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Archive for September, 2009

“Caught With Their Hand In The Cookie Jar,” Or Why The World Is Pretending To Be Surprised About Iran’s Nuclear Program

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

From the article  “Obama’s Iran Trap” in Foreign Policy:

The conventional wisdom on last week’s astonishing revelations about Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.

First off, you should treat any paragraph that begins with “the conventional wisdom” with deep skepticism, because what it really means is “what the chattering class thinks” and that’s never a good barometer of reality.  Secondly, how in the world is the fact that Iran has multiple sites for its nuclear program an astonishing revelation? Even cable news has been talking about this for four years, how airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear installations would involve hundreds of sorties on dozens of targets. Is the fact that President Ahmadinejad disclosed the existence of just one of the numerous sites that even the public knows exists, let alone the CIA or Mossad, really all that jaw-dropping?

Don’t be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.

Obama has not painted himself into any sort of corner with this declaration. Here’s why. This “astonishing” announcement is just yet another in a series of posturing United Nations pressers that have been going on since former president Bush threw down the gauntlet concerning the Iranian nuclear program years ago, and almost all of it has been for naught.

And the chance of an Israeli strike on Iran  against the wishes of  Washington is virtually nil. A little known story is that at the end of the Bush Administration, then-Prime Minister Olmert had decided that Israel would take out the nuclear facilites at Natanz and other sites with, of all things, nuclear bunker-busters, to reach the facilities deep underground. Apparently oblivious to the irony, the Israelis approached the Bush White House with a request for the latest in air-dropped tactical nukes, and Olmert was told in no uncertain terms by Bob Gates and Condi Rice that the United States would not support it. The strikes, which were far enough along that pilots were already flying practice sorties, were quietly  scrapped.

Besides that, an Israeli attack into Iran would require traversing Iraqi airspace. Under the new Status of Forces agreement, Iraqi airspace actually belongs to the Iraqis again, and their Shi’ite-dominated government is very buddy-buddy with the mullahs.

For one thing, it’s not clear that “the Russians” have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev’s advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin’s top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister’s ears and eyes on the ground.)

What we don’t know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he’s still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should “calm down” over Iran’s latest missile test and “not give way to emotions.”) And then there’s China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not sanctions are actually pushed through the Security Council, Iran has been under sanctions for well over a decade and doesn’t seem too distraught about it. The only sanctions that would truly hurt them would be oil sanctions, but there is no way in hell China or especially Britain would ever go for that. The faux-dramatic press conference is just the usual dog-and-pony show while the real action takes place in the smoky back room.

The real dope is that whether or not the Russians will support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, they are in a position to make Iran’s life difficult in much more meaningful ways. They are their main arms supplier and have been supplying them with nuclear tech and know-how. The deal that was struck to scrap the anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe seems to have been a straight-up horse trade with Medvedev (well, Putin really, as the article points out): Russia gets breathing room in the Near Abroad, and America gets transit rights involving Afghanistan and a stronger public stance from Moscow on an Iranian nuclear breakout. How much pressure Medvedev is willing to apply outside the auspices of the UN is the real question.

. . . .[T]he Iran issue is going to become a major headache for Obama. It’s going to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that Iran’s nuclear program, not West Bank settlements or the plight of the Palestinians, is the real crisis in the Middle East. It’s going to put wind in the sails of neoconservatives and Republicans in Washington, who are all too eager to paint the U.S. president as weak and ineffectual when Tehran doesn’t buckle. What is Barack going to do then? Bomb Iran himself and wreck his Middle East hopes? Let Iran go nuclear and turn the nonproliferation regime into a sick joke? Give sanctions “time to work” — and consign a generation of Iranians to radicalism, growing ethnic strife, and crushing poverty?

I’m not sure how much of a headache it’s really going to be, considering that no one in any position to affect American foreign policy should give a tinker’s damn what the American neoconservatives or the Likudniks (the Israeli neocons), especially Netanyahu, after seven years of watching that failed ideology drive our country’s national security and international clout off a cliff. Of course, there is a valid point to the observation, because our Very Serious journalists in the op-ed pages and cable news will hang on the prognostications of Bill Kristol et al. as if they have any credibility left after being spectacularly wrong about everything since 2002.

