Friday, July 27, 2012

Let's Just Say It: The Republicans AND the Media Are the Problem

Many mysteries plague us regarding the press coverage of the Obama era, but one strikes me as central to our political predicament. Why, after everyone else has given it up, do members of the mainstream media persist in helping to hide—and therefore empower—the radicalization of the Republican Party?

The GOP strategy was clear from the start. Republicans, circa 2009, were no longer interested in bipartisan solutions to America’s problems. As then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Senator Jim DeMint famously promised healthcare reform could be used to “break” Obama from day one. And that was before the Tea Party even existed.

Part of the problem, for far too long, was that President Obama collaborated in the charade. He was so invested in the notion that both sides could just get along and legislate together that he couldn’t part with the illusion he had helped to create. His communitarian rhetoric, together with his compromise-in-advance legislative strategy, was always oriented toward inclusiveness, consensus-building and, ultimately, political passivity. As a result, Obama allowed the Republicans to stymie his ability to act on behalf of most of his agenda, beginning with the underfunded stimulus and carrying through with virtually every single initiative he undertook throughout the first two years of his term.

The net effect of this legislatively was that, rather than reversing the right-wing policies of the Bush administration, Obama has, despite his significant accomplishments, largely continued them. He has issued fewer new regulations than Bush did at the same point in his term. He has lowered taxes, both on the rich and the rest of us, and his healthcare, economic and environmental initiatives were largely based on Republican proposals. And his foreign policy is, in many respects, unchanged from Bush’s. So when it came time to defend his record in 2010, he found only demoralized troops, and the Democrats suffered a historic rout as a result.

Voices from within the system finally began to do the president’s work for him. In the autumn of 2011, Mike Lofgren, who had recently retired after twenty-eight years as a Congressional staffer, sixteen on the Republican side, compared his former bosses to an “apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.” The subtitle of his new book, tellingly, is “How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.”

Similarly, in April of this year, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, who have been collaborating on Congressional studies for forty years, decided to cash in the credibility they’d earned as nonpartisan establishment voices and publish an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” They wrote that the GOP “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” The article spent many days at the top of the Post’s most-read list, resulted in more than 5,000 comments and was tweeted more than 3,000 times, as Michael Massing noted in Columbia Journalism Review. They also published a book. The title, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, fails to identify the primary culprit, but the text certainly does (and, I feel compelled to note, also echoes many of the arguments I made in a 2010 Nation article and subsequent book, Kabuki Democracy).

Obama began to change his tune after last year’s debt-crisis fiasco, yet the MSM still fails to notice. We’ve just experienced a GOP primary process in which a number of candidates repeatedly made statements that would lead one to question their sanity. In most cases, however, the reporters covering them repeated these assertions without even trying to judge their veracity—much as if, say, regarding climate change, the views of 97 percent of the world’s climatologists were no more compelling than those of a few Koch-funded quacks.

No wonder the public remains so confused and misinformed about the realities of American politics, as bigfoot pundits—committed to the mindlessness of what I call “on-the-one-handism”—not only whitewash Republican extremism, but paint Obama’s soggy centrism in false hues as its ideological equivalent. This exercise demands that these same pundits ignore the president’s actual words, and it is a task they meet with relish. The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman suffers from the worse case of this malady, but as Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin notes in a post called “Pundits Urge President Obama to Back President Obama’s Proposals,” it’s become an epidemic. It not only appears in nearly every other Friedman column (Obama needs to “go big” by pushing to raise taxes on the rich and endorsing a balanced long-term debt reduction plan, which, um, he’s done), but also those of David Brooks (Obamacare ought to limit the tax exclusion for employer-provided healthcare plans and offer subsidies for individuals to buy into regulated health insurance markets, which, um, it does). Columns by Jonathan Rauch evince the same problem (Obama should adopt a plan of short-term stimulus, long-term debt reduction and an extension on the debt limit, which, um, he has), as do those of Michael Gerson (Obama should stop denying the economic crisis and propose a plan to address it, but not a plan that raises the deficit, which, come to think of it, he has).

If you want the truth about today’s Republican Party, I suggest you watch HBO’s The Newsroom. You won’t find it on the news.

Friday, July 6, 2012

10 Reasons Most People Like Obamacare Once They Know What's Really In It

There are two Affordable Care Acts. There's the legislation passed by Congress in 2009, and then there's the mythical Affordable Care Act – the perfidious “government takeover” decried and demagogued by so many conservatives (and quite a few liberals). The former is quite popular, the latter gets decidedly mixed reviews.

Don't take my word for it. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found Americans split down the middle, with 41 percent approving of the law, and 40 percent saying they didn't like it (PDF). But then Kaiser asked about 12 specific provisions in the legislation, and found that, on average, 63 percent of respondents approved of the nuts and bolts of Obamacare. Of the 12 measures they tested, only one – the controversial mandate to carry health insurance or pay a penalty – received the approval of less than half of Americans (35 percent).

Or consider this divide: while only 12 percent of Republicans had a positive view of the law overall, 47 percent, on average, viewed its specifics favorably.

And here's the kicker: Kaiser found that the most popular parts of the law were also the ones most Americans weren't aware of, and vice-versa. Almost everyone knows about the mandate, which most people don't like, but fewer than half of those polled knew about the law's tax credits for small businesses that offer their employees coverage, a provision that eight out of 10 people liked when they heard about it.

