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Tag Archives: Obama

            Yesterday in The Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson criticized President Obama’s plans to finally provide funding for high speed rail projects across the country—the likes of which Europe and Asia have, but we lack.  His initial point—that Amtrak only serves a small amount of people—is essentially correct.  However, Amtrak is not high speed rail.  Amtrak is as much a political tool as it is a transportation network.  Politicians agree to fund trains that run through sparsely populated areas so that their constituents are able to have an alternative to driving.  Plus, these trains are used as leverage, with more populous sections of the country only receiving support for rail service if the countryside is covered, too.

            On balance, though, Samuelson’s harangue of high speed rail might have been more credible had he not made a few glaring omissions in his opinion piece:

  1. He argued that train travel caters to only a small percentage of the population, citing daily Amtrak ridership of 78,000.  This ignores the fact that more than one million people ride commuter trains (which often are operated by contracted Amtrak employees) in dozens of major cities.  The Virginia Railway Express estimates that its operation takes roughly one lane of car traffic off of I-66 and I-95 during the morning and evening rush hours.  To imply that no one rides trains anymore is ludicrous.
  2. Samuelson said that the U.S. does not have the population density of other nations which have high speed rail.  But no one is talking about building high-speed rail coast to coast, though the less populous states.  The plan is to build corridors in California, the southeast, the Midwest, and the Northeast—where the people are.
  3. It is misleading to ask whether all of the train ticket subsidies would be “justified” without asking the same of highway and air subsidies.  Trains are much safer than automobiles and have fewer carbon emissions per passenger mile than planes.
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            Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds is lagging behind in the gubernatorial polls.  What’s more, he’s running about even with his opponent in Northern Virginia—a majority-Democratic area within a state that voted for Barack Obama and Mark Warner last year…and Jim Webb and Tim Kaine in the cycle before that.  What’s handicapping Deeds?

            Two things: one, it’s not a “Democratic year.”  Independents who were willing to give Obama a chance and are now wary of his policies are taking their frustration out on statewide elections.  There is not too much that can be done about that unless the economy turns around (it will eventually, just perhaps not by November).  But the other factor is fixable: liberals, particularly in Northern Virginia, are just not that enthusiastic about Deeds.

            Which is strange—considering that he beat two Northern Virginians in the primary by large margins even in their own backyards.  Former Congressman Tom Davis, who is a Republican but not a staunch conservative, said of Northern Virginia that “People here don’t get up in the morning and ask if I can go hunting and fishing.”  The inference is that Deeds is too much of a backwoodsy, gun-loving, Bible-thumping enigma to be trusted with cosmopolitan issues—even though his opponent fits almost the same caricature.

            Republican Bob McDonnell may seem like the more urbane candidate on the surface.  As a legislator, he represented Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates, he worked at Newport News at an Army hospital as a lieutenant colonel, and he is sure to mention that he grew up in Fairfax County.  But Fairfax County in the early 1970s was a far cry from Fairfax County today.  In McDonnell’s childhood, Fairfax had fewer than half a million residents.  There was no Metro, no commuter rail, no HOV lanes, and no corridor of defense contracting and IT firms.  Today, the County is affluent, one-third non-white, with large enclaves of Asian and Latin American immigrants, and has excellent public schools.

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            So, neither of these men is really familiar with the Northern Virginia lifestyle.  What are the issues important to us?  Well, healthcare and the economy, of course.  But the governor does not really have control over those issues.  Deeds could try to run away from the controversial stimulus package and healthcare legislation.  Or he could embrace what the Obama administration is doing, saying that thousands of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and state workers have avoided being fired because of the stimulus.  He could also agree with Obama that every citizen needs quality, affordable insurance—something he can appreciate after growing up in rural poverty.

            The issues over which he will have control, however, are essentially two: education and transportation.  At George Mason University this week, he made an earnest—though at times stuttering—defense of state-funded public schools and universities, citing his own experience and that of his children in working their way through college.  On transportation, he has made only one thing clear: his opponent’s plan to divert money from schools and utilize the one-time revenues from liquor store privatization is bad news.  Deeds is open to any other means of funding, which traditionally infers that “new sources of revenue” (or higher taxes) are on the table.

            These are good core issues around which to run a campaign.  But the message needs a medium in order to get through.  Deeds needs to stand out on Metro platforms at 7 a.m. and rap with commuters about transportation funding.  He should hop into one of Arlington’s enviroCAB “green” taxis or get on a bus with local officials and drive through the Springfield Interchange.  He and Mark Warner (the most popular elected official in Virginia) should be touring the construction of Metro’s Silver Line and talking about how many jobs the Metrorail extension will bring to the Dulles corridor.

