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Archive for December, 2009

Dot Dot Dot: Taking Everyone’s Favorite Metaphor For Failure Out For A Spin

Monday, December 28th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

In the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on a Amsterdam-to-Detroit airliner, the WaPo’s editorial page breaks out my favorite way that the burden of failure is transferred from actual people to abstract concepts: “Connecting the dots.” From the editorial:

THE THWARTED Christmas Day airplane bombing raises three causes for alarm. First, it illustrates a screening system that remains porous enough to let a suspect board with the same explosive shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to use in 2001

Okay, I’ll give him that one, but it’s not exactly like it was unknown that the TSA is a complete disaster. Since 9/11, reporters and government types alike have repeatedly defeated the TSA’s security and gotten everything from box-cutters to guns to mock explosives aboard airplanes. So color me unsurprised.

Second, it exposes a terrorism bureaucracy too clumsy to catapult the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at least to a higher level of preflight scrutiny after his father came forward with warnings that he might pose a danger.”

That may have something to do with the fact that both the no-fly list and the “extra attention” list are literally swamped with hundreds of thousands of names, ninety percent of whom seem to be on there for no apparent reason. This is thanks to a system called TIDEMART that literally runs off of a laptop in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and NSA data-mining run amok. Add in an element of political intimidation (scores of antiwar activists found themselves on one of the lists during the Bush Administration) and you have the recipe for a system that may be worse than not having one at all.

And his father did warn the US Embassy in Lagos that his son had been radicalized, which did get him on the increased scrutiny list. Why no more than that you ask? Well, two reasons: One, the CTC and NSA are absolutely flooded with vague warnings from all over the world that may or may not be the real deal, which basically reduces it to going with the odds-on favorite. Two, despite the fact that pretty much every CIA officer in the world using official cover poses as a Foreign Service embassy official, the striped-pants set from the State Department and the spooks from Langley are generally at each others’ throats. Then you add in the disdain that the FBI, which is responsible for domestic counterterrorism, has for the CIA (the saying is, “FBI catches bank robbers; CIA robs banks”) and it is yet again a recipe for disaster.

Expect to hear about “breaking information stovepipes” (my second favorite in terms of blaming abstract concepts) and “not just moving boxes around on a chart” when moving the boxes into an arrangement that makes a lick of sense would probably be a good idea.

Third, if it is true that the suspect received explosives training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the incident underscores the emergence of that troubled nation as a training ground for terrorists.

This is the kind of thing that makes my blood boil. Yemen is not “emerging” as a training ground for terrorists, Al Qaeda has been there at least since bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan and moved to Afghanistan in the Nineties. Yemen acted as sort of a regional command center for AQ Central in the Persian Gulf, given that the ruling council was in a Central Asian country on the far side of Iran.

I mean, Yemen had a direct role in 9/11. Two of the hijackers came to America from Yemen; one actually returned there and came back during preparations for the hijackings. In fact, the best example of not “connecting the dots” before 9/11 involves Yemen. It goes like this: The NSA was actually tapping the communications of the Yemen command center, and identified those two future hijackers as AQ and on their way to America. The NSA told the CTC, but the call was taken by an FBI agent seconded to the Agency, who told his CIA boss, who for reasons unknown sat on the information.

At least this explains our targeted strikes in Yemen recently..

No screening system can be foolproof, and every system must balance security against the need to allow an acceptably free flow of travel. But the system apparently failed in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab in significant part because available technologies were not employed. The explosive PETN, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly carried would not be found through normal X-rays or metal detectors. However, it is detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs, by “sniffer” technology that blows particles off travelers, or by swabbing passengers for traces of explosives; full-body imaging might also have been helpful.

This is a whole bunch of words that can be boiled down to this: If someone in Lagos or Amsterdam had put the guy through a bomb sniffer, this would never have happened. Period.

The episode also serves as another sobering reminder that eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist planning is necessary but not sufficient. Yemen will be “a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future,” Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine warned in a report last month for the Center for a New American Security.

Al Qaeda is in more than eighty countries, including every Sunni-ruled country in the Middle East, multiple countries in Africa, the Philippines, you name it. In spite of the fact that no one seems to know or care about it, Operation Enduring Freedom (the initial attack on Afghanistan) also included a Philippines component, with Special Forces pursuing and eliminating members of Jamaat al-Islamyiah, an AQ offshoot. So, again, color me less than surprised.