The one thing I wholeheartedly agree with is that Obama does not really have any good options concerning Iran, at least not if people expect the endgame to be Iran giving up their nuclear program. Like chess, where there are scores of possible opening moves but only a few that won’t result in your quick defeat, the president doesn’t have many diplomatic options to choose from. The absolute best-case scenario is that Iran only wants to attain a status like Germany and Japan, with no actual atomic built but the capability to put one together in a couple weeks if necessary. The more likely scenario, given that an Iranian nuclear breakout is virtually assured unless someone goes to war over it, is that America will have to switch its priorities from nonproliferation to counterproliferation, keeping Iran from selling its knowledge to even nuttier and more unstable Third World countries.

Much Love For The Steel City: The G-20 And The Rust Belt Renaissance

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

As the apparatchiks of the globalized economy departed my fair hometown this past Saturday, I am happy to report that Pittsburgh came out looking very well in pretty much all aspects. Our image as Steeltown USA (“hell with the lid off”) and/or a dying Rust Belt town crippled by the loss of the industry that defined us for generations has been put to bed, hopefully for good.

The most powerful men on the planet and their international entourages pleasantly surprised to find a formerly depressed city that had shed its industrial roots and reinvented itself for the information/service economy of the new century.  Maybe even a model for the dozens of other Rust Belt cities between the Mon Valley and Chicago dying a slow and painful economic death.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s some articles from the national and international media:

From Forbes:

. . . President Barack Obama sees in Pittsburgh a way forward for the American city in the 21st century. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “It’s an area that has seen its share of economic woes in the past but because of foresight and investment is now renewed–giving birth to … industries that are creating the jobs of the future. And I think [Obama] believes it would be a good place to highlight some of that.”

Pittsburgh boasts world-class culture and president-approved industries crucial to the growth of the nation (education, health care, technology, energy), but it will never be New York. Pittsburgh is also a conglomeration of neighborhoods, where mom-and-pop stores are still a staple and people greet their neighbors in the supermarket, but it’s no small town. In the city’s historic South Side, mega-chains like Urban Outfitters coexist with tiny consignment boutiques that have persisted for over a decade, and a Cheesecake Factory is just a stone’s throw from a row of old biker bars.

Pittsburgh is, in other words, a big city with a small-city mindset. Or maybe it’s a small city with big-city ideas. Either way, it is negotiating–sometimes precariously, sometimes with aplomb–a balance between these two spheres. As city councilman Bill Peduto says, “It is figuring out how to become global while staying local.” Which is perhaps the greatest challenge in this age of rapid globalization and economic turmoil.

From WaPo’s “Pittsburgh Shows How the Rust Belt Can Be Polished Up”:

Pittsburgh has shaken off its smoky image, transformed by an industrial collapse that drove out half of the city’s population in the early 1980s. As the Group of 20 gathers Thursday, members are more likely to ask what Pittsburgh can teach them than why they had to come here.The city’s unemployment rate is well below the national average. Wages and housing prices are stable or up. Nearby Cleveland has experienced rampant foreclosures, but here they are relatively uncommon.

The city’s main industries — health care and education — are thriving. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, an $8 billion health-care company, employs 50,000 people in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s health services business has almost tripled in size since 1979, creating more than 100,000 jobs.

It is quite a turnaround for a city that lost 120,000 jobs between 1981 and 1984, after its steel industry collapsed. Thousands of young residents fled the city to find work, and unemployment reached 17 percent among those who remained. Much as with Detroit today, many wondered whether Pittsburgh could continue to exist.

“But here we are, still a major center and doing well,” said Christopher Briem, an urban studies expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “The lesson is that there’s life after your defining industry dies.”

From the BBC, with the can’t-resist-the-stupid-pun headline “Pittsburgh Steeled to be Host City”:

Another [thought by the White House] was ensuring that the Pittsburgh story told a positive story about Obama’s America.

Later in the article. . .

And the symbolism?

Well, the population of Pittsburgh seems remarkably on-message. Local politicians, business leaders and folks in cafes and bars will all tell you the same story.

Pittsburgh – the grimy old steel town that was a powerhouse of American heavy industry and made its money under choking clouds of smoke from its mills and mines – is no more.

Locals have been making their feelings clear about declining industries

In its place is a clean, green example of regeneration. A city where pleasure cruisers carry tourists between the wooded banks of its three rivers and where people make a living in services such as health and education or in hi-tech business.

No-one puts it better than Frank Coonelly, president of the city’s baseball team the Pittsburgh Pirates: “It’s a remarkable transformation, not just of the economy but of the city itself from an industrial steel town to a city that now really is driven by hi-tech and service sectors.

“People who think of Pittsburgh as a smoky steel town, when they come in here this week they’ll see quite a different thing.”

It feels like the perfect message for the Obama administration to send out from a city which is about become the backdrop for 1,000 TV reporters from around the world.

