Rename and Repair “Affordable Care”


The struggle over the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare, ended a crucial round last month, when, in the Senate, three Republicans–Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski–joined Democrats in voting down the so-called “skinny repeal.”  Despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and despite the president’s scornful goading, the GOP has at long last stopped in its tracks: it has heard, from far off in the hinterland, the howl of the people.  To repeal the Affordable Care Act, to discontinue its hallmark features, has become politically unacceptable in the US.

Partisan representations of the bill notwithstanding, the guarantee of affordable medical coverage for all, which is at the heart of “Obamacare,” has become a grail to the American people.  Kate Zernike and Abby Goodnough of the New York Times co-authored a fascinating article describing how a sea-change in popular sentiment, running increasingly in support of the ACA, has occurred along with its threatened repeal.  First-hand understanding of the bill’s provisions and benefits are driving Americans to an acceptance of universal coverage that makes the GOP’s top-down rhetoric a tougher sell.  Americans do not want to return to the “bad old days” when insurers could turn sick or at-risk customers away.  They do not want millions of Americans who are now insured to lose the benefits guaranteed them under the ACA.

Politically, then, the President and the GOP face the issue of how to Affordable Care their own.  (After all, it has the makings of a smashing success!)  During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump wasn’t at the forefront of those calling for the ACA’s repeal.  He was the reasonable candidate then, wanting to find solutions that would remedy the defects of the legislation.  During the debates, he suggested eliminating state-level restrictions to allow insurers to create pools across state lines.  Ironically, President Trump has since decided that scapegoating others is essential to his popularity, a conviction that has led him away from an approach to health care that was more constructive and reasoned.  Has the President never heard the saying, “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold”?

Were I a Republican, I would vow never to utter the word “Obamacare” again.  Members of the Republican Party stand to become heroes by repairing the Affordable Care Act and re-branding it to heighten its associations with compassion and inclusion.  Forget about wreaking revenge on Obama.  Listen to the people.  Collaborate with Democrats.  Deliver a shared triumph to the nation.  It will matter far more than any partisan loss.

Image: from this source.
“The National Dime Museum” by Bernhard Gillam
is a send-up of leading American politicians circa 1884.

A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy

Day 50: A Change in the Political Atmosphere

Day 50 beautiful aerial of blue ocean and sky
The atmosphere of the presidential race has changed, with ardent Democrats conscious of a tightening race.  Despite Donald Trump’s negative qualities, he has doggedly chipped away at Hillary Clinton’s lead.  Recent polls, whether from Reuters or CBS, show Clinton’s lead in the battleground states vanishing or perilously thin.  John Zogby, writing in Forbes, has the two candidates in a dead heat for the lead, with Jill Stein and Gary Johnson siphoning off enough support to deny either of the other two an advantage.  The particulars don’t matter as much as this general point: it’s getting more difficult to dismiss Trump and more necessary to admit he could end up in the Oval Office.

It might be unthinkable; but impossible, no.

Over the weekend, John Podhoretz published a column in the New York Post, excoriating Democrats for their misguided belief in Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.  He blames the establishment for failing to vet or challenge her sufficiently.  Even Bernie Sanders’ astonishingly strong showing against her in the primaries failed to awaken party loyalists to the stubborn limits of her appeal.  Some Democrats remain baffled as to why the electorate has not swung toward a candidate they regard as likeable and decent.  It’s painful to admit she offers too little in the way of the backbone and implacability the nation wants.

Meanwhile, Trump, formerly intent on misbehaving himself into oblivion, has subtly shifted his strategy, putting more time into dignified niche appearances (like Monday’s at the Economics Club of New York, which some business channels aired in its entirety) and less into vociferous and controversial rallies.  Fearful of throwing away his shot, Trump has stepped up his game.  He wants to win and senses he can.

