Saturday, February 27, 2010

Health Care Holocaust

People, real people by the thousands every year, are dying for lack of medical treatment in the world's richest nation, and after a week of politicians posturing over piles of paper, policy wonks are stunning us with this truth.

A new study shows 68 Americans under age 65 die every day because they don’t have health care, a number that will rise to 84 by 2019--a total of 275,000 needless deaths in a decade.

The numbers from an advocacy group, Families USA, comport with earlier estimates by the Urban Institute and the Institute of Medicine, dry statistics that conceal mass murder by indifference without concentration camps or gas chambers.

Sophisticates who consider such statements overwrought should explain how their cost-benefit analyses make such an outcome inevitable as they advocate, in Sen. Tom Coburn's response to the President's weekly address today, that we "scrap the current bills, which will lead to a government takeover of health care, and we should start over."

Along with this prescription for indifference, a leading GOP presidential hopeful for 2012, Tim Pawlenty, wants to change federal law to allow emergency rooms to turn away patients--"do a little triage," even for those who come in with what Fox's Greta Van Susteren described as "horrible chest pains." (Pace Sarah Palin and her Democratic death panels!)

At the Health Care Summit Thursday, several Democrats tried to focus the discussion on what their constituents are suffering under the current system, but the Republican response was typified by smug Eric Cantor tapping his pile of papers and insisting that "we Republicans care just as much about health care as the Democrats do," while questioning the legality of forcing all Americans to buy health insurance.

At the end of the day, Cantor and his cohorts made it clear that they "simply don’t want to pass comprehensive health-care reform," while the President said of the uninsured, “We can debate whether we can afford to help them. We can’t say they don’t need help.”

As GOP numbers crunchers press their argument with dollar figures, their constituents should take a look at the costs in human lives which, in a time when catastrophic illness can overwhelm middle-class families as readily as the poor, is a threat across the economic and political spectrum.

Making health care reform an us-against-them issue is insane.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

How Bully the Pulpit?

Not very, although John Boehner left the Summit looking like he had been in the dentist's chair all day. Nancy Pelosi zinged as "not factual" his remarks about abortion in the House bill after the President had politely brushed off his robotalk with the observation, “Every time we get somewhere, we go back to the standard talking points.”

Mitch McConnell was reduced to harping on the obvious, that Republican opposition had muddled enough Americans to turn them against the Democrats' bill while the President insisted that, when asked about specifics in it, most voters were positive. “I hear from constituents in every one of your districts and every one of your states,” he pointed out.

The two GOP leaders came off as petulant schoolboys in the presence of a master teacher, but politics being politics, that won't count for much.

In this dialogue of the deaf, there were few surprises, one of them Sen./Dr. Tom Coburn, of the extreme right, effectively making the case for eliminating waste and fraud that became one of the rare points on which all sides could agree.

Even coverage of the event reflected some of its ultimate futility, as MSNBC cut away for Olympics in the afternoon, while CNN and Fox interrupted for commercials and blather by their own talking heads. The only way to see it all was on C-Span3, if you could find it.

The subtext of this unprecedented attempt to bring the public into a multi-hour policy discussion was that, for the most part, politics trumps serious engagement on the issues.

The bottom line is that the President tried but must realize that he succeeded only in revealing his own total grasp of the subject against the emptiness behind most of the Republican rhetoric for a minority of Americans willing to watch for hours.

That ultimately may be the best Obama could hope for, as he ended with a clear warning that, if there is no sign of GOP engagement in the next month, Democrats in both Houses will move ahead without them.

“The concern of a lot of colleagues," he said, "after a year and half or more appropriately after five decades of dealing with this issue, starting over they suspect means not doing much.”

Barack Obama used the bully pulpit well today, but he was preaching to two irreconcilable flocks.

The Shrinking of John McCain

A Senator from Arizona engaged the President this morning on the virtues of scrapping the health care bill and starting over, but it was John Kyl, not his senior colleague who ran for President in 2008.

When his turn came, John McCain spent his time in a peevish rehash of the Louisiana, Nebraska and other special deals made to get enough Senate votes last year, sounding more like a crank at a Tea Party town hall than the man who might be sitting in the Oval Office today.

McCain's point, although already moot in the case of Nebraska, is that the American people should know "that geography does not dictate what kind of health care they will receive."

The President, clearly annoyed, nevertheless practiced his trademark forbearance by limiting himself to saying, "Let me just make this point, John, because we're not campaigning anymore. The election is over."

"I'm reminded of that every day," McCain responded.

It's sad to see the once-vaunted maverick reduced to an incumbent who is running scared against a conservative challenge and, unlike Obama, "campaigning" on every occasion to hold it.

In the 2008 election, the issue of McCain's temperament and his judgment in picking Sarah Palin as a running mate were cited against a background of his longtime tendency to shoot from the hip.

