think that's who the politicians have in mind when they use the phrase.

I think most attorneys are open to genuine tort reform, but when it's used as a euphemism and a stalking horse for "damage caps," it's no good. Damage caps take from the "trial lawyers" to give to the members of the AMA and ADA and hospitals and drug companies, etc. -- a Peter and Paul situation. This is to say nothing of the fact that the most serious injuries would be undercompensated. One of the cases we had in torts was Quintal v Laurel Grove Hospital (62 Cal. 2d 154, 397 P. 2d 161, California, 1965), in which, according to a site I used to refresh my memory, "a 6-year-old patient [little Reggie Quintal] undergoing an operation to correct the inward deviation of his eyes suffered severe brain damage as the result of a cardiac arrest." "During the administration of the anesthetic, [Reggie] suffered respiratory arrest followed by a cardiac arrest. The ophthalmologist did not feel competent to administer a manual massage of the heart. In the few minutes it took to locate another surgeon, the patient suffered irreversible brain damage."

It turned out that there was reason to believe Reggie had a fever before he was anaesthetized -- for cross-eye surgery -- and he either shouldn't have been anaesthetized and operated on, or the doctors should've had a cardiac surgeon on hand just in case. Afterwards, someone fudged his charts to cover that up. So a six-year-old kid goes in for cross-eye surgery and comes out "a spastic quadriplegic, blind and mute" -- for the rest of his life, and say you have a $1,000,000 damage cap. For the guy who loses his pinky toe from staph infection, $1,000,000 should cover it, but for Reggie, who'll have to be cared for constantly and carefully for the rest of his life, even after his folks are gone, how can that be enough? (Quintal actually got $400,000 in 1965 money, which Inflation Calculator tells me would have been $2,702,339.07 in 2008.)

One of the most interesting discussions in which I ever participated in law school concerned the idea that health care costs could be brought down, doctors' malpractice premiums lowered, and people's real injuries could be more quickly and efficiently compensated if we would do away with our fault system altogether. (My torts professor, Roger Dworkin, was the one who facilitated the discussion, though I don't remember if he came up with the idea or just threw it out for debate.)

The issue of whether docs are negligent is the one that usually takes up the bulk of the time and money in medical malpractice lawsuits; it's almost always a foregone conclusion that an injury has happened -- a limb is lost, a baby has been brain damaged, etc. -- and it's usually not that hard to prove what caused the injury. The experts, and the tests, and the dog-and-pony shows put on for juries, are all about whether the docs were negligent. So, instead of paying insurance companies, who then pay "trial lawyers" to defend doctors by spending years litigating whether or not a doctor was negligent, why not have doctors pay into an "injury kitty?" Then, if their actions cause an injury, the injured party is compensated without litigation -- or at least without extensive, expensive litigation -- and the doctors are never called "negligent" or "bad." Billions that under our current system evaporate to pay experts, jury consultants, and attorney fees would either stay in the doctors' pockets or the kitty, or transfer to injured parties. And trial lawyers and doctors would both have to cede a little territory.

Of course, besides the fact that people would call it "socialism," another problem would be that doctors would have less incentives to practice careful medicine if they didn't face the possibility of the stigma of negligence. However, that would already result from more common forms of tort reform that are suggested today, such as damage caps, in which the most negligent doctors would get a windfall because their insurance policies would not have to pay the full amount for their most egregious injuries. So the incentive argument cuts against both types of reform and doesn't favor one over the other.

Anyway, moving on...


"Another large segment of the uninsured, consists of individuals who could afford insurance, but choose not to be covered because they are healthy and will 'take the risk.' Are we going to force them to buy insurance?"

Answer: yes. And why? Precisely because when they do get sick or injured, they show up at the emergency room and get treated anyway. Then, if they can't afford to pay the bills, they take out a second mortgage on the home, or take bankruptcy, or both. If they're 22 and single, terrific. If they're 40 with a wife and six kids, where do those kids live? Who takes care of them when Risk-Taking Daddy mucks up the family's finances because he didn't want to buy insurance? The State does, i.e., taxpayers do.

I guess one alternative is to say "tough luck" and literally to turn away the people who could have afforded insurance but chose not to. Cancer, AIDS, lupus, head trauma from a car wreck, whatever it is, tough luck. Go die, and let your kids work or beg. There are two problems with that. One, as a generally compassionate society, I doubt many people could bear the thought of denying needed care, particularly when it would affect the innocent members of their families. Two, as a practical matter, if these people lose everything, or the kids are left orphans -- or the worst of both worlds, if Risk-Taking Daddy loses every bit of the money on his healthcare and still dies, leaving them orphans -- or if the kids turn to crime or don't amount to anything because they had to go pick beans instead of going to school or learning a trade, we all suffer from that.

So I think it's within reason for the government to say, "If you can afford health insurance, you have to have it," not because the government wants to take away individual liberty, but because the risk those individuals take is a risk that affects the rest of us. (I wasn't around when the debates over mandatory seat belt laws took place, but I imagine their rationale was much the same) And if people can't afford insurance, it's within reason for the government to decide that it will be cheaper to subsidize or provide insurance that will ensure preventive care and yearly maintenance than it is to wait until all the uninsured all show up at the ER with their hands out for a Kleenex and a $1000 Tylenol.


