Monthly Archives: August 2009

Bromley illustration

Except for a pause to honour Senator Edward Kennedy, healthcare reform has dominated US news and comment for weeks. It is seen as the make-or-break challenge for Barack Obama’s administration. Yet soon it may look unimportant in comparison with an issue that the US public has barely seemed to notice: the war in Afghanistan.

Casualties there are mounting – this has been the deadliest month for US forces since the fighting began in 2001. The losses have attracted less attention in the US than British losses have in Britain, and pressure on the administration to pull out has been mild. But this will change. When it does, Mr Obama will longingly recall those carefree months debating healthcare.

Quietly, public opinion has already turned against the war. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 51 per cent now say the war is not worth fighting. Among Democrats, seven out of 10 say that.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Opinion polls asking whether Americans want healthcare reform to include a “public option”–a government-run scheme to compete alongside private insurers–are all over the place. One shows support as low as 35%. Most seem to put it at 50% or higher. One says 83% are either strongly or somewhat in favour.

Majority support for the public option seems difficult to reconcile with what seems to be somewhat weaker support for the health bills in Congress that include the option. Are there really that many Democrats who would prefer no change at all to a reform stripped of the public plan? Well, maybe there are.

Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com has two good posts on the subject. One points out that most people don’t know what the public option is. The other blames the variation in responses in part to subtle differences in the way the questions are put. Questions that clearly say “option”–underlining that people who like their existing arrangements can keep them–elicit stronger support. Putting the question that way gets a more accurate answer, he says. One poll, Quinnipiac, follows all his advice on framing the question and measures support at 62 percent:

Do you support or oppose giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan that would compete with private plans?

I wonder. If you are offered a choice between (a) X, and (b) your choice of X or Y, what’s not to like about (b)? One possibility, of course, is that you would worry about having to pay for Y (through taxes) even if you didn’t choose it. Aside from that, if Y was even eligible for consideration, you would only prefer (a) if you believed that (b) was not really what it claimed to be, that Y might impair X in some way.

If every respondent was mindful of the effect the public option might have on their taxes and on their existing insurance, either positive or negative, that 62% support would be real. The question is, are they? How many of that 62% are thinking, “Well, if you are telling me I can keep my present policy on the present terms, fine”, when it may turn out that this premise is false. In other words, is “option” really a cleaner term for this purpose than “plan to compete alongside”? If at the outset you are an individual buyer on the regulated exchange, yes: you would have the choice. If you have employer-provided insurance that your employer subsequently decides to drop, you would feel differently. For good or ill, the public option would affect private insurance–that is the whole idea, after all. I’m not sure the Quinnipiac question states the alternatives as plainly as it seems to.

I hesitate to say anything about his passing–least of all, anything addressed to American readers. I didn’t grow up with the history, as Americans of my age did. I’m an outsider, so reverence for the dynasty and the deeper sense of loss that goes with it are things I cannot feel. I’ll just point to a few of the articles I’ve read today that seemed to shed some light.

The Boston Globe has the fullest coverage, as you might expect, and it is very well done.

I thought this essay by Sean Wilentz for The New Republic was outstanding.

His political longevity testified to the love of his constituents, through thick and thin, but also to his persistence, his ability to learn and to grow, and then to surpass himself. The sadness, the squandering, the might-have-beens of his life would have crushed others, but Kennedy endured, his principles intact.

You ought to read the whole article, but that capsule sums the man up pretty well, I think. I’d have added charm and energy–he was phenomenal in both respects–to the summary list of assets, and I don’t think “the sadness, the squandering, the might-have-beens” does justice to his lowest point, but still.

Speaking of that, how to deal with Chappaquiddick has been a problem for many commentators and obituarists. Many decided, I think, that decency requires a veil to be drawn and euphemisms deployed, such as Wilentz’s in that snippet. I disagree. I think you have to look at it unflinchingly, because you cannot understand the miracle of Kennedy’s redemption otherwise. What he did was terrible. He survived as a politician only because of his name–a disgusting thing. But it changed him, and see what he then did with his life. He was emphatically not, as Paul Krugman writes, always a great man. He was once much less than a great man. What is astonishing is that he nonetheless made himself a great man.

I admired EJ Dionne’s column for several reasons, including for the way it captured unique, or at any rate very unusual, aspects of Kennedy’s political personality. He was neither cynic nor soggy centrist. He was passionate, a liberal’s liberal. Yet he was pragmatic, and was capable of liking and respecting people who disagreed with him. Firm principles married to a friendly tolerance of other views: on both sides of modern American politics, that is so rare.