In what for the most part has been a substantive bipartisan conversation thus far today, it's even sadder to see the man who might have been president looking less serious than the likes of Eric Cantor and John Boehner.

Health Care: The TV Show

Big breakthrough for bipartisanship: The table for the health summit has been changed from U-shaped to O, allowing more Republican face time for TV cameras.

Such symbolism typifies an encounter in which the White House will try to put back together a bill that was blown apart last fall by hand grenades from monolithically opposed Republicans and nakedly greedy Democratic swing Senators.

In the rubble of public disgust and Tea Party rage, the effort to start over is being dismissed as "political theater" by GOP legislators while being promoted as significant by the President's Congressional supporters.

Max Baucus, who kept making backdoor deals with "moderate" Senate Democrats, is now an outspoken believer in "the disinfectant of the sunshine. The more we have got questions on both sides, gradually the American people are going to see more and more and more that we really do need health care reform.”

Maybe so, but behind the scenes of a dog-and-pony show to placate highly vexed voters, the President is reportedly picking up pieces of the demolished reform to settle for covering half of 30 million uninsured Americans at one-quarter of the cost.

This would be accomplished by requiring that insurers let people up to 26 to stay on parents' health plans and by expanding Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, rather than a broader effort with an estimated price tag of $950 billion over 10 years.

As the talkathon starts, the President's hopes for progress, already compromised by dropping the public option and limiting real controls over greedy insurers, providers more oriented to bill than cure and patients who consume health care like a free lunch, keep receding.

But the sound bites will be as abundant as drug manufacturers' samples and other goodies for doctors' offices.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Buyer-Beware Society

"All Toyota vehicles bear my name," the president and grandson of the founder writes today. "When cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well...I, more than anyone, want Toyota's cars to be safe."

A heartfelt OpEd, written by the best hired gun money can buy, and in tomorrow's testimony before Congress, Akio Toyoda will no doubt amplify that regret and sincerity.

Yet a criminal investigation of the car maker's problems is showing "too cozy a relationship" between the company and government regulators, with Toyota negotiating down the scope of safety recalls over the years.

On his second day in the job last July, Mr. Toyoda was given a presentation by his Washington lobbyists, bragging about "a series of examples where the government didn't force the company to do as much as some would have liked, specifically on sudden-acceleration complaints, where they only recalled about 55,000 floor mats, rather than a more comprehensive mechanical fix."

So much for family pride, but Toyota hypocrisy is not unusual in a society where trust has eroded everywhere in relations between individuals and the corporate and government institutions that control their lives.

In every transaction now, the rule is read the fine print or take the consequences. "Let the buyer beware" has expanded from good advice to an imperative.

Yesterday the President did some bragging of his own, about new credit rules that went into effect to limit "deceptive, unfair tactics that hit responsible consumers with unreasonable costs. But today, we are shifting the balance of power back to the consumer and we are holding the credit card companies accountable."

Such hyperbole is not surprising, but consumer advocates point out that card issuers can still impose annual fees, inactivity fees and other kinds of obscure charges, as well as "new fees we've never even heard of yet." The double-digit milking of card holders will certainly go on unabated.

The sad truth is that we live in a fine-print society, and there is no reason to believe that trust will be making a comeback any time soon.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Which Beast to Starve?

Today brings a sharp contrast in political philosophies and economic reality. As Paul Krugman discourses on three decades of Republican attempts to shrink government and "drown it in the bathtub," President Obama discloses his intention to stop feeding the free-market monster that has devoured American health care.

In advance of Thursday's summit, the White House leaks a proposal to oversee and limit double-digit health insurance rate increases such as those the President denounced in his weekly address Saturday.

Legislation introduced last week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein would create a seven-member rate board, the Health Insurance Rate Authority--consumer, industry and medical representatives and experts in health economics--to determine which increases are justifiable and which are unconscionable by insurers who are siphoning off one out of every three dollars spent for "overhead" and profit.

This attempt, finally, to rein in a greedy industry, along with restrictions on denying care to policy holders, should become the centerpiece of streamlined reform legislation to replace last year's fiasco of a bill.

Its thrust, to protect Americans from private greed, is revealing in the light of GOP efforts to "protect" them from their own government, starting in the Reagan era.

The starve-the-beast strategy, Krugman writes, was "a game of bait and switch. Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit."

They did just that in the Bush II years, but his tax cuts for the wealthy and unfunded wars ballooned the deficit, even as Congress couldn't muster the courage to cut popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Now both messes, budget deficits and health care, have been inherited by a Change president who is struggling to deal with them over the adamant opposition of those who played the biggest part in creating them.

This week will show how far he can get in trying to slim down the private beast, but it will take his new budget deficit commission a long time to start putting government on a subsistence diet.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

U-Turn on Health Care (and More)

Democrats are rediscovering the old saying, "just as well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb," as they edge toward passing health care by a simple majority in the face of Republican roadblocks that have aroused public outrage.

