26 February 2010

A failure of leadership

Yesterday, President Obama gave encouraging opening remarks to the bipartisan health care summit, pointing out that many Republicans present, including Tom Coburn, Mike Enzi and Paul Ryan, had worked substantively with Democrats in the past on some of the same health care issues that are before Congress today.

The president's opening remarks, and then those that immediately followed by Tennessee's Lamar Alexander on behalf of the Republican leadership, evinced three specific areas where virtually everyone in the room agreed:

1. Removing the antitrust exemption such that insurance companies can compete across state lines (this measure passed the House by a staggering 406-19 margin on Wednesday)

2. Prohibiting insurance companies from instituting "lifetime maximums" per patient

3. Prohibiting insurance companies from denying applicants based on pre-existing conditions

These items are not speculative areas of agreement -- they were specifically set out by the president in the first 15 minutes of yesterday's summit!

A fourth area where I can't imagine there is any disagreement is allowing for greater portability of coverage, such that when an individual leaves or loses his job, he has the option of continuing his coverage indefinitely -- a sort of extension of the COBRA program.

When Republicans say they want the president to "start over," they generally mean that Democrats ought to highlight the issues that both parties can agree on (see above) and draw legislation that way. I thought yesterday's summit had the potential to be an excellent starting point. After his remarks about finding common ground, it seemed that the president and congressional Republicans agreed on several things.

The obvious question, of course, is why the 2,700-page Senate bill -- drawn up entirely by Democrats -- can't be put on hold for the time being while both parties focus on the areas of their agreement.

And don't tell me that Mitch McConnell simply wants this bill to fail. He and John Boehner wouldn't have turned the opening remarks over to Alexander -- while stridently conservative, is one of the great Republican deal-makers in Congress and who hammered home areas of agreement between the two parties for most of his opening statement -- if they simply wanted to torpedo reform altogether.

The answer to the question posed two paragraphs above is because the Democratic leadership is failing the country. Who's playing politics again? When numerous Republicans suggested shelving the current behemoth and focusing on areas of actual agreement, Nancy Pelosi remarked that Americans were struggling too mightily and that reform couldn't wait a minute longer. This is complete and utter nonsense and nothing more than a purely political response. Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership doesn't want to reform the health care system incrementally because they can't stomach seeing their unprecedented window for slamming through their prized comprehensive reform bill slammed shut. This is the exact type of politics that is killing Washington -- and that, once upon a time, a senator from Illinois named Barack Obama promised he'd stop.

The bottom line is that when faced with real concerns about the size and scope of the current legislation -- as well as the simple fact that the Congressional Budget Office has opined that it won't lower health care costs -- the Democrats respond with purely anecdotal evidence. "You should see the letters I read," Obama laments. But how will your bill make things better, Mr. President? In a country of 300 million people -- more than five-sixths of whom already have health insurance -- anecdotal evidence, quite frankly, isn't of much utility. More than one-quarter of the uninsured make in excess of $80,000 per year -- the threshold for receiving subsidies to purchase insurance -- so how is the Democratic bill making things easier on these folks? Democrats are so focused on process and anecdotes -- and for many on the left, this is an issue that gets them flat-out enraged -- that they're fundamentally unable to explain why their bill is superior to incremental reform. We are left with Pelosi's laughable excuse that reform can't wait any longer.

Furthermore, the resident's refusal to take the reconciliation option off the table proves that yesterday's summit -- for all of his talk about compromise and common ground -- was as we predicted, a dog-and-pony show. It was an attempt to show up Republicans as a reactionary "party of no" -- and when Republicans like Alexander and Cantor offered up useful solutions and areas of agreement, Obama and his allies looked foolish.

Put ideology aside for a moment. This has turned into a purely political game. Instead of taking a quarter to half of a loaf, congressional Democrats are hellbent on either a) slamming through an obscenely comprehensive bill with a divisive, rarely-used procedural mechanism or b) getting nothing done entirely. By not acknowledging Republicans' concerns with the current legislation as legitimate, they are doing nothing more than playing politics and setting themselves up for utter disaster in November. Americans don't like this bill and want it shelved. Don't believe me? Click here.

How dishonest does Obama's changenhope nonsense look these days?

