Archive for August, 2009

Ted Kennedy Passes Away

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

It’s 1:30 a.m. It’s not up on the New York Times or Washington Post yet. His Wikipedia page has already been updated, though. And CNN is reporting: Ted Kennedy has died.

He died in his home, from brain cancer, at 77.

The first thing that hits me is a memory: I covered Kennedy, in the early 1990s, as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly. I picture him coming off the Senate floor, a huge man, pink-faced, his thoughts seeming to run a mile ahead of his gait. I remember how nervous I felt, before I asked him a question. This was JFK’s brother. I’m so glad I got to interview him.

Looking at the footage of him on TV, it strikes me that we’ve lost so much. An unabashed liberal. Not someone who needed to hide behind the less stigmatized label: Progressive. (Which is to say, not someone like me.) A shameless fighter for workers, and the rights of workers to organize. A believer, until his dying day, in the absolute imperative of universal health care.

We miss Kennedy already. We miss him because he was the youngest brother of John and Bobby, and now there are no brothers left. We miss him because he was a force, a proud and powerful force for causes that are so out-of-fashion today. We miss him because we sensed, through this summer of bitter partisan infighting over health care, that he was perhaps the one person who could restore some sanity to the debate. Who could get people to move beyond their taunts — he, afterall, had worked tirelessly across the aisle, with the likes of Utah Republican Orrin Hatch — to try to find common ground.

Some political leaders inspire hope. Others, though, inspire courage.

Perhaps, with his death, those of us who believe in health care reform can remember: It’s important not just to have convictions; it’s important to be brave in advancing them.

Thanks for the interview, Ted.

Poll: Jewish Dems Strongly Support Obama on Israel

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The results are in.

After all the gnashing of teeth by Obama’s critics that his policies on Israel are costing him the support of his Jewish base, a new poll — by a right-wing organization, no less — shows that 92 percent of Jewish Democrats approve of President Barack Obama’s job performance.

The poll also found that 58 percent believe President Obama “is doing a good job of promoting peace in the Middle East.” (Only 16 percent disagreed with this statement.) Moreover, when asked: “Do you think President Obama is being too tough on Israel?”, 55 percent answered “No.” (Only 18 percent said yes.)

The poll was conducted at the end of July by the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative lobbying group that represents 43,000 churches.  A quick perusal of the coalition’s Web site gives a clear sense of the values it seeks to promote. The home page offers a click through for “Causes and Cures of Homosexuality.” It opposes abortion but supports the death penalty, citing Biblical imperatives. Its chairman and founder, Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, is a strong defender of Israel.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Sheldon and TVC seemed almost let down by their own polling results. The coalition takes great pains to emphasize the negative results of the poll, issuing a release headlined: “TVC Poll Finds Americans Conflicted Over Israel and Obama.” They cite as evidence the fact that 52 percent of respondents said “the Arabs will never live in peace with Israel” — as if that’s somehow definitive.

“In other words,” Sheldon is quoted as saying in the TVC release, “the President’s support among Jewish Americans is a mile wide but when specific issues about Israel’s defense are raised it is about halved and looks ‘an inch deep.’ ”

Wow. What a stretch. I guess there’s spin, and then there’s flat-out desperation.

Here’s more: When asked if Israel should bomb Iran to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons, only 15 percent of Jewish Democrats answered “yes.” A whopping 62 percent said, “no.”

You can nearly hear Sheldon contorting to make this statement: “Support for President Obama is high among Jewish Americans but half express concerns and disagreements with specific policies, particularly where Iran is involved.”

His conclusion is apparently based on the fact that 45 percent said they were “not sure” what Obama would do if Israel attacked Iran. TVC flat out ignores the fact that when answering the same question, 40 percent said they thought Obama would support Israel, while only 15 percent said he would not.

Ignoring the central findings of the poll, Dick Morris and Eileen McGann penned a missive in the New York Post headlined “Where BAM Breaks With Jewish Dems,” which begins:

JEWISH Democrats strongly agree with the Israeli position and disagree with President Obama’s on issues such as a Palestinian state, settlement construction and trading land for peace. Does the president realize he’s at risk of a break with an important part of his base?

Cherry-picking through the poll with an eye to anything at all that might convey discord, Morris and McGann downplay all the poll results they don’t like. True, they shrug, half of Jewish Democrats flat out reject the notion that Obama is biased against Israel, but “a significantly large number” — 35 percent — are still undecided on the question!

Is this what happens when the rhetoric of Obama’s detractors fails to square with the reality of his wide and strong support among Jewish Democrats?

