Democrats have been waiting a long time—since 1994—for the moment when a health care overhaul might be viable again. They’ve used the interim to get ready. Debates among think-tankers, journalists, academics and politicians have helped the party hone ideas and zero in on what Democrats hope is the sweet spot between politically viable and sufficiently sweeping. (Remember the never-ending argument about mandates during the Democratic primaries?) And this time, they don’t want to be out-hustled by a more organized opposition. Fortunately for them, Politico.com reports (4/20) that, when it comes to health care reform, the GOP is heavily outgunned:

“The organizational strength behind Obama’s plan is enormous. The House speaker, the Senate majority leader and the committee chairmen have agreed to work together, minimizing the turf wars that doomed former President Bill Clinton’s effort in the 1990s. The major labor unions have teamed up with business groups. An umbrella group for liberal organizations, Health Care for America Now, is spending $40 mln on the fight.”

Republicans, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as prepared for a fight. Their candidates rarely talk about it, and it’s unusual—though not unheard-of—to see right-leaning pundits voicing substantive opinions on healthcare other than objections to “socializing” it.

“There’s no Republican plan yet. No Republicans leading the charge who have coalesced the party behind them,” Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown writes. “Their message is still vague and unformed. Their natural allies among insurers, drug makers and doctors remain at the negotiating table with the Democrats.”

It’s not hard to see the ghost of HillaryCare haunting this fight. The Clinton healthcare plan, recall, went down in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. William Kristol, then a top GOP message-maker at Project for the Republican Future, famously convinced his party that any negotiated compromise would mean surrender to creeping statism, urging, “The plan should not be amended; it should be erased.”

Obviously, the Kristol strategy worked, helping bring about two major Democratic disasters: the plan’s defeat and the loss of Congress. Having learned this harsh lesson—all the way down to the catchphrase “There is no crisis”—Democrats applied it with brutal success to then-President Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Here too, they prevented defections from their own party, and not only killed a major attempted overhaul, but dealt a near-paralyzing blow to an entire presidency.

All of that clearly seems to add up to a favorable environment for Obama to push his plan. Moderate senators might choose to vote no over voting yes to a bill they have no part in crafting. But so long as Obama can keep some of the interests that aligned against Clinton at the table for a compromise, he has a shot at forging an option more appetizing to, say, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) than a reflexive “no” vote would be.

On the other hand, today’s congressional Republicans have shown remarkable intransigency so far. If they do put up a unanimous front against Obama on healthcare, or recruit some Democratic allies, the president might resort to the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to jam his proposal through.

Should he do so, the fight will move out from behind closed doors and into the arena of public opinion. Democrats will argue that the GOP is just saying no to everything and is obstructing the will of the majority; Republicans will accuse Democrats of assaulting time-honored traditions and trampling on cherished freedoms. (Glenn Beck will no doubt act like the Reichstag just burned down.) This is where that $40 mln campaign budget could come in handy; if the Republicans can’t come up with anything to match it, a reverse Harry-and-Louise moment could be in the works. (Gabriel Winant, Salon.com)

SINGLE-PAYER ADVOCATES TURN TO STATES. Congressional leaders are paying little attention to single-payer bills, such as HR 676 sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and S 703 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but health advocates are turning to the states to lead. More than half a dozen state legislatures are considering bills to establish single-payer systems, which would essentially expand the US Medicare system to cover everyone in their states. The National Nurses Movement, a project of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, noted the following activity:

• California — SB 810, which would cover all state residents, got approval of the Senate Health Committee on a party line 7-4 vote (4/15). Twice this decade California’s Assembly has passed similar bills, which were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Activists say they will continue to push single payer in California, even if they need to wait until Schwarzenegger leaves office in 2010.

• Colorado — HB 1273 by Rep. John Kefalas (D-Fort Collins), passed its first vote in the state House (4/6). The bill sets up a 23-member commission to design a universal health-insurance system. A Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care Reform two years ago found that single-payer was the only health system that saved money compared to what Coloradans now spent on healthcare.

• Illinois — HB 311, the Healthcare for All Illinois Act, sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), had its first hearing in March. New Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is a longtime supporter of single-payer reform.

• Maine — LD 1365, sponsored by Brunswick Rep. Charles Priest, had its first hearing 4/13, just days after both chambers of the Maine legislature passed resolutions calling on President Obama and Congress to enact federal single-payer legislation. A poll this winter showed 52% of Maine physicians also favor single-payer.

• Pennsylvania — Two single-payer bills are alive: HB 1660, the “Family and Business Healthcare Security Act of 2009,” and SB 300. Gov. Ed Rendell (D) has said he would sign a single-payer bill, reports Chuck Pennachio of Health Care for All Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution calling for both state and federal lawmakers to establish a single-payer health system.