"I've had many conversations this week with the president, his chief of staff, and Speaker Pelosi," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Friday. "And we're really trying to move forward on this."

Such an effort would call the GOP bipartisan bluff and make a bet that voters, after being flummoxed by thousands of gobbledegook pages with tradeoffs and sellouts, would respond favorably to a stripped-down bill with the main elements of reform that opinion polls show they want. Even the public option is poised to make a comeback.

In his weekly address yesterday, the President railed against recent double-digit premium hikes: "The bottom line is that the status quo is good for the insurance industry and bad for America. Over the past millions of Americans lost their coverage, the five largest insurers made record profits of over $12 billion."

In the days before a much-vaunted bipartisan summit on health care, the White House finally seems ready to engage the GOP monolith of misrepresentation that has been winning elections and blocking progress on the President's agenda.

Republicans, says the White House Communications Director, "have a role to play in solving problems in this country, or be accountable to the electorate for choosing not to."

Peace-loving as he may be, the President would do well at this crucial point to consult some relatively obscure Shakespearian wisdom:

"To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?/Not to the beast that would usurp their den./The smallest worm will turn being trodden on,/And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood."

Barack Obama has to get his Congressional worms to start making a U-turn on health care--and more.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tiger's Scarlet Letter

His pillory a golf-clubhouse lectern, America's most famous athlete staged his own public humiliation yesterday for a TV camera, the 21st century equivalent of donning the scarlet "A" for a bloodthirsty Puritan crowd.

"I had affairs,” Tiger Woods confessed. “I was unfaithful. I cheated...I was wrong. I was foolish. I don’t get to play by different rules.”

Even so, he is being criticized for controlling his appearance, for not taking questions, for scheduling it on the eve of a tournament sponsored by a corporation that has dropped short, for a deficiency of groveling in operatic pain for the cameras.

The sad event tells us more about celebrity in our time than about Tiger Woods. After elevating a gifted golfer into a folk hero and role model, the excess of adulation has to be balanced by an equivalence of media punishment.

Yet his appearance yesterday, sad and bloated with dead eyes, tells more about Woods' downfall than any dramatic acting out of contrition. His apparent depression was painful to watch.

The wildly rewarded famous forfeit their much of their privacy, but can't there be limits to what they are required to endure? Tiger Woods will play golf again for our pleasure to watch. Until then, doesn't he deserve time out of the spotlight to work out the psychological damage he has inflicted on his family and himself?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Flat-Earth Olympics: More-American-Than-Thou

Odd people in Washington this week are wrapping the flag around themselves as protection from most Americans who have sweated and bled for our country in good times and bad.

At the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, the defining document is "The Mount Vernon Statement," an ode of the Constitution by a list of right-wing elders headed by Edwin Meese, who helped subvert it in the Iran-Contra Affair and resigned in disgrace as Reagan's Attorney General after the Wedtech defense contract scandal.

He is joined by other such figures from the Conservative waxworks as tax-hater Grover Norquist, Pat Buchanan's chief fundraiser Brent Bozell and Richard Viguerie, who pioneered computerized fund-raising and ran for president against too-liberal Gerald Ford in 1976.

The Statement's "firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith" is a declaration of war not only against dangerous Democrats and Independents but Republicans wavering in their dedication to a sanctified past, whom Sen. Jim DeMint wants to read out of the party.

The CPAC circus, usually derided as a fringe affair, has to be taken seriously in a year when Tea Partygoers dress up in Revolutionary War costume and roil electoral unrest in the real world.

Their antics this time should evoke not derision but a corresponding anger from those who live in the real world and find their hijacking of patriotism loathsome in a time when the political process is badly needed to work but is being held hostage by those who profess to love America but despise Americans who disagree with them.

The surprise appearance of Dick Cheney, who left office last year with the lowest approval ratings in history, to bash Barack Obama as "a one-term president" is a perfect metaphor for CPAC's world view: Let the economy go down the drain if it helps their ideologues win the next election.

If that's patriotism, what's the new definition of treason?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Death of "Yes, But..."

On the first anniversary of the stimulus bill, the Washington of absolutes is on display--Obama's "Yes We Can" vs. the GOP's "No You Don't" with little space for the reality of mixed results and mixed feelings about a huge enterprise to save a crashing economy.

"Anniversary of Stimulus Met with Praise and Scorn" is the headline of ProPublica, noting that, in judging whether the stimulus has worked, "where you stand depends on where you sit."

The public-interest journalism organization is getting much less attention for efforts to report on what is actually happening than the partisan conclusions of Vice President Biden that "we have served the American people well” and House Leader Boehner labeling of the results as "dismal."

The media are divided as well. A New York Times analysis emphasizes that "the best-known economic research firms...estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative."