For a fair and balanced analysis of the poll results, see this Jewish Telegraphic Agency article: “It’s almost unanimous: Jewish Dems on board with Obama.” The JTA writes:

The survey suggests that despite the Obama administration’s repeated calls for an Israeli settlement freeze, support for the president among American Jews remains high.

It’s a good article. Morris and McGann should read it.

The Hitler Parade Continues

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

For awhile, I’ve been doing my best to keep the health care debate in perspective. We are extremely fortunate to live in a time and place where the debate over health care is our most serious, inflaming issue. Most of us in this country have some measure of personal security. We are not hungry. We have access to good medicine. Bombs are not shredding our public squares.

Last week, I blogged about how the Republicans are being hypocritical by not forcefully responding to those comparing Obama to Hitler. (And some in the GOP are actually making these comparisons, themselves.)

Well, the Hitler parade continues.

In this video, a man praising the Israeli national health care system is interrupted by a woman shouting “Heil Hitler.” Watch the video. It’s one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen in a very long time.

In this video, Rep. Barney Frank, a Jew, confronts a woman at a town hall who, toting a picture of Obama defaced to look like Hitler, demands to know why Frank supports Obama’s “Nazi” policies. (“Ma’am,” Frank says, “trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table.  I have no interest in doing it.”)

In an article in the News-Record of Greensboro, Rabbi Fred Guttman writes of confronting a man at a health care rally who carried a sign reading: “ObamaCare = NationalSocialism” (aka Naziism).

Where is the Republican outrage as this wave of ugliness washes over our Democracy? Where is the demand that Rush Limbaugh cease and desist his ugly comparisons between Obama’s administration and the Nazis? Where are the brave Republicans who — like the brave Israeli in the video, and Barney Frank, and Rabbi Guttman — have the guts to get in the face of these despicable hatemongers and shout: Enough!

Really, lady castigating Barney Frank at the mic? Obama is Hitler?

Rabbi Guttman writes:

When I lived in Israel, I had the opportunity to meet on several occasions with a woman named Ruth Eliaz, an Auschwitz survivor.

Most pregnant women and women with young children were sent directly to the gas chambers as soon as the cattle car transports arrived at Auschwitz. Ruth, pregnant at the time, wasn’t showing and was selected to be a worker. As her pregnancy continued, she tried her best to cover her stomach, knowing that if she were to be discovered, she would be sent directly to the gas chamber. Eventually the pregnancy could not be hidden any longer. Ruth was taken to the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele.

In Auschwitz, Mengele conducted horrific experiments on Jews. Mengele told Ruth that he had something special in mind for her and that he would allow her to continue the pregnancy to term. After Ruth gave birth to a baby boy, she began to breast-feed the child. Mengele had her brought to him, whereupon he strapped her to a gurney and injected her breasts with poison so she would not be able to feed her baby. The purpose of this “experiment” was to see how long a newborn baby could live without being fed. After several days of seeing her child suffer, Ruth could stand it no longer and smothered her own child.

I am starting to believe this debate over health care is no longer a “luxury” — a national conversation that we are lucky to be having, regardless of how it turns out. I am starting to see this as a new fight for the very soul of our country.

Is ours a nation where Republicans and their supporters can tacitly sanction widespread comparison between Obama and the regime that injected poison into a new mother’s breasts, forcing her to murder he own child?

Hate health care. Shout all you want about why you think government run insurance amounts to Socialism. Scream and bellow and stomp your feet. But do not, in willful ignorance, cheapen the memory of the 6 million who died. And don’t stand idly by, out of fear or embarassment or political expediencey, and let it proceed.

Jose Saramago, the Nobel Laureate, wrote a book about this kind of thinking. It’s called “Blindness,” and it does not end well.

“Do we have enough strength for the task, asked the girl with dark glasses,” Saramago writes, “The question is not whether we have enough strength, the question is whether we can allow ourselves to leave this woman here, Certainly not, said the doctor, Then the strength must be found.”

Hypocrisy on Hitler

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Remember five years back, when Moveon.org had a contest, inviting people to submit 30-second ads critical of the Bush administration? There were some 1,500 submissions — 2 of which compared Bush to Adolf Hitler.

Republican condemnation was swift and furious — and rightly so. The Republican National Committee called on all nine Democratic candidates to condemn the ads. RNC chair Ed Gillespie called the ads “the worst and most vile form of political hate speech.”

Jewish groups along with the mainstream media — from CNN to USA Today — added their voices to the powerful chorus of critique. Moveon quickly removed the offending ads from its web site.

Some, though, saw the incident as a condemnation not only of Moveon, but more broadly — as a black mark on Democrats or liberals in general. Here’s Chris Matthews on Hardball:

John Fund, how are the Democrats going to hide this sort of crazy lady in the attic now they’ve got, this Hitler ad?