"There's one reason why an insurance company wouldn't cover pre-existing conditions: If they did, everyone with a terminal illness would immediately buy a policy from that company, and the company would go broke paying all the claims."

Yes, but to me, this is just as much an argument for a "government option" as it is an argument against forcing companies to cover pre-existing conditions. The government, as spender (and, sadly, borrower) of last resort, could afford this sort of thing. Of course, if a mandate were instituted, one would think that the "gold rush" to insurance would only happen once.

"There's one other consideration when forcing the insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions. If they did, millions of people (myself included) would immediately cancel their insurance policies, saving thousands of dollars, knowing that if they got sick, they could then buy a policy and be covered."

That's only true if you don't require people who can afford it to purchase insurance. If you do, people can't cancel their policies to wait until they need them.

Oh wait, you say that here: "The only way pre-existing coverage works, is if insurance coverage is mandatory for everyone."

"Hillary Clinton wanted mandatory insurance for all, but Obama mocked her for forcing everyone to buy insurance."

That was more a matter of Obama's needing to draw a distinction between himself and Clinton at a critical time in the primary race than any real opposition to mandates, I think. The whole scheme has to have mandates. Otherwise, you've got something analogous to Social Security for all, paid for by an optional income tax.


"The 60% number comes from the politicians, not the 'bastards' at the insurance companies."

Two things. One, I'm sure there are bastards enough to go around for many of these facets of a very big problem. Two, presumably there are mandates the state regulators could make that would be too demanding to make business in Illinois profitable, and the insurers would go elsewhere. That highlights the benefit of a federal plan: if the requirements are the same nationwide, there's nowhere for the insurer to go that would be any better than Illinois.


"Everyone thinks that they're grandma should get the new hip."

I agree that everyone can't have everything. But my very limited understanding of Medicare is that the decision is based on whether a procedure is widely accepted, whether it is medically necessary, and whether it is likely to be successful. Those are still exacting criteria that can lead to painful results for ill people and their loved ones. But there is a difference between evaluating claims based on whether the procedures or treatments are likely to have the desired effect -- i.e., what Medicare does now -- and basing the evaluation in part on profit motives (private insurance) or on some Nazi consideration of whether the recipient can be restored to useful service of the Vaterland (Obama death panels, which I recognize you do not see as a legitimate fear). These are hard questions -- ones that Obama says he has grappled with himself and empathizes with -- but the solution is not to do nothing. It's not as if the choice is between Grandmas getting hips or not getting hips. It's between insured grandmas having the potential to get new hips and uninsured grandmas without the potential for new hips, regardless of discomfort or pain. (Unless it's an emergency, and then we go back to the ER/snotty nose scenario.)

"For those of you who are comfortable with Obama appointees making the decisions, would you be comfortable with McCain/Palin appointees in the same role?"

Yes, or at least as comfortable as I am with a panel at an HMO making the decisions (so long as Palin herself wasn't on the panel). To the degree that we have any power as citizens in a representative democracy, if we decided that we didn't like the way the bureaucrats were running things, we could fire their boss in the next election and demand they be replaced for incompetence or flagrant misapplications of the law. I'll grant you that that is a diluted and limited avenue for redress. But what's the avenue with HMOs? Switch to another insurance plan -- that probably won't cover our pre-existing condition that has caused us to want the care the first HMO wouldn't provide? I'd feel just as safe or safer with the government bureacrats.

(Plus, do you really think a bureaucrat would be as worried about saving the taxpayers money by denying claims as an insurance company employee would be worried about guarding profit margins for shareholders by denying claims? When I worked for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development deciding whether people were entitled to unemployment insurance or not, I never once considered whether granting a claim would cost the State money. Meanwhile, if I were an insurance company employee and never thought about keeping costs low, I'd probably -- and properly -- be fired.)


"Our plan will be 'banned' by the Obama administration."

Who is saying this? Aren't there about five separate bills floating around in the House and Senate right now? Do they all ban your plan? I thought the Obama Administration didn't have any plan but had left it to Congress to hash out. Is that not correct?

"I would imagine that many plans will not be 'in compliance.' Sorry ... we're taking that away from you."

One thing that has been interesting -- and disappointing to me as a liberal -- is that Obama hasn't to date been much more inclined to ask people to sacrifice for the common good than Bush was. I didn't support the war in Iraq, but I think if I'd been asked to pay more taxes to make sure everyone had armor and good medical care in the military, I'd have done so. And I'd be happy to make small sacrifices now if it meant that a greater number of people would be brought into the circle.

What is more bothersome to you: (1) the idea that proponents of healthcare reform aren't telling people that their plans may change, or (2) the fact that plans may change? If it's the former, I agree. If it's the latter, what level of common sacrifice, if any -- in the forms of higher taxes, or higher deductibles, or higher premiums -- do you think would be an acceptable level to ask from the American people to accomplish the goal of universal or near-universal coverage? Isn't this just a way of helping our neighbors by working together in a way that we couldn't help those neighbors as individuals ourselves, by say paying the insurance premiums for their families directly, out of pocket?