Single payer bills are also on the docket in Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington. For information, see the Universal Health Care Action Network at uhcan.org.

WEAK TEA FOR GOP. Despite heavy promotion by Fox News, the Republican National Committee and other right-wing groups, “Tea Parties” coinciding with the 4/15 filing deadline drew only a quarter of a million tax protesters nationwide. Nate Silver, the numbers cruncher at fivethirtyeight.com, scanned news accounts that included what appeared to be objective crowd size estimates at 306 “Tea Party” protests. He came up with a cumulative attendance of 262,025. In comparison, Silver noted, protests in favor of immigration reform in 2006 drew several million participants, including several individual events of at least 300,000. And 300,000 people turned up in New York City in 2003 in the largest of many protests against the planned invasion of Iraq.

While the Tea Parties were nominally nonpartisan grassroots organizations, Paul Krugman noted in his New York Times column (4/13) that the protests were manufactured by the “usual suspects,” with a key role played by FreedomWorks, a group run by Dick Armey, the former House GOP leader, and was supported by “the usual group of right-wing billionaires.”

Krugman noted that “Republicans have become embarrassing to watch ... But here’s the thing: The GOP looked as crazy 10 or 15 years ago as it does now. That didn’t stop Republicans from taking control of both Congress and the White House. And they could return to power if the Democrats stumble. So it behooves us to look closely at the state of what is, after all, one of our nation’s two great political parties.”

Krugman noted that Obama is being called a “socialist” because he wants to raise the tax rate on the highest-income Americans back to 10 percentage points less than it was for most of Reagan’s administration.

Claims made at tea-party events that Obama wasn’t born in the US or that he is a secret Muslim are “crazy stuff,” Krugman noted, but not as crazy as claims during the last Democratic administration that the Clintons were murderers, “claims that were supported by a campaign of innuendo on the part of big-league conservative media outlets and figures, especially Rush Limbaugh.”

Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury economist in the Bush I administration, compared US tax rates with other industrialized countries and wrote at Forbes.com (4/10) that the US “is a relatively low-tax country no matter how you slice the data.” In 2006, total taxation (federal, state and local) amounted to 28% of the GDP. Of the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only four had a lower tax ratio than the US.

Bartlett followed up with a column (4/17) that compared taxes paid as a share of income for a family with median income—that is, half of families are above and half are below. In 2007, the most recent year available, the median family with household income of $75,510 “paid 5.91% of its income to the federal government in the form of income taxes.” That’s half the 11.79% rate the median family paid in 1981, before the Reagan tax cut took effect. What’s more, the 2009 numbers are almost certainly lower than 2007, thanks to Obama’s middle-class tax cut. Bartlett concluded that “Tea Parties” held to protest the Obama stimulus package for increasing the deficit after remaining silent during the Bush years showed the movement “was largely a partisan exercise designed to improve the fortunes of the Republican Party, not an expression of genuine concern about taxes or our nation’s fiscal future. People should remember that while they have the right to their opinion, they are not entitled to be taken seriously.”

A Gallup poll (4/6-9) found a “soak the rich” mood as 60% of all respondents believe upper-income people are taxed too little, only 23% felt the rich pay their fair share and 13% said they pay too much. The poll found 50% believe middle-income people pay their fair share while 43% believe middle-incomes pay too much and 5% said “too little.” Lower-income people pay their fair share, 41% said, while 39% said the poor pay too much and 16% said they pay too little.

HOW UNPOPULAR ARE REPUBLICANS? Chris Bowers has made a study of unpopular subjects that are still more popular than the Republican Party, which recorded only 39% favorable in a 2/18-19 CNN poll. Legalization of marijuana is favored by 41% (CBS News/New York Times Poll, 1/11-15) and by 40% (Rasmussen poll, 2/13-14). Communist China was favored by 41% (Gallup Poll, 2/9-12) and a CNN poll conducted 4/3-5 found that Russia scored a 47% favorable rating and China scored 46% favorable while Venezuela, ruled by GOP boogeyman Hugo Chavez, had a 42% favorable rating, outpacing the R’s. The GOP is narrowly more popular than Cuba, which had a 38% favorable rating, but the Republicans are still well ahead of North Korea, 13% favorable, and Iran, 12% favorable.

RUSH RAISES REDS. A Rasmussen poll raised a few eyebrows when it found that attempts by Republicans and Fox News to associate Barack Obama with socialism appears to be improving the reputation of socialism. While 53% still believe capitalism is a better system, 20% backed socialism and 27% weren’t sure, according to the poll released 4/9. Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided, as 37% prefer capitalism, 33% prefer socialism and 30% are undecided. As Steve Benen noted at WashingtonMonthly.com (4/9), “You just can’t have an effective red scare with numbers like these.”

