Sunday, August 30, 2009


The most interesting facet of our national health care debate is how reluctant we are to discuss the topic as a matter of principle. Tens of millions of Americans are uninsured, or woefully underinsured, but for some reason the rest of us don’t feel any great compulsion to insure them. “What’s in it for us?” we seem to be saying. “We’re already in debt. Haven’t we spent enough money already?”

Actually, a strong argument can be made that you can reform the health care system AND save money – it’s that inefficient. But even if we discount that argument, we still have the problem that our nation seems to be an absurd profile in inequality. We have several hundred billionaires, and more than 800,000 families with a net worth of $5 million or more, and yet we can’t seem to pony up the money to insure the health care of hard working American citizens. What exactly does that say about us? And what does it say that in the age of Obama – an age where, supposedly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has been realized – we don’t seem to give a whit about economic equity?

I raise these issues today, a Sunday, because this is “church day” in America. This morning, ministers all over the country will be talking about the mission of Jesus Christ – one of ultimate sacrifice, of passionate concern for the needy, of profound compassion, of … I can’t even finish the sentence. The absurdity of this being a “Christian country” that excels in In-equality has become a cliché. “Religious hypocrisy” isn’t exactly an oxymoron, now, is it? So it wouldn’t surprise anyone if, at a time of great opportunity to take care of our needy, our ministers’ sermons will neglect to mention our health care obligations to the working class. Rather than treating our health care debacle as a matter of “principle,” these ministers are more likely to treat it as a matter of “principal” – meaning that the principal on our national debt is huge, and we dare not ask our zillionaires to increase their taxes to pay it down. So, if you’re uninsured, best come to church and pray like hell you stay healthy.

The decision to insure our uninsured should be an easy one, for any ethical man or woman of principle. But believe it or not, it’s not the issue of “principle” most on my mind at the moment. To me, this nation faces an even more profound test than whether we intend to address our economic inequality. I say that because, deep down, we all know that we should care for our nation’s needy – just like, fifty years ago, every churchgoer knew they were obliged to treat African-Americans like human beings. The issue that’s on my mind isn’t nearly as obvious to the Abrahamic mind. It involves, you see, two goals that squarely conflict with each other – the goal of protecting innocent human lives, and the goal of behaving like a civilized people. I’m speaking, in case you can’t yet tell, about the propriety of Government-sponsored torture.

I can read your minds already. “Did he just say there are two sides to the torture issue? Is he serious? Torture is inhumane. Plus, it doesn’t even work. This is a lose-lose proposition. When we torture, we simply breed hatred of America – and inspire future terrorism. Case closed!”

I must say, that has been, and still is my perspective. You’ve smoked me out on that one. But just for laughs, what do you say we investigate whether that summary is a tad too simplistic? What do you say we channel Dick Cheney and sincerely inquire into the issues of whether sometimes Government-sponsored torture actually “works,” and if so – and if it works well enough, and saves enough lives – would Americans still oppose it as a matter of “principle”? I’m guessing that if we won’t even care for our uninsured, and the only thing at stake is multi-millionaires’ taxes, we’d go ahead and approve the torture.

So … back to the facts. Yesterday, in the Washington Post, the lead story involved Khalid Sheik Mohammed. You all know him as the “mastermind” of the 9/11 bombings. But did you know the following? According to the Post, he morphed “into what the CIA called its ‘preeminent source’ on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.” The Post quoted a source as saying that Mohammed “seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the group’s plans, ideology and operatives.” Why, you might ask, was torture so effective? Because, a source said, “once the harsher techniques were used on [detainees], they could be viewed as having done their duty to Islam or their cause, and their religious principles would ask no more of them. After that point, they became compliant. Obviously, there was also an interest in being able to later say, ‘I was tortured into cooperating.’”

The Post’s article went on to discuss how information from detainees allowed Government agents to round up suspected terrorists in the U.S. and abroad, and how in mid-2003, the Government was able to develop a list of 70 such suspected terrorists. The article’s implication was clear: for this harvest, we may well have torture to thank.

