Richly rendered: It snowed quite a bit this weekend. Tomorrow, were heading to Maine. Snow tires willing, THE HOWLER will return on December 30.
This has been a stunningly ludicrous year. Over the holidays, riddle this:
UNNAMED COLUMNIST (12/20/09): The most lethal example, of course, were the two illusions marketed to us on the way to Iraqthat Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and some link to Al Qaeda. That history has since been rewritten by Bush alumni, Democratic politicians who supported the Iraq invasion and some of the news media that purveyed the White House fictions (especially the television press, which rarely owned up to its failure as print journalists have). It was exclusively bad intelligence, were now told, that pushed us into the fiasco. But contradictions to that bad intelligence were in plain sight during the run-up to the wareven sometimes in the press. Yet we wanted to suspend disbelief. Much of the country, regardless of party, didnt want to question its leaders, no matter how obviously they were hyping any misleading shred of intelligence that could fit their predetermined march to war. Its the same impulse that kept many from questioning how Mark McGwires and Barry Bondss outlandishly cartoonish physiques could possibly be steroid-free.
Youre right! Only Frank Rich would pivot from WMD to Barry Bonds physique, as a way of pretending to be insightful about our wider culture. (Only he would build a year-end column around the failures of Golf Digest.) But heres your assignment, if you choose to accept it:
Read through Richs columns from the era in question to see if he ever said a word about Saddam and WMDabout the contradictions which he says were in plain sight. We accepted that challenge yesterday. Once again, we were quite struck when we saw which politicianwhich of our leadersRich himself seemed to criticize most during that fateful period.
No, it wasnt President Bush. But then, this has been a ludicrous decade. Perhaps we all need a short break.
Special report: The culture of scary stories!
PART 4A SCARY YEAR: Mickey Kauss ballyhooed Feiler Faster Thesis never seemed quite so on-point.
When David Leonhardts Economic Scene piece appeared in the Times on December 9, we thought it would make a good framework for reviewing this years gruesome health care debate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/18/09). By now, we can barely remember why.
In large part, we liked the way Leonhardt wrote about the way scary/scare stories drive our national politics. (Though he didnt go into much detail about the way these scare stories work.) But so much has happened just in the past week, its hard to remember why we wanted to write about Leonhardts piece at all.
In our view, this years discussion has been a disaster in many waysan education in others. In part, the process has given progressives a large opportunitya chance to help the public see the way big corporate powers now rule.
Alas! Its unlikely that we progressives and liberals will seize that opportunity. In fact, were no smarter than anyone elseand were dumber than the big powers who drive the nations narratives from within conservative think tanks. Beyond that, we hold many voters in massive contempt. As liberals, it doesnt even occur to us that we must reason withpersuadethese voters. We prefer to call them names, then screech as their elected reps vote against our bills.
(Youre right! That process would take decades!)
Will we liberals function smartly, in long-term ways? Well believe it when we see it! Which brings us around to the world of the press corps. Within the press corps, this years health care discussion has been so incoherent, in so many ways, it demands the invention of a new word for what lies beyond incoherent. Consider just a few examples, out of dozens:
Bending the curve: On yesterdays Meet the Press, David Gregory scolded David Axelrod about the proposed health bills effect on health care costs. Gregory was angry, very angry. And he was very dumb:
GREGORY (12/20/09): I want to press you on one other point that needs to be challenged, it seems to me. The president said this week that this legislation will bend the cost curve. Now, I take that to meanyou bend the cost curve, that health care costs begin to come down. In fact, in this legislation, and not just those familiar with it but other experts I've talked to say it's not the case. It will not actually bring costs down. In fact, over a 10-year period, costs will go up. They may be contained, but they are going to go up. Health care costs do go up. There are only pilot programs in this legislation, only pilot programs that actually bend the cost curve. This is not reform when it comes to bringing down overall health care costs.