And there was this Kennedy paradox: Precisely because he knew so clearly what he wanted and where he wished the country to move, he could strike deals with Republicans far outside his philosophical comfort zone…

[K]ennedy’s liberalism was experimental, not rigid. Principles didn’t change, but tactics and formulations were always subject to review. He gave annual speeches that amounted to a report on the state of American liberalism. He always sought to give heart to its partisans in dark times — “Let’s be who we are and not pretend to be something else,” Kennedy said in early 1995, shortly after his party’s devastating midterm defeat — but he did not shrink from pointing to liberal shortcomings.

In that speech, he insisted that “outcomes,” not intentions, should determine whether government programs live or die. In 2005, he criticized liberals for failing to harness their creed to the country’s core values.

I think that last point is crucial. On the left of the Democratic party, it is not hard to find disdain and even  contempt for “the country’s core values”, insofar as those values depart from the ones espoused by a progressive liberal.

As for the willingness to cut deals in the name of progress, one wonders of course what role Kennedy might have played in fashioning a compromise on healthcare. He strongly favoured the public option, but I find it hard to believe he would have preferred no reform at all to a Massachusetts-style system, or that he would have committed himself to vote against any measure that did not contain a public plan–the position that many Democrats now seem to be adopting. In more ways than one, he will be missed.

People keep referring me to Ross Douthat’s column, “Don’t Blame Obama”, which you should read if you haven’t already.

In reality, the health care wrestling match is less a test of Mr. Obama’s political genius than it is a test of the Democratic Party’s ability to govern…

If the Congressional Democrats can’t get a health care package through, it won’t prove that President Obama is a sellout or an incompetent. It will prove that Congress’s liberal leaders are lousy tacticians, and that its centrist deal-makers are deal-makers first, poll watchers second and loyal Democrats a distant third. And it will prove that the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises.

It’s a good piece and as usual Ross says a lot I agree with, but a couple of things. That is a rather jaundiced assessment of the Blue Dogs, is it not? I can’t see that their objections to the bills are unprincipled. Their positions make sense to me. It is not wrong, either, for politicians to care about public opinion. We should  want them to do that. Are they failing in some way, as Ross implies, if they are “loyal Democrats a distant third”? I want parties to be institutionally capable of governing, but I don’t give politicians many points for tribal loyalty come what may. Coalitions are what make parties capable of governing. Leaders have to shape those coalitions.

Which leads me to my second point: why must one conclude that the health reform mess is Obama’s fault or else the party’s fault—choose one—when it is plainly both? The Democrats’ ability to govern has everything to do with the effectiveness of their leader and principal spokesman, especially on a sensitive issue, health care, where success requires a complicated policy to be put persuasively before the public. We know Obama has the necessary skills. We saw that last year. He chose not to deploy them, and put Democrats in Congress in charge. That was a big mistake.

It’s true that Democrats in Congress are split. So is the public at large. All the more reason why Obama needed to lead. In the campaign, he extended popular support for the party into the middle of the electorate. He needed to maintain or even build on that to advance his policy goals. So far, he hasn’t. He has managed to disappoint both the centre and the left, as Ross says. But the left is always disappointed. That is its perpetual state of mind. The left will be disappointed if in the end Obama gets universal health care with generous subsidies for the less well-off, but no public option. There is nothing one can say to this. But disappointing the centre as well was an unforced error. The Obama of the campaign could have kept the middle on board, but he decided—until it was too late to change his mind?—that he would not even try. Yes, he gets the blame for that.

An interesting discussion about Afghanistan at the Brookings Institution today (I think this page will have transcript and/or video in due course): Bruce Riedel, Michael O’Hanlon, Kimberly Kagan and Anthony Cordesman, moderated by Martin Indyk. To only slightly varying degrees, all the speakers were pretty grim. Despite the recent commitment of extra forces, they see the situation as either bad and getting no better, or actually deteriorating. They think far more troops and other resources are needed, and worry that the administration is putting pressure on General McChrystal and other military commanders to curb their request for more manpower even before they have put their case. Ominous echoes of Rumsfeld, I thought.

None of the speakers volunteered a rationale for being there in the first place. It took a question on that from the audience to elicit what I thought was a perfunctory reply from just one of the panelists. Riedel, if I understood him correctly, made two points.

First, he said that if we weren’t there, we would be unable even to harry al-Qaeda with drones: they could train and organise unmolested. That puzzled me. The US does not need anything like its present commitment, let alone the additional resources the army seems to want, merely to launch unmanned aircraft against al-Qaeda targets. Second, he said that if the West lost to the insurgency, the blow to its credibility in the Muslim world would be too devastating to countenance. This also seemed none too convincing: an all-encompassing rationale which has been offered before for fighting wars that the US then went on to lose at  greater cost than not fighting them in the first place. I want to believe that the West’s fight in Afghanistan is both necessary and likely to succeed, but those arguments do not persuade me.