I raise these points not to stimulate some sort of torture-lust, but to remind you that being a “person of principle” often has its price. It’s simply too easy, for example, to oppose capital punishment because “nobody’s proved it has a deterrent effect.” The interesting question is, but what if it did have a bit of a deterrent effect; would you still oppose it as a matter of principle? And the same type of question can, and should, be asked about Government-sponsored torture. What if we believed that it could be effective in preventing terrorist attacks; would we support it? Or would we say to ourselves that Nazis and Klingons torture; civilized peoples do not. Period.

The latter is still my attitude, but I do understand why others disagree – they see big buildings and nuclear power plants NOT exploding because of the dirty work that, to them, simply has to be done. Human lives, after all, are at stake.

And that leads to me think, once again, about health care reform. Human lives (and the torture of untreated illnesses) are at stake there too, which is why many of us believe that reform is so essential as a matter of principle. What’s the principle at stake on the other side of the debate? Exactly why is our affluent society unwilling to provide health care for the working class? What great public interest would be furthered by denying these Americans the same health care the rest of us enjoy? The only thing I can think of is the “interest” of selfishness. I’m sorry, but particularly during the week that Ted Kennedy died, I’m unwilling to take that principle seriously.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I first heard about Ted Kennedy's cancer when I was in Portland, Oregon, going door-to-door for then U.S. Senate candidate, Steve Novick. Novick, like Kennedy, was a champion of the little man, an unabashed liberal. Had Novick been elected, he would have worked tirelessly for meaningful health care reform -- Teddy Kennedy's fundamental goal as a statesman. Novick would have unleashed strong, fiery statements against the politicians who take zillions of dollars from the health care companies and then fight to ensure that those companies continue to enjoy eye-popping profits, while tens of millions of Americans remain uninsured. And, in making passionate appeals to our better angels, Novick wouldn't have spared his fellow Status-Quo Democrats (aka "SQD's" or "DINO's" -- Democrats in Name Only). He would have called a spade a spade.

In short, Novick would have fought like a tiger to support the cause of a true lion.

Today, on shows like Morning Joe, all the pundits are falling all over themselves to praise our most recently deceased celebrity. They cannot say enough good things about Kennedy the Senator, and Kennedy the Man.

Well, my pundits, if you truly want to honor a dead celebrity, I suggest that on this occasion, you have a rare opportunity to do so. What do you say that in the next few weeks, you look closely at the health care legislation that is being proposed by the Administration, as well any alternatives proposed by Administration critics. Figure out which approach best comports with the principles of Ted Kennedy -- and I mean Kennedy the compromiser as well as Kennedy the progressive. Figure out, in short, what Teddy would advocate if he were alive and vigorous. Surely, he would want a bill that would have the support of as much of America as possible. Then again, he would also want a bill that is truly MEANINGFUL reform, and not just some attempt to tinker around the edges of the system.

America elected a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress. And they have a chance to pass legislation that would address what nearly all Americans -- and virtually all Democrats -- would agree is a fundamentally flawed system. I submit that the standard we should follow in figuring out how to deal with this situation is to ask a simple question: "What would Ted Kennedy do?" Lately, even some Senate Republicans have used him as a role model, suggesting that if he were in full form, he would never support the heavy-handed way the Administration is handling health care. Well ... if those Republicans are right, so be it. But are they right? And if so, would Kennedy advocate a willingness to compromise on the public option, or to fight for it even more strenuously than the Administration has done to date?

I think I know the answer. I suspect you do too. Whether the yentahs on Morning Joe know the answer -- or even think to address the question -- is something yet to be seen.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


“I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times. I do think that for example the 1980 was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

The above is a direct quote from Barack Obama back before he was the Democratic nominee for President. Hillary jumped all over those words, claiming in essence that they sold out Democratic Party values. But a number of us, myself included, passionately defended Barack for courageously giving credit where credit is due. After all, even the most staunch Reagan-hater recognized that the Gipper was light years better than W and many of the other Republican leaders of today, and besides, you’d have to be blind not to see in Reagan a major force behind the end of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.

Can I point to a bunch of things Reagan did that made my skin crawl as a liberal Democrat? Sure. But he never said he would implement a progressive vision. He was always up front about who he was and what he stood for, and yet America elected him by clear margins. Even in 1980, when he ran against an incumbent President, he won big, just as Barack won big this past November. And when this recent election was over and Barack was celebrated in an Inauguration for the ages, I envisioned him serving the same role for the Democrats that the Gipper served for the Republicans.