"FedEx delivers about 7,000,000 items each day. UPS delivers about 14,000,000 each day. The Post Office? Over 600,000,000 items are delivered each day. Nobody can compete with the Post Office in rural areas, where it cost much more than 44 cents to deliver a letter."

Why isn't that an argument for a government plan? I love the Post Office. I have everything shipped USPS, because UPS won't leave packages at my door. I can drop a card in the mail at Lake and La Salle, and it can be in southern Illinois the next day and in California in two days. I'm happy to pay for a $.44 stamp, and I'd be happy to pay a higher rate, or to pay a higher tax for a subsidy to keep the service good. I think it's one of our best American success stories.

Are FedEx and UPS doing the same level of business as the USPS? No. Are they going out of business? Nope. They're doing fine. Without their good service and competition, the Postal Service would probably relapse into the kind of lethargy that the character Newman embodied on "Seinfeld." Competition doesn't have to mean equality. There are things FedEx does that the USPS cannot. When I've tried to mail something express via postal service, I'm not kidding you, it has sometimes taken weeks, if not months. I don't know why, but express mail is where packages go to die. Meanwhile, FedEx can get something somewhere overnight.

In the same way, I imagine that people who can afford it are still going to want the private insurance, so they can have the options to pay higher premiums to get more ridiculous coverage -- emergency botox, say, or annual pig-heart transplants. I doubt very seriously we're going to see all the traders at the Merc and the investment bankers and the greedy trial lawyers and the dirty neurosurgeons clambering to get into that "government option." There'll still be plenty of middle and upper-middle class people who want private insurance options.

Friday, October 17, 2008

GOP Pushing Total Lies About Partial Birth: Obama **Supports** Late-Term Abortion Bans

This is a long post, so let me give you the gist of it up front: Barack Obama is not pro-abortion, he is not pro-partial-birth abortion, and he is not pro-infanticide. Barack Obama supports bans on post-viability abortions, unless those abortions are required to protect the woman’s life and health.

To see why this is the truth, keep reading.

I have mentioned that Republicans are claiming and will continue to claim, falsely, that Barack Obama supports infanticide, that is, the killing of babies born alive in botched abortions. It should come as no surprise, then, that if Republicans will lie to say Obama supports killing live babies, they’ll also lie to say he supports partial-birth abortion. You hear this even from mainstream Republicans and conservatives, let alone all the extreme wack-jobs.

Sen. Obama has “endorsed partial-birth abortion,” writes columnist Michael Gerson of The Washington Post. He’s “the most pro-abortion candidate ever,” writes the super-sleazy Terence Jeffrey of, a cry that has been echoed by the equally sleazy, the Christian Coalition, and the truth-stretching National Right to Life Committee.

Jesus wouldn’t vote for Barack Obama, claims kookie World Net Daily. (This, by the way, is a line of attack that Obama’s opponent for the Senate seat, Alan Keyes, used against him in 2004 to no avail. In fact, it was to less than no avail, as Obama garnered seven out of every 10 votes cast in the State.)

Republican robocalls going on right now under the radar in battleground states are regurgitating the babykiller charges and suggesting that Obama supports partial-birth abortion and is “pro-abortion.” McCain even – finally – signaled that he was willing to enter the fray by charging that Obama’s insistence on providing exceptions for women’s health emergencies was a ruse of the “pro-abortion movement.”

This is the last best hope of the McCain/Palin campaign, to force upon voters the false dilemma between solving their economic problems on one hand and stopping terrorist babykillers on the other hand. What the Republicans are saying is, “Sure, you don’t like President Bush and you’re terrified that you won’t be able to retire, send your kids to college, pay your mortgage, or keep your job. But what kind of a sick, unpatriotic excuse for an American are you if you vote for a black terrorist babykiller??? How can you sleep at night???”

This would be an unsettling moral dilemma if it weren’t based on false premises. Thankfully for those of us who love our jobs, our country, and our souls, the Republicans are lying again.

Sen. Obama’s position on late-term abortions couldn’t be clearer: “I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.”

Guess what, Republicans? We Democrats love babies, too, and we’re tired of the dirty lie that we don’t.

How do we know he means it? Because since 1975, the State of Illinois has had in place a ban on ALL late-term abortions, regardless of the method, except in cases where the mother’s life or health demands it. And not once in his seven years in the Illinois Senate did Barack Obama try to change that law, to roll back the consensus of moderate people that late-term abortions should be curbed.

Per 720 ILCS 510/5, which is part of the Illinois Criminal Code:

“(1) When the fetus is viable no abortion shall be performed unless in the medical judgment of the attending or referring physician, based on the particular facts of the case before him, it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother. Intentional, knowing, or reckless failure to conform to the requirements of subsection (1) of Section 5 is a Class 2 felony.