The discussion started, as these discussions tend to, from a barely examined notion of “success”–a viable, self-supporting and friendly Afghan state–and then inferred from this the resources that will be needed to achieve it. Fine in theory, but Iraq is just the latest reminder that the politics works the other way round. The fight in Afghanistan is already far from popular, and support seems more likely to fall with time than rise. If no compelling rationale can be put before the public,  it may make better sense to accept that the constraint on resources will tighten, and ask how much can be achieved with what little will be available.

This was Gilles Dorronsoro’s argument in a recent FT op-ed. (Though see this letter to the editor in response.) Match goals to means, he argued. Politics rules out the converse. I would like somebody to change my mind, but I find this view depressingly persuasive. Here and here are fuller statements of Dorronsoro’s thinking. He posts other commentary on his Carnegie Endowment page.

This seems like a wise decision, though perhaps not what Obama had in mind last winter. Proposing Larry Summers, the obvious alternative, eminently qualified though he may be, would have antagonised a lot of Democrats even more than reappointing a moderate Republican. Also, since the Fed has faithfully executed so much of the administration’s response to the crisis, ditching Bernanke would have looked as though Obama was repudiating his own policies. On the whole I think the Fed chairman has done well in terrible circumstances, and deserves a lot of credit. He cannot be accused of timid passivity, at any rate. Whether he will enjoy presiding over the difficult task of unwinding the Fed’s unprecedented interventions, we will find out.

An interesting choice of words in Obama’s announcement:

Almost none of the decisions he or any of us made have been easy. The actions we have taken to stabilize our financial system, repair our credit markets, restructure our auto industry, and pass a recovery package have all been steps of necessity, not choice.

“Necessity, not choice.” Of course this is his favourite phrase in defending America’s engagement in Afghanistan, contrasting that action with the war in Iraq. Robert Kagan had what I thought was a persuasive column on this over the weekend, arguing that what is necessary is rarely clear-cut. The same goes for the management of economic crises. Right or wrong, Obama’s economic policies are no more popular than his policy on Afghanistan; but rather than defending them on their merits, he says, “We had no choice.” It’s not very convincing. Nearly always, there are choices.

Bromley illustration

Barack Obama’s presidency is in trouble. Support among centrist and swing voters continues to leak away, his signature domestic initiative is in jeopardy and the prevailing theme of US political commentary is shifting from hope and expectation to explaining what went wrong. Mr Obama’s cool is being tested in a way that few predicted – not by force of circumstance, but by the results of his own political bungling.

The paradox is that the White House has tripped up over healthcare reform – an initiative that the country both wants and needs, and which was at the centre of Mr Obama’s stunningly successful election campaign. For this, the administration has no one to blame but itself. Its own mistakes have brought it to this perilous point.

It is not too late to correct these errors, wrest a substantial and much-needed reform from the mess of current difficulties and emerge with approval ratings fully restored. But for all its brainpower, this White House is a slow learner, and one wonders.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Reaction in the US to this–both to the fact of the early release, and now to the scenes in Tripoli–is a mixture of astonishment, incomprehension, and disgust. Nobody seems able to accept what has happened at face value. It must be some sordid deal about oil between the US, Scottish and UK governments, surely. Or do they know he’s really innocent, as some of the victims’ relatives believe? Is that what’s going on? Nobody can accept or even understand the “compassionate release” rationale as laid out by Kenny MacAskill. A convicted mass murderer, found guilty of this most appalling atrocity, is set free as an act of mercy? Have these people gone quite mad? It seems to me a very fair question.

MacAskill, interviewed on US television, radiated the most repellent sanctimony I have ever seen in a politician–and that is saying something. His manner suggested that the whole thing is more about his own implacable self-righteousness than the demands of justice. He was followed on air by victims of the relatives. They were restrained and dignified, but plainly dismayed and distraught, and feeling horribly betrayed. Does the exercise of compassion not also take into account compassion for the victims and their families, one wondered? No, he seemed to argue, for that would be to choose vengeance not justice. False. There is such a thing as just punishment. How could it be unjust for a man guilty of a crime like this to die in prison? I would advise MacAskill not to visit the US for the foreseeable future. Indeed, calculations of justice aside, I wonder if the Scottish government has the smallest inkling of the harm it has done to its standing in the US–not to mention the prospects of future co-operation on security–with this bizarre act.

Incidentally, Obama comes out of it none too well, either. Why didn’t he do something to stop this lunacy, people are asking? And his tepid reaction–”‘deeply regrets the decision”; once Megrahi is back in Libya, “he should be kept under house arrest”–has bewildered many Americans almost as much as the original decision.

Update:

This isn’t something you see every day.

This struck me as a non-story if I ever saw one.

Given hardening Republican opposition to Congressional health care proposals, Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority’s co-operation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks.