Barack was right – Reagan merely “tapped into what people were already feeling”: frustration with a government that allowed a group of Iranian thugs to push us around while, at the same time, feeling the need to rein in private enterprises like an incompetent nanny. (If you’re too young to remember Jimmy “The Nanny” Carter as President, find that famous “Malaise Speech” and listen to it; his oratory was as depressing as a Bergman movie.) So what did Reagan do when elected? He filled the vacuum with standard Republican solutions -- less regulation, lower taxes, a muscular foreign policy, and appeals to simple patriotism. We can debate whether these were mostly positive or negative steps, but there should be no debate that the great republican experiment known as America (that’s “republican” with a small “r”) can only thrive when it permits the body politic to try out a variety of ideas. In other words, our democracy needs the elbow room to permit visions like Reagan’s to be implemented from time to time, just as it needs the room to permit progressive visions to be implemented from time to time. Hopefully, we can learn from these episodes and incorporate the lessons into our national consciousness. That’s how a republic is supposed to evolve. That’s how to keep America from becoming just another empire that got fat and happy and then, unwilling to grow, began inexorably to decline.

Forgive me, but when I read Barack’s praise about Reagan, I assumed – or should I say, I “dreamt” -- that he understood the above. I dreamt that he, too, looked forward to the day when we would elect a Democrat who “tapped into what people were already feeling” and who wasn’t afraid to confront the people’s frustrations. I dreamt that Barack realized that with W as President, the country was tired of the same old NON compassionate-conservativism and was ready to embrace a progressive vision, a vision that included, for example, universal healthcare. In short, I dreamt that Barack saw in Reagan a kind of role model for himself: a man who clearly stood well within the mainstream of his Party’s thinking, who was elected at a time when the country was unusually ripe to see that ideology implemented, and who had the charisma, communication skills, and cojones needed to persuade the country that it was high time to let her rip! The only difference would be that, in my dream, Barack would do for the progressive vision what the Gipper did for its conservative analogue.

As I type the above, I am reminded that dreams are typically not 100% rational. I have spoken as if Barack campaigned as a progressive, or at least viewed himself in that way. The truth is, though, that candidate-Barack often positioned himself as a post-partisan figure -- one who is less governed by ideology than by competence, to use the words of Michael Dukakis, and who is especially skilled at listening openly to all sides of an issue and identifying a synthesis that implements the best facets of each position. This is why Barack would appear to make such an ideal diplomat; this is why, if any American President can make inroads into forging a Middle East Peace, that President’s name is Barack Obama.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, because now is not the time when Barack is called upon to broker a Middle East Peace plan. Now is the time for Barack to help reform our over-stuffed and under-served health care system. For this task, we don’t so much need a diplomatic White House as one with a vision for which it’s willing to fight, and some political capital that it’s willing to spend. As they say in my profession, now is no time for Barack to act as a mediator; rather, it is his duty to act as an advocate. And yes, it was my hope that the reforms he would passionately advocate would be commonly known as “progressive.”

As I look back to the days of the Reagan White House, I can only imagine what they’d have been like had the Gipper enjoyed huge Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, including a filibuster-free Senate. What if, back then, we all agreed that a major sector of the economy was dangerously broken, and candidate Reagan had promised a solidly-conservative fix? And what if, after the election, the paltry group of Democrats who were left on that Hill had acted in the most obstreperous way imaginable, refusing even to compromise with the proposal that Reagan had sold to the American public when he was a candidate and continued to advocate as President? Do you think for a second that the Gipper would have backed down to those Democrats? Wouldn’t he have said, in essence, “I promised the American public a certain type of reform, and I’m first going to get on TV and state, once again, exactly what I promised and why I promised it. Then, I’m either going to deliver that reform … or the head of every Republican legislator who’s willing to sell out his President, his Party, and quite possibly his principles. As for the Democrats, they’re just being oppositional because they want their power back. So screw ‘em. They’re irrelevant because they’ve made themselves so. This is about the Republican Party – are we a Party, or are we a joke? What do you say we find out?”