None of this should come as a surprise, given the level of mendacity of the law's opponents. If the Affordable Care Act did in fact feature “death panels,” resulted in deep cuts to Medicare, represented a "massive” tax increase and “Sovietized” our healthcare system, nobody would support it. Fortunately, none of that bears any resemblance to reality.

Obviously, the law should be judged on what it actually contains, but according to Kaiser, six in 10 say they don't have enough information about the details to understand how it will impact them personally. So here, in no particular order, are 10 things you may not know about the Affordable Care Act.

1. People Will Be Getting Checks
Call it a crazy hunch, but my guess is that the law will look a lot less tyrannical when people start getting checks in the mail to help pay for their insurance.

Folks making up to four times the federal poverty line will be eligible for subsidies. In 2012, that
would mean a family of four making up to $92,200 (it's a bit higher in Alaska) would see some cash.
Those subsidies will come in the form of “advanceable” tax credits, meaning that people won't have to wait until they pay their taxes to get the cash, and they'll be fully refundable, so those who don't pay enough in federal income taxes will get a check in the mail from the IRS.

2. The Richest Americans Are Going to Pay More Taxes
Wealthy investors are outraged, but most people probably don't know that a 3.8% surcharge on investment income – dividends and capital gains -- kicks in this January for everyone with an adjusted gross income of over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers). So those currently enjoying the lowest rate on investments in our nation's history will pay for a decent chunk of the bill.

3. Insurers' Overhead – and Profit Margins -- Are Limited
For the past 18 months or so, insurers have been required to spend 85 percent of the premiums they collect on healthcare (80 percent for individual and small-group plans). If they spend less than that, they have to send their customers a rebate to cover the difference.

Forbes' Rick Ungar called it, “the true ‘bomb’ contained in Obamacare and the one item that will have more impact on the future of how medical care is paid for in this country than anything we’ve seen in quite some time.”

4. Much Ado About the Mandate
With the Supreme Court's ruling last week, the mandate is gone, but the penalty for not carrying insurance remains. If there's one thing Democrats, Republicans and independents agree on, it's that they don't like it.

And they shouldn't. But most people probably don't know just how modest the impact of the mandate really is. According to the Congressional Budget Office, just 1 percent of the population will pay the penalty, which maxes out at 1 percent of one's income.

A lot of conservatives are convinced that jack-booted gummint thugs will round them up and stick them in FEMA camps if they don't pay up. But as Timothy Noah points out, “the health reform law explicitly states (on Page 336): 'In the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed by this section, such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure.'" They can only dock future tax refunds.

5. And Nobody Ever Talks About the Employer Mandate
Starting in 2014, companies with 50 or more full-time workers (two part-timers count as one full-timer for this purpose) will have to pay penalties if they don't cover their employees' health insurance. (This provision is a bit complicated -- all the details are here.)

6. Shaves the Deficit
Mitt Romnney says that “Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and to our national debt, and pushes those obligations onto coming generations.”

That message appears to be sinking in. According to Kaiser, a majority of Americans – and a third of Democrats – think the healthcare law will increase the deficit. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, the law will reduce the projected deficit by $210 billion over the next decade.

7. Chicks Will Dig This
Many people are aware of the regulation requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions. It's one of the most popular parts of the whole. But fewer know that, beginning in 2014, insurers won't be able to charge women higher premiums than men.
Also coming in 2014: a ban on insurers placing annual limits on healthcare (lifetime coverage limits were already banned in 2010).

The Kaiser poll found that few people were aware of another popular new insurance regulation: since 2010, insurance companies can no longer charge co-pays or hold you to a deductible for preventive health services.

8. New Dollars for Community Health Centers
Kaiser didn't ask for people's opinions on this one, but it may be one of those under-the-radar provisions that actually ends up helping a lot of people.

Community health centers (CHCs) now serve the primary care needs of about 20 million Americans, and they have a proven track record. But the system is strained and underfunded.

The expansion of Medicaid will help alleviate some of the pressure, and the healthcare law also allocates $11 billion over a five-year period to build new CHCs and upgrade existing infrastructure. Most of the dollars will end up in poorer communities.

A lot of underserved people live in rural America, and the law also provides money to train and place 16,000 primary caregivers in rural communities over a five-year period.

9. Essential Benefits
Starting in 2014, in order for insurers to sell coverage through state-based exchanges – a place where a lot of the newly insured will likely end up – they will be required to cover a package of “essential benefits,” including maternity care, mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment, pediatric care, ambulance rides and hospitalization.

They don't have to if they don't want to participate in the exchanges, yet this measure is, according to many, at the heart of the supposed “government takeover” of our healthcare system.

10. It's Not So Easy to Repeal
There is no doubt that we'll hear lots of Republicans blustering about how they'll repeal Obamacare on day one if they win the White House and the Senate, but it's a lot less clear that they'd actually follow through.

As Igor Volsky notes, unless the Republicans were to win both the White House and a huge number of senate seats, they “can do little more than weaken Obamacare’s regulations and defund some of its provisions.” They also have nothing to replace it with, and would own our screwed up healthcare system for a generation. And they'd lose an issue that fires up the conservative base. They will, however, do their best to gum up the works as the law is implemented.

The takeaway to all of this is that the healthcare law is only going to get more popular as it's provisions kick in. People will see some tangible benefits, and the fearmongering will prove unfounded.

Like the idea of government itself, people are suspicious of the Affordable Care Act as an abstraction, but when it gets to the specifics they tend to like it a lot better.