Oh please. It isn’t Republican support they lack, it’s public support. And this is not the way to go about getting it. Democrats are technically right that they can get a bill through the senate even with one or two defections on their own side, using a special procedure to prevent a Republican filibuster. But with public opinion, previously well-disposed to reform, now leaning against the Democrats’ proposals–a result of the White House’s dismal failure of leadership on the issue–it would be political recklessness of a high order to pass reform by means of a ruse. Not least because the purpose would be to disempower dissenting Democratic senators, not just Republicans. What would centrist voters make of that? The go-it-alone threat surfaces every few weeks. Though complaints about Republican obstructionism are justified, the idea looks less credible now than before.

The NYT piece leads with supporting quotes from Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. What a surprise. Mr Emanuel’s purpose in floating this story was presumably to distract attention from the administration’s continuing embarrassment over the public option. Is this negotiable or not? Is this necessary, in Mr Obama’s view, or not? The answer appears to be that it is still necessary, like before–but negotiable. Something not quite right there.

This week’s careful administration maneuvering on whether a public insurance option was an essential element of any final bill was seemingly part of the new White House effort to find consensus among Democrats, since the public plan has been resisted by moderate and conservative Democrats who could be crucial to winning the votes for passage if no Republicans are on board.

For the second time in two days, Mr. Obama did not mention health care on Tuesday, a marked departure from the aggressive public relations campaign he mounted in July and early August. The White House is striving to stay out of the fray, aides said, until the president can get away on vacation this weekend.

Careful manoeuvring? If that shambles was careful manoeuvring, heaven help us if this administration ever gets muddled. A vacation sounds like a good idea.

The administration should drop the public option. Politically, the disappointment of the Democrats’ hard-liners would be a plus for the administration, not a minus: their protests would reassure moderate opinion. Substantively, it would subtract little or nothing from the considerable virtues of the other aspects of the reform proposals, around which a broad popular consensus can still be built. This FT editorial on the subject gets it right. My congratulations to whoever wrote it.

The worst attacks in Baghdad for months put my visit to the movies last night into a sobering context: I went to see The Hurt Locker, which is about a US bomb disposal unit working in Iraq. The film was almost universally praised. I thought it was gripping, disturbing, and brilliantly executed.

A couple of scenes did strike me as implausible. (The shoot-out in the desert, which had the bomb-disposal guys fighting alongside a group of Brits who seemed to have a lot of trouble aiming their sniper rifle; the crazy freelance venture towards the end, which  got one of the team shot.) But the visuals were completely convincing, the casting (with lesser known actors in the leading roles) was perfect, and the tension was relentlessly maintained.

So I agreed, for instance, with David Denby, Dana Stevens, and Joe Morgenstern, who all gave it raves. I did wonder how David Denby could write of the main character that “you might say he’s drawn to danger and needs it.” You might say that? How could it be plainer that he’s fatally addicted to danger, thus doomed physically, and already emotionally dead. In an unbearably sad moment at the end he tells his infant son that with age you come to love fewer things; he now loves only one, he says. Cut to an image of him walking down the street towards an unexploded bomb. I think the movie’s epigraph, a quotation from a war correspondent that says “war is a drug” may also be intended as a clue.

I was pleased that director Kathryn Bigelow has such a critical hit on her hands, because I have always had a slightly guilty admiration for “Point Break”, a surfer-dude crime caper with the reliably preposterous Keanu Reeves playing an FBI undercover officer. If I described the plot then told you how much I enjoy this movie, you would lose what little respect for me you already have. So I won’t do that.

Do go and see The Hurt Locker. It’s superb cinema. But you might also take a moment to browse the comments thread attached to Metacritic’s review page. Ordinary movie-goers mostly loved it. But the film has a lot of very low ratings from people who say they have served in Iraq, and who complain bitterly that, despite all its apparent realism, the film is not at all truthful. For instance:

I am still deployed and this is truly the worst war movie I have ever watched. Without even acknowledging how far from the truth the tactics are and lack of security in every scene, EOD [bomb disposal] is falsely portrayed as some sort of special forces unit. I have sat on many IED’s and regardless of the fact that units are not allowed to travel outside of a 3 vehicle or 4 vehicle security concept, EOD is not comprised of 3 enlisted men defusing bombs. The robot is always extensively used and more importantly EOD personnel are never foolish enough to handle ready to go large ordnance to defuse it. Every time we found an IED from 155 shells to mortar rounds, they were always blown in place. The few times an IED was taken was when it was fully dismembered by a disrupting detonation. I watched a little over half of this movie before turning it off as it was too painful and ridiculous to watch.

Another said:

It was a movie by civilians for civilians, which I guess is why so many critics love it so much.

Hmm. That rings true, doesn’t it?

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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