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With the hour of reckoning on Health Care at last behind us, it’s time to start shifting focus to the other great issue of the next election cycle: America’s credit rating. I’ve never been a big watcher of economic issues: the Clinton years hardly warranted it, and it was just one more tick on the list of things to hate about Bush. But now the combination of a liked (no longer loved) president and a still crappy economy begs a closer look at what exactly the analysts are talking about when they’re not watching the vicious cabaret of David Paterson’s self-destruction. And so I give you an initial, clumsy attempt to analyze what ails the national treasury.

The Reckoning aside, the cause of our fundamental economic problem, namely the Debt of Debts, remains twofold: we want things without paying for them, and our political leadership is only too happy to do so in exchange for votes. And while public consciousness of the problem has increased dramatically in the wake of the crisis, a solution remains politically impossible: the democrats are content to largely pretend the problem doesn’t exist while the GOP is willing to acknowledge it only so far as it benefits them politically. This is hardly the proper atmosphere for the development of a solution, as the shrieking din debate over healthcare amply demonstrates. The citizenry and the politicians have led one another into divorcing benefit from cost, and now attempts at a fix are viewed as unlikely at best, suicidal at worst. A number of proposals are actively being aired by the analytical class, ranging from the inestimable Fareed Zakaria‘s call for a value added tax and an end to homeowner subsidies, while on the other side of the political spectrum Republican congressman Paul Ryan has put forth a plan that basically advocates burning the welfare state to the ground and beginning anew.

So while it’s clear we have no shortage of ideas (not all of them bad) as to what to do about the problem, taking action is, as always, the source of the rub. Now, although this applies equally to both parties I’m going to use the GOP for this illustration as Ryan has more power with them than Zakaria does with the democrats. The GOP, despite having taken it upon itself to both uphold their declared principles of small government and responsible financing and thwart the democrats at every turn, seems bound and determined to ignore Ryan’s ideas almost entirely and continue riling the tea party by calling Obama and anyone who happens to agree with him a socialist (just as democrats accused anyone in the same room as bush a tyrannical lunatic) . Putting aside the many factual errors present in such an argument, it’s indicative of the extent to which the GOP has abandoned policy making in favor of gaining tea party votes by badmouthing the democrats. Given that the democrats did basically the same thing in 2006 with the moveon.org set, this is certainly a valid electoral strategy. As far as actually governing the country though it continues the trend of hyperpartisanship eroding the functioning of the government: nothing important can be accomplished if the minority party does nothing but firebombs the majority with the promise of being swept into power with the next election and their counterparts continue the cycle. A very excellent (and I will warn you now, somewhat lengthy, but I link to the most relevant portion) article from the Atlantic monthly describes the problem thusly: while American society, despite all appearances on cable news, is perfectly fine, the government is growing increasingly incapable of dealing with the problems it faces, especially ones that involve the nigh-inconceivable sums of money it now deals with. The reasons go back to the beginning of this passage: the GOP knows it can’t adopt anything ryan says despite how well it meshes with their stated platform because the political reality is that any party that messes with entitlements would be drawn and quartered. Even the Tea Party is enraged not by the existence of medicare but by the perceived attempt to reduce funding to it. Which is one of the truisms of voter behavior: people hate government bureaucracies, except the ones that benefit them.

So what solution can possibly emerge from all this? Like so many other things, it all depends on time and the ever shifting winds of politics. Unlike healthcare, there’s far more broad based support behind Wall Street regulation in the wake of the Reckoning, and following healthcare momentum is on the democrats’ side. For their own survival the GOP may decide to call of their hissy fit and actually work to give some input into legislation if only to be able to say they actually accomplished something resembling governance in November. As so often happens in American politics, we may yet do the right thing, if only for the wrong reasons.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least breathe a few words about America finally joining the community of nations that do more than pretend to give a shit about effective healthcare, but my understanding of the matters involved has, like the economy, always been imperfect (a post on that matter is also in the works). But something must be said nonetheless, and that something is this: you can think whatever you want about the bill, from the process that created it (horrifying and convoluted), to the democrats’ attempts to sell it (amateurish), whether you’re on the right and think it’s a massive expansion of government power (not really), or on the left and think it doesn’t go too far enough (still better than nothing).  But whatever you do think, several things are true:

1: 32 million more people have insurance coverage, meaning they can afford to get treatment BEFORE it becomes bad enough to require emergency care and costing more for everyone.

2: Insurers can’t deny coverage for preexisting conditions, granting access to healthcare for thousands who would otherwise be on their own.