“(2) When the fetus is viable the physician shall certify in writing, on a form prescribed by the Department under Section 10 of this Law, the medical indications which, in his medical judgment based on the particular facts of the case before him, warrant performance of the abortion to preserve the life or health of the mother.”

Just so you know, a Class 2 felony is very serious, punishable by 3 to 7 years in prison.

Republicans make a big deal about a ban on one kind of procedure – “partial-birth abortion.” Obama’s position is even broader than the Republicans’, and says, “I don’t care how the abortion is done, partial-birth or otherwise, because if the fetus is viable, we’re not going to do it.”

So why is this such a big deal? Why do Republicans persistently paint not just Barack Obama, but all Democrats as extremist? Because Republicans always refuse to include exceptions to the bans for a mother’s health. According to them, “pro-abortion” doctors will lie and claim that late-term abortions are necessary for the mother’s health, and they’ll just be ripping babies out of wombs willy-nilly at eight-and-three-fourths months.

That’s ridiculous, for three reasons. One, as you can see in the Illinois law above, those medical judgments have to be written down, verified, and turned into the State Health Department for review. The whole system would have to be corrupt and derelict in its duties in order for doctors to be able to skirt this law.

Two, as Sen. Obama and the Democrats have said repeatedly, the “health exception” is not meant to entail mental distress or some kind of airy-fairy imagined complaint. It’s meant to be a strict but necessary exception. How do we know that it’ll come out that way? Because courts and regulatory agencies are bound by law to consider Congress’ intent in construing statutes.

But third and most importantly, if the Republicans seriously think that doctors would lie about an abortion being necessary to preserve a mother’s health, what makes them think the same doctors wouldn’t lie about an abortion being necessary to protect a mother’s life? Why are the Republicans presuming that doctors are going to defy the law? Aren’t these the same doctors – OB/GYNs – whom Republicans love to describe as good, hardworking, innocent professionals who are the victims of too many frivolous lawsuits? Where did their faith go?

So which is it? Good, honest doctors, or nefarious babykillers looking for technicalities and loopholes to keep aborting full-term fetuses? Republicans can’t have it both ways.
I believe that the real reason Republicans for years have refused to include exceptions for health emergencies in partial-birth abortion bans is that they know Democrats won’t support the measures without such exceptions.

So, Republicans push a bill the Democrats can’t support, Dems oppose it, and Republicans get to paint the Democrats as extremist, when the reality is exactly the opposite: Republicans would rather kill good, moderate legislation to reduce or eliminate late-term abortions than to give up the political advantage of the “health of the mother” straw man. After all, if they compromised and actually passed good laws on which everyone could agree, what would they have to robocall and debate about two weeks before Election Day?

I remember as a boy during the Clinton Administration, sitting in my living room with my family and some of our fellow church members one stormy afternoon. We were listening to James Dobson’s program on Christian radio as there was a live report from Congress.

The Republican-led Congress was trying to get together enough votes to override President Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban Congress had passed with no mother’s-health exception. The override failed, and it was a dark time for our family. I remember all the tearful prayers in the room, all of the bitterness and feeling of failure.

I still look back on that time as a tragedy, but for a different reason. If Republicans who purported to be pro-life had merely admitted, to themselves and to the American people, that doctors were not going to sneak around and kill babies on the sly, then those Republicans could have included a reasonable exception for the mother’s health in the ban. Most Democrats would have supported it, President Clinton would have signed it, and it would have passed constitutional muster. They could've saved hundreds of thousands of babies over the past 15 years. Instead, they decided they’d rather win elections.

They’re still at it today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It Ain't Over Yet: Before V(ictory in the) E(lection) Day Comes The Bulge

The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that “campaign” comes from the Old French “champagne,” meaning “open country that is particularly suited to military maneuvers.” At its root, the word derives from the Latin “campus,” which means “a field.” Old armies spent winters in quarters and took to the open field or “campus” to seek battle in summer.

Not surprisingly, the extension of meaning from military to political is distinctly American, and it’s still the best way to describe what it is we do in politics. We wear buttons and t-shirts, just as warriors put on their insignia to identify with their side. We display yard signs and bumper stickers the way ensigns used to fly the colors as they marched forth with armies from their respective pavilions to battle.

In that spirit, I think the Democrats are in for a long, bloody campaign these next three weeks.

Over and over again in American history, people looking for quick and easy victory have been discouraged. (See Bull Run,* Shiloh,** and D-Day.***) Overconfident armies have missed opportunities to strike final, decisive blows. (See Gettysburg.****) Prematurely triumphal leaders have emboldened their enemies by talking about how land would be divided and armies dismantled after surrender.***** In the famous Yogiism, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

On Monday, we had just a 10-point lead among registered voters in the Gallup poll. That number dropped to seven points among likely voters. Though we seem to be ahead in states for 343 electoral votes right now, 79 of those votes are in states where Obama leads six points or less. Take those away, we have 264 votes and a John McCain presidency.

