I am not alone

FWIW, I see that Kevin Drum agrees with me. First he quotes Jeremy Scahill:

Let’s be clear here:  This is a complete and total sellout to the interests of the insurance lobby by the Obama administration. This is, as Michael Moore has said, a complete victory for the ultra-capitalists.

Drum disagrees. In his opinion, the bill is

not only an enormous first step forward, but the only way to make that first step. A government-run single-payer solution was never even remotely politically plausible, and anyone who insisted on jettisoning our current framework of private insurers as a condition of reforming healthcare would never get any serious reform passed. End of story.


As for the private insurance industry, I’ll make a prediction:  within 20 years it will be gone in all but name. Either the federal government will fund the vast majority of health insurance, or else private insurers will essentially be regulated utilities, as they are in Germany or the Netherlands. This bill is the beginning of the end for all of them.

On the latter point:  Jonathan Bernstein agrees that the Affordable Care Act is merely a first step. The public option that Aaron argued for in the comment section of my previous post? It may arrive in the near future:

I think the public option is going to be a major plank of future (including 2010) Democratic campaigns, and is likely to become law in the not-distant future. Short version of the argument:  liberals really love it, it polls well [as Aaron pointed out] and so candidates are unlikely to believe that it will hurt them, and it can be passed through a future reconciliation bill (and it scores well, so it can be used to “pay” for higher subsidy levels, or unrelated items, or even deficit reduction).

I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure from liberals to add a public option through reconciliation in the next Congress, if Democrats still have the majority, and if it doesn’t happen then I do think Obama is likely to campaign for it in 2012.

President Obama? Would he really campaign on the public option?

According to xpostfactoid, President Obama is an incremental reformer with a comprehensive soul. Again:  fundamental change by degrees is what he’s after. xpostfactoid quotes the President:

The ship of state is an ocean liner; it’s not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to — is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that’s when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that’s when we became serious about raising our standards in education.

Barack Obama makes history … again

I’m breaking my blog silence to celebrate a historic achievement by President Obama and the Democratic Party. I refer, of course, to the passage of a health care reform bill:  first in the Senate and, tonight, in the House of Representatives.

I understand why some individuals who supported Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign have been disappointed in his performance to date. In particular, I concede that civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have legitimate cause for concern (i.e., over government infringement of the rights of individual citizens).

But President Obama staked his credibility on the issue of health care reform, which was one of the key planks in the Democrats’ 2008 election platform. Accordingly, I have refused to join the rush to judgement. After all, the President assumed office only 14 months ago!

I have bided my time, waiting to see whether the President would succeed or fail on this extraordinarily important matter.

President Obama pursued health care reform as a legislative priority despite a terrifying economic crisis. He pursued it despite a cynical misinformation campaign on the part of Republicans. (Which succeeded insofar as a majority of Americans expressed disapproval of the Democrats’ bill, based on widespread ignorance of what the bill actually would do.) President Obama pursued this priority when many of his supporters — i.e., activists on the left of the political spectrum — called for the defeat of the bill. Those supporters were disappointed that bill was not more radical — even as Republicans and Tea Party “patriots” condemned the initiative as socialism, totalitarianism, or worse.

And the President continued to pursue health care reform after the Democrats lost a special election in Massachusetts in January, which led many observers to conclude that health care reform was dead.

Tonight, against long odds, President Obama has succeeded where several presidents before him, both Democrats and Republicans, have tried and failed. Political observers have questioned whether Democrats could govern; whether they would lose courage and flee the field of battle, demoralized and confounded. Instead, it is the Republican Party which has suffered a monumental political defeat.

Americans will soon experience what health care reform means for them and their loved ones. And when they experience it, they will like it. The Republican misinformation campaign will be exposed as the hollow sham it always was.

In my opinion, President Obama has been vindicated by tonight’s events. His critics — at least, those on the left — ought to change their tune, and acknowledge that the President has delivered the goods on a key, perennial Democratic priority.