And a piece from Voice of America on our new wave of immigration in a city that has always been defined by an ethnic makeup of Irish, Italian, “hunky” (those of Eastern European descent) and black:

European immigrants flocked to western Pennsylvania at the dawn of the industrial age to work in the steel mills and factories of Pittsburgh, which was the world-famous “Steel City” well into the 20th century. Over the past 50 years, however, heavy industry has been leaving Pittsburgh, along with tens of thousands of jobs. But over time Pittsburgh essentially “reinvented” itself, and the city is now best known for high-technology enterprises, medical specialties, banks and universities. That transformation has prompted a new wave of immigrants, this time including many from south Asia. Families originally from India now are one of Pittsburgh’s largest ethnic communities, and they are thriving.

Your Humble Author has to admit a certain amount of hometown pride in seeing a city that when I was a child and teenager was written off as another Gary, Indiana or Baltimore in the making become the example for other ailing metropolises to adapt to the 21st century.

The White House Strategy

Friday, September 25th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Responding to a previous post, commenter J made some very good points. I’ve been pretty busy recently between work and assignments and screaming children, so not yet having a chance to address them, I figure they deserve their own post. The response comes in two parts. The first:

if the rhetoric thus far has been of little importance, would there have been a big price to pay if the President had made his message “the public option is a really important piece of reform” rather than “the public option would be kinda nice” (which is at least how the White House position is being perceived)? I can’t imagine those messages would be that different if the desired end result is to “exhaust” the bipartisan process.

As far as I can say, the only thing I can take away from this is that the White House has basically wanted to take an ambiguous stance on the specifics of the bill. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First of all, you don’t really want to clearly define the “liberal Obama position,” because that sets up a pretty bright marker for “centrist” Democrats in Congress for ways in which they can alter the bill and then run to the cameras to proclaim they “broke with the White House” and “put a check on Obama.” Secondly, I’m really not sure you can overstate the degree to which the Obama team is trying to avoid what they see as the mistakes the Clinton administration made in pushing healthcare, chief among which was burning the gunpowder far too soon, and exhausting their capital before the Congressional meatgrinder did its dirty work. For better or worse, there really isn’t any way to work around that messy process, and the Obama team has made the decision upfront that they’re going to let Congress work, and try to keep the powder dry until they can be most effective, which is probably somewhere around the conference committee. But up until that point, I wouldn’t expect too many bright policy lines from the White House.


don’t you think that less “faulty messaging” on behalf of the White House could increase the pressure on some right-wing democratic senators, making them more likely to support a public option?

No. There really aren’t any mechanisms by which Obama can pressure truly intransigent Democrats, particularly in the Senate. If you look at Mary Landrieu, for example, she doesn’t have to run for re-election until 2014 when, presumably, Obama could have been voted out of office. Evan Bayh and Max Baucus are safe in their own right, and other marginal Democrats have their own agendas. I know some progressives imagine Obama threatening to cut off DNC or DSCC money, but the real truth of the matter is that Senators, by and large, don’t really need that money. Thanks to their long terms and disproportionate impact on policy, it’s fairly easy for incumbent Senators to amass substantial war-chests, even if they don’t really need them. Evan Bayh, for example, is currently sitting on about $14 million in available funds, even though he isn’t likely to face any sort of credible challenge. And institutionally, this sort of pressure has to come from the larger Senate caucus, not the President.

Are Liberals Killing Healthcare Reform?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I think Jon Chait overstates his case a bit here, in that I continue to believe that some form of reform that improves on the status quo is pretty much inevitable, but I do think he has a very good point, something that’s been bothering me for the past couple of months in the healthcare debate.

My liberal friends seem convinced either that Congress will reject health care reform, or that it will pass a meaningless palliative. The main exception among this admittedly unrepresentative sample consists of liberals who study health care reform for a living and those (like me) who regularly communicate with them. These wonks (and wonk acquaintances) all think Obama will sign a historic health care bill. Sadly, the wonk cohort is starkly outnumbered.So, it’s worth pointing out that, for all the flaws of the process, Obama appears to be on track to sign one of the towering social reforms in American history—the most important change in our social contract since at least 1965, or (I’d argue) even longer. Even the most conservative of the bills working its way through Congress would regulate the health insurance market to prevent the discriminatory practices that ruin the lives of the sick and make vulnerable workers fear to change jobs or strike out on their own. It would start to rationalize the practice of medicine and slow the explosive growth in costs that have gobbled up any growth in wages for many years. (The establishment of the Independent Medicare Advisory Commission, charged with targeting wasteful practices, would constitute a massive reform on its own.)