AXELROD: Well, I'd say a few things about that. Every, all of the health care economists look at this bill and say it contains many or most or all of the sort of major devices that have been talked about for lowering care. The bill, the amendment that was added yesterday will quickly expand these pilot projects as they work nationally. And, you know, you can look at what the CBO has saidit's going to reduce deficits by $132 billion in the first year, by $1 trillion in the next year, and it's going to slow the advance of health costs, and it's going to save thousands of dollars in premiums for the average family over the next decade.
GREGORY: That's slightly different than saying that health care costs are actually going to start coming down...and that is the priority initially the president talked about.
AXELROD: No. The president said we have to slow the growth of these premiums, which have doubled in the last 10 years and will double again in the next 10 years or more if we don't act.
Good God. All year long, journalists and politicians have built discussions around a totemic termbending the (cost) curve. But what does it mean when you pledge to do that? What exactly does it mean when you say that youre going to bend the curve? On yesterdays program, late in December, Gregory finally announced what this totemic term had always meant to him. To him, it meant that health care costs (whatever that highly general term means) would be lower in the future than they are in the present.
Axelrod replied that bending the curve only means that the growth in these costs will be slowed.
Gregory is an important person. He hosts a very important weekly news program. Within that forum, he has had the whole f*cking year to clarify this central point. But he has been too dumbtoo utterly, groaningly dumbto take a shot at this problem.
Until this week, when he finally lets us know what he thought all year.
Buying insurance across state lines: This morning, Joe Scarborough offered a simple package of health care reforms. His simple package had three simple parts. He proposed getting rid of anti-trust exemptions for insurance companies; enacting tort reform; and allowing people to buy health insurance across state lines.
Consider just that third proposal. This proposal has been endlessly mentioned this year, almost always by Republicans. Anyone who watches cable news has heard it advanced again and againand then, again and again after that. It gives the impression that theres a simple solution to the problem of rising insurance costs. This is pleasing to those whose tribal instincts tilt to the right.
Our question: Have you ever seen a major news org attempt to analyze/explain this proposal? For ourselves, we have not. What are the objections to this simple-sounding proposal? For ourselves, we remain quite unclear. But then, so too with an endless range of seminal health reform topics. This years discussion has been characterized by a near-absolute refusal to explain on the part of the mainstream press.
A few examples:
We never saw our major newspapers try to explain how the process called reconciliation would have worked. We liberals continued to plead for its use. But did we have any way of knowing what the possible down-sides might be?
We never saw our major newspapers make any serious attempt to untangle the abortion rights debate, the one involving Capps, Stupak and the latest bizarre proposal.
Most amazingly, we never saw any attempt to explain why our country spends so much on health care, as compared with every other developed nation. This topic was simply wiped from the earth. Most citizens have no idea how badly they are being lootedor who is doing the looting. (We liberals complain about insurance companies. Is that really all it is?)
Why cant you buy insurance across state lines? We dont have the slightest idea. But then, very few people have any idea how any part of proposed reform works. Nor do voters have any real way to understand our national health care mess. Within our culture, the very notions of clarity and explanation have virtually ceased to exist.
Down with the filibuster: Within this devolving intellectual culture, almost nothing ever makes sense. This morning, Paul Krugman writes a sane, intelligent piece about the effects of the Senate filibuster. But Krugman has long been the odd man out within our upper-end press corps. In the Washington Post, writing on the very same topic, E. J. Dionne continues to promulgate this nonsensical, screeching claim:
DIONNE (12/21/09): In a normal democracy, such [simple] majorities would work their will, a law would pass, and champagne corks would pop. But everyone must get it through their heads that thanks to the bizarre habits of the Senate, we are no longer a normal democracy.
Because of a front of Republican obstruction and the ludicrous idea that all legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes, power has passed from the majority to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.
Worse, more influence in this system flows to those willing to kill a bill than to those who most devoutly want to pass one. The paradox in this case is that senators who care most passionately about extending health coverage to 31 million Americans have the least power.
Lets assume that the 60-vote requirement is in fact a ludicrous ideathat we are no longer a normal democracy because of this Senate procedure. Equally ludicrous is the idea that this 60-vote requirement somehow hands power to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one. Under the 60-vote requirement, it takes a minority of forty-one to take power from the majority. No tiny minority, no minority of one, can seize this power, any more than sometimes happens with bills which require fifty votes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/09).
