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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Enough About You...

My new Think Again is called “How to Manipulate Form and Content for Fun and Profit (and Conservative Ideology) or ‘Enough about You…’” It’s a response to a column by an Economist bloggger about what a hypocrite I am and you can find it here.

My first column in Forward is about the implicit conspiracy between Bibi Netanyahu and the Republican leadership to against the long term interests of both Israel and the US, here

And while we’re on the topic of me, indulge my desire to let people know my “Think Again” column was awarded the 2011 Mirror Award, sponsored by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism, for “Best Commentary, Digital Media.” At the ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Tuesday, I expressed my gratitude to CAP for their help and support, to the Lord, because I know this is exactly the kind of award category with which he/she/it is particuarly concerned, and, finally, caused a minor ruckus by asking my fellow media writers to stop pretending that Fox News is actually a news operation. I felt this was relevant because it was the topic of one of the columns that was being honored. You can read about it here and here.

Now here’s Reed:

Stop Making Sense 

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

This lyric, which appears early on in the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” perhaps best describes the perplexing political moment we face as a nation right now. In effect, our democracy’s leadership is paralyzed, either unable or unwilling to confront what are the most pressing problems of the day. A kind of cognitive dissonance has fallen over Washington, one where the widely recognized crises of ongoing high unemployment and a corroded (if not wholly corrupted) mortgage market are now considered acceptable to ignore. Instead, ephemeral and long-term issues like the latest sex scandal and the federal budget deficit soak up all the attention. 

Aiding and abetting this political negligence is a Washington press corps obsessed with covering meaningless personal dalliances and punitive long-term entitlement cuts. But to really ask ourselves how we got here, to a point where the political debate has shifted so far away from what needs to be done now, there is perhaps no better place to start than to take a brief travelogue through the Washington Post’s supposedly left-leaning op-ed columns. 

“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.”

Let’s start with Ruth Marcus’s column from last Tuesday. In this fictional dialogue over Medicare between “Barack” and “Paul,” Marcus engages in a time-honored, centrist fantasy—that a one-on-one “adult conversation” between two partisans can bridge ideological differences and solve our problems.

Of course, she has to pull her punches every so often to keep the discussion going. So, for example, when “Barack” rightly points how Rep. Ryan’s, er, I mean “Paul’s” Vouchercare plan would gut Medicare funding in the long run and force seniors into painful choices between health care and, say, housing, she has the fictional “Paul,” privately concede “I could maybe support higher taxes.” Of course, that’s not bloody likely, if you listen to this real Paul’s dogmatic refusal of such a position.

Then, to defend “Paul’s” handing of this new “Medicare” completely over to private insurers, she throws out a Republican talking point about how private insurers are already a part of Medicare. But studies, like this one, have consistently shown that publicly run plans, which have no burden to produce profits, routinely cost less than those administered by private insurers. This is why the Affordable Care Act found a big chunk of its long-term health care savings by moving to eliminate the more expensive Medicare Advantage option.

Frustratingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, a final back-and-forth between “Barack” and “Paul” only has them agreeing to disagree. (Versimilitude! Even in this fictional world Marcus can’t figure out a way to make bipartisanship work.) But if the concern here was really about how to secure Medicare in the long run, she had her imaginary actors overlook the most important point of all—that, according to Medicare’s own trustees, the best way to keep the program solvent in the future is to fix the economy now.

“The Medicare trustees said in last year’s report that the healthcare reform law had extended the life of the Medicare trust fund by 12 years. That projection declined by five years in the newest report because of the economy. A senior administration official said Medicare trust fund didn’t spend more than expected last year. Rather, high unemployment meant that the trust fund took in less money through payroll taxes.” 

“Into the blue again, after the money’s gone”

Robert Samuelson’s Sunday column in the Post continued this debate over Medicare, although debate is probably too generous a word for what amounted to little more than a glowing review of Ryan’s draconian plan. Still, Samuelson, who might best be described as someone who merely plays a liberal on TV and in the newspaper and does none too good a job a it, acknowledges that Ryan’s goal of forever changing Medicare into a voucher-based system and returning the country to a point where everyone is on their own against the market is no small step. 

“It’s shock therapy. Would it work? No one knows." 

No one? Really? Well OK, that’s literally true. But it’s not exactly honest, either; as there are some very smart people who work at the Congressional Budget Office whose job it is to analyze these things and who just happen to appear in Samuelson’s column three paragraphs later:

“Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that in 2022, Ryan’s plan would be more than a third costlier than the status quo, because Medicare’s size makes it more effective at restraining reimbursement rates. If the CBO is correct, Ryan’s plan fails;:

So, we went from the Magic 8-Ball telling us ‘Reply hazy, try again” on the potential success of Ryan’s plan to an independent financial agency predicting disastrous results if we adopt it. Hmm, I know which one I’m more comfortable betting my meager retirement savings on.

But wait! Samuelson says the CBO could be wrong, since it overestimated the costs of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. Of course, he fails to dig into why that is (hint: it has little to do with the efficiency of private insurer administration) or mention that they could be another 14–40% lower than what they are now if the government could only use its massive buying power to negotiate lower drug prices, like it does for reimbursement rates. But hey, according to Samuelson, Medicare “as we know it” is going to end anyway, so why not work to ensure that our future circumstances are as bleak as our disregarded present ones? 