            Unfortunately, Deeds has hinted at his willingness to bring abortion into the campaign to rile up social liberals.  Now, I’m not saying that abortion isn’t a fair issue, considering that McDonnell pursued anti-abortion policies quite vehemently as a legislator.  And obviously if the McDonnell camp tries to link the moderate-to-conservative Deeds with liberal Obama policies, Deeds is right to pull the mask off of McDonnell’s centrist costume.  But considering that Deeds won the primary amid misguided negative campaigning by his two rivals, having a progressive plan and demonstrating it to voters may be a better strategy—as is constantly reminding the base that his opponent has a bad plan that is regressive.

            President Obama has always been very clear on what he wants to see in healthcare reform: 1.) ensure that all Americans have insurance that will provide them with the care they need. 2.) Make reform deficit neutral.  And 3.) bring down the costs of healthcare expenditures for families, businesses, and the government in the long term.  Being a pragmatist, Obama has remained open to different methods of accomplishing these goals.  If the answer lay in a single payer system, he would probably support that; if the answer required as little government intervention as possible, that would be acceptable to him also.

            However, there came a point at which universal healthcare has turned into “incremental” healthcare—out of concern for fiscally conservative Democrats and Republicans.  But now, each passing week that the Senate Finance Committee cannot come up with an outline for a new system is time in which town hall protestors, Fox News commentators, and the general dynamics of next year’s midterm elections may prevent reform from occurring at all.

            Obama has given the Finance Committee negotiators until September 15 to come up with a bipartisan bill, at which point he presumably will press for action without the Republicans.  While I worry that imposing such a deadline may alienate any GOP senators who are thinking of supporting reform, there comes a point at which thoughtful deliberation turns into purposeful obstruction.  There is no point in watering down reform in order to meet Republicans at some imaginary middle point where they will say, “Okay, that’s good enough for us.”

            That point probably lies somewhere to the right of insurance cooperatives—a proposal that the small-state senators in charge of the negotiations have proposed in lieu of a public option.  Critics on the left say that co-ops will be too small to be effective competition and will have to negotiate rates with healthcare provides like private insurers.  Critics on the right, like Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) are calling co-ops a “Trojan horse” that are just disguising a planned government takeover of healthcare.

            If GOP senators feel that even a concept as weak as a cooperative is too much government intervention, then I think that it is time to pull the plug on bipartisanship and return to the public option commitment.  The public plan is a compromise that liberals made after a single payer system was taken off the table.  What exactly have conservatives compromised?  The fact that they seem not to be willing to support anything other than the status quo is hardly a commitment to improving the healthcare system.

            To be fair, some Republicans are taking the reform effort seriously.  Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) was the only Republican on the Finance Committee not to draw a line in the sand in opposing a public option.  Like the president, she remains open-minded on the means to the overall end of accomplishing the three key goals.  Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio may also be open to the Democrats’ plan.

            Realistically, the Democrats have 60 senators; they do not have 60 votes, however—meaning support from GOP moderates is key.  But in looking at the record of the current Congress, the most important votes were taken with almost solid Republican opposition: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January, the stimulus package in February, and Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation in August.  Although I don’t believe in the helpfulness of drawing strict lines, President Obama should seriously enforce the September 15 deadline.  Otherwise, he may not have another opportunity to build momentum to pass this crucial legislation.

            Some fundamental questions about the nature of the democratic process have revealed themselves over the course of the healthcare debate.  For example, how does one reform the system, as President Obama wishes to do, while still telling people that they can maintain the medical and insurance networks that they have now?  Or, why are lawmakers holding town hall meetings now to receive either affirmation or criticism from the public—after the key decisions have already been made?

            Or, why is a group of senators that represents 3 percent of the population crafting 20 percent of the healthcare bill?  That is the question The Washington Post addressed last week in looking at the Gang of Six on the Senate Finance Committee—Max Baucus (Mont.), Charles Grassley (Iowa), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), and Mike Enzi (Wyo.)—who are tasked with finding a way to pay for the new system.  The potential problem is that these folks—while attempting to inject moderation between coastal liberals who yearn for a single-payer system and southern conservatives who seem perfectly satisfied with the status quo—really have the interests of a totally unrepresentative sample of the American public in mind.

         Is this fair?

