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THE SWELLS DON’T CARE! What ever happened to “affordable?” E. J. Dionne doesn’t care: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2009

The night of the over-interpreters: Last Saturday, the children dressed as goblins and ghosts. They came to your door to scare and impress you with threats and silly tales.

Tonight belongs to the over-interpreters. Every four years, on this very night, these adults put costumes on too. They enter your homes with silly tales about the off-off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey.

This year, a meaningless House race is thrown in the mix, providing room for more blather.

Is it possible to draw lessons about the nation’s political mood from today’s gubernatorial contests? Possibly. But it’s hard to say what those lessons might be—unless you’re watching cable “news,” in which case the lessons may be quite clear.

More specifically: If Corzine wins by one percent, it will surely mean some significant thing. If he loses by one point, it will mean something different.

Remember: These aren’t just the dumbest people on earth, they’re also over-paid entertainers. They aren’t just willing to feed you pap—they’re trying to make you like them. Last night, the analysts groaned when the Maddow Show started with some of the host’s trademark, “hey-look-at-me” clowning. Maddow emoted about how excited she is, looking ahead to tonight’s returns. We had two reactions:

Actually, no—she isn’t.

If she is, it helps us see how gruesome cable can be.

(To watch the host’s clowning, click here.)

In every “off-off” election since 1977, Virginians have elected a governor from the “out” party—from the party which isn’t controlling the White House. (Victory margins may differ.) But so what? This night belongs to the over-interpreters. They will tell you what it means when it happens for the ninth straight time.

They want you to think they are handing out treats. Our warning: Look out for their tricks!

The morning of the over-interpreters: If you read halfway into Jeff Zeleny’s report in today’s New York Times, you finally get a fact, of sorts:

ZELENY (11/3/09): The Iowa Poll, published in September by The Des Moines Register, showed that Mr. Obama's approval rating had fallen to 53 percent, from 64 percent in April. In interviews around the state, the economy emerged as one of the most worrisome undercurrents.

In short, Obama’s changed standing in Iowa roughly mirrors that found in the rest of the country. But Zeleny’s big, sprawling piece is all dressed up with snap, crackle and pop about Iowa’s privileged status in the world of Obama Interpretation. We had to chuckle at one point:

ZELENY: Interviews with voters across Iowa offer a window into how the president's standing has leveled off, especially among the independents and Republicans who contributed not just to his margin of victory in the caucuses here but also to the optimism among his supporters that his election would be a break from standard-issue politics.

For Democrats, the immediate peril of failing to hang on to some of these swing voters could play out Tuesday in the governor's race in Virginia, a state Mr. Obama wrested away from Republicans last year but where the Democratic candidate for governor has struggled to recreate Mr. Obama's enthusiastic coalition.

Say what? Will some of Iowa’s “swing voters” be casting ballots today in Virginia? That isn’t what Zeleny meant, of course. But there will be a lot of stretching displayed on cable tonight.

Zeleny interviewed (some) Iowa voters, asking what they think about Obama. There’s nothing automatically “wrong” with that practice. But it does leave room for lots of mischief.

Prepare for some pranksters tonight.

THE SWELLS DON’T CARE: Is there a progressive bone in the mainstream press corps’ body? We asked ourselves that question again as we read E. J. Dionne’s latest column, in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Under Obama, Dionne is mostly playing cheerleader. Under Clinton, he mostly kept quiet. Neither stance has been productive for those who would build a progressive politics. As he started yesterday’s column, Dionne was cheerleading for what lies ahead—and he was defining “health reform” down:

DIONNE (11/2/09): The next health-care fight has already started. It's the battle to define the bill that President Obama will eventually sign as a victory for consumers, taxpayers and the common good.

You might say this view is premature. Legislation has yet to pass the House or the Senate, there are differences between the two bodies, and some moderates still have doubts.

But barring astoundingly self-defeating behavior by Democrats, a decent bill will get to Obama's desk. He and his party will then own the most sweeping reform of the American social safety net since the passage of Medicare in the 1960s and, arguably, Social Security in the 1930s.

Both parties know this. That's why much of the rhetoric you'll hear in the coming weeks will not really be about whether to pass a bill. It will be designed to shape how the voters who will decide the 2010 elections—and, ultimately, the fate of health-care reform itself come to view the new system.