Byron York, writing in the National Review on Jan. 7, 2004, had this to say:

Referring to President Bush as a Nazi, or comparing the president to Hitler, are nothing new in the world of MoveOn. They are, in fact, a common mode of expression of some of the people associated with the website and its brand of political activism.

Well, flashforward to today. In protests across the country, we see critics of Obama’s health care plan, comparing Obama to Hitler. (For a sampling of photo evidence, see “Jonah Goldberg Goes in Search of Swastikas,” from mediamatters.) Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has compared America under Obama to Germany in the 1930s. Rush Limbaugh, with a 15 million listenership, has spoken about ”similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany.” He said the other day that “Obama’s got a health care logo that’s right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook.”

Yesterday, the AP reported that a swastika was painted outside Rep. David Scott’s district office in Georgia.

Some Democrats, in response, have likened the protesters’ tactics to those of the Nazi army — which clearly oversteps the line. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dangerously oversimplified when she implied that protesters at these anti-health reform rallies are themselves identifying as Nazis.

But where is the storm of media outrage — about comparisons between Obama and Hitler — that greeted Moveon in 2004? Where is the swift and total Republican denunciation?

Glenn Grenwald, at Salon, has compiled a partial list of those who denounced Moveon in 2004 (the above examples are culled from his post), and has sent all of them emails, asking for their response to Limbaugh’s recent comments. Some of them — including the National Review — have responded , harshly criticizing Rush. But it registers as barely a peep — nothing like the firestorm that rained down on Moveon.

As Grenwald writes:

Compare (a) the way that a single anonymous person’s comparison of Bush and Hitler swamped our political discourse and forever altered the image of MoveOn with (b) what the (non)-reaction will be to the identical comparison coming from the leader of the Republican Party who spouts his hate-mongering to an audience of 15 million people.  Within that comparison one finds many central truths about how our political debates and media discussions function.

Columnist Michael Gerson gives us a good reminder  this week of why any comparison to Naziism — by Republicans or Democrats; Moveon or anyone else — should be roundly condemned:

Nazism was the ”beard game,” in which the beards and sidelocks of Jews were pulled off or set a fire before audiences of cheering soldiers. It was the practice of making elderly Jews dance around a fire of burning Torah scrolls. It was whole orphanages deported to death camps, and pits full of corpses, and ancient communities erased from human memory, and death factories issuing a thick smoke of souls, and a mother trading her gold ring for a glass of water to give her dying child.

Many who study these events think silence the only appropriate response. ”There is nothing,” says scholar Lawrence Langer, ”to be learned from a baby torn in two or a woman buried live.”

I was upset when, in Akron’s recent recall election, Democratic mayor Don Plusquellic compared his opponent to Hitler. Specious comparisons, Gerson writes, trivialize the Holocaust. He concludes:

For the survivors of Nazism, memory is a kind of sacred duty.

Trivializing the Holocaust: “desacralizes those memories — shrinking them to the size of our political agendas and robbing them of their power to shock and teach. The history of those times should be approached with fear and trembling, not mocked with metaphor.”

And, certainly, they should not be mocked with hypocrisy.

 

‘Be Bold in the Pursuit of Knowlege’

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

The other day, I wrote a post, asking if Obama’s supporters were really content to cede the debate over health care to the shouting, Fox News loving, anti-government Americans.

Maureen Dowd, in her column today, puts a finer point on it.

The young grass-roots army that swept Obama into office has yet to mobilize now that the fight is about something complicated rather than a charismatic hope-monger. No, they can’t?

Instead of a multicultural tableau of beaming young idealists on screen, we see ugly scenes of mostly older and white malcontents, disrupting forums where others have come to actually learn something. Instead of hope, we get swastikas, death threats and T-shirts proclaiming “Proud Member of the Mob.”

She’s on to something. Pardon the pun, but health care is not black and white. The topic of health care is vast, dense, and absurdly complicated. I myself have doubts about the wisdom of a public option, just as I have doubts about the wisdom of a private health care coop — or just about any other alternative.

The administration says that under all circumstances, individuals will be able to keep their current health care arrangement if they want to. Here’s Obama, to the American Medical Association in June:

“If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”

But that’s aspirational, according to the NY Times. Obama’s assurances “may not be literally true or enforceable.”

Which leaves me in the uncomfortable position of supporting health care reform — I’m certain that the status quote is unsustainable; that it’s morally wrong to have nearly 50 million people with no health insurance, and to have insurance companies drop coverage when people need it most — without knowing for sure the best way to go about it.