22 February 2010

Of bipartisan summits

The president's call for a bipartisan summit on health care reform is nothing more than a penultimate effort -- the only one left after this would be reconciliation -- to save his dying health care bill.

More importantly, what hypocrisy. What utter hypocrisy.

Barack Obama should be held to the lofty standards he set with his rhetoric. Campaigning as a trans-partisan populist, he promised to change the ways of Washington, assailing the Bush and Clinton presidencies as exercises in old-time politics unfit for the 21st century. He successfully (and dishonestly) painted John McCain as representative of this old guard.

Obama had a chance to really, meaningfully change Washington. He entered office with a stratospheric approval rating. Even die-hard McCainiacs like myself gave him the benefit of the doubt and anxiously wondered if he could put his money where his mouth had been for 18 months.

He slammed through a $787 billion stimulus package that the Congressional Budget Office said would do more harm than good long-term -- ignoring a package about half that size that would have garnered between 70-80 votes in the Senate and probably 300+ in the House. On health care, this man who campaigned so vociferously against "the politics of fear" of the Bush White House utilized the same scare tactics he accused his predecessor of using. Everything was about an inexplicable, arbitrary deadline imposed by Obama himself (Harry Reid proclaimed, we must get this done by Christmas!) -- not because of the time-sensitive nature of health care legislation, but because the president knew he had blown much of his political capital on the stimulus.

James Baker was on Fareed Zakaria's show yesterday, and he said it best: Obama's biggest mistake was shutting Republicans out from the beginning. Now, as we have noted here before, the president wants to offer Republicans the chance to support Democratic proposals on live television.

If he intended to ram through a left-wing agenda from day one, fine -- then campaign as a liberal. Obama is only a bipartisan deal-maker when he is forced to be -- while running for president, and now after the Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate. After promising a new way forward, he has alienated the opposition party quicker than any president I have ever studied -- it took Bush a full two and a half years to become as unpopular as Obama now is.

Why did he initially shut the Republicans out? Because he was told he could.

Now, he has attempted to convene this ridiculous health care summit, which is little more than a dog-and-pony show. His idea of bipartisanship is to televise a "debate" where Republicans are allowed to vote on the already existing Democratic proposal. By refusing to tear up the 2,700-page legislation and start anew, Obama has tilted the playing field. Why should Republicans participate? They have been shut out from the beginning. They know that if they display even a modicum of pushback, Obama will accuse them of "playing politics," of putting their political ambitions before the good of the country, and all the familiar nonsense that he has peddled so far. Instead of forging compromises with Republican policy wonks like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, the White House chose to cut backroom deals with labor unions. Change, indeed.

A note to Democrats: Your agenda is unpopular. This is the reason that conservatives campaign as conservatives and liberals campaign as moderates.

Republicans -- for as devoid of ideas as Mitch McConnell might be -- owe Obama nothing. This playing field has been badly tilted from the start by a man desperate for anything to salvage his sinking presidency. It's too little, too late.

21 February 2010

Rush Limbaugh drops his last marble

This is beyond embarrassing.

We now have the self-appointed leader of the conservative movement equating a president trying to expand health care coverage to 30 million people with the most ruthless dictator in human history. These days, to the conservative rank-and-file, a stimulus bill, cap-and-trade and health care reform are apparently comparable with slaughtering 6 million people.

I'm as vehemently opposed to Obamacare as the next guy, but rhetoric like this is not only counterproductive, but idiotic.

Why is anyone still listening to this guy?

19 February 2010

Do conservatives need CPAC?

Ambinder wonders, and I do too.

The list of featured speakers is stunning -- Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, George Will, and on and on. Last year, Newt Gingrich gave the keynote address. In 2008, Bush and Cheney appeared together. This is no fringe conference.

But what utility does it have?

Ambinder notes:

"No one ought to begrudge conservatives for having a good time, but a good time isn't what the movement needs: what it needs is an infrastructure that exists to promote the ideas of the millennial generation. CPAC does not provide that or even hint that such a thing exists. Note: do not confuse an amplification infrastructure -- the conservatives have a huge megaphone, ranging from talk radio to Pajamas Media to Fox News -- with a political infrastructure, which turns ideas into policies and modernizes the party."