But the Wall Street Journal finds that “instead of spurring recovery, this spending spree has retarded it by frightening the public and business about future tax increases and the rising burden of public debt."

In this closed-minded climate, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank sees benefits for "a crucial sector of the economy: critics of the package, who right now are enjoying record production levels and full employment. This burgeoning industry of conservative lawmakers, political operatives, think tanks and media outlets has benefited enormously from the legislation."

As it always is nowadays, hypocrisy is rampant. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday nailed House Minority Whip Eric Cantor for viciously trashing the stimulus for wasting billions on pork while requesting and bragging about getting funds for a high-speed rail project in his district.

Meanwhile, the stimulus money is still flowing, however slowly and imperfectly, more may be needed, the economy is slowly recovering while worries about the growing deficit are warranted, but you would never know that as the complex reality by listening to the rhetoric of a Washington that has lost the ability to say "Yes, but..."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

JFK Grave-Robbing and Other Free Speech

In the brouhaha over a forthcoming movie by a conservative filmmaker, we are once again on the dark side of free speech, which the Supreme Court visited last month in its decision that validated "Hillary: the Movie," an election-year smear of Mrs. Clinton

A dramatization of John F. Kennedy's flaws for the History Channel is evoking high emotion even before it has been filmed as defenders of the Kennedy faith denounce the script as "political character assassination...sexist titillation and soap opera of the worst kind.”

The sad part of all this is what it reflects about our age of rampant nastiness, in which there is a market for yet another retelling of what has been done over and over again in decades of documentaries and dramas.

JFK's legend will certainly survive one more hatchet job, but another disturbing symptom of 21st century discourse is the attempt to censor it with a preemptive attack video and website that urges viewers to “Tell the History Channel I refuse to watch right-wing character assassination masquerading as 'history.'"

With all respect to Robert Greenwald, an estimable First Amendment defender, it's hard not to see this as attempted censorship. Denouncing the proposed film is one thing, pressuring the medium that is planning to show it is another.

In an era when Limbaughs, Olbermanns, Mahers and Becks pour hot sauce over political food for thought to stimulate the appetite of an enraged public, the last thing we need is a rancid rehash of the distant past.

As a journalist who covered and admired JFK, I won't be watching this new movie, but neither will I be signing any petitions to stop it.

Update: A new poll delivers good news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the Hillary movie that gives corporations broad political freedom-of-speech rights. An overwhelming majority across the political spectrum--Democrats (85 percent), Republicans (76) and independents (81)--want Congress to reinstate limits on such activities.

With all the Kennedys gone from public life, the JFK movie won't be used for such purposes, but it's heartening to see so much support for setting limits in one area of the politics of personal destruction.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Obama Can Turn It Around

With the Capitol Hill horror show on hiatus, the President has an opening to power up and start moving Washington toward some semblance of being functional again.

His strength is in a sizable approval advantage over the Congressional clowns who are back home to placate voters for whom incumbent is now a dirty word. With his numbers over 50 percent, he is well ahead of Republicans in hiding who have gained only a few points against the Democratic Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

As Evan Bayh bows out and John McCain starts to run scared, there is bipartisan panic in the air over November, which will result in Republicans gains no doubt but also put pressure on them to offer angry voters something more than monolithic opposition to everything.

All this liberates the President to flex his muscles from now until then and begin to act unilaterally. “We are reviewing a list of presidential executive orders and directives to get the job done across a front of issues,” Rahm Emanuel says.

A more assertive Obama could gain ground with voters who still admire him but are disappointed in his failure to deliver over Washington gridlock. If he steps up, his approval numbers will rise, and panicky Democrats will grab for his shortened coattails.

Where did he go wrong in a tumultuous first year? His attempts at bipartisanship were doomed--you can't play tennis with nobody on the other side of the net--but he can't be faulted for trying. What he might have done, however, after every House Republican and all but three Senators voted against the stimulus in February, is recognize their intractability sooner and start governing with more confidence in his mandate.

He compounded this failure by letting health care turn into a circus, deferring to Max Baucus and Senate "centrists" whose greedy power plays produced an incomprehensible mess and public disgust with the process.

Now he can take charge, strip down the bill to essentials and put Congress in front of a public-opinion firing squad if it fails to deliver something. Voters want reform of some kind, and he should be out front demanding it.

All this is asking Barack Obama to make a turn in his temperamental inclination to be rational and reasonable with antagonists and start showing the strength that his admirers know is in him.

Other presidents have grown in office. It's time for him to start.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Ponzifying of America

Presidents Weekend brings reminders of how history's most productive economy of goods and services was brought to its knees by glorified paper pushers, crafty clerks who make nothing but money.

On CNN, Obama adviser Paul Volcker complains, "We've got to produce something that somebody else wants to buy."

According to the former Fed chairman, "we spent 20 years inducing some of our brightest people, our most energetic people to go to Wall Street. And nobody wants to be a mechanical engineer or a chemical engineer or a civil engineer. They want to be a financial engineer."