Harold Meyerson wrote at the Washington Post (4/15), “Twenty-somethings are more open to socialism—or social capitalism—than 30-somethings not only because they never lived through the Soviet threat but because the economy, during the years in which deregulatory policy and Wall Street financialization were at their height, hasn’t worked very well for them. Americans under 29 scored well to the left of the general public in a recent survey by the Center for American Progress, and voters under 30 backed Barack Obama by a 34-point margin in November, 66% to 32%.” Meyerson concluded that by linking the popular president to socialism, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and other right wing talkers “are doing what Gene Debs and his comrades never could. In tandem with Wall Street, they are building socialism in America.”

COALITION SEEKS JUSTICE. A coalition has launched “Restore Justice At Justice” (RestoreJusticeAtJustice.com), a campaign to clean up the Department of Justice’s sad record of political prosecutions under the Bush administration. The coalition has sent a letter to Att’y Gen. Eric Holder requesting that he quickly investigate and identify those targeted for political reasons, and vacate their convictions, beginning with former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and prominent Mississippi trial lawyer Paul Minor. The coalition asserts that under the Bush administration, Karl Rove used the DOJ to target political enemies including Democratic contributors and those who were a threat to GOP electoral gains and big business interests. Brad Friedman, a co-founder of VelvetRevolution.us, which is spearheading the campaign, noted that Holder ordered the dismissal of charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) because of prosecutorial misconduct. “Because targeted political prosecutions also constitute prosecutorial misconduct, AG Holder should apply the same standard to Siegelman, Minor and all the others identified as targeted by the Bush DOJ,” said Friedman.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the signers of the letter, has stated that “Paul Minor is an innocent man” who was targeted by Rove, prosecuted by “crooked Justice Department prosecutors” and sentenced to “a breathtaking 11-year sentence for non-violent, white collar crimes he did not commit,” while Minor’s wife of 41 years lay in a hospital dying from cancer. The DOJ opposed Minor’s bail pending appeal and a compassionate furlough.

Individuals can sign on at www.RestoreJusticeAtJustice.com.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, MAYHEM ON BORDER. National media have been depicting the border between Texas and Mexico as under fire. Melissa del Bosque writes in The Texas Observer (4/17) that while the explosion of drug-related violence in Ciudad Juarez has disrupted cross-border business with El Paso, the wave of kidnappings and murders has not crossed the river. According to the FBI, more than 1,600 people were killed in Juarez (population 1.5 mln) by cartel violence in 2008. El Paso, a city of 755,000, recorded just 18 murders last year. Laredo had 11; Brownsville and McAllen, in the Lower Rio Grande, had 3 and 9 murders, respectively. By comparison, Washington, D.C., with a population smaller than El Paso’s, had 186 homicides in 2008.

Border mayors and residents support improvements at US ports of entry, but they object to the border wall and they don’t want the border to be militarized. “When folks around El Paso and McAllen hear rhetoric about sending troops to the border, they can’t help remembering what happened in Redford, four hours east of El Paso, in 1997,” del Bosque wrote. “With drug trafficking having been declared a ‘threat to national security,’ thousands of soldiers were dispatched to the border. Residents’ worst fears were realized when 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez was shot and killed by a Marine while tending his family’s herd of goats 100 yards from his home. Hernandez was the first American killed by US military forces on native soil since the Kent State massacre in 1970. After Hernandez’s death, military operations along the border were suspended, although National Guardsmen were sent there from 2006 to 2008 to assist the Border Patrol with technical, logistical and administrative work.

Mayors, county judges and business leaders formed the Texas Border Coalition in 2006 in an attempt to educate state and federal policymakers about what US border towns really need. They fought in vain against the 18-foot steel wall through their communities. Now they are trying to fend off calls for another National Guard “surge” along the border. In January the El Paso City Council created a stir when it approved a resolution expressing solidarity with the besieged citizens of Juarez and calling for interdiction of guns heading south and an “honest, open debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.” But Mayor John Cook, a supporter of current drug policy, vetoed the resolution and US Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso) urged the council to drop the debate on drug policy or risk losing federal funding.

The same disconnect between reality and perception has derailed meaningful debate about immigration reform, El Paso City Council member Beto O’Rourke told del Bosque. “For the past two years, we’ve been told that Mexicans are smuggling terrorists, taking our jobs, and selling us drugs, and that we are being invaded,” O’Rourke said. “And it worked. It totally freaked people out, and they reacted emotionally to an issue that I think could be solved rationally.”