“You may ask yourself. Am I right? Am I wrong?”

It’s hard to make sense of Richard Cohen’s absolutely inexplicable column from this past Monday. In it, he declares in the opening paragraph that Obama “sends contradictory messages.” How so? Well, don’t look to Cohen for answers because he spends the bulk of his column sending contradictory messages of his own, by building a strong case against this premise: 

On Obama’s supposed hatred of Wall Street: “You will look in vain for anything Obama has said to substantiate this view.”

On Obama’s supposed antagonism towards Israel: “[Former aide Rahm] Emanuel recapitulated the president’s recent speech about Israel and, indeed, it had all the right words.”

 

And yet, despite this strong evidentiary case to the contrary, Cohen, suddenly jumps back through the looking glass and, in a display of upside-down reasoning that would make even Lewis Carroll proud, writes:

“Here again Obama’s oxymoronic quality is on display. As with the business community, Obama’s assurances to the pro-Israel community mean little. His precise words are discounted. As with the business community, rumor or anecdote trumps pronouncements or actions—something Obama once said, a pro-Palestinian friend he once had. Something like that. The whisper has more volume than the speech itself. It is an odd state of affairs.”

So, it is somehow a personal failing of Obama’s that, even though his “precise words” and actions are consistent, he is still perceived as contradictory and duplicitous? Isn’t this the same paranoia that feeds the Birther crowd—facts don’t matter, what does is that this President just can’t keep straight the innuendo swirling around him. In other words, when Obama says and does the same thing that only further proves he believes and wants to do the exact opposite. Sure, could be, or something like that.

This is not far from the kind of ridiculous, conspiratorial thinking that if you stood on a public street corner and shared with random strangers all day should soon bring the men in white coats (or, possibly, get you a right-wing book deal.) Perhaps Cohen’s intention was to sarcastically lampoon or explain away this kind of half-baked craziness, but he instead ends up excusing it thanks to an acutely passive tone—“it is an odd state of affairs”—that conveniently sidesteps the critical role the Washington press corps has played in letting these fallacies and rumors about the president take flight and gain altitude.

True, he at least mentions in passing the current economic predicament plaguing the country and rightly identifies Republicans as the main obstacles to any further stimulative action. But then, just as suddenly, he plops down some overly trite, blame-the-victim conclusions and runs for the exit—Obama, he says, absent any evidence of course, lacks “an internal and external consistency,” and should “reassure the business community” and “needs to lead.” That’s right, according to Cohen, until Obama’s thoughts improve, the economy won’t. Good grief. 

“Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”

But Dana Milbank’s Tuesday column topped all of the above, with several rhetorical reaches that exceeded the grasp of not only logic but decency. In it, Milbank milks yet another column out of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s recent Twitter drama by trying to claim that this sordid personal story is emblematic of a broader character flaw currently affecting most politicians in Washington—recklessness. But when he starts documenting recent examples that supposedly prove his case, the forced equivalencies between them become almost laughable, and I say almost because ultimately the stakes involved make the whole column more tragic than funny.  

“But while recklessness is pervasive in Washington, most of the time it’s not sexual or financial but professional. President George W. Bush taking the nation to war twice while cutting taxes; President Obama delivering a major transformation of the nation’s health-care system without a single vote from the opposition; Rep. Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman, proposing an end to the Medicare guarantee to make more room for tax cuts; Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, gambling that he can go a second straight year without passing a budget at all.”

Catch that? Republican recklessness involves policies, while Democrats’ supposedly bad behavior is all about process. What’s more, Milbank has the unmitigated gall to propose that the Bush era’s huge deficits and thousands of American lives lost (as well as nearly 100,000 Iraqis’) in pursuit of a needless war rank no worse than the perfectly legitimate democratic path Obama used to pass a health care law that will cover nearly every uninsured person in the country and reduce that same deficit created by Bush by more than $1 trillion over the next 20 years. This isn’t just comparing apples and oranges, it’s more like apples and hand grenades.

That the Affordable Care Act actually might be good policy just doesn’t enter into the equation. In Milbank’s world, simply the fact that it wasn’t cloaked in phony or wrong-headed bipartisanship, as the Bush tax cuts and authority to invade Iraq certainly were, means that Obama acted with the same high-handed extraconstitutional arrogance as his predecessor. Of course, even this transparently ginned-up recklessness charge requires dumping down the memory hole the year-long series of significant compromises (public option ring a bell?) that Obama accepted in an effort to coax even just one Republican to vote aye on what was, after all, a Republican health care plan, all to no avail. So, when the president recognized this intransigence for what it was—pure partisan obstructionism—and pushed his Democratic majority to do what they were democratically elected to do, that, according to Milbank, sunk to the same lowly political depths as starting an ill-advised war under false pretenses and giving millionaires unnecessary tax breaks. 

“Each man operated as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him — rolling the dice just as the tickle fighters and scantily clad self-photographers do.”

Ah, “the normal rules.” Would those be the same rules that would ordinarily have our elected officials and media urgently scrambling to address and cover the real crises facing our nation? Or are they the same rules that permit our democracy to continue to drift off-course, as millions of Americans continue to struggle and slowly sink into poverty?

“Letting the days go by, into the silent water.” 

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