Citing failure of government regulation, Volcker recalls that "a whole school of thought said you don't have to worry about a breakdown. These smart mathematicians are taking care of it. And all the risks have been dispersed to the point where they won't upset anything. Well, when the screws became loose, we found out a lot of the risks were pretty concentrated."

Last week, Volcker recommended "euthanasia, not rescue" for financial manipulators who overreach, but members of the Senate Banking Committee who depend on them for campaign contributions are balking.

Meanwhile, a 60 Minutes segment on financial fraud examines the economic meltdown as "a monsoon of gullibility colliding with a tidal wave of greed."

A financial analyst calls it "a massive Ponzi scheme...the biggest crime against the American economy in our lifetimes" arguing that "the bad mortgage loans that fueled the crisis were repackaged by investment banks, sliced into increasingly complex derivatives and resold to other investors, even though the underlying mortgages were often virtually worthless.

"You had various traders buying each others' products to artificially keep the prices up so that the bubble didn't collapse."

Those mortgage derivatives, 60 Minutes concludes, "were so mind-numbingly complicated, nobody understood them fully. Certainly not...the buyers at banks, mutual funds, pension funds and insurance companies who wound up holding a bag full of worthless paper."

Despite rising public rage and such new revelations that Wall St. helped Greece hide debt that fueled Europe’s banking crisis, the Ponzifying of America goes on in a climate of political paralysis.

Insurance paper pushers continue to siphon one out of every three dollars in the $2.5 trillion health care industry from doctors, hospitals and others who treat patients while bank bailout recipients, hedge funds and private equity funds make record profits and pay themselves huge bonuses for manipulating the money of people who do actual work in the society and paying them practically nothing for using it.

If nothing changes soon, it will not be just the Tea Party people and Sarah Palin who tell government guardians of our interests to "get real" in November.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

America's Mad-as-Hell Moment--What Next?

A new poll confirms what we know: Two out of three Americans are "dissatisfied with or angry about the way the government works." We are in a reprise of "Network," in which a demented anchorman gets millions to yell their outrage.

In the 1976 movie, Howard Beale rants: "Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust...

"We know the air's unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat...We all know things are bad. Worse than bad. They're crazy...

"I don't want you to write your Congressmen. Because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget...

"All I know is first you got to get mad. You've got to say: 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more. I'm a human being, goddammit. My life has value.' So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the window. Right now. I want you to go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell. I want you to yell: 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!'"

In 2010, Americans are yelling, not out their windows, but at ballot boxes, Tea Party rallies and in opinion polls. They even have their low-rent reincarnation of Howard Beale in Glenn Beck, who says of the movie madman, “I think that’s the way people feel. That’s the way I feel.”

Beale was invented by my high-school and college classmate Paddy Chayevsky, a brilliant satirist, whose work foretold much of what's wrong with today's world--the media and society in 'Network," health care in "The Hospital" and our inability to stop senseless wars in "The Americanization of Emily."

But as life imitates art, it's worth remembering what happens to Howard Beale at the end of "Network." As viewers get bored with his ravings and his ratings drop, the TV hacks who fed off his rage have him killed on camera.

As American anger overwhelms the political process today and its consequences are unclear, I can offer a clue to how our society assimilates and coopts everything in its path into a passing sensation that eventually loses its novelty and gives way to the next national mood change.

A few years after "Network came out, I was having lunch with a literary agent in a Manhattan media hangout as Paddy passed by and said hello. He was on his way to the next table to be introduced to William Paley, founder of CBS, avatar of the TV executives in the movie.

“I must admit,” we overheard Paddy telling Paley, “I’m nervous about meeting you.”

The agent leaned toward my ear. “He should be. They showed ‘Network’ on CBS the other night, and it got lousy ratings.”

In a while, the Tea Party, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck will wear out their ability to excite Americans and their ratings will turn lousy, but how much damage will they do in the meantime?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Presidential Sex on YouTube

Things could be worse. If the millions who wanted John Edwards as President in the past decade had had their way, the nation would now be involved in a scandal to make Bill Clinton look like Mr. Monogamy.

The prospect of an X-rated video starring a Commander-in-Chief surfaces in the current court battle over possession of tapes showing Edwards in carnal congress with Rielle Hunter, who bore his illegitimate child.

As legal maneuvering over possession goes on in North Carolina, if history is any guide, they will eventually end up on YouTube, alongside the "I Feel Pretty" video about Edwards' $400 haircuts.

What was he thinking? The candidate who made honesty his campaign hallmark was not only cheating on a cancer-stricken wife he exploited politically but letting his videographer lover record their acrobatics.

If he were in the White House today, President Edwards would be no doubt be telling us that, just like his vote for the Iraq war in 2002, the mistake of falling in love only proves he is fallible and asking forgiveness even as Congress researches whether being a moral moron is grounds for impeachment.

