Eyal Press is a Nation contributing editor and the author of Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times and Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America.
So the tide turned Tuesday on Democrats, liberals, Obama, the left. Republicans are "energized," The New York Times reports today, their elation marred only by the prospect of an inter-party feud that could cost them winnable races in 2010.
So the conventional wisdom asserts. Intelligent conservatives know better. One of them is Andrew Pavelyev, who, over at David Frum's blog, parsed the results of Tuesday's election in a strangely overlooked state: North Carolina.
As everyone knows, Barack Obama narrowly won North Carolina a year ago. As most people agree, Republicans must win it back to defeat him in 2012. So what happened on Tuesday? As Pevelyev observed, Republican Bill Knight won the mayoral race in Greensboro, defeating the incumbent Democrat. "Unfortunately," he went on to note, "Greensboro will now be the only North Carolina city with a population over 100,000 that has a Republican mayor. After an unbroken 22yearstring of Republican mayors, Charlotte yesterday elected a Democrat, Anthony Foxx. The Democrats also won 8 out of 11 seats on the city council."
So the public option isn't quite dead yet. Democrats – Harry Reid, no less – showed some spine. Progressive advocacy groups are ecstatic. Conservatives are aghast.
But before anyone on the left (or right) gets too excited, it's worth taking a clear-eyed look at what the "opt-out" actually entails. As the ever-shrewd Ezra Klein has observed, "It is a compromise, and a conservative one at that."
The option of a government-run plan will apparently only be offered to people who don't rely on employer-based insurance, and only in some states. Is this an improvement over the status quo? Certainly. Is it a formula for universal coverage? At least in the short-term, it's more likely to bring about a patchwork system in which less affluent people in more conservative states end up being denied choices that individuals who happen to live in places like Boston and New York enjoy.
In his Wall Street Journal column yesterday, Tom Frank paid homage to Richard Hofstadter's famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." As Frank noted, Birthers convinced that Barack Obama's birth certificate was forged in a plot to turn the United States into a fascist state are heirs to a long tradition of conspiracy thinking that has periodically flourished on the fringes of the American right.
But the paranoid style has seeped into some institutions on the left as well. For proof, look no further than a recent meeting of the Pacifica radio network's National Board, where a resolution was introduced that requires all programmers to disclose funding sources above $5,000. "The reason I created this motion," Chris Condon, a member of Pacifica's National Governance Committee, explained, "is because there has been a lot of debate about whether or not Amy Goodman has received CIA conduit foundation funding from the Ford Foundation and other places."
Amy Goodman is, of course, the co-host of Democracy Now!, an unabashedly progressive news program that airs on over 800 stations across the country. As anyone who has listened to even five minutes of the program knows, Goodman is about as likely to be on the payroll of the CIA as Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky. She has probably devoted more airtime to dissecting the CIA's transgressions in the past decade than any other member of her profession.
"Does Obama Believe in Human Rights?" asks Bret Stephens in today's Wall Street Journal. According to Stephens, the answer is a resounding "no." Citing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement on a visit to China earlier this year that human rights should not interfere with other pressing issues, Stephens writes indignantly, "It… takes a remarkable degree of cynicism – or perhaps cowardice – to treat human rights as something that ‘interferes' with America's purposes in the world, rather than as the very thing that ought to define them."
It takes a remarkable degree of cynicism – and chutzpah – for Bret Stephens to have written that sentence. This is the same Bret Stephens who, two years ago, in this tendentious column, defended the Bush administration against "inflated, imprecise and tendentious allegations of torture." Waterboarding, Stephens allowed, was unpleasant business, but did not "properly" qualify as torture.
Stephens is nauseated that the Obama administration is engaging regimes such as Burma. He does not bother to mention that the great Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi supports the administration's policy of engaging the junta running her country, or that human rights activists have long been divided over whether sanctions against Burma help or hinder the expansion of freedom. There is no inherent conflict between engagement and the promotion of human rights, just as isolating a country (see Cuba) doesn't necessarily hamper an authoritarian ruler's ability to stay in power and suppress political freedom.
Nicholas Kristof had a fine proposal in his column yesterday: if Congress fails to pass health care reform by the end of the year, he argued, its members should agree to become true representatives of the American people. Legislators should "surrender health insurance in proportion with the American population that is uninsured."
Under this formula, 15 percent of Senators and Representatives (and their families) would get no coverage. Another 8 percent would get inadequate coverage. For those who argue extending coverage to more people is too expensive, "here's their chance to save government dollars in keeping with their own priorities."
Big deal, some will say (though I suspect no members of Congress would dare say this): so a few legislators would have to make their way to emergency rooms for treatment. The government's role should be to protect Americans from lethal threats – terrorism, hostile states – and nothing else. Yet it turns out that America's health care system is a lethal threat. Kristof's column linked to this recently published Harvard study, which found that lack of access to medical insurance causes nearly 45,000 excess deaths every year.
Can successful universal health care be achieved without a public option? Earlier this week, Jonathan Cohn pointed to the example of The Netherlands, a country that relies exclusively on private insurers while providing coverage to all citizens. Surveys indicate that the Dutch are extremely satisfied with the quality of their system; studies have ranked the Netherlands ahead of countries such as Britain and Sweden (and, of course, The United States) in deaths prevented through access to timely and affordable medical care.