It’s hard to get people to storm the barricades for something like the House bill, which, as the Times reports, sets detailed standards for ‘acceptable health care coverage,’ that would define ‘essential benefits’ and permissible co-payments.

Oy.

In my post the other day, I suggested — partly out of pique — that proponents of reform need to shout louder than the proud members of the mob.

On reflection, I think that would be unwise. But we do need to try and educate ourselves. At Obama’s New Hampshire town hall yesterday, one anti-Obama protestor quite literally showed up armed — legally — with a 9 mm pistol strapped to his leg. I suggest that the best thing proponents of reform can do, at this point, is to arm ourselves with knowledge — so we can contribute to this critical debate in constructive ways. 

The gun-toting protestor in New Hampshire also had a placard, “It is time to water the tree of liberty” — a reference to a Thomas Jefferson aphorism, that the tree of liberty needs to be watered with the blood of patriots.

Okay.

But Jefferson also famously said that he was “bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led.”

We might start here.

Louise: ‘We Can Get the Job Done This Time’

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Louise Caire Clark, better known as just “Louise,” starred in the “Harry and Louise” ads that helped kill Bill Clinton’s health care reform in 1994.

Remember her?

Louise, it turns out, is going Robert McNamara on us. In an interview with Judith Warner of the NY Times, Louise says she “always wanted reform” and “felt bad it didn’t happen.” She’s actually a fan of socialized medicine, and had campaigned door-to-door for Clinton in 1992. In 1993, she was a single mother of two, trying to finish college, and living in fear of losing her health care insurance, when she showed up and read the script for the anti-health reform ad. She very nearly walked off the set.

“I was in a very bad mood,” she recalled. “I was going to make as much as it would cost to pay a baby sitter for the day. I got a script and said, ‘Whoa, Houston, we have a problem.’ I had to stop production to have the director explain to me who was funding it and what they were trying to do.”

The director was the political consultant Ben Goddard. He told Clark that the ads were being paid for by the Health Insurance Association of America. But, he said, the insurance lobby’s goal was merely to “open communications with the White House, to bring everyone in,” she recalls.

“He said, ‘It’s just one ad, and everybody knows there’s going to be health reform.”

She needed the money, apparently. So she played the part. And played it well. So well, in fact, that it killed her acting career — she became too widely recognized as the face of the anti-reform effort. (She did wind up marrying the director; every thorn has its rose, I guess.)

She’s in a new ad this time around, “Get the Job Done,” sponsored by a trade group representing drug makers and a nonprofit advocating affordable medical care.

In the new ad, Harry drops a newspaper in front of Louise, sitting at the kitchen table, and says: “Well, it looks like we may finally get health care reform.”

“It’s about time,” Louise answers. At the end, she concludes: “A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time.”

I think it would have been more effective, frankly, if, instead of having Harry and Louise act out a new tableau, the actors had done a confessional, explaining that they erred in doing the ads against reform 15 years ago, they regretted their role, and were now fighting for President Obama’s reform effort.

When I went to YouTube to watch the ad, though, it immediately became clear that it had gotten under the skin of one viewer, who wrote:

What the fuck do these two oldsters know about anything? When the fuck is this whole goddamned “Big Chill”? generation gonna fuck off and die??? Let two young people talk about how IT IS NOT UP TO THEIR NEIGHBORS TO PAY FOR THEIR HEALTH CARE!!! FUCK YOU, HARRY AND LOUISE!!!!! JUST SAY NO TO BIG GOVERNMENT!!!!!!

I don’t know who the poster was, but it’s safe to assume it was not Paul Krugman, the nobel prize winning economist, who began his column this morning:

It seems that we aren’t going to have a second Great Depression after all. What saved us? The answer, basically, is Big Government.

So why don’t we all just say no to people who put their heads in the sand, blinding themselves to reality.

Take it from Louise Caire Clark — it doesn’t end well.

Where are Obama’s Supporters?

Friday, August 7th, 2009

I was thinking about mconley’s comment on this blog yesterday — that our government hasn’t given us much reason to trust it in a long time — when I read this in the Times this morning:

Economists say that the president’s $787 billion stimulus package has helped blunt the downturn in limited but discernible ways. …

“The signs of the stimulus are there,” said Allen L. Sinai, chief economist at Decision Economics, a forecasting firm in New York. “Government — federal, state and local — is helping take the economy from recession to recovery. I think it’s the primary contributor.”

Despite this, economic experts were predicting that with today’s jobless numbers, the unemployment rate would rise above 9.5. I’d read it was going to hit 9.6 percent.