The Obama administration appears to be shifting US policy to focus more on the promotion of substance-abuse treatment and prevention, and less on the drug war, del Bosque wrote. During her March visit to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that battling cartel violence should be a shared responsibility and emphasized that America needs to curb its demand for illegal drugs. That’s a decidedly different political tack from the Bush years, when all the talk was about bigger walls, increased firepower, and Mexico’s responsibility for the problem. Other high-level administration officials have been dispatched to Mexico with messages similar to Clinton’s, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Att’y Gen. Eric Holder. But the new approach risks sounding “soft” to Americans fed a steady diet of border mayhem and spillover. “What we have is a failure to communicate,” said Sito Negron, editor of El Paso’s online daily news journal, NewspaperTree.com. Americans “don’t have a clue about Mexico, and El Paso becomes the stage for the latest thing that everyone should be afraid of.”

RURAL GROUPS SUPPORT BROADBAND DEPLOYMENT. A group of rural organizations is supporting broadband deployment in “underserved” areas of the nation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In a letter sent to the US Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the Rural Telecommunications Alliance (RTA) endorsed the provisions in the stimulus bill to help connect millions of rural Americans to high-speed broadband Internet service, according to RTA National Spokesman Cole Sims, a cotton and corn farmer near Mer Rouge, La. A 3/19/09 Congressional Research Service report indicates that only 38% of rural residents use broadband, but the rural advocates said they want and need access to broadband to attract and retain businesses, and to benefit from activities such as distance learning and telehealth, telecommuting or developing and conducting business remotely.

STUDENT CREDIT CARD DEBT SOARS. Sallie Mae published a new report showing a massive increase in credit card debt among college students over the last four years. The study, entitled “How Undergraduate Students Use Credit Cards: Sallie Mae’s National Study of Usage Rates and Trends, 2009,” showed that, as educational expenses and costs of living rose while student aid continued to drop, more students relied on their credit cards to pay for college expenses. The study revealed the average indebted senior now carrying over $4,100 in credit card debt, a 44% increase since 2004, while the average freshman in 2008 had accumulated over $2,000 debt. Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and programs at Demos, a national research and policy center which studies the economic concerns of young adults and the rise of debt in America, said, “In a ‘Debt for Diploma’ system that already saddles college graduates with over $20,000 in student loan debt, the evidence of increased credit card debt further confirms that college costs are leaving this generation with a heavy debt burden.” She noted that, adjusted for inflation, college tuition at the average 4-year institution has increased 35% in the last five years alone. The Sallie Mae report found that 30% of students put tuition on their credit card, up from 24% in 2004, and 92% of undergraduates with credit cards charged textbooks, supplies, and other expenses, up from 85% in 2004. And the average charges related to direct college costs more than doubled from 2004 to 2008, from $942 to $2,200.

Efforts to reform the card industry include the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), and the Credit Cardholder’s Bill of Rights Act, introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), which would put an end to some of the most abusive practices of the credit industry, including aggressive marketing of credit cards to the young.

President Obama’s budget also proposes more aid to higher education and making college more affordable to students over the long term, such as moving to a direct loan program and expanding grant-based aid. See www.demos.org.

LEAK TURNS HARMAN LIBERTARIAN. Glenn Greenwald noted at Salon.com (4/21) that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.)—once the most vigorous Democratic cheerleader of Bush’s NSA warrantless eavesdropping program—is rip-roarin’ angry because her private conversations were eavesdropped on by the US government. *CQ*’s Jeff Stein reported (4/19) that Harman was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the powerful American Israeli Public Affairs Committee in return for help in getting Nancy Pelosi to name her chair of the House Intelligence Committee after the 2006 election. Harman denied the story and asked Att’y Gen. Holder to release any tapes of her conversations and investigate whether other members of Congress or other “innocent Americans” might have been subject to this same “abuse of power.”

Greenwald wrote, “So if I understand this correctly—and I’m pretty sure I do—when the US government eavesdropped for years on American citizens with no warrants and in violation of the law, that was ‘both legal and necessary’ as well as ‘essential to US national security,’ and it was the ‘despicable’ whistle-blowers (such as Thomas Tamm) who disclosed that crime and the newspapers which reported it who should have been criminally investigated, but not the lawbreaking government officials. But when the US government legally and with warrants eavesdrops on Jane Harman, that is an outrageous invasion of privacy and a violent assault on her rights as an American citizen, and full-scale investigations must be commenced immediately to get to the bottom of this abuse of power.  Behold Jane Harman’s overnight transformation from Very Serious Champion of the Lawless Surveillance State to shrill civil liberties extremist.” 

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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