The not-in-office Edwards is now, according to his nemesis, the National Enquirer, in the process of divorce so he can move into a $3.5 million beach house with the mother of his two-year-old child, the improbable object of a would-be President's affections with her own history of notoriety as a horse-killer's promiscuous daughter.

If and when the tapes surface, Americans can be grateful for having escaped a 21st-century Warren Harding, rated the worst president in history, whose out-of-wedlock activities were not made public until after he left the White House, but there was no National Enquirer or YouTube then.

Obama vs GOP Government-in-Exile

Before a new blizzard brought Washington to a standstill, Barack Obama made another effort to dig out of the Republican snow job and verbal high winds that have disabled his efforts to govern.

After a two-hour meeting to clear the path for legislation, the President told White House reporters, "I won't hesitate to embrace a good idea from my friends in the minority party, but I also won't hesitate to condemn what I consider to be obstinacy that's rooted not in substantive disagreements but in political expedience."

"Expedience" is a polite word for what the GOP has been pursuing for the past year, voting uniformly against every Obama initiative from the stimulus to health care. In effect, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have chosen not to practice traditional politics but act like a government-in-exile, retreating to the sidelines and sniping until they can return to power.

At yesterday's meeting, the President's patience worn thin, and he accused Boehner of just wanting to kill all his initiatives, setting off what was reportedly a "testy exchange."

Even after conceding that the Obama White House has made many mistakes in strategy and tactics over a year of unprecedented challenges, it's remarkable that GOP opposition has been so total and unyielding.

Where are the yes votes of "moderate" Republicans--Lugar, Voinovich, Snowe, Collins or the "maverick" McCain--on any single issue? Such a solid bloc of "no" precludes any conclusion that philosophical or ideological differences are involved. The GOP is in a full tantrum, holding its breath and refusing to budge until it can get its way next November.

The President tried to lighten the atmosphere by starting his press conference with the observation, "I understand that McConnell and Reid are out doing snow angels on the South Lawn together."

If they were, Boehner, Eric Cantor and his crew were nearby with shovels, trying to bury the Senator Leader under piles of something other than snow.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A Simpler Health-Care Summit

In a pre-Super Bowl interview, President Obama told Katie Couric about a televised bipartisan health-care meeting on February 25th "to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward.”

If he hadn't been absorbed in the game, watching Bill Moyers Journal a few hours later might have given him a more productive idea than sitting down with members of Congress who have spent months bargaining and bastardizing reform into a monstrosity that few Americans understand and that the majority disapproves.

Moyers interviewed Dr. Margaret Flowers, a Maryland pediatrician, who gave up her practice to advocate a single-payer system, Medicare for All, of which the President as a candidate called himself a "proponent" and which polls at the time showed approval by most Americans.

For her pains, Dr. Flowers, representing thousands of physicians, has been patronized, ignored and arrested three times for trying to get a letter into the President's hands, reminding him where he started in the debate that has devastated his Administration by disgusting millions, Right and Left, with the political system.

"I was so surprised," Barack Obama said two years ago about Congressional deliberations, "when the voices of those who support a national single-payer plan/Medicare for All were excluded in place of the voices of the very health insurance and pharmaceutical industries which profit off the current health care situation."

The President's surprise has certainly subsided by now and, before he subjects Americans to another dog-and-pony show with those who wrecked his attempts at reform, he would do well to precede it with a televised conversation with Dr. Flowers, who is no politician but has earned a stake in the debate beyond her career as a physician.

It may not move Congress much, but such an encounter would remind Americans of where he started in all this and how distorted debate over the issue has become.

Invite her to the White House and tell security to skip the handcuffs.

Update: The level of serious engagement to be expected from the health-care summit is reflected in expectations from Senators on both sides.

Democrat George Miller says, “If the Republicans’ health care plan was a plan for a fire department, they would rush into a burning building, and they would rush out and leave everybody behind.”

Republican Judd Gregg is worried that the meeting would be “an arena for political theater.”

Just so. Is the President looking for political points to scratch up enough consensuses on meaningless GOP talking points or, at the very least, will he reset the debate beforehand back to its essentials and openly admit that he is settling for crumbs, let alone half a loaf?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

GOP, Tea Party in "Fatal Attraction"

The image of a pet rabbit in a boiling pot arises after a night of passion in Nashville, with Sarah Palin auditioning for the Glenn Close role in a remake of "Fatal Attraction."

If the GOP establishment was hoping for a one-night stand with the Tea Party, Palin evoked some serious stalking ahead by promising to campaign for challengers to traditional Republicans: "Contested primaries aren't civil war. They're democracy at work, and that's beautiful."

The prospect of such future passionate encounters should evoke a double-take in a GOP Michael Douglas like John Boehner who smugly insisted last week, "There really is no difference between what Republicans believe in and what the Tea Party activists believe in," urging his party's office holders in the fall elections to "prove to the Tea Party activists that we really are who we say we are."