The Obama administration's comedy of errors has allowed the conservative movement to survive and perhaps even make gains, while, in effect, hammering on the following ideas: taxes, abortion, guns and the personality of Barack Obama. These are not serious policy positions upon which the Republican Party can begin making meaningful gains, but go to a tea party rally or read any of the speeches of the CPAC luminaries, and these seem to be all they have.

(Of course conservatives are in favor of lower taxes, but two points here -- First, isn't it a bit silly to shriek and pound the table about Obama's penchant for raising taxes, when he hasn't raised taxes a single dime on a single American during the 14 months he's been in office? And second, we are facing record budget deficits. Have conservatives forgotten that it was the Bush tax cuts of 2001 that obliterated the budget surplus of the Clinton years and created this fiscal mess in the first place? Bush managed to double the national debt in eight years. Good Lord.)

Even Tim Pawlenty -- who is my early favorite for the 2012 Republican nomination -- got into the act, making these childish remarks in a feeble attempt to throw red meat to the great unwashed. Pawlenty, a reasonable, salt-of-the-earth fellow, should know better: This is not serious policy, and one who styles himself presidential timber should probably steer clear of such stupid rhetoric.

As I've noted here ad nauseum, I am not one of the conservatives who believes that the Republican Party must "moderate" itself, as Colin Powell has argued -- whatever that means. Rather, I want the GOP to become less reflexive, more serious and most importantly, much more policy-driven. There are beacons of hope in this regard: Newt Gingrich and especially, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

Conservatives must begin to think again. And in this regard, I'm not sure CPAC -- which has turned into a pep rally for the same type of brainless, hyperbolic platitudes that fueled Barack Obama's campaign in 2008 -- is the antidote.

17 February 2010

Bayh: 2 days on

As the news of Evan Bayh's abrupt decision to retire from politics has sunk in, my assessment of Monday -- while accurate in conveying the sense of shock felt among politicos -- might have been slightly off-base.

Worth a read, although I'm not sure I agree with everything he wrote: Ross Douthat -- who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best columnists in America -- unloaded on what he believed was Bayh's wishy-washy record. (For kicks, he blasted Arlen Specter here.)

The more I read reaction to Bayh's speech and study his career, the more I'm inclined to believe him that the Senate is no longer the best way to effectuate meaningful change. I'm almost certain Bayh -- who exceeded 60% of the vote in three consecutive statewide elections and had never lost a statewide election in five tries -- would have beaten back his Republican challenger, former Sen. Dan Coats, fairly easily.

But what does Bayh's retirement say about the toxic partisanship that has overtaken Washington?

For better or for worse, two of the Senate's most reliable moderates -- Bayh and Arlen Specter -- likely will be gone at this time next year. John McCain is facing an annoying primary challenge from the right (more -- much more -- on that in a future post). In 2012, two more moderates -- Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman -- will face very tough roads to re-election. And this follows the departures of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Ohio's Mike DeWine in the 2006 midterms. Even the late Ted Kennedy -- a doctrinaire liberal in every sense of the term -- was widely regarded as one of the Senate's great pragmatic deal-cutters. This is quite a list, and all could be gone in two years.

I'm no big fan of the unprincipled Specter (and gleefully hope he is crushed by Pat Toomey in the general election), nor did I care for the aloof Chafee nor the politics of the ultra-liberal Kennedy. But the movement away from the center, especially in the Senate, is striking. Examining the last four years, the Senate has accomplished less, become more divided along partisan lines, and shed moderate after moderate. Of course, hardcore conservatives (Limbaugh; Ingraham) and liberals (Schultz; Olbermann) will no doubt say "good riddance" to the likes of Chafee and DeWine, or Lieberman and Bayh. But the center is vital to accomplishing anything of import -- Reagan needed the southern "Reagan Democrats" in an era where his party never controlled Congress; Clinton needed the support of the GOP in passing NAFTA and welfare reform.

This move away from the center -- by both parties -- started in earnest with President Clinton's impeachment trial. After the GOP's grandstanding against Clinton's infidelities, liberals drew the long knives for President Bush, and reflexively opposed most of his entire agenda for eight years, making vicious, unbecoming attacks on Bush's character the centerpiece of their opposition. After Obama's election, the so-called opinion leaders on the right have thrown their disciples into a full-fledged panic attack against the new administration, taking legitimate concerns about the president's agenda and turning them into a revolt.