Health care reform is the most significant legislative achievement in nearly 50 years. Tonight, Barack Obama has made history — again.
Obama over the top 2(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

A higher priority than national security

It often seems to me that Americans value national security above anything else. No matter how deep the deficit is, Americans must continually increase the defense budget! If Americans conclude (falsely) that they must choose between obeying the Constitution and protecting national security — national security it is!

But there’s one priority that Americans rank even higher than national security:  keeping those moral reprobate homosexuals out of the military! In this video, Rep. Patrick Murphy points out that 13,000 soldiers have been kicked out of the U.S. military for having the “wrong” sexual orientation.

13,000 soldiers = 3½ combat brigades:  at a time when the U.S. military has been stretched to (or beyond) its limits.

President Obama has been rather passive on this issue:  you can see Rep. Murphy dancing around that criticism in the interview. Andrew Sullivan is sufficiently provoked that he has subverted an Obama slogan, “the fierce urgency of now”, recasting it as the fierce urgency of whenever.

I’m inclined to cut Obama some slack here. The art of leadership is largely about setting priorities and sticking to them. Obama is facing a catastrophic economic crisis; he has two wars to wage and he must respond to the Iranian nuclear threat; he campaigned to provide affordable health care to every American; and evidently he is serious about tackling climate change.

Those are big-ticket items, and Obama is going to spend significant political capital on each of them. It seems to me that the President sincerely supports the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, but he has decided he can’t afford to spend political capital on the issue.

It’s easy for me to cut Obama some slack:  as a heterosexual Canadian, I have nothing personal at stake. And I understand the sad reality, that minority rights persistently get pushed to the bottom of the list of priorities, because there’s little political gain to be had.

But Obama doesn’t bear the fundamental responsibility. That lies with the American people, for making sexual purity a higher priority than national security.

It should be easy to sell this policy change. Instead there’s a political price to be paid, which forces every politician (including Obama) to look nervously over his or her shoulder. Homophobia:  at what cost to the nation?

Obama appeals for mutual understanding and respect

Some commentators have criticized President Obama’s speech in Cairo because it couldn’t be boiled down to any one, organizing thesis. For example, the L.A. Times quotes Professor Avraham Ben-Zvi, an expert on American-Israeli relations at the University of Haifa:

The speech was disappointing, addressing too many issues. When such high expectations are built up, one expects a founding declaration, a central thesis. This was more of a mixed salad. It touched many issues — although elegantly, but lacked a central thesis. […] in the end, it contained many trees but very little forest.

It seems to me, there’s an organizing principle that applies to almost every major address Obama delivers. The principle is the promotion of mutual understanding and respect.

Obama began:

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace. […] I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

At the outset, Obama indicated his awareness of, and empathy for, the experience of Muslims around the world:

The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Obama’s reference to modernity shows admirable sensitivity. Those of you who do not have roots in a conservative religion cannot possibly understand how threatening modernity is to many people. Reliance on God supplanted by reliance on science and technology. The separation of church and state as a Trojan horse for the promotion of secular humanism in public schools. Moral relativism making it impossible to assert any clear distinction between right and wrong. Promiscuity and homosexual rights following in the wake of moral relativism, and new technology bringing pornography into mainstream society. Court decisions leading to a Holocaust of aborted babies, with tax revenues used to pay for those abortions (effectively making every taxpayer complicit in them, at least here in Canada).

I don’t necessarily sympathize with that perspective on the world. But the point is, Obama’s passing reference to “the sweeping change brought by modernity” shows an awareness of the core sensitivity of religious conservatives everywhere — certainly including many Muslims.

Next, Obama acknowledges the West’s indebtedness to the historic learning of Muslim civilization:

The torture memos

Today, President Obama released four memos to the public. The memos were written by the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush Administration. The memos authorized interrogators to use so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” when interrogating suspects in the war on terror.

But let’s call torture, torture. As Glenn Greenwald emphasizes, the Office of Legal Counsel was aware that the U.S. government had condemned the same practices when other countries employed them.

The US government denounced some of those practices explicitly as torture. Here’s a key quote from one of the memos:

Each year, in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the United States condemns coercive interrogation techniques and other practices employed by other countries. Certain of the techniques the United States has condemned appear to bear some resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques.