Boehner may have forgotten his existing vows of fidelity, but his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, is not so naïve. He already finds himself in a love triangle with Palin, who is backing Libertarian Ron Paul's son as a successor to Jim Bunning, his junior partner, over the Minority Leader's choice for the job.

As nettlesome as Tea Party stalkers may be for Democrats, their search for ideological purity promises to be a pox for Republicans as well, scrambling election contests as they did last November in upstate New York, electing a Democrat for the first time in history.

Palin will do her act next month at a kickoff rally for the Tea Party Express, a cross-country bus caravan, in the Nevada hometown of embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who finds himself in a tough re-election battle this year as well as attend an April 14th Tea Party rally in Boston.

She called the movement a "ground-up call to action that is forcing both parties to change the way they're doing business," a siren song that may sound good at the moment to out-of-power GOP proprietors, but as primaries to start to heat up in Florida, Texas, California and elsewhere, they may find some of their newfound dalliance partners as hard to shake as the Glenn Close character in "Fatal Attraction."

Hide the rabbits.

Saturday Night Livid

Political satire started in prime time as Sarah Palin preempted SNL with a parody of herself at the Tea Party convention.

"How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?" she twinkled during a $100,000 standup (to be donated to "the cause," destination unclear) for hundreds who paid $349 to hear her pummel Obama with one-liners about everything from bailouts to the Christmas bomber (in the war on terror, "we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.")

Her star turn on C-Span and the cable news networks, amplified by bloggers and Tweeters, brought a substantial audience to the movement of malcontent that had been marginalized by what she called "the lamestream media" until Scott Brown's capture of Ted Kennedy's seat brought Obama odium into the headlines.

Before Palin took the stage, its kooky roots showed in a rant about the President's citizenship, but the perky personification of 21st century "Conservatism" tamped down the anger with her trademark cheerfulness in anointing the Tea Party as "the future of politics in America."

As always, Palin's upbeat string of non-sequiturs tapped into angers and resentments too deep and ugly to be openly aired directly even in today's anything-goes culture, a strain of American animus memorialized half a century ago as the "paranoid style in American politics."

The subject came up in 1964 when historian Richard Hofstadter gave it a name during Barry Goldwater's run for the presidency against Lyndon Johnson:

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds...who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority...a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy."

Half a century ago, Goldwater lost decisively when he claimed that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And...moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

But one of his pitchmen, the actor Ronald Reagan who started out in sports-casting like Sarah Palin, later found a way to convert that zeal into a "Morning in America" campaign all the way to the White House.

Last night, Palin invoked Reagan on his 99th birthday, without mentioning any other Republican from Eisenhower to the Bushes, in proclaiming that "America is ready for another revolution."

The goals of that revolution, of course, are cloudy, but its target, as Hofstadter showed, is very clear: "a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman--sinister, ubiquitous, powerful...Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters."

Barack Obama's moderation does not easily fit that description but, to the fevered Tea Party mind, as a demographic outsider (like JFK before him) to what Sarah Palin and other practitioners of the paranoid style feel is real Americanism, that doesn't matter much. He will do as an outlet for their discontents.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Terrorism as a Spectator Sport

With the approach of Super Bowl Sunday, talking heads are out on TV to handicap and cash in politically on the biggest game of all--a terror attack on American soil.

The latest skirmish pits Sen. Kit Bond, ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, against White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who took exception to Bond's flogging the notion that release of information that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is cooperating with questioners "has no doubt been helpful” to his “terrorist cohorts around the world.”

The White House is underscoring Bond's desperation to find political profit in the terror threat, at first objecting to "Mirandizing" the would-be Christmas bomber from providing leads and then switching to criticism of news that he is doing so, a fact that Gibbs points out was revealed at the Senate Intelligence Committee's public hearing earlier this week.

This squabbling reflects the ugly undertone of using primal fears as just another political weapon to tear down the President as "tone-deaf" to terrorism, reducing the most complicated issue of national security to a counterpart of the nonsense of claims that he wants "a government takeover" of health care.

Gibbs says that Bond "owes an apology to the professionals in the law enforcement community and those that work in this building, not for Democrats and Republicans, but who work each and every day to keep the American people safe and would never ever, ever knowingly release or unknowingly release classified information that could endanger an operation or an interrogation."

That apology should go further and include Americans of all political persuasions who understand the complexity of terrorism and don't want to see tinhorn politicians playing games with their deepest fears.