Commentators and pundits like new Nobel laureate Paul Krugman are starting to presume an Obama presidency. As early as July, Frank Rich of the New York Times, whom I admire, wrote a column headlined, “How Obama Became Acting President.” There’s talk of Obama’s Cabinet. Particularly among former supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton – Lanny Davis, Howard Wolfson, and President Clinton himself – the tone is stridently jubilant.

As to Congress, there’s talk of Democrats reaching a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority. People are rubbing their hands together, speculating how little time it will take for the Democrats to throw Joe Lieberman under the bus once they don’t need him to have a majority anymore. And on the House side, partisan pundits with tons of hope and no perspective toss around giddy numbers like bean bags.

But predicting any win is foolish, let alone predicting a landslide. Overconfidence only emboldens the other side and makes our side less likely to vote or work hard leading up to the election.

There’s a reason Woody Allen is my favorite director: I perceive the world through anxiety. But just because I always imagine all the terrible things that could happen in life doesn’t mean that kids don’t trip and impale themselves on the spires of wrought-iron fences, that people don’t accidentally step on their pets in the night and crush them to death, or that John McCain can’t whittle away at Barack Obama’s lead for the next three weeks and win this election.

Remember 2004? After two wars, the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and everything else, I just knew that there was no way the American people could let Bush have another term. On Election Day, Gallup had the race tied. As late as November 1 – the day before the election – John Kerry led in the Electoral College 298 to 247. And while things were, as Dan Rather might say, tight as a tick, we were assured that Kerry’s ground game, and all the young and first-time voters, would surge to the polls and push the Democrats over the top.

I spent Thursday, October 28 through Tuesday, November 2 in Cincinnati, Ohio, doing get-out-the-vote operations for the Kerry Campaign. I had bet my Dad a steak dinner that Kerry would win, and the night before the election, I was so sure Kerry had it in the bag, I boasted to Dad, “Somewhere in America, the cow from which my steak is coming is already dead.” In my journal, I wrote, “Bush is done. Over and done. The election is ours for the taking.”

On Election Day, turn-out was up, all our voters were getting to the polls, and there was a prevailing spirit of cooperation and we-shall-overcome-ness. I left Cincinnati about 5 p.m. to drive back to Bloomington, Indiana, where I arrived just in time for my friends and me to watch Kerry lose the election. Instead of steak, I ate crow.

This past spring, after the Iowa caucuses, I predicted that if Sen. Obama could win the New Hampshire primary, he’d be unstoppable. But we’ll never know, because Clinton won New Hampshire, and the two of them went on to engage in the longest, most expensive primary campaign in U.S. history, one that felt every bit like the Siege of Petersburg. Those six months were a nightmare.

I love Barack Obama. I have believed in him and his politics ever since I first met him in 2004. But this battle is no longer about the people who love Sen. Obama versus the people who love Sen. McCain. It’s about people in the middle, who want what’s best for their families, their homes, their towns, their jobs, their paychecks, and their country, but who still don’t know which way to turn.

Several factors cut in Obama’s favor. It’s hard for any party to control the White House for more than two terms; it’s been done once since 1952. The economy’s in shambles. The war is unpopular, and so is the president. Democrats now significantly outnumber Republicans, and for once, their campaign coffers are much fuller.

But Obama is relatively new, and he’s black, and his name sounds foreign. People are constantly reminded that he’s got that crazy preacher in his past, and he’s from Chicago, where all those shady characters live. McCain’s a war hero. Many folks still believe that all Democrats are good for is raising taxes, losing wars, killing babies, and confiscating guns. And there is still a genuine terrorist threat in this world, one that the Republicans are trying every day to hang around Obama’s neck. Particularly if our stock market and those around the world continue to rally, people might stop worrying about Hoovervilles and bread lines and some of McCain’s nasty lies might start to filter through.

A Billboard in southeastern Missouri that just about sums up the Republican line on Obama.

No election is ever easy, even for the best leaders. Lincoln almost lost in 1864, FDR almost lost in 1940, and Truman almost lost in 1948. Churchill was replaced in the United Kingdom by Clement Atlee before World War II was even over.

I pray that we wake up on November 5 with 350 electoral votes for president-elect Obama, 60 Senate seats, and 250 House seats. But I will thank Almighty God if we wake up with 270 electoral votes, 50 Senate seats plus a tie-breaking Joe Biden, and 218 House seats.

Happily, for those of us who support the Democrats, we can do more than hope. We can go to right now and see how to get involved. Using phone lists there, we can make calls to encourage people to vote and to ask them to volunteer election weekend. We can give money. We can find out where our nearest Obama office is so we can show up to help knock on doors or stuff envelopes. This election is in our hands!

But let’s just please, please hush up this malarkey about a Democratic landslide and how screwed McCain is. Noses to the grindstone, let’s do everything we can to work for 1932, but let’s not count on anything but 1948. Otherwise, rather than being our new Roosevelt, Obama could be our new Dewey, and we Democrats could be banished to another four years in the wilderness.

I hope no Democrat who sees this picture can sleep soundly until he or she has done everything possible -- giving money, time, cell phone minutes, door-to-door volunteerism, and prayer, to make sure this nightmare doesn't come true.