Dionne is certainly right about that coming rhetorical “battle.” Assuming that some sort of health reform passes, Republicans will try to say it stinks. Democrats will hail its greatness. And by the way: As he continued, Dionne was right about something else. There will be real advances—real “benefits”—in whatever reform bill passes. Dionne named some of those benefits—some of reform’s real gains:

DIONNE: These [benefits] include insurance reforms to ban lifetime limits on coverage and an end to "rescissions," under which insurers abruptly nullify patients' policies after they file claims. One of the most popular reforms in the bill—barring insurers from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions—wouldn't take effect until later. So the House bill creates an interim high-risk pool to help those who need coverage in the meantime.

There are also particular benefits for Medicare recipients, including an immediate reduction in drug costs, and a very popular provision that would allow parents to keep their children on the family health plan through age 26.

Dionne listed some real advances which will be included in any bill. But the analysts gagged as he neared the end of his column. In particular, note the way Dionne now defines our pending health reform. Does he have a progressive bone in his body, the sobbing analysts asked:

DIONNE: "People will be excited about 2013," said Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which shares jurisdiction on the health-care bill. "But there are enough benefits between now and then to keep them engaged and to keep them favorably disposed."

The key word here is "excited," and the central task of supporters of health-care reform is to elevate the discussion to the central question at stake: Will the United States join all the other wealthy democracies in providing nearly everyone with health insurance? Or will we kick away the opportunity?

Uh-oh! When the discussion about “health reform” started, liberals and Democrats were hoping to “join all other wealthy democracies” in providing universal, affordable health insurance. In this column, Dionne kicks “affordable” under the rug. Yes, this proves he’s a Serious Person. But is there a progressive bone in the gentleman’s body?

What ever happened to “affordable?” Plainly, this part of reform has been disappeared—and the looting seems to have stayed in the system. Dionne doesn’t breathe a word of this, thus showing himself to be a team player—while keeping his readers barefoot and clueless about this bill’s apparent failure. Will any likely health reform bill address our mammoth over-spending, in which we spend two to three times as much, per person, as those other “wealthy democracies?” Will it address the stunning cost of insurance premiums for regular people? In today’s New York Times, Robert Pear’s report looks ahead to what the future may hold:

PEAR (11/3/09): As the House moved toward climactic votes on legislation to remake the health care system, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday that middle-income families might be required to pay 15 percent to 18 percent of their income on insurance premiums and co-payments under the proposal.

Democrats cited the figures as evidence that the legislation would reduce premiums for many low- and middle-income families who currently lack affordable coverage.

In Pear’s account, Democrats say future coverage will be “affordable.” But on their face, the claim he attributes to those Dems seems a bit hard to credit.

For the record, those middle-income families would be paying 15-18 percent of their pre-tax income for their health care. Does that sound like “affordable” health care? For various reasons, Pear’s analysis is hard to judge. But note one thing well: In a detailed discussion of health care costs for the average family, not a word is allowed to intrude about the stunning foreign experience, in which universal care is achieved at half (or less) the per-person cost we maintain over here. Once again, Times readers are kept from knowing a basic fact: Everywhere else, average people get health care at a massively lower cost than obtains over here.

Alas! In America, we tried “managed care.” Now, we’re having a “managed discussion.” A real progressive would scream and yell about the looting which seems to plague the system—about the massive, apparently unnecessary cost of health care for average people. But as the health reform project has proceeded, the looting seems to have stayed in the picture. In an unfortunate trade-off, the word “affordable” has largely disappeared.

E. J. Dionne is a Serious Person. On Monday, he kept his trap shut about a very large problem. The prospective bill will approach universal coverage. But what ever happened to affordable coverage? To us, the evidence seems rather strong: In the press corps, the swells just don’t care.

Grayson keeps it in the picture: On last night’s Countdown, Alan Grayson kept “affordable” in the picture. KO was slobbering just a bit as the straight-talker voiced the claim:

OLBERMANN (11/2/09): Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida, as always, to the point and succinct.

GRAYSON: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: And thanks for being both and for your time tonight.

GRAYSON: Thank you very much, Keith. We’re close to the end of this long, long road to affordable, universal, comprehensive health care in America.

Grayson said future health care would be “affordable,” producing this extended discussion:

OLBERMANN (continuing directly): Amen! Congratulations in advance!

GRAYSON: Thank you.

Does Olbermann have a progressive bone? If so, he should have Grayson back on Countdown tomorrow to answer a basic question:

Grayson! Affordable how? Compared to what? In what way will health care be “affordable?”

Tonight belongs to the over-interpreters. Why can’t tomorrow night belong to this basic issue?