That’s surely what the Gipper would say. I’m still waiting to hear from Barack. As of now, his lieutenants are saying one thing one day and something very different the next, and as a result, I haven’t a clue what Barack really thinks about health care. At least I always knew where Reagan stood.

There’s still time, Barack. There’s still time. But when you come back from hitting golf balls with Tiger on vacation, we need you to get busy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Is it just me, or are you beginning to get a sense of déjà vu? Travel with me in time back to March ‘08. Hillary Clinton had recently run her 3:00 a.m. Phone Call ad, invidiously comparing Barack Obama, her primary opponent, to the Republican candidate, John McCain. Then Hillary went on to win the crucial primaries of Ohio and Texas. It was game on. And Barack? He seemed hardly ruffled by the challenge, and came nowhere near responding in kind to Hillary’s attacks. After all, he was the one with the lead in delegates – not a huge lead, but big enough for him to at least limp to victory if he simply stayed the course. Why panic, then, and get overly negative against Hillary, whose support (and supporters) he needed in the fall?

His strategy played out to perfection. Hillary won Pennsylvania, the next big prize, but Barack continued to pick up enough delegates there, and in states like Indiana, North Carolina and Oregon, to maintain his lead. In the fall, when he needed Hillary’s support, she was there for him. The result, as we all know, was a landslide victory … and the most amazing Presidential inaugural celebration in recent memory, if not ever.

“No drama Obama,” the pundits called him. Clint Eastwood had never been so cool. But I remember last March hoping for a little more fight out of the guy. I didn’t want to see him throw haymakers at Hillary, but surely he could have drawn some blood of his own and still maintained his classy image. Bobbing, weaving and jabbing is all well and good, but sometimes, you’ve got to stop channeling your inner Sugar Ray Leonard and throw a few punches. I could have used seeing a bit more Marvin Hagler in Candidate Obama. And right now, I could use seeing a LOT more Hagler, in President Obama.

I’m thinking, of course, about the national comedy known as the “Health Care Debacle.” If it weren’t so important, it would surely go down in the annals of American political theatre as among our most sublime comic episodes. The Democratic Party splits into two types of dogs – blue and yellow. Attendees at town meetings are also split into two groups – those who show up with loaded guns, and those who vent their spleens like hecklers at a ball game. Republican statesmen use vicious rhetoric to condemn some of the same measures they’ve supported in the past. Then again, why shouldn’t they behave like shameless demagogues? As Dylan said, “when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose!” Finally, at the heart of it all – at the eye of this comic storm – is the unflappable one, No Drama Obama. He simply smiles and touts his “plan.” Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what that plan is, other than to announce his support for more universal health insurance and then to punt to Congress the question of how best to get that done.

When Barack speaks about Middle East peace, you get the impression that he has a vision, and he’s just waiting for the region to demonstrate that the conditions are ripe for all sides to entertain that vision. When, however, Barack speaks about health care reform, you don’t get the sense that he’s vested in, let alone passionate about, ANY particular vision. He just wants “a bill,” and he’s willing to compromise as much as necessary to make that happen.

Perhaps the President thinks he’s implementing the same strategy that worked so well for him in the primaries AFTER he took his delegate lead. Perhaps he thinks that because both houses of Congress are strongly Democratic, and the GOP doesn’t even have filibuster power, he holds all the cards. If that’s his position, he may be about to make the first huge blunder of his Presidency.

When it comes to implementing meaningful and substantial health care reform, the burden of persuasion falls entirely on the reformers. They’re the ones trying to rock the boat. They’re the ones trying to take on an industry that is as well-financed as it gets. Sure, the reformers have some natural allies – the tens of millions of Americans who are currently uninsured. But how much political power do the uninsured have? How many of them serve in Congress? Or shower Congressmen with campaign contributions?

If Barack were to ask me, I’d tell him that the better analogy isn’t to March of 2008, but to March of 2007. Back then, he was the underdog who was taking on his party’s most powerful machine in decades. He didn’t seize the lead by appearing visionless. When asked what he planned to do, he didn’t say “Ask Congress to come up with some bill, and I’ll sign it.” Instead, he proposed specific plans and he strove to project specific visions wherever he had them – civil/human rights, world peace, and political reforms come immediately to mind.