And, of course, every bill would establish a practical entitlement to health care. The extent of the coverage remains weak. But remember that the original Social Security Act not only offered meager provisions and no disability benefit— Got hurt in the factory and couldn’t work? Tough luck—it also excluded nearly half of the working population, including most women and African Americans. The important point was setting a new societal expectation of what constituted basic economic rights, which, over time, would be filled in so that the reality met the promise. Fifty years from now, the notion that people would die from lack of access to medical treatment, or lose their homes and life savings because they got sick, will seem as barbaric and foreign as the notion of the elderly dying in poverty did after the establishment of Social Security.

And some of this almost gives away too much. It’s a nice comfort mechanism to remember that Social Security started off stingy (and vey much non-progressive in the way it was used to reinforce the existing social structure by disadvantaging minorities and stomping on the burgeoning women’s movement), but it’s also worth remembering that we’re not done crafting the final product yet, and in all likelihood the subsidy level in the final bill is going to cover people up to 400% FPL, not 300%. Even without a public option, that’s a pretty good policy all around, and when you boil everything down, the only real argument you can find against it is that it would amount to giving insurance companies money, but, while I surrender to no one in condemnation of the entire premise of for-profit health insurance, simply not wanting to give insurance companies money doesn’t strike me as much of a reason to continue to leave tens of millions of people without any meaningful access to healthcare.

But the broader point is that there’s something of a chance that reform could be eaten by the tribalism of a certain segment of the progressive movement. And yes, I think tribalism is about the only way to understand it at this point. It’s certainly not really about policy, as you almost never get any discussion at all about what exactly the public plan should look like, how it interacts with other elements of the bill, or whatever. I haven’t yet seen, for example, any sort of reply to this concern raised by Yglesias, and shared by myself. But that’s probably because, you know, me and Matt are moderate sell outs who actually think reform that gets the 50 million or so uninsured Americans out there covered, and that it might not be the ultimate evil to give companies money in exchange for this coverage. Nevermind that both of us have expressed more affinity to British style nationalized healthcare than I’ve seen more or less anywhere else. We might as well just cut our checks to Third Way already, right?

Instead “The Public Option” is more of a litmus test than it is a policy question at this point. It’s something to signify your tribal loyalties. If you support a public option or nothing at all, you’re a Progressive in Good Standing. If you think a public option would be great, but it isn’t crucial to the bill, you’re a sell-out moderate who likes punching hippies and stealing money for insurance companies. That’s a generalization, obviously, and there are certainly some people (Scott Lemieux comes to mind) who have essentially tried to make a policy case for the former, but not very many. But for the most part, it’s just another example of the Markos/Bowers/Sirota/Hamsher contingent of the Netroots furthering the talk-radioization of that segment of the progressive movement. It’s politics as blood sport (which is fine with me), and policy as tribal loyalties (not so much). The public option is good and holy because it is, not because of any real serious look at the overall mechanisms and interworkings of policy.

Again, this is something of a generalization, and I certainly don’t want it to be taken as an accusation against progressives in general because, well because I’m a progressive. I think the first priority of any reform bill ought to be get coverage for uninsured Americans, so that access t healthcare becomes a basic right in this country. I think that’s a way of looking at things that’s perfectly in line with progressivism. I’d love to have a public, non-profit, insurance plan, and to a certain degree that’s an inevitability, but if the Blue Dogs and conservadems (who, for the record, I consider sociopaths) are honestly willing to torpedo the whole thing over that, then I’m willing to give it up, for now, to get those coverage expansions. I don’t particularly care if the Progessive Caucus has to be the Congressional Democrats’ red-headed step-child, I care whether or not we can get public policy that actually works for the majority of people. This doesn’t make me a sellout, it gives me a different set of priorities than Jane Hamsher and Chris Bowers.



The Speech

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

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Derek Jeter is chasing history, and there was other work to do too, so I haven’t watched the speech yet. I may have a post about it later, but I doubt it. I probably won’t have anything to add, and it probably won’t be worth remarking on anyway.

One thing I will say though, is that the Obama administration timed it perfectly. Plenty of people have noted that Bill Clinton did something similar, giving a September 1993 address on healthcare reform to Congress, which was exceptionally done, very well received…and completley useless. The reason for that, simply, was timing in the process. Clinton gave his speech as a sort of kickoff to the entire reform effort, which as we all know now was a massive mistake. Whatever room was opened by the successful speech closed sometime in the two full months that passed before the administration even submitted a bill to Congress, and was even further gone by the time Congress was even close to finished haggling over reform. By contrast, Obama is essentially kicking off the final stages of the process. Finance is set to kick out a bill, which will be reconciled with the HELP version and considered by the full Senate. We may have to take that to reconcilliation, withing two months we’ll probably have some sort of final bill out of Congress. The adminisration has taken some heat from all sides on how they’ve hanled the politics of this, but I think they deserve some credit for how they’ve conserved the ability of the President to step in and apply pressure, at the right time, to the debate.