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         Let’s have a little history lesson here.  James Madison, who drafted the Virginia Plan prior to the Constitutional Convention as a broad outline of an effective national government, wanted to limit the influence of states on the types of responsibilities that would fall to the federal government in three ways: 1). He wanted the House of Representatives to elect senators (a “dilution” to pick the wise and stable men who would act as a check on the tumultuous lower chamber).  This was scrapped relatively early and relatively unanimously by people who thought that—our republic representing both the people and the states—the state legislatures should be the most appropriate electors of senators.

         2.) He wanted a federal veto on state laws that, by either being bad or volatile or just plain improper, would be overridden by the national government.  He more or less got this, though not explicitly, in the form of the supremacy clause and the fact that federal courts can declare state laws as violating federal statutes.

         3.) Madison wanted proportional representation in both houses of Congress.  This was crucial, and it took him several weeks of vocal opposition to come to terms with the fact that this would not happen.  Small states threatened to walk out and one delegate from Delaware took Madison aside to tell him that if small states could not have their interests represented equally in at least one chamber, they would have to find comfort in foreign hands.  A counter-proposal by the small states called the New Jersey Plan was never seriously considered (even small states recognized that the national government needed to be stronger; consequently the only real difference between the two plans was a unicameral vs. bicameral legislature), but it was leverage the smaller states used to make their concerns heard.

            It’s not that Madison did not respect the concern about a “tyranny of the majority.” He just felt that small states’ fears were misplaced.  He asked, what could Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia possibly have in common that would cause them to ally against the smaller states?  In his mind, divisions would be regional—North v. South.  That was where differences in economy, lifestyle, ethnicity, and, of course, slavery would arise.  Naturally, he was correct.

          Fast forwarding one hundred years or so, we can thank the composition of the Senate, for better or for worse, for the shape the nation began to take.  As Manifest Destiny took hold in the 19th century, our continent was still inhabited by the French, Spanish, and British.  What was to keep American settlers loyal as they headed west, far from the seat of the federal government—or any government for that matter?  It was the incentive that they would receive outsize influence in the Senate should they decide to apply for statehood once the population reached a sufficient size.

         The bottom line is that the way the Senate is structured is the same double-edged sword that the Founders anticipated.  Is it fair now?  No.  Was it fair then? No.  Has the Senate augmented its own importance and magnified its own dysfunctions since 1789?  Absolutely.  Is there a fix?  Only if small state senators use their disproportionate power for the greater good—that is to say, they realize that they are the beneficiaries of a two hundred year old compromise and cannot fairly impose the beliefs of a small minority on the majority.

            There is nothing un-American about people who are opposed to the healthcare reform legislation.  They have a right to be skeptical about how their current coverage will be affected, what the cost of reform will be, and whether they will still get needed treatment.  I realize that.

            What IS un-American about healthcare opponents is, I believe, summed up in these two sets of video clips.  Here is footage from Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) town hall today.  These types of events are less about persuading members of Congress or the general public toward a particular direction on the legislation and more about allowing people who feel that they have no other way of being heard to air their opinions to a captive audience.

            But this is not democracy—it’s more state-of-nature than civilization.  Whoever has the loudest voice or the biggest sign is in control.  Yes, everyone has the right to say what they want, but everyone acknowledges that there are limits to how you say things.  People can swear, just not over certain mediums at certain times.  Articles can be written about people, they just cannot be libelous.  And, of course, there is Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous statement about yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

            Kudos to Sen. McCaskill for standing her ground, for not walking away, and for not giving up on her constituents.  The worst experience for any customer service representative is being shouted at by a client who is definitely in the wrong.  It doesn’t help that these people are using phrases like “socialism” and “death panels” that trigger a rabid response from the crowd, yet no one fully comprehends what they mean.

            The second un-American aspect of the anti-healthcare crowd is the subject of this video.  Simply put: why can we not provide regular doctor-patient care for all of our citizens at an affordable price?

 

            The answer is money.  Insurance companies and drug companies spend a lot of it to tell us, in essence, how they must continue to make ungodly profits in order for our healthcare to be as good as it is.  It’s a form of blackmail: saying, “You think we take you on a ride now?  Just wait and see how bad it will be once we’re out of the picture.”  And members of Congress apparently see no harm in the correlation between money and influence.  Witness Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) when confronted on the amount of campaign contributions she received from the healthcare industry, morphing her response from “that’s impossible”; to “that’s not a lot” of money; to hey, they should be giving that money to “people who have more direct control” of legislation.

            People can oppose this legislation, President Obama, and vague notions of socialism all they want.  But if money and misinformation are causing people to turn a blind eye to millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans, then this continued resistance to our healthcare crisis is wholly un-American.