3: Those who are concerned about federal funds going to (indirectly) fund abortions can take heart in that the effort to win the heart vote of ardent pro-life democrat Bart Stupak consisted of Obama issuing an executive order specifically preventing such a thing. To those worried that such a thing holds less weight than it would if it were included the law, the GOP is already out to disprove that theory.

4: Many of the bill’s more hideous deals, such as the infamous Cornhusker Kickback that basically gave Nebraska free healthcare in exchange for Senator Ben Nelson’s vote, were stripped out in reconciliation.

More benefits are provided in list form over at Crooks and Liars, but the bill does come with one singificant caveat: while it does have a great up front cost, one of the main benefits is that it’s been designed to actually reduce the deficit to the tune of a trillion dollars over 20 years. The caveat, as the CNN article explains, is that this hinges on congress being strict in applying promised tax increases at the required intervals, and as I’ve said before Congress is only too willing to sacrifice long-term planning in the name of expediency. This passage is by itself a rare (and encouraging) bucking of that trend, but it’s only meant as a first step on a longer path, and if congress deviates from that path many of the bill big pluses will evaporate.

In the meantime, the GOP has promised to ride to victory on the backs of the vote in November, but much analysis is emerging from the newscloud casting various aspersions on that prediction. I could go into that right now but there’s enough material there for the subject to command another blarg entry later this week. In the meantime suffice to say there’s still better than 6 months between us and november and the electoral landscape is hardly immutable. Let us not forget how quickly McCain went from sacrificial lamb, to serious challenger, and back again 18 short months ago. In the meantime, the Great Game of the Republic continues.

Meanwhile, back in the realm of politics, it would seem Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) has gone quite insane.

Somehow, through the force of what can only now be described as divine intervention, the health care bill survives. Obama today unveiled a newly reworked compromise proposal in hopes of reviving what is still the signature issue of the first half of his first term, and the one on whose vote the democrats will likely live or die by come november. For as much heat as the health care debate has generated, the bill continues to have a chance in hell of actually passing: even having been denied the magic 60, without the public option the likelihood of wooing moderate republicans rises significantly. And I’m not just talking about the Ladies from Maine: what was touted as the biggest political blow to the Democrats since their last ascension may in fact turn out to be their biggest boon: Scott Brown may yet save healthcare reform. As the daily beast points out, Brown was elected less by a wave of tea party fervor as much as being the alternative to a particularly crappy democratic candidate. And being the senator from a still rather liberal Massachusetts limits the extent to which the tea party can influence him, as if he wants to get reelected he can only go so far right before his constituents punish him, especially considering Massachusetts has its own form of public healthcare on a state scale, passed under Governor Guess Who. This makes the passage of an actual bill possible, if still unlikely: liberal house democrats (notably Pelosi) haven’t stopped bristling over the ejection of the public option as they have their own radicalized constituencies to worry about, and the GOP is still more interested in gaining political points by blocking the bill at every turn. Then again as the CNN article states there’s a live GOP vs. Obama news conference planned for Prime Time Thursday, and considering how round one went the White House’s recent maneuvers are likely making them very nervous indeed.

The Saga of Healthcare is Far From Over…

So last Wednesday night, as I did before for the last presidential debate, I sat down and took notes in order to more effectively blog about one of the biggest set-pieces of American political pageantry, the State of the Union address. Thankfully CNN was blessedly hands off about ancillary analysis/data during the actual address this time, which made for a refreshingly focused experience. What I got out of it was a sense that the speech generally achieved it’s goals: while it hasn’t singlehandedly saved his presidency (to the extent it really needs to be this early on), but it has probably successfully broken the media narrative of a political tailspin that took hold following the Brown victory and the inevitable speculation on the death of healthcare reform.  In that way it’s bought him some valuable breathing room in which to dig his administration out of a still-deepening rut of public opinion.

Obama vs the GOP: The most obvious target of the president’s carrots and sticks, as he alternately offered to cooperate with them while browbeating them for stonewalling. He actually did throw them several bones:  a willingness to drill baby drill (an effort as useless as it is expensive) and expand the use of nuclear power (which is actually a good idea), and emphasizing his record/plans for tax cuts (to surprisingly mixed results in terms of applause). Meanwhile they raced to get out of their seats at the mention of the jobs bill, and while I know they can’t afford to be seen as so much as being in the same neighborhood as anything that isn’t job creation, I wonder if they realize they’re basically applauding the second stimulus bill.  At the same time they refused to join Obama in some of the more gleefully populist portions of the speech (esp the early bank bashing and Obama’s proposals to stop outsourcing), which begs the question of just how concerned about the perceptual power of applause they really are. Also, I’m not sure attempting to browbeat the GOP in this forum, pleasurable though it is, is how we move past the era of hyperpartisanship. Finally, as much as I join many in wanting to see Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed, I don’t see him being able to work with republicans on the issue since they’re still in the process of being eaten alive by cultural conservatism and reigniting the culture wars hardly makes matters easier.