Healthcare Reform and the Cableized Blogosphere

Monday, September 7th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Dear God, is August over yet? Sign me up with everything Booman says. Listen to him. Please. This nonsense is just too much.

I really, really, don’t understand Netroots bloggers at this point. The healthcare posturing has had them turning every which way pretty much everyday, based on who was saying what at which point. Now we’ve got them chastising Obama, who’s on record supporting a public option, “selling out” over the public option because some “anonymous aides” said they’d be ok if they got a bill which didn’t include one. And apparently the President can now pass bills without a majority of Senators signing on. Who knew?

Ultimately though, I think what you’re seeing here is the cableization (yeah, I think I just made that up) of the blogosphere, where the need for new angles and new content on a pretty much constant basis necessitates these sort of freak outs everytime there’s a new statement or a new act to the ongoing theater of passing a major reform bill. I don’t know about you, but where I come from people in politics don’t always mean what they say. And sometimes they say stuff that doesn’t really mean anything. And I think there’s been an awful lot of that over the summer on healthcare reform, as relevant players have sort of been riding out the legislative process, which still moves at a much slower pace than the sturn un drag of the cable/blog world. So at this point, the blogosphere probably isn’t a much better source of analysis of this sort of stuff than cable. With the eception of Ezra Klein. Read him. Ignore pretty much everything else.

As for healthcare reform itself, I think we’re pretty much where we were always going to be. Reconcilliation isn’t available until October 15th, so Finance is dragging its feet a bit, but other than that, everyone else is more or less ready to go. HELP has reported out a bill, the House could move on something whenever they wanted to, and we’re basically playing out what can get through the Senate. The Senate will move whatever they can easily to get the bill to conference, where the real fight will be. That’s when the White House will start leveraging its position, when the real lobbying will kick in, when the Senate will demand concessions (because that’s what the Senate does), etc. And, ultimately, we’re going to pass the best bill that can get through the Senate. Does that include a public option? I really don’t know. It’s easy enough to blame Obama for this or faulty messaging for that or whatever, but at the end of the day I really don’t know that there are 50 votes there for the public option in the Senate. Nelson, Landrieu, Carper, and Lieberman can all reasonably said to be publicly opposed to it, with leaves you with 55 potential votes (56 if Massachusetts appoints a temporary replacement for Kennedy), and that’s a group that includes Blance Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Evan Bayh, Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, Max Baucus, and Jon Tester. That’s certainly not the sort of math that indicates a clear majority of support in the chamber. Will the progressive caucus block a bill in the House without a public option? I don’t think so, at least not if it’s clear that the bill we get is obviously the most politically viable reform on the table, for a couple of reasons. First of all, most of the caucus members are experienced legislatures who aren’t likely to walk away fro progress they think is honestly and truly the most that can be accomplished at the moment. There’s a lot of rhetoric about not compromising on the public option because it is, itself, a “compromise from single payer,” but that just strikes me as dumb. The only reason single-payer is off the table is because it’s pretty clear it’s just not politically viable at the moment. And while I think you certainly want to start negotiations from a maximalist standpoint, I also think that still needs to be a point that is within the realm of the realistic. Johnny Damon might be having a great year and the Yankees may really want to bring him back next season, but if he walks in asking for a $25 million salary next year I think the Yankees are more likely to just walk away from the table right then than they are to significantly increase what they’re willing to pay him. This is also why opposition parties don’t usually begin their opposition to popular proposals by just announcing off the bat that they won’t support anything, because then you’ll get marginalized. It’s one thing if you have popular opinion on your side (see Nancy Pelosi and Social Security privatization), but it’s another if most people agree something has to be done.

In any event, I think we’re still on track to get a reform bill passed that will greatly expand access to healthcare, and I think there’s a very good chance that it could be universal, which is more than we’ve ever gotten before. Anything that achieves that goal should be perfectly fine with anyone who claims to care about the uninsured. Will it have more than that? It’s hard to say, but I’m fairly confident the Democratic leadership will pass the most robust bill they can. And yes, that will be better than nothing. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably has a perfectly fine insurance policy.

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