This is troublesome. The political climate in Washington is toxic, and both sides are equally to blame (including the president, might I add -- who for all of the hopenchange rhetoric has been almost completely unwilling to compromise on anything of substance, just as we predicted). Regardless of whether partisans might dislike the Bayhs and DeWines of the world, history demonstrates that we need them. Their parties need them. Where would the Democrats be without the Blue Dogs?

Finally, what does Bayh's retirement say about the president? He campaigned as a post-partisan healer, promising to change the ways of Washington and to be more inclusive. Only a reflexive partisan kool-aid drinker like James Carville can look at this man's first year in office and come to the conclusion that he has succeeded. If anything, Obama has made things worse, as he has engaged in the same tactics the Bush administration used -- demonization of political opponents, an unwillingness to compromise, etc. This supposedly transformative administration has been as fiercely partisan as any in recent memory. Under Obama's watch, the climate in Washington has gotten worse, not better.

So Bayh's retirement -- even though it will flip a blue seat to red -- is a sad example of the sorry state of Washington. It's arguable that this may well be the legacy of Barack Obama.

15 February 2010

Stunner: Bayh to retire

We've used the word "unspinnable" here before -- and it's more appropriate now than ever.

Unbelievably, one of the country's most moderate, most respected Democrats has announced he will retire rather seek re-election in what was shaping up to be the fight of his political career.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, winding down his second term in the Senate after eight years as governor, will step aside just weeks after former Republican Sen. Dan Coats -- whom Bayh replaced in 1998 -- announced his candidacy as Bayh's Republican challenger.

This is flat-out stunning on several levels.

First, Bayh was among the finalists for Barack Obama's vice-presidential nomination in 2008 -- along with Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Kathleen Sebelius and eventual nominee Joe Biden. Just 18 months ago, his stock had never been higher, as a well-respected old-time Democrat (his father, Birch, was a three-term senator from Indiana) and possible presidential nominee in 2016. In fact, according to Obama adviser David Plouffe, the choice between Bayh and Biden was "a coin flip."

Second, Bayh is enormously popular in his home state. After winning the governorship in 1988 by a 53-46 margin, Bayh stormed to re-election in 1992 with 62% of the vote. Upon running for Coats' vacated Senate seat in 1998, Bayh defeated his Republican challenger 64-34, and won re-election in 2004 by a 62-37 margin. He has eclipsed 60% in three consecutive statewide elections. Despite the troublesome political environment for Democrats nationwide, even the most optimistic GOP partisans had trouble finding reasons that Bayh would be voted out. It is impossible to overstate Bayh's popularity.

Third, Bayh's tremendous popularity is derived, in part, from his centrist voting record. A staunch deficit hawk and member of the Senate Armed Services committee, he has emerged, along with Jim Webb and Carl Levin, as one of the most respected voices in the Democratic caucus on foreign policy. As the congressional leadership attempted to steer his party hard to the left, Bayh emerged as a voice of moderation in the Democratic caucus, aligning with Ben Nelson and the Blue Dogs in attempting to nudge his party back toward the center. Bayh was nothing if not an independent voice among a party of increasingly loud shrieks for extremism.

No matter what Bayh says, this decision was undoubtedly motivated by the toxic political environment which the Democrats have created for themselves. The fact that perhaps the most moderate, popular Democrat in the country has decided to step aside is mind-blowing. The Democratic Party is in even deeper trouble than before, and Republicans should be licking their chops looking forward to November. With Bayh out of the picture and the popular Coats looming as the new favorite, it is reasonable to begin asking whether the GOP can actually recapture the Senate in 2010.

Given Bayh's stellar resume and relatively young age (he will be 55 in December), we have not heard the last from this good and honorable man from Indiana. In November 2016, he will be just 60, and it is reasonably likely that the Democratic Party could attempt to moderate itself as it did in 1992, in which case Bayh will be one of the front-runners.

But for now, the missteps of the Obama administration have cost the Democrats one of their best.