But we live in a world where the center cannot hold, where intellectual anarchy has been loosed upon the world. Krugman is perfectly lucid today. But in accord with prevailing press culture, Dionne cant open his mouth on the same topic without screeching out a strange claim. This practice isnt good for the world.
You may agree with Dionnes overall view on this matter. But in a world where (almost) no one can reason at all, The Interests will almost always hold sway. By the way: Just three paragraphs later, Dionne correctly explains an important fact of lifeanother fact which has rarely been explained in this long, ridiculous year:
DIONNE: What transpired was thus not the product of some magic show in which more conservative senators are endowed with mysteriously ingenious negotiating abilities while liberals are a bunch of bunglers. The whole system is biased to the right because the Senate itselfa body in which Wyoming and Utah have as much representation as New York and Californiais tilted in a conservative direction. The 60-vote requirement empowers conservatives even more.
Its true! At present, small rural states tend to tilt to the right. This means that the Senate system is in fact biased in that direction. Had this been explained a few times this year, we liberals might have understood two basic facts of Senate life:
First, its a virtual political miracle that the current Senate includes 58 Democrats, plus the progressive Sanders.
Second, there will likely never come a day when the Senate includes sixty liberals. The current Senate has nothing resembling sixty liberalsnever did, all year long.
By the way: Under the rules of our intellectual culture, Dionne is required to make another odd statement. The 60-vote requirement empowers conservatives even more? We have no idea why that would be true as a general principle. Indeed, if the whole Senate system is biased to the right, one might think that the filibuster would tend to empower liberals, who would tend to be in the minority. (Of course, the Senate has rarely contained as many as forty-one liberals, which may help explain why the filibuster has been used less often from the left.)
Leonhardt wrote about scary/scare stories. For decades, such scare stories have tended to drive our politics. But why do scare stories work?
In large part, scare stories work because we voters know so little. In part, we know very little because of the work of the mainstream pressand because of the failures of us liberals. In the 1990s, we liberals sat and twiddled our thumbs while leaders of the more liberal party were demonized and lied about, often in the most ludicrous ways. But theres more:
For four or five decades, we have sat around while pseudo-conservatives spread potent controlling narrativesframeworks which tilt our debates to the right. In the case of health care, these story lines have long ruled:
Big government never did anything right.
National health care has failed everywhere its been tried.
We have the best health care in the world.
Voters hear these stories, again and againand often come to believe them. For decades, we liberals have tolerated a world in which career liberalspoliticians and journalists alikehave failed to attack these dominant narratives. Have failed to construct the alternatives.
Why do conservative story-lines rule? Why have liberals failed to react? Is it possible that people like Dionne were never liberals in any real sense? That they were mainly career players? Potemkins?
Conservative voters tend to believe the stories they hear from the right. Over the course of the past fifty years, what have these folks ever heard from us? When they considered health reform this year, which progressive narratives did they hear in their heads?
The answer to that is simplenone. Our side has tended to snooze in the past fifty years. The results can be seen all around us. This problem wont change overnight.
Final point: We agree with Dionnes conclusion, at least in principle:
DIONNE: Start organizing for the next health-care fight. Enactment of a single bill will not mark the end of the struggle. It will open a series of new opportunities. It's a lot easier to improve a system premised on the idea that everyone should have health coverage than to create such a system in the first place. Better to take a victory and build on itto accept this plan as a "starter home," in Sen. Tom Harkins apt metaphorthan to label victory as defeat.
Successful political movements prosper on the confidence that they can sustain themselves over time so they can finish tomorrow what they start today. At this moment, rage is understandable, but hope is what's necessary.
Dionne is selling hope again! In fact, to continue the health care fight, progressives will have to tell the voters how much theyre being lootedand by whom. At the Post, Dionne has had decades to accomplish this task.
Have you seen him try?
In fact, that framework is massively AWOL from our political culture. During this year, do you think that framework entered even one voters head?