Update: Putting it another way, Peggy Noonan warns: "Both our political parties continue, even though they know they shouldn't, even though they're each composed of individuals many of whom actually know what time it is, even though they know we are in an extraordinary if extended moment, an ongoing calamity connected to our economic future, our nation's standing in the world, our strength and our safety—-even though they know all this, they continue to go through the daily motions...Our political professionals cheapen everything they touch because they are burying themselves in daily urgencies in order to dodge and avoid the big picture."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Bedtime for Bonzo Bankers

Ronald Reagan's Fed Chairman Paul Volcker is back to bash bankers--and not a moment too soon--as he tells a Senate hearing that the solution for bailouts is "to arrange an orderly liquidation or merger--in other words, euthanasia, not a rescue.”

This drastic solution unnerves outgoing Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd into warning that the Obama White House is “getting precariously close” to excessive ambition for regulatory legislation: “I don’t want to be in a position where we end up doing nothing because we tried to do too much."

Too much? What Volcker, who once cited the ATM as "the most important financial innovation that I have seen," wants to do is unwind the disastrous novelties--credit-default swaps, collateralized debt obligations et al--which "took us right to the brink of disaster" and go back to separating banks from market gamblers as the Glass-Steagall Act did in 1933 until it was repealed in late 1999.

When Republicans expressed doubt yesterday about how regulators would discern “excessive growth” in a bank’s share of market liabilities, the plain-spoken Volcker told them it's "like pornography--you know when you see it,” paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

A Democrat and lifelong economist at the intersection of government and private markets, Volcker was appointed Fed Chairman by Jimmy Carter just as Reagan was taking office and reappointed to remain through both his terms until 1987 to be replaced by Alan Greenspan, the acolyte of Ayn Rand selfishness.

What's notable about his reemergence in the Obama spotlight now after a shaky Geithner-Summers interregnum is that he embodies an ethic of old-fashioned thrift that was lost during the Bush-Cheney years and not found again by their successor. (As Fed Chairman, Volcker carried his laundry in a suitcase every weekend to the suburban home of his daughter, who characterized him as "just sort of cheap").

In "Bedtime for Bonzo," Ronald Reagan played second fiddle to a kleptomaniac chimp while trying to prove that larceny is not an inherited trait. That proposition may still be in doubt when it comes to bankers, but Reagan's former Fed head is not willing to take any bets on it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Catch-22 of Aging Gracefully

Older Americans may find solace in David Brooks' report today on longitudinal studies "producing a rosier portrait of life after retirement. These studies don’t portray old age as surrender or even serenity. They portray it as a period of development..."

So much for Charles DeGaulle's famous aphorism, "Old age is a shipwreck," and Freud's assertion, "Old people are no longer educable.”

It's comforting to learn that we are getting "more outgoing, self-confident and warm with age," but Brooks is only leading us up to a grim Catch-22--we are stealing our happiness at the financial expense of our grandchildren: "the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children."

Overlooking the fact that most of that comes from a lifetime of Social Security paycheck deductions, the middle-aged Brooks asserts: "Only the old can lead a generativity revolution--millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren."

As an example of the stirrings of such a movement, Brooks cites Tea Party enthusiasts as a symptom of "the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis...if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change."

When Sarah Palin addresses their rally, she may want to switch her emphasis from scaring the Tea Partyers about government death panels and rouse them to enlisting on financial suicide missions on behalf of their endangered heirs.

With income on retirees' savings down to next-to-nothing to bail out the banks, it won't be a big step to renouncing all the rest in the cause of generativity.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Coming Clean in Washington

As the New York Times' Public Editor puzzles over the paper's coverage of a best-seller "filled with racy anecdotes about dysfunctional marriages and political back-stabbing," we get our first look at Washington's new Mr. Clean, a Senator arrested for shoplifting at 12 who posed naked for a magazine at 22.

In his first Sunday interview, Ted Kennedy's replacement tells Barbara Walters that "I'm a Scott Brown Republican. What does that mean? That means I'm going accountable, accessible, open, and honest, and I'm going to bring good government and fairness back to the equation."

When Walters offers to show him the nude Cosmopolitan picture, Brown says wistfully, "I wish I still looked like that," prompting her to respond, "Well I'm not going to ask you to prove it. But this is pretty--this is pretty raw stuff" and asks if a woman could have been elected after posing for such a centerfold.

Brown is non-committal about that momentous issue, but assures Walters he is a fiscal conservative and "a little more moderate on social issues," carefully sidestepping the assumption that Tea Party Republicans elected him.

Meanwhile, the Times Public Editor parses the paper's use of the raft of scandal in the new best-seller and finds it "treated 'Game Change' as news, but carefully...None of the articles repeated the most titillating material," at the same time managing to let readers know that Elizabeth Edwards is "portrayed in the book as "'an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.'"

So much for "all the news that's fit to print" as we start another decade to remind us that, as Finley Peter Dunne said a century ago, "Politics ain't beanbag" and "A man that would expect to train lobsters to fly in a year is called a lunatic, but a man that thinks men can be turned into angels by an election is a reformer and remains at large."

Bring on the new flight of flying lobsters.