Hopefully this will be the final kick in the ass that will spark some serious intelligence and counterterrorism reform, but Your Humble Author remains doubtful. If 9/11 couldn’t do it, what can?

How I Learned To Hate The Bomb Redux: The New York Times Gets In On The Act

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

Another give-war-a-chance Op-Ed about Iran, hitting most of the same bunk talking points I covered yesterday in my post about yet another holiday season hysteria over the ayatollahs (with as many Nazi references as you can get in).

Now, this Op-Ed wouldn’t look out of place at all any time since 2002 on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, who have been rah-rahing a war with Iran for quite awhile now. The interesting thing is that it is the New York Times running this particular opinion piece.

This leaves Your Humble Author wondering if this is an attempt to mainstream the idea of an Iranian war with moderates and the center-left. Think back to 2002 and the hawkish stance on Iraq expounded upon by Thomas Friedman or Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaraia.

I covered most of the niggling details of an Iranian nuclear breakout and what it means to America and Israel yesterday, so let’s just hit the high points and call it a wrap:

Complete dismissal of diplomacy with a total disregard for the consequences of military action?

Tehran’s rejection of the original proposal is revealing. It shows that Iran, for domestic political reasons, cannot make even temporary concessions on its bomb program, regardless of incentives or sanctions.

Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try.


Subtle potshots at Obama painting him as an appeaser in the mold of Jimmy Carter or (now officially the most overused analogy in foreign policy) Neville Chamberlain?

This would let Iran run the reactor, retain the bulk of its enriched uranium and continue to enrich more — a bargain unacceptable even to the Obama administration.

Negotiation to prevent nuclear proliferation is always preferable to military action. But in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement.


Pretending that borderline-crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the real leader of Iran and not the pragmatic Supreme Ayatollah?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially embraced the deal because he realized it aided Iran’s bomb program. But his domestic political opponents, whom he has tried to label as foreign agents, turned the tables by accusing him of surrendering Iran’s patrimony to the West.


Repurposed Iraq War talking points?

Iran supplies Islamist terrorist groups in violation of international embargoes. Even President Ahmadinejad’s domestic opponents support this weapons traffic. If Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb.


Completely destroying your own argument that a preemptive strike will constrain Iranian nuclear ambitions while acting as if it supports your case?

But history suggests that military strikes could work. Israel’s 1981 attack on the nearly finished Osirak reactor prevented Iraq’s rapid acquisition of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon and compelled it to pursue a more gradual, uranium-based bomb program. A decade later, the Persian Gulf war uncovered and enabled the destruction of that uranium initiative, which finally deterred Saddam Hussein from further pursuit of nuclear weapons (a fact that eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion).


How I Learned To Hate The Bomb: The Renewed Campaign To Spark Hysteria Over Iran

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

First up, from Foreign Policy’s article on deterring and containing Iran:

Deterrence in the Middle East, they [policymakers and foreign policy analysts] argue, could be just as stable as it was between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. “Israel’s massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon,” wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Oct. 12 edition of Newsweek. “Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran.”

But this historical analogy is dangerously misconceived. In reality, defusing an Israeli-Iranian nuclear standoff will be far more difficult than averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. This is true even if those Iranians with their fingers on the nuclear trigger are not given to messianic doomsday thinking. Here are five factors that will make an Israeli-Iranian nuclear confrontation potentially explosive.

Before we dive into these five factors, I’ll just pause to say that comparing a nuclear Iran to the American-Soviet standoff or even comparing Cuba during the Crisis with Iran is pretty specious and silly. And so:

Communication and trust.

The October 1962 negotiations that settled the Cuban missile crisis were conducted through a fairly effective, though imperfect, communication system between the United States and Russia. There was also a limited degree of mutual trust between the two superpowers. This did not prevent confusion and suspicion, but it did facilitate the rivals’ ability to understand the other’s side and eventually resolve the crisis.