Oddly, he suddenly chose to lay to rest the birther controversy, admitting last week (after years of claiming otherwise) that Barack Obama was born in the US rather than elsewhere abroad.  Why bother?  Because admitting the truth—that President Obama is an American—is going to help Trump with African-Americans more generally.  An LA Times poll registers increasing support for Trump among that constituency, prompting the president to warn African-Americans that he will view it as a ‘personal insult’ if they don’t turn out for Clinton.  Meanwhile, Trump’s simple message to urban blacks—that years of the Democratic rule have failed to deliver the safety, employment, and access to decent schools that they deserve—is resonating.

RELATED READING:
Niall Ferguson, “The Fight Isn’t Going Clinton’s Way” (Boston Globe)

Resisting the drumbeat

I spent the week after the Paris attacks wondering, Why must the US response be military?  France is justified in avenging itself against ISIS, but the United States should be cautious in responding to this particular instance of violent jihad.

When have we heard more hysterical commentary than during this past week, a week of incomplete sentences and excited spluttering?  Ironically, only the President remained calm; only his remarks regarding ISIS’s threat to the US made sense; and, perhaps for that reason, the media and political establishment have excoriated him and deprecated the administration resoundingly.

Meanwhile, a perfect storm is picking up speed in Syria, where a civil war broke out four and a half years ago, in response to a citizens’ uprising against Bashar al-Assad during the multi-national Arab Spring.  I remember seeing an interview with some moderate rebels then: they were dismayed at the US’s failure to help them and predicted that disillusionment would encourage the growth of anti-Western extremism.  And so it has.

Since that ‘simpler’ time, Syria has become the theater where at least three wars are raging simultaneously.  First, there is the increasingly sectarian civil war aimed at deposing the intractable Assad.  Second, a war within a war is being waged, as the stateless guerrilla group ISIS attempts, in Syria and elsewhere, to establish a retrograde caliphate that it justifies in the name of Islamic purity.  Finally, the Syrian war is a proxy war, with numerous other powers overtly or covertly aiding the principal combatants, attempting to further their own interests by investing in the triumph of one or the other side.  The outside players include Iran, Russia, and the Lebanese-based group Hezbollah on the Syrian government’s side, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, the UK, and France on the opposition side.  (For more on the war’s history, see this BBC News summary; also this map of Middle-Eastern involvement at The Maghreb and Orient Courier.)

The opposition has the weaker hand, because its principal aim is to bring down the Assad regime; yet no one can imagine who could bring order to Syria if Assad were gone.  The so-called ‘moderate’ rebels fighting for democracy have long since been overwhelmed by militants from all over the world, and especially by Sunni forces fighting to bring down Assad’s Alawites and attain a theocratic victory.  Westerners who think this war is still primarily about democracy and self-determination have it wrong.  Re-establishing civil order will involve either the installation of a puppet government with a new strongman or a return to the status quo ante bellum.

Tactically, the conflict has morphed into a type of total war that is difficult to categorize, though, sadly, many of its most brutal elements (chemical warfare, the bombing of civilian populations) have occurred in modern wars before.  The tactics of the Islamic State (which of course is a fantastical misnomer, as the force does not constitute a state at all), however, are novel in that they combine Western-oriented terrorism with transnational guerrilla warfare aimed at further creating anarchy in and beyond the territory that ISIS is intent on overtaking.

The New York Times published an excellent graphic feature highlighting how ISIS’s terror activities complement their geographically focused war aims.  Precisely because ISIS is not a state, it wishes to promote anarchy as well as to break up the influence of the West and exorcise the Western narrative that has shaped and justified our involvement in the affairs of many Muslim-populated societies.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the pressure is on the Obama administration to step up the fight against ISIS in Syria, to send ground troops and commit more air and fire power to a multi-sided conflict already fraught with too many antagonistic parties.  The pressure is all the greater given that the presidential race is in full swing.  Republican candidates, eager to talk tough, are vying to out-do one another with fantastical visions of military aggression whose virtues are merely quantitative.

President Obama did a good job last week of reminding everyone that ISIS is not a state but a more amorphous and unconventional enemy.  At a press conference during the G20 summit in Turkey, the president astutely rejected the idea of being further drawn into a conventional war, reminding his listeners that conventional tactics will not work against this unconventional enemy.