In other words, the Dutch system works. But as Cohn notes, the system's success depends on something the United States lacks: "Private insurance in the Netherlands works because it operates more or less like a public utility. The Dutch government regulates industry practices tightly – more tightly than the reforms now moving through Congress propose to do in the United States."
Similar comparisons have been drawn with Switzerland, another country that has achieved universal coverage while relying mainly on private insurers. But here, too, the differences are as striking as the similarities – not least that the providers in Switzerland are nonprofits and that medical care is viewed as a social good, not a business. As the law professor and health care analyst Timothy Stoltzfus Jost told The Times earlier this week, "There is no government-run plan to compete with the private nonprofit plans. But health insurance is considered social insurance. It's not a for-profit enterprise."
It's been a rough week for those of us who believe that only a tiny minority of Americans hold ludicrous and outrageous views. As this distressing survey by Public Policy Polling revealed, the belief that Barack Obama was born outside the United States is inching toward becoming a majority view among Republicans (43 percent are on board). The belief that George W. Bush let 9/11 happen to justify marching the US into war is espoused by one-in-four Democrats.
So it's true: a lot of Americans in both parties are willing to believe wacky and irrational things about their opponents. It's apparently not enough to judge someone misguided or erroneous. One has to see either Bush or Obama as the Anti-Christ (a view that curries favor among roughly ten percent of voters).
But before too much despair sets in among people who consider themselves rational-minded, take a look at the CBS NEWS/New York Times poll on health care and Afghanistan published today. According to the poll, 76 percent of Americans believe Republicans have not explained their plans to overhaul the health care system. And 59 percent believe Obama has not clearly explained his plans.
Back in March, I wrote a story documenting the financial meltdown's calamitous impact on the nonprofit sector. I neglected to mention one important reason for this: the reckless behavior of nonprofits themselves.
As Stephanie Strom documents in The Times today, many nonprofits spent the past two decades doing their best imitation of hedge funds. Interest-rate arbitrage, auction-rate securities, complex swaps: these were among the practices in which nonprofits engaged, taking advantage of a change in the tax code that allowed charities easy access to credit markets. Strom offers the example of New York Law School, which in 2006 floated $135 million in auction-rate securities and sold its library for roughly the same amount ($136.5 million), using the money not to build a library but to pad its endowment and borrow for construction.
Now, many of the same nonprofits are drowning in debt that will result in museums being shut down, services being slashed, staff being cut. Some will presumably end up bankrupt or foreclosed, an unfortunate fate for which they have only themselves to blame.
Week two in the National Football League is about to wrap up – a very happy week for yrs truly, with my beloved (and perennially cursed) Buffalo Bills scraping out a victory against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday to even their record to 1-1. That's the same record as the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the mighty, Tom Brady-led New England Patriots.
But forget the won-loss standings for now – seasoned fans know everything will be different in two months anyway. The more interesting football news comes from the Center for Responsive Politics, which has produced a chart ranking teams by level of donations to political candidates and committees since 1990. The figure for each team is an aggregate of contributions made by coaches, players, team officials, employees and executives.
Which NFL team has been most active in the political arena over the past two decades? The trophy goes to the San Diego Chargers, who disbursed a total of $2,455,200. Of this sum, all but $40,773 (2 percent) went to Republicans. Only the Houston Texans (second in overall donations) and Cincinnati Bengals are "redder" organizations, skewing 99 percent of their total contributions to the GOP.
On the day after the one-year anniversary of Lehman Brothers' collapse, I find myself wishing every American could gather this evening for a screening at 209 West Houston – home to the great independent movie theater Film Forum, which for the past two weeks has been showing "American Casino," a bracing new documentary by Leslie and Andrew Cockburn about the subprime mortgage meltdown. The film is admittedly not a lot of fun to watch. What it inspires instead is rage: at the officials (Alan Greenspan, Phil Gramm) who trumpeted the virtues of financial deregulation; at ratings agencies that pretended to scrutinize whether mortgage-backed bonds being sold and resold were trustworthy (while actually handing the job to the banks that were paying them); at financiers who kept repackaging the mortgage-backed junk into inscrutable financial instruments; at predatory lenders who deliberately targeted low-income minority communities that are now awash in foreclosures.
The most amazing thing to me about the film was the utter lack of remorse expressed by the people who conspired to create the mess. The closest we come to an apology is a half-hearted admission from former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who is shown telling Congress he was "shocked" that allowing large, unaccountable financial institutions to pursue their self-interests might cause problems. But nobody seems to be genuinely sorry. The people who made money from selling the junk kept it. The banks that profited so handsomely proceeded to get bailed out. The communities preyed on by predatory lenders are now full of boarded-up buildings and foreclosed homes. And, as The Times reported this weekend, bonuses and pay on Wall Street have gone right back to pre-crisis levels.
Is it too much to expect people who become millionaires by knowingly deceiving their fellow citizens to feel some measure of responsibility and shame?