Israel and Iran, however, have no such avenues for communication. They don’t even have embassies or fast and effective back-channel contacts — and, what’s more, they mistrust each other completely. Israel has heard Iranian leaders — and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — call for its destruction. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders remain prone to paranoid and conspiratorial views of the outside world, especially Israel and the United States. In any future Iranian-Israeli crisis, each side could easily misinterpret the other’s moves, leading to disaster. A proxy war conducted by Iran through Hezbollah or Hamas against Israel could quickly lead to a series of escalating threats.

This actually is a serious problem. The Cold War MAD-speak for it is “redlines,” a series of negotiated agreements between America and the Soviet Union on what provocations from the other side could cause a nuclear response. The name comes from the Red Line, the teletype device that directly linked the White House and the Kremlin, installed in the wake of several clashes with the Soviets that almost led to nuclear Armageddon.

Of course, comparing the Israel-Iran situation to the Cold War is ludicrous, the best comparison is undoubtedly the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. Here as in a hypothetical Middle Eastern cold war, there are no redlines and no communication between Islamabad and Mumbai on this issue. And, in the author’s favor, we have come to the brink of a third India-Pakistan war that most likely would have involved nuclear exchanges twice since 9/11.

Both times, both sides were slowly pushed back from the brink by Washington. I’ll pick back up on this in a minute.


The Soviets wanted to extend their power and spread Communism — they never pledged the annihilation of America. Iranian leaders, however, have called for Israel to be “wiped off the map of the Middle East.” After the street protests that followed the June presidential election, Iran has entered into chronic instability. In a moment of heightened tension and urgent need for popular support, an Iranian leader could escalate not only rhetoric but action.

There is a strong precedent in the Middle East of such escalation leading to war. Arab threats to destroy any Jewish state preceded a massive invasion of the new Israeli state in May 1948. In May and June 1967, Egypt’s President Gamal Abd al-Nasser loudly proclaimed his intent to “liberate Palestine” (i.e. Israel in its 1949 borders), and moved his panzer divisions to Israel’s border. The result was the Six Day War.

The revisionist history that has sprung up around the Cold War in the two decades since its end is quite fascinating. Does Krushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations and shouting “We will bury you!” count for nothing anymore?

The author of the piece is right that despite all the rantings and threats, the main goal of the Soviet Union was to extend their power and influence into the Third World under the guise of World Socialism and to stay militarily competitive with America. But the same is also true with Iran: Despite the loud, blustery threats from the ayatollahs lo these last three decades, Iran has time and again proved itself to be a ruthless and crafty player of the Great Game, certainly not an irrational actor.

The analogy to the Six Day War is baffling and somewhat deceptive. It wasn’t Nasser’s rhetoric that caused the war, it was him moving his armies to the Israeli border. And the analogy is doubly misleading because Iran has very little conventional capability, their influence in the Middle East is almost entirely based on assymetric power.

And by the way: Panzer divisions? Really? That’s about as subtle as a kick to the groin.

Command and control.

In 1962, the two superpowers possessed sophisticated command-and-control systems securing their nuclear weapons. Both also employed effective centralized decision-making systems. Neither may be the case with Iran: Its control technology will be rudimentary at first, and Tehran’s decision-making process is relatively chaotic. Within Iran’s byzantine power structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mounts an army and navy of its own alongside the regular army and navy, and internal differences within the regime over nuclear diplomacy are evidence of conflicting lines of authority. Recent events suggest that the IRGC, allied with Ahmadinejad, has increasingly infringed on the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, no one can be certain how decisions are made and who makes them.

This one’s pretty easy. The entire nuclear program is under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the Sepha-i Pasdaran), a shadow military and secret police that reports directly to the Supreme Ayatollah Khamein’i. Simple. There is no issue with unity of command despite their recent civil unrest.

Mutual deterrence.

Both the United States and USSR had second-strike capability made credible by huge land masses. They possessed hardened missile silos scattered throughout the countryside, large air forces equipped with nuclear bombs, and missile-launching submarines. In the Middle East, Iran stretches across a vast 636,000 square miles, against Israel’s (pre-1967) 8,500 square miles of territory. This point was made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2001, who noted, “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” If this is the way an Iranian pragmatist thinks, how are the hard-liners thinking?

In contrast, by 1962, the two superpowers implicitly recognized the logic of mutually assured destruction. And yet, they still came relatively close to war — in John F. Kennedy’s words, the risk of a nuclear conflict was “between one out of three and even.” When Iran goes nuclear, the huge disparity in size will pose a psychological obstacle for its recognition of mutual deterrence.