That, the Times reported, would have provided “Republicans and conservative economists new ammunition to argue that the stimulus has been a waste of taxpayer money.” (Can you hear them rooting for it to fail? Bring on the suffering so we can get ourselves re-elected!)

Well, guess again. When the Labor Department released the jobless report this morning, unemployment had dropped to 9.4 percent.  As the AP reports:

Employers sharply scaled back layoffs in July, and the unemployment rate dipped for the first time in 15 months, sending a strong signal that the worst recession since World War II is finally ending.

Do the math. That’s the first drop in unemployment since April of 2008, when the economy started to crater.

I don’t mean to paint an overly rosy picture. Experts say the job market won’t stabilize until next spring, and more losses are surely ahead. But would anyone seriously argue that the stimulus has not saved hundreds of thousands of jobs at this point?

That is: government — despite constraining partisan divides — is helping.

This got me thinking, as Obama marks his 200th day in office, about some of the other things his administration has done, that should have earned our trust.

In foreign affairs, he has reached out to the Muslim world — just as he said he would during the election campaign — allowing the United States to actually gain popularity and credibilityon the Arab street. He ordered Guantanamo closed. He has kick-started a totally moribund peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, inducing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say for the first time that he endorsed a two state solution. He has boldly asked Israel to reign in settlements — but only as part of a regional approach, in which Arab countries are being asked to make concrete gestures to Israel, from offering commercial offices in Tel Aviv to letting El Al fly over Arab countries en route to Asia.

Joe Biden said Obama would be tested early, and he has been. On Obama’s order in April, Navy snipers cut down three Somali pirates and rescued an American sea captain being held hostage. This week, working behind the scenes, the Obama administration helped arrange President Clinton’s mission to North Korea, securing the release of two American journalists who were headed to the gulags.

Think about the boldness of these gestures, and the calculated risks involved. Think about what Rush Limbaugh would be saying had either of them gone wrong.

But wait, there’s more. Just hours ago, we learned that an unmanned CIA drone has apparently struck and killed the main leader of Pakistan’s fearsome Taliban militia. A bloodthirsty terrorist, taken out as he was receiving kidney treatment in a remote village in South Waziristan. As the Times reports:

The American government made killing or capturing Mr. Mehsud one of its top priorities this year, and his death would boost President Obama’s effort to weaken a resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

On the domestic front, Obama has courageously attempted to find political consensus on some of the most critical — and intractable — issues of our time. Under his leadership, the House has passed a bill that would for the first time begin to address global warming in a serious way. And despite the fact that so many U.S. presidents have crashed and burned trying to fix our broken health care system, Obama has stuck to his campaign promise, making it Issue No. 1 for his young presidency. Moreover — forget about what John McCain says — Obama is indeed seeking a bipartisan solution.  That’s why he’s waiting to see what compromise Democrats and Republicans come up with in the Senate finance committee. Obama’s even signalled that he could be willing to retreat on what for him has been a center piece of reform — a public option for providing health insurance — if it meant getting a bill that would cover the majority of Americans.

Cash for clunkers is wildly popular, spurring the auto industry, helping car dealers, and removing inefficient gas guzzlers from our highways. We have a Latina woman on her way to the Supreme Court, shattering another barrier. Obama is promoting aide to community colleges in a way that has earned praise from conservative commentators. He has quickly restored our image around the world.

Oh, he’s made plenty of mistakes. But, unlike his predecessor, he’s admitted them — see, for example, the Gates arrest — and he has sought to use them to promote tolerance and reconciliation.

In short, he has already done much of what he said he would do during his election campaign, which, as I pointed out yesterday, he won by nearly 10 million votes.

And, yet, his popularity is slipping. And we supporters can’t shake the feeling that while we are winning the war, we are badly losing the battles.

Why?

The always depressing Paul Krugman provides an answer in his column this morning.

Krugman notes that wherever Democratic leaders have gone to town hall meetings to promote health care reform, they have been met by screeching mobs. Some of this, he notes, is orchestrated by interest groups who want to kill reform at all costs. But, he argued, we can’t discount the throngs of people who appear genuinely angry. He writes:

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is. 

It doesn’t really matter what he’s done, and what he’s trying to do. People are reacting to who he is. There’s a phrase for this in Judaism. It’s called baseless hatred.

Here, though, is the problem. As Krugman notes:

Right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.

He’s right. But don’t be so quick to put the whole burden on Obama.  All of us who hit the streets for him last fall need to look in the mirror and ask: Do we really intend to sit the rest of this one out? Having elected a pragmatic, progressive president, are we content to let the birthers and their ilk set the terms of the debate?

Remember. History isn’t always written by the victor. Sometimes, it’s written by those who shout the loudest.