* July 1861: Bull Run. The Union Army marches southwest out of Washington, D.C. to Manassas Junction, hoping to crush the Confederate forces decisively to end the rebellion as quickly and painlessly as possible. Many Congressmen and the upper crust of Washington society pack picnics and bring their families to the battle, expecting free entertainment and an easy victory. And guess what? The Confederates win the day, sending both the Union Army and all the prematurely gloating spectators flying back to the safety of the capital.

** April 1862: Shiloh. The Confederates take Grant’s army by surprise and attack in what becomes the deadliest battle of the war up to that time. For the very first time – sixteen months into the Rebellion – the North understands this will be a war to the bitter end, with nothing quick or easy about it.

*** June 1944: D-Day. American and British forces land in Normandy and imagine that they’ll be able to roll through France and into Germany like a wave to end the war by Christmas. But the Germans dig in and fight fiercely, and in December, they begin the counteroffensive known to history as The Bulge (in which my Grandpa Harris and Sen. Obama’s Grandpa fought). The Bulge kills more Americans than any other battle ever, and the war lasts another five months.

**** July 1863: Gettysburg. After the deadliest battle of the Civil War, the victorious Union Army allows the Confederates to retreat unmolested, instead of rushing in on them and crushing them to end the war, which goes on to last nearly two more years.

***** Autumn 1944: Morganthau Plan. When the Axis learned in 1944 of the Allied plan to carve up Germany after the war, the news galvanized the Germans like “thirty fresh German divisions,” and made them hang on for another half a year.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tiger by the Tail: McCain/Palin Campaign of Fear Works Too Well

I remember as a little boy hearing a missionary at my church tell a story about a political rally he’d witnessed in Romania, sometime in the years leading up to the revolution. As President Nicolae Ceau┼čescu spoke, one woman out of the masses had the courage to speak up. “Liar!” she shouted. “You’re a liar!” And she spat on the ground in disgust, before promptly being carried away, likely never to be heard from again.

The late Communist President of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, who had the good fortune not to have to call himself out on his own lies.
This week, confronted with the sobering fact that none of the attendees of McCain/Palin rallies had a similar courage to call the nominees out on their lies and demagoguery, John McCain finally had to step up to the plate and do it himself. Let me say that again: he repudiated himself.

I’d like to say I was happy to see “the old McCain” make a rare reappearance, peeking out like a little like a fleeting whack-a-mole before disappearing again beneath the tide of negativism that has overwhelmed his campaign.

But for at least two weeks now, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin, trailing in the polls, have been beating the drum that Sen. Obama is the candidate of false gods, palls around with terrorists, supports the killing of babies born alive in failed abortions, is funded by “foreigners,” doesn’t love his country, doesn’t support the troops, and condones the damnation of America by Rev. Wright. Their surrogates have been comparing Obama to Osama bin Laden, referring to Obama by including his loaded-word middle name – “Let’s leave Barack HUSSEIN Obama wondering what happened” – and calling him “a guy of the street.” Somehow I don’t think they mean Main Street.

After mentioning all these things, McCain’s been connecting the cognitive dots for his followers by asking over and over at rallies, “Who IS the real Barack Obama?”

Responding to these highly developed Rorsach inkblot tests, McCain/Palin followers and other GOP supporters have been heard screaming “terrorist,” “traitor,” and “treason” at the merest mention of Barack Obama. Some, in a violent fervor, have screamed racial epithets at the media crews. Others have yelled, “Off with his head!” Still others have dispensed with politeness altogether and apoplectically ejaculated, “Kill him!” and “Bomb him!”

When McCain has clearly heard the charges at his rallies before, he's not missed a beat. And they've clearly had tons of opportunities to condemn these things after learning about them later, even if they didn't hear them at the time. So McCain pretending to put “country first” and stick up for Obama now is a little like throwing a match on a gasoline spill in a garage, and then blowing on it and pretending you don’t know how it got there.

Now, don’t mistake me. I think it’s important to know everything we can about the candidates. The problem is that this territory has been gone over very thoroughly by the press and in umpteen debates. Most of us know more about Barack Obama’s life now than we do about our own cousins. This rehashing of old non-news is about nothing more than equivocation, circumlocution, innuendo, thinly veiled inflammation, and the overall trashing of Barack Obama.

Any person who’s ever sat through a Communications 101 class knows that for there to be a communication, you have to have a sender, a receiver, and a message. To be an effective communication, the message that the receiver hears must bear strong resemblance to the one the sender intended to relay.

In this best-case scenario, John McCain and Sarah Palin are dangerously inept at sending messages. At worst, they are brilliantly effective at communicating exactly the messages they intended to. Either way, their conduct is shockingly unbecoming at least someone of McCain’s stature, and it’s definitely an insult to the eternal dignity and the present distress of the American people.