Obama vs the Democratic Party: Neither were the Democrats spared from a bit of “encouragement”, which has become painfully necessary as their natural reflex to run and hide at the first sign of adversity has unfortunately asserted itself in the wake of the Brown election. It’s especially sad when a party has to be reminded it actually still holds a substantial majority. Several wakeup calls especially resounded: while recognizing the rout, Obama has refused to surrender the day on healthcare (and let’s be honest, its not as if he could afford serving the GOP that huge of a political victory at this point). In creating a budget commission by executive order where the senate already rejected it, he has given congress the bitchslap it has so richly deserved, caught as it is between democratic fecklessness and GOP intransigence. Finally, talk of the spending freeze made Nancy Pelosi almost visibly squirm, and while she’ll be able to placate her constituents somewhat with the Don’t Ask push, rallying the democrats will be nigh impossible in the midst of trying to take away the one power that makes them worth hiring in the first place in the eyes of many voters.

Obama vs The Economy: And of course there’s the other great issue of our time, and probably the thorniest: trying to sell the benefits of the economic recovery even though many of those benefits have yet to materialize. Yes it’s great that the banks didn’t collapse and we’re not in a depression, but that’s cold comfort to a nation still saddled with debt at every level and facing a merciless jobs market. Trying to sell yourself on a platform of  “At least things aren’t WORSE!” isn’t going to woo any but the wonkiest of voters, and people are going to ask the fundamental question: Am I better off now than I was 2-4 years ago? In addition, some of his specific proposals were a tad worrying: vowing to increase exports is great, but what exactly are we going to be producing? Factories can’t just be willed from the earth, as the Midwest knows only too well. Also he proposed using the recovered bailout money to give loans to small businesses, which sounds great except for the part where loosening the credit spigot is what caused this whole mess in the first place. Finally, a bit of disingenuous speech on his part  in saying he’s “not interested in punishing banks.” Yes you are and you’re even banking a polling increase on it (no pun intended).

And now a quick runthrough of the peanut gallery:

Tim Geithner looked constipated, and not without due cause.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden fulfilled the OTHER critical role of the Vice President: Presidential Bobblehead.

Michelle Obama continues to be the most stainless woman in Washington, which makes her a trump card if she’s played in the cause of a healthcare PR offensive.

As anyone with a cable or internet connection should know, the State of the Union speech is tonight amidst much political turmoil for the Obama administration. I’ll leave the substantive analysis for later as I plan to blog the speech itself, but for now we can expect that while the president is going to have to tack right in a few areas to regain credibility among independents and open some kind of bipartisan door to the GOP, David Axelrod has informed CNN that the liberals can expect to be soothed with some candy of their own.

…is, much like his running mate, apparently now worthless. As a moderate liberal I’m disappointed to see the ability of corporations, or large advocacy groups in general, to influence politics expanded. However, I’m also not seeing this as a huge blow for democracy for several reasons.

While republicans and special interests can joyously toast to their newly regained freedom to spend as much as they want buying supporting candidates, in a society as open as ours money alone is no guarantor of success. Laws still require any ads created by anyone not the campaign to identify their funding source (ex: thisadpaidforbytheamericancivillibertiesunion) so unless you’re an idiot you can still make a rational choice for yourself over whether to believe the contents of a given ad.  This is putting aside the fact that, this being the age of internet and the information revolution having long ago taken root, you can find out pretty much anything you want about  a given candidate anywhere you want. Finally, this still being the realm of American politics any candidate, no matter how well groomed, is never more than a well-placed scandal away from utter destruction.

And for liberals crying into their drinks, there are still more reasons to take heart. The Obama campaign if nothing else showed the utility, if not outright godlike power, of using the internet to glean hundreds of millions in microdonations. Whether this was due simply to Obama’s force of personality, or is even feasible on a smaller scale than a presidential campaign, remain open questions. What is clear is that, despite recent GOP gains, this is of much greater benefit to the Democrats, proportional to their relative mastery of internet technology. Thus there’s little reason for liberals to fear that the GOP, traditionally allied to big business, will suddenly be able to buy their way out of the political depths.