We play into the ISIL narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.

These are killers with fantasies of glory who are very savvy when it comes to social media, and are able to infiltrate the minds of not just Iraqis or Syrians, but disaffected individuals around the world. And when they activate those individuals, those individuals can do a lot of damage. And so we have to take the approach of being rigorous on our counterterrorism efforts, and consistently improve and figure out how we can get more information, how we can infiltrate these networks, how we can reduce their operational space, even as we also try to shrink the amount of territory they control to defeat their narrative.

The gravest threat that ISIS poses to the US is the incitement of terror.  Here’s hoping that Americans can resist the drumbeat and refrain from over-reaching in the Middle East, instead choosing to devote themselves to the twin causes of domestic safety and peace.

The president’s vision of progress on guns

The sociopathic killings in Oregon on October 1 spurred another round of chaotic and frenzied comment. The dialogue began with the president, whose comments on the shootings came out fast, faster than news of the shooting itself.  Whereas some might see the increase in mass gun murders in the US as a cultural, even media-driven, problem, the president understandably sees the Oregon massacre and others like it as having political roots.  In his brief somber statement that day, President Obama argued that this form of criminality has grown out of political choices that ordinary Americans have made.  Make different choices, and sociopathic rampages involving firearms will begin to wane.  Most strikingly, the president appealed to the public for relief from a stale, inconclusive dialogue about gun violence that has become terrifyingly routine.

President Obama’s remarks are worth reading in their entirety. They are notable for what they did and did not say. The president did not call on Americans to back any specific gun-control measure.  Instead, he made three general appeals.

 1.  GET OUT THE FACTS ON GUN-RELATED DEATHS.  The president appealed to the journalistic world to assemble and publish comprehensive data about gun-related deaths in the US.  It’s odd, but authoritative statistics about gun trafficking, gun sales, gun violence, and gun crimes are surprisingly hard to come by.  Several years ago Congress barred the Obama administration from studying this problem or amassing authoritative statistics on public’s behalf.  So, most of the available data is very old, incomplete, or statistically flawed.  Instead, the job of monitoring the extent and nature of gun violence has fallen to a ragtag assemblage of voluntary efforts throughout the country, such as Slate’s effort in the year after Newtown, or the real-time reporting on gun violence that the good people at the Gun Violence Archive carry on.  Accurate information about gun violence and its social costs could reshape the gun debate by silencing false claims and focusing public attention around effective policy aims.

2.  RESPONSIBLE GUN-OWNERS ARE A KEY GROUP IN THE STRUGGLE TO PROMOTE GUN SAFETY.  The millions of Americans who own guns are perhaps the only constituency capable of checking the influence of the National Rifle Association.  The heinous mass murder of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook School in December 2012 effected an attitudinal shift, galvanizing responsible gun-owners in favor of stricter gun laws.  Surveys show that 90 percent of gun owners now favor ‘common-sense’ gun-safety measures, a stance at odds with the unbounded pro-gun rhetoric of the NRA.  In his message, President Obama appealed directly to gun owners, asking them ‘to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.’  Gun-owners are uniquely positioned to speak out in support of prudent public-safety measures that do not impinge upon Second Amendment rights.

3.  VOTERS MUST MAKE PUBLIC SAFETY A PRIORITY: Though many Americans favor tougher gun laws, they do not view this as a key issue when voting.  As a consequence, the gun lobby and pro-gun advocates routinely get their way in Congress and state legislatures.  The president urged voters to care more, and to pay more attention to candidates’ voting records (an issue that has lately vexed Bernie Sanders).  Without legislators willing to vote for gun-control measures, the political struggle to inhibit the reckless use of firearms will go nowhere.

The president’s conviction that the will of the people can transform the gun debate is characteristic of an executive who has taken to heart his role as ‘the people’s sovereign.’  Time and again, the president has placed his faith in a democratic public to generate the “change we can believe in.”  Whether Americans have the determination and wherewithal to fight for a safer civil society remains to be seen.