Those are weasel words. It isn’t merely that “certain of the techniques” bear “some” resemblance to CIA interrogation techniques. We’re talking about a whole range of practices, which are the very same practices that the torture memos authorize.

For example, when Indonesia utilized food and sleep deprivation, the USA condemned it as “psychological torture”. And the discussion of Egypt refers to “stripping and blindfolding victims; suspending victims from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beating victims … and dousing victims with cold water” as “methods of torture”.

The memo goes on to say that the condemnation of such practices is only a matter of diplomacy, and therefore of “limited relevance”. The memos thus proceed to provide CIA interrogators with legal cover when they practice those same, condemned, methods of torture.

President Obama continues to resist demands (widespread among left-leaning bloggers) that the US government prosecute Americans who authorized or participated in the torture regime. But I would like to highlight one part of the statement the President delivered today:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.

Note the phrase, “in good faith”. In a very lawyerly way, President Obama has left the door open for the prosecution of individuals whose actions were not “in good faith”.

I’m intrigued by that, particularly as it extends to the lawyers — for example, then Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee — who authorized the practice of torture. Were they themselves acting “in good faith”?

More likely, they knew full well that the official legal advice they were proferring was bogus. But they wrote the memos anyway, in order to carry out the wishes of their political masters.

When you knowingly profer bogus legal advice, it doesn’t count as “in good faith”.

I guarantee that Bybee, Gonzales and others are looking over their shoulders these days. This story isn’t going to blow over in a matter of weeks. It’s going to play out for years, if necessary, but one day these men are likely to be held accountable for their deeds.

Hopefully, accountability will reach all the way to the offices of Vice President Cheney and President Bush. “The buck stops here” — remember that maxim?

President Obama doesn’t have enough on his plate

According to Andrew Sullivan, President Obama hasn’t got enough on his plate just yet. Oh, sure, Obama is:

  • trying to extricate the USA from Iraq;
  • trying to devise a winning strategy for Afghanistan/Pakistan;
  • confronting an extremely serious economic crisis;
  • setting out to reform the healthcare system; and
  • setting out to tackle climate change

— all in his first term.

But that’s not a busy enough agenda for Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan wants the President, in his spare time, to champion equal rights for gays and lesbians:

I wonder how Obama would have felt if Truman had followed the same path of cowardice and convenience in 1948, when racial integration was far more contentious in the military than gay integration is today. Or whether he would have applauded if the NAACP had decided that inter-racial marriage was too big a step for them in 1967 and they’d be content with calling it a “civil union.” On the matter of civil rights in his own time, alas, the first black president has so far demonstrated the courage of a Clinton [i.e., soothing words, but no courage].

Andrew Sullivan with husbandAndrew Sullivan (on the left) with his husband More

The page turns

The Bush Administration prisoner, torture and rendition apparatus was effectively dismantled today with four pen strokes.

That’s Marc Ambinder, commenting on the orders that President Obama signed yesterday. I’ll continue to follow Ambinder’s account, except that I’ve reformatted it.

  1. prisoner:
    President Obama convened a panel to determine how to close the Guantanamo Bay detainee prison within a year. […] He ordered the government to give the International Committee of the Red Cross immediate access to detainees. All CIA “black” [i.e., secret, hidden] detention facilities will be closed.
  2. torture:
    He ordered that all intelligence gatherers limit their interrogation techniques to the published Army Field Manual, revoking Executive Order 13440, the now infamous Bush administration gloss on the Geneva Conventions. […] He explicitly rejects the legal advice promulgated by President Bush’s legal counsel on interrogation policy.
  3. rendition:
    Renditions to countries that are known to torture prisoners will be stopped.

In relation to torture, I love this point:  He explicitly rejects the legal advice promulgated by President Bush’s legal counsel on interrogation policy. Ben Smith supplies a direct quote:

The Order also prohibits reliance on any Department of Justice or other legal advice concerning interrogation that was issued between September 11, 2001 and January 20, 2009.

I don’t know how this plays in the USA, but it will definitely receive two thumbs up from the international community.

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