Then again riding the wave of populist backlash against Obama seems to be doing that well enough on its own.

Taking a moment to avert my gaze from the unrelenting horror unfolding in Haiti, and putting it back on the unrelenting horror of domestic politics, I find myself practically insulted by the language being used to describe the race for the special election to fill the vacant senate seat in Massachusetts. I’d like to see it stay in democratic hands myself, but the stench of entitlement coming off of the democrats is nigh-overpowering: “It’s Ted Kennedy’s seat! We have to keep it!” Ted Kennedy is dead, and strictly speaking the seat belongs to whoever the people of Massachusetts SAY it belongs to. I realize they like having a 60 seat supermajority (for all the good its done them), but talking about filling the seat in terms of hereditary succession isn’t exactly helping the case that the democrats are the new champions of change in Washington.

Then again they can hardly be blamed for panicking. The fact that the GOP (or rather the Tea Party mad hatters that now possess them) have been able to smell blood in the water in a state as blue as Massachusetts is a most evil omen, and losing the supermajority basically kills health care reform dead unless one or both of the Ladies from Maine can be seduced. This of course even assumes that the House can stomach the loss of the public option, and Pelosi’s got too much invested in her liberal base to give it up. With GOP candidate Brown favored to win nearly 3 to 1, and no republican likely being able to support the healthcare bill without having to leave the party entirely, barring divine intervention this is looking like a serious knee to the groin for Obama’s legislative agenda going into the State of the Union and will likely inflame liberals as much as the debate has so far inflamed conservatives.

Apparently the adage that the only bad publicity is no publicity is not universally true. Despite the crowd fighting a messy and photogenic war for control of the GOP, Politico reports that a recent Harris poll has John McCain, who’s been keeping a relatively low profile since the election, regarded as the most influential leader of the GOP by not unimpressive margins.

Far be it from me to attempt to read the stars from a single poll, but this does bode well for what remains of the party’s moderate wing after months of the newscycle being focused squarely on the trevails of the tea party movement and it’s assorted straw men.

On that topic, something puzzles me: is anyone else as confused by the idea that a movement that claims to be as concerned about fiscal issues as the teabaggers would be willing to shell out $350 a pop to see palin (herself paid an even hundred grand) speak at the first-ever tea party convention?

Hovering over the political landscape like the promise of death, dick cheney continues to blast Obama for not being bush as if this were a bad thing. Today’s line of attack: cheney is pissed that Obama refuses to follow him into the trap of declaring war on a concept. While the daily beast article I just linked to also chastises the administration for still using the terminology of war in order to keep up in the GOP’s macho arms race, the underlying pivot in policy is still basically sound. Trying to defeat terrorism militarily is like trying to defeat guerilla warfare; it simply can’t be done by conventional military means and to presume otherwise is not just incorrect but both arrogant and naive. Assuming American military power is some kind of cure-all is most of what got us into the current mess, and the only way to get out is to make ourselves not look like assholes, hence the administration’s (oft delayed) drive to close the Guantanamo prison camp and the push to try terrorists in open court. We don’t win by bombing camps and shooting jihadis (although both are necessary in the short term). We win the same way that we defeated the soviets: fundamentally, we have to make people believe that it’s better to join with us than them and we can’t do that by violating the same principles we claim to defend.

And of course there’s the political ramifications. A lot of GOP congressmen are jumping on cheney’s bandwagon in the hopes of scoring some cheap political points at the president’s expense. Of course, their accusations of Obama being on vacation during the attack and taking too long to respond afterward only serve to underline their lack of long term memory. Summation: Bush was also on vacation during the thwarted attack attempt by now infamous shoe-bomber Richard Reid. He waited 6 days to make any statement on the matter, and the democrats uttered not a peep. Obama waits 72 hours and the GOP is ready to roast him on a spit. Granted Janet Napolitano managed to spectacularly flub the initial response, forcing the President himself to address the matter, but then this merely emphasizes the importance of making sure you have your facts straight before opening your mouth. But then I’m hardly the only one who prefers a president that thinks before opening his mouth: even the normally right leaning editorial page of the Washington Post has risen to Obama’s defense and called GOP attacks hypocritical.

At this point I’m not sure whether I’d prefer for cheney to return from the hole he crawled out of or for him to stick around and keep the GOP looking idiotic.