I come from a long line of very sincere and credulous conservatives who love God and country, but who sadly put more faith in Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly than in verifiable facts. I have two sainted Grandmas, one of whom believes that doctors no longer give B-12 vitamin shots because “the immigrants took them,” the other of whom believes that Barack Obama may be the Antichrist. And my own Dad persists, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, in believing that Obama is a secret Muslim.

They are not senile, and they are not making things up. They believe it with all their hearts, just as surely as I believe that the atomic number of hydrogen is 1. I get frustrated with them, but I get angry at the people who feed them this misinformation in order to benefit from their belief – higher ratings, bigger paychecks, and victorious elections. To what I believe will be his eternal discredit, John McCain has decided to become one of those people.

With Michael Dukakis and the “Willie Horton ad,” the Republicans said he’d be weak on crime and played to people’s racial discomfort. With John Kerry, Republicans painted him as weak on national security and terrorism. Now, afraid to leave anything to the imagination, Republicans and the McCain/Palin campaign have all but stated that Barack Obama is a criminal, a terrorist, and a racist. What a sad day for a once-great party.

In criminal law, there are two doctrines that defendants often have a hard time wrapping their brains around. One, the felony murder doctrine, says that if someone dies during the commission of a felony like kidnapping or armed robbery, the kidnappers are on the hook for first-degree murder, regardless of intent. If you and your buddy rob a convenience store, and the store clerk pulls out a sawed-off shotgun and kills your buddy, guess who’s going to prison for murder? You. Why? Because when you play with fire like that, you ought to know that somebody could get killed.

The other doctrine is accountability, which says that you are responsible for the conduct of another when you solicit, aid, abet, agree or attempt to aid the other person’s commission of the offense. So for instance, if your buddy says to you, “Man, I’d like to rob a convenience store,” and you let him borrow your gun, you’re going to be accountable for that robbery. And if the clerk shoots your friend, guess what? Felony murder and accountability work together to make you guilty of murder, even if you’re sitting at home eating Doritos. The law makes you responsible not only for things that you know, but for things that you should know.

What’s my point? My point is that this country, in the midst of two wars and a hemorrhaging economy, is on edge. People are nervous about the present, let alone the future. And let’s be frank: even well-meaning people are nervous about the specter of the first black president, whose name has the bad fortune of sounding like BOTH of America’s arch-enemies. This is a time to tread very, very lightly on the tense tightrope of the American people’s fears.

And besides the fact that it’s doing nothing to resolve any of our several crises, the McCain/Palin rhetoric is fanning the flames of resentment, of hatred, and of abject terror, aiding and abetting some of the most extreme elements and violent tendencies in our populace. If they didn’t know about the volatility of those tendencies, they should have known, as any reasonable person familiar with American history undoubtedly does. (See, exempli gratia, Abraham, Martin, John, and Bobby. Not to mention James and William, and very nearly Franklin, Harry, Jerry, and Ronald.)

It’s simply not credible now for the McCain/Palin camp to try to wash its hands of this nastiness. This is a monster of their own creation, and they ought to own up to it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Obama: Competent Government, Sounder Economy, Affordable Healthcare, AND You Can Keep Your Guns!

Is the McCain/Palin Campaign Lying About Obama Being a "Terrorist?" You Betcha, Doggone It!

In case you haven’t heard, Barack Obama is a terrorist. Or at least he’s been “palling around with terrorists,” if Gov. Sarah Palin can be believed. Unsurprisingly, she cannot.

"There is a lot of interest, I guess, in what I read and what I’ve read lately,” Palin said Saturday. “Well, I was reading my copy of today’s New York Times and I was interested to read about Barack’s friends from Chicago."

“I get to bring this up not to pick a fight, but it was there in the New York Times, so we are gonna talk about it. Turns out one of Barack’s earliest supporters, (University of Illinois-Chicago Professor William Ayers), is a man who, according to the New York Times, and they are hardly ever wrong, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that quote launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and US Capitol. Wow. These are the same guys who think patriotism is paying higher taxes.

“This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America. We see America as the greatest force for good in this world. If we can be that beacon of light and hope for others who seek freedom and democracy and can live in a country that would allow intolerance in the equal rights that again our military men and women fight for and die for for all of us. Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?”

This is in keeping with the McCain/Palin campaign’s stated intention of attacking Sen. Obama’s character in the final month of the campaign. There are so many things wrong with this b.s. that leaves me livid, so we’d better get started.

1. Gov. Palin, you will refer to the Democratic nominee as “Sen. Obama.” You have not met him, you don’t play poker with him, and he is not your moose-hunting buddy. You may not refer to Sen. Biden as “Joe,” you may not refer to Sen. Obama as “Barack,” and no, you may not braid their hair or paint their toenails. We’ll extend you the same courtesy.

2. There is only one candidate in this race who is under investigation for a potentially impeachable abuse of power, and it isn’t “Barack from Chicago.” It’s Gov. Sarah Palin, from that whitewashed sepulchre of corruption that is Alaska.

3. When did the McCain campaign’s official take on the New York Times become that the paper is “hardly ever wrong?” What happened to “in the tank for Obama” and “pro-Obama advocacy organization”?