Sitting here today, I know virtually nothing about what Barack Obama thinks about health care reform. Worse yet, when he makes statements about the cost of such reform, I have no confidence that he’s on the level. From all appearances, this administration has no problem acknowledging, summarily, that reforms can be costly, but when it comes to specifics, the projections are invariably optimistic. With Barack’s support, we’ve increased our national debt by the trillions already with the help of initiatives that were touted through optimistic calculations. You don’t have to be a town-hall crazy to ask for a little specificity and a lot of candor when it comes to figuring out how much further into debt we’d get if we reformed our health care system.

Personally, I know plenty of health care providers and others who have passionate views on what we must do to implement reform in as cost-efficient a manner as possible. Steve Novick, who ran last year for the U.S. Senate, has expressed his views to me, and he states them with conviction. If Barack has convictions of his own, now might be the time to share them with the American public. Stop throwing out the word “compromise” every five seconds. Stop acting like you could give a rat’s ass about cost containment. Tell us what you think we should do, why we should do it, and how much it is most likely going to cost us – not how much it is going to cost us under the most optimistic possible scenario. And then fight like hell to get your plan enacted.

Remember those 3:00 a.m. Phone Call ads, Barack? Maybe you need to find the schmuck who came up with them and lay the wood to the demagogues, just like Hillary did to you. As one of your predecessors might have said, “If you can’t stand throwing punches, then get out of the ring.”

Sunday, August 09, 2009


I’ve been gone all week -- gone from work, gone from my home, and best of all, gone from my computer. So I haven’t had time to type out a blog post, let alone conceive one. But I did have time to check a few e-mails when I got home this afternoon, and one of those particularly sparked my interest.

A rumor is flying that within just a few months, Barack Obama is about to announce a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East – not a statement of a few principles, like what he came up with in Cairo, but an honest-to-God, detailed plan setting forth the nuts and bolts of a two-state solution. If this rumor is true, this will be the equivalent of a poker player going “All-In.” If the participants in the region reject the plan, our President may have blown his one and only chance to go down in world history as part of our species’ Diplomatic Pantheon. If, however, he’s successful, he wouldn’t just be part of the Pantheon – he’d be friggen Zeus!

I’m not sure this is the best time to wheel out a comprehensive plan. Judging from the reaction to the President’s Cairo speech, his standing in Israel might not be high enough to motivate the leaders in Jerusalem to make the necessary concessions. Then again, we desperately need peace in that region – for the sake of Israel’s good name as much as for the Palestinians’ welfare – and Barack Obama seems to have a genius for diplomacy. So maybe this is the time to remember his campaign slogan: “Yes We Can!” Yes We Can do the impossible. We Obama supporters helped a black man win Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida AND Ohio. And we lovers of peace can take to the streets and support Barack’s efforts in bringing together groups of people who have had sixty years to work out their struggle among themselves, and so far have failed miserably. Even many Israelis and Palestinians will tell you privately that they need American help to give peace a chance.

If Barack wants to wait a year or two before he goes All-In, I’ll calmly toast his prudence. But if Barack wants to take his shot, and follow that up by a full-court press on the part of Mitchell, the Clintons, and all the other American grey eminences who hunger for peace in the Holy Land … I’ll be the first person to support them wholeheartedly. Does that mean I will call on Israel and Palestine to rubber stamp everything Barack says? Of course not. The President fully knows that everyone must have a say here, and the negotiations will be time-consuming and ugly. That’s to be expected and accepted. What we cannot accept is failure.

So, my friends, the next time you go to your local church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship and hear yourself mouthing a prayer for peace, think about our President’s choice. Think about how fateful it is – not merely WHAT he proposes, but WHEN he proposes it. And get yourself ready right now to throw your efforts behind the President – if not in every detail of his proposal then at least in his conclusion that the time for a Middle-East peace is now and all sides need to get in the mindset of compromise. As with the health care debate, there will be plenty of special interests ready to attack the proposal. We need ALL friends of peace to muffle those interests. In short, we need all friends of peace – including YOU -- to organize and fight for a diplomatic compromise as passionately as our last Administration fought for war. There are plenty of peace groups around. Find one (or two) and get busy.