11 February 2010

The political football

There has been a conservative uproar over the Obama administration's decision to not only Mirandize the Christmas Day bomber, but try him as a normal criminal in the federal court system.

Of course, this invites the easiest retort by Democrats -- Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber," was similarly Mirandized by the Bush administration, tried and convicted in federal court. Like the Christmas Day bomber, Reid was not an American citizen. Since his conviction, Reid now sits, rotting in a federal Supermax prison somewhere in Colorado.

I don't recall such uproar by Kristol, Gingrich, et al. when at the sentencing hearing, Judge William Young gave Reid a dressing-down of epic proportions in January 2003.

Are the goalposts moving? For years, it was Democrats playing politics with the Iraq War, the highlight (or lowlight) of which was Harry Reid pronouncing the war "lost" while on the floor of the Senate. Now, with the GOP in the wilderness, the shoe is on the other foot.

Let's be clear. The Obama administration is wrong about many things, but to say it is soft on terror is patently stupid. Don't believe me? Check out Glenn Greenwald here, here, here and for the love of all things holy, HERE.

I understand that any issue can be turned into a political football, but it's irresponsible and childish to take an inventory of the first 14 months of the Obama presidency and come to the conclusion to which most conservatives have apparently arrived. If you're of the opinion that the president is soft on terror, you need to pay closer attention and/or turn off Rush Limbaugh over your lunch hour.

09 February 2010

Conservatism, redux

How to balance civil liberties and national security in the age of global terrorism is a question of great national importance. Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric surrounding this issue is accusatory, hyperpartisan nonsense (see: Bill Kristol or Dick Cheney on one side, or any ACLU attorney or Keith Olbermann on the other). The neoconservative movement, in particular, which has latched onto Cheney, Kristol and the American Enterprise Institute as its ostensible opinion leaders, seems collectively incapable of handling disagreement or dissent, which is perhaps the most disappointing element in this debate.

There are a number of internet sources for right-of-center persons, such as myself, who are looking for thoughtful opinions on striking the appropriate balance between liberty and security -- chief among them, Cato's "At Liberty" blog, former civil rights lawyer and Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, and former Buckleyite Andrew Sullivan. Given what we conservatives generally profess about the effectiveness, utility and propriety of government action in any area, the amount of noise coming from the hardcore right of the blogosphere -- particularly Right Wing News, Kristol disciple Robert Stacy McCain and Michelle Malkin chief among them -- is disappointing, not to mention somewhat baffling.

The bottom line is that you can be a conservative and disagree with Dick Cheney's conception of civil liberties in the global war on terror.

Stories like this one should make any American shiver.

The traditional Republican coalition is often described as a "three-legged stool," made up of social conservatives (Mike Huckabee; Tony Perkins), national security conservatives (Kristol, Rudy Guiliani and yes, perhaps even Joe Lieberman) and economic conservatives (Grover Norquist; Steve Forbes). I disagree with the conception that each of these three groups is somehow inherently "conservative," however. There is nothing "conservative" (in the William Buckley/James Madison/Edmund Burke sense of the term) about banning gay marriage. Likewise, there is nothing inherently "conservative" about a sitting American president deeming one of his fellow countrymen an "enemy combatant" and holding him without charges or access to any attorney. At the end of the day, conservatism has -- and always will -- be most focused on limiting the reach and influence of government and maximizing individual liberty. This is the hallmark of what it means to call oneself "conservative."

What's important to note is that whether the modern Republican party reflects these values is another matter entirely. The GOP is not an ideological movement, but rather a political vehicle to further the aims of American conservatives. It has deviated from these conservative principles many times in recent years -- wasteful corruption at the Department of Defense; an unfunded prescription drug benefit; and outlandish deficit spending, for instance -- and ergo, the officially espoused position of the Republican Party as dictated by Cheney, McConnell, et al., cannot possibly be viewed as the true "conservative" position on any particular issue.

This is the problem I have with many conservatives such as Sean Hannity or the reflexively partisan John Hawkins of Right Wing News, who so deify the likes of Cheney that they are unable to think critically about their arguments' ramifications on individual liberties. However, as has been noted here ad nauseum, the likes of Hannity and his ilk are far too dense to recognize these contradictions.