4. If Barack Obama were a terrorist, or were tied to terrorists, don’t you think that would’ve been all we had heard for months? There would’ve been none of this “aw, shucks,” “my friends,” “country first,” “hockey mom,” “lipstick on a pig,” “maverick maverick maverick” ridiculousness. Every time Obama’s name came up, McCain and Palin would’ve just looked exasperated straight into the camera, The Office-style, and said, “Um…HE’S A TERRORIST!”

Why weren’t we hearing about how Barack Obama is a terrorist when John McCain was ahead?

Instead of merely refusing to look at Sen. Obama during their debate, Sen. McCain could’ve just refused to debate altogether. “I have suffered and bled and nearly died for my country, so you’ll forgive me, my friends, if I won’t share a stage WITH A TERRORIST!"

John McCain refuses to look at Barack Obama during their recent debate at Ole Miss.

Imagine that I came to your house and said, “My friend, I’d like to take you out for ice cream. Come with me.” And then, if you should refuse, imagine that I start to sweat, and say, “My friend, there are termites eating your walls. We should really leave and call an exterminator.” And then, if you should still refuse, imagine that I turn beet-red and scream, “For heaven’s sake, my friend, the whole block is on fire, and it’s consumed five buildings already! You must come with me!”

Wouldn’t you probably look at me and ask, “Um…so why were we talking about ‘ice cream?’” Of course you would, and so should we all wonder why McCain has waited until now, a month before the election, to say that Obama is a terrorist.

From the looks of Palin’s quote, and similar quotes by spokesman Tucker Bounds and others, it appears they’re going to try to pretend that this “terrorist” stuff is new. It isn’t. Sen. Clinton brought it up in her debates with Obama in April. Conservative columnists were ranting about it in February. It’s never been a secret.

Less than a month ago, everyone was accusing Mayor Daley and the University of Illinois-Chicago of a cover-up, of hiding damning records linking Obama to Bill Ayers in a way that could sink his presidential bid. But then the records were opened up, and conservative media outlets from the Chicago Tribune on down were disappointed to learn they’d been chasing yet another mirage.

Anyone who reads the Chicago Tribune’s Op-Ed page on a regular basis knows that it is a Republican paper. This dates all the way back to the Republicanism of Joseph Medill before the Civil War, and to that of his grandson Colonel Robert McCormick, who hated New Deal Democrats in particular; this is what made Harry Truman’s smile so broad when he held up that most famous edition of the Tribune ever published. The Tribune has dug at Obama for four years, from Tony Rezko to Bill Ayers to Rev. Wright. If it hasn’t found anything digging here in Sen. Obama’s back yard, you can bet there’s nothing to be found.

One of America’s most underestimated presidents: Harry Truman on his proudest day.

5. If the McCain campaign were truthful (which it is not), it would tell folks that the New York Times story it cites actually says that Obama and Ayers “do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called ‘somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.’”

This is like taking a headline that says, “Fred Thompson is 100%, absolutely, positively not gay with Rudy Giuliani,” and saying, “Did you read the news story that talked about the possibility of secret homosexual liaisons between Thompson and Giuliani?”

Rudy Giuliani in drag. Nope, I’m not joking.

But I don’t know why anyone is surprised the McCain camp is going there. This is classic Karl Rove-style politics, turning day to night, right to wrong, strength to weakness. It’s what allowed Republicans to run against a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., as soft on terror in 2002.

It’s what allowed two chickenhawks to run against a decorated Vietnam war hero as a weak, liberal coward in 2004. It’s what’s allowed every Republican since 1980 to run as a “fiscal conservative,” despite ballooning deficits that have made our national debt ELEVEN TIMES what it was in 1980, even though 20 of those 28 years fell under Republicans.

The McCain/Palin crowd has taken a headline that said “no terrorism,” left out the “no,” and convinced itself that it’s still telling a half-truth and keeping half its honor intact.

6. Lastly, as anyone who’s ever served on a board knows, you don’t get to pick your fellow board members. Charities and civic organizations are always looking for professionals and community leaders to serve on governing and fundraising boards, some of which can have as many as 100 members.

Should Sen. Obama have refused to serve on any organization’s board whose members also included someone with a shady past, regardless of how important the organization’s mission was? Should he have turned down this donation from a man who, by all accounts, has given back a lot to the community and the society that he once so violently reviled?

I don’t know. Do Republicans return every donation from G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, and other unrepentant criminals who put their beliefs and values above the law? I doubt it.
As Sen. Obama has said, he was eight when all this Weather Underground stuff was going on. One of the beauties of his campaign to so many in my generation is that finally – finally – the divisive politics of the 1960s can be put behind us. No more draft dodging, no more draft deferments, no more bra burning, no more free-loving and pot-smoking and flag burning and all of it.

We can turn the page with Barack Obama, and it’s not surprising that someone like John McCain – a Vietnam-era guy by definition – is hoping we have one more election mired in the social conflicts that consumed the second half of the 20th Century.

But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that McCain is just whistling Dixie. To me, it sounds an awful lot like a swan song.