All things being equal, Israel’s small size would be a detriment to a mutually-assured destruction strategy. But things aren’t equal. Even if Iran obtains a handful of nuclear weapons and halfway decent missiles to shoot them at people with, Israel will be the only side that has a credible second-strike capability. Combined with the certainty of American assistance, this doesn’t seem like much of an impediment to MAD.

Even assuming the United States promises Israel a retaliatory nuclear umbrella, Iran will doubt U.S. resolve. The mullahs will be tempted to conclude that with Israel gone, the United States would see no point in destroying Iran. Given the criticism leveled today against President Harry Truman for using the bomb against Japanese civilians in World War II, what are the chances of American retaliation against Iran, especially if the Islamic Republic has not attacked the United States?

I seriously doubt the mullahs doubt American resolve when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf. Nuclear missiles exploding near the oil would be seriously bad for business, and if there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that America will respond swiftly and strongly to any perceived threat to our energy security. Not to mention, Israel is quite popular here in the States and they have a very vocal political lobby.

And the last sentence presupposes that if Israel is nuked by Iran, that America will have to nuke Iran in retaliation. We just might, but even if we don’t, American conventional power is strong enough to level the entire country in a month (despite its huge size, much of Iran is uninhabitable, and the population is clustered around urban and semi-urban areas). There isn’t a doubt in the world that America would descend upon Iran like the Wrath of God if they were to ever do something so stupid.

Crisis instability.

In view of the above dangers, if and when a grave crisis does erupt, Israel would be tempted to strike first in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack, which would devastate its urban core. Iran will be well aware of Israel’s calculations and, in the early years of becoming a nuclear power, will have a smaller and probably more vulnerable nuclear arsenal. This will give it, in turn, strong incentives to launch its own preemptive strike.

This will not happen as long as America has such a heavy military presence in the Middle East. Period. This favorite talking point of war hawk pundits was put to bed decisively in 2007 during the Bush Administration. They came to Washington to ask for the latest generation in nuclear bunker-busters for a strike on Iran (as well as permission to cross Iraqi airspace) and were turned down flat by Condi Rice and Bob Gates, who threatened to end the American-Israeli relationship permanently if they did go ahead and do it anyway.

Yes, you read that right. Israel wants to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program by dropping nuclear weapons on them. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Just a few more points to wrap up:

Once Iran is a nuclear power, the Middle East is likely to enter a fast-moving process of nuclear proliferation. Until now, most Arab governments have not made an effort to match Israel’s  nuclear arsenal.

Already happening. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have all those Chinese ballistic missiles hidden out in the Empty Quarter for nothing. But the fall of Iraq has as much to do with it as Iran’s nuclear program; that’s a whole ‘nother story though.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of some analysts that the possession of nuclear weapons could make Iran more cautious, a nuclear Iran will likely be emboldened. It could press Hezbollah to be more aggressive in Lebanon, flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf, and step up its challenges against U.S. forces in the region.

Iran is pretty bold now. Things really couldn’t be going any better for them if they had tried. Their unconventional warfare power by proxy in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, western Afghanistan and a host of other places makes them the de facto regional hegemon.

The most important point, and the one all these pro-war Iran pieces leave out, is that the critical factor in the Israeli-Iranian relationship is how the American-Iranian one  is doing. And it’s doing very very well, if you’re an ayatollah. With American forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient numbers to pacify both countries, Iran has become sort of the unofficial peacekeeper in southern Iraq (where in true Iranian fashion they back every side and just wait to see who wins) and Herat in western A-stan. With a phone call they can make life very unpleasant for American soldiers in Iraq or start another Hizb’allah-Israeli conflict.

Bottom line, as long as these conditions persist America has very little influence to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but enough influence to stop Israel from attacking them preemptively, which is going to mean an enforced stalemate until something crazy happens or the strategic calculus changes drastically.

Heaven’s Not Beyond The Clouds, It’s For Us to Find Here

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

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Until we find a better way:

Peace on Earth.

Merry Christmas USA

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

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Early this morning, the Senate voted to pass healthcare reform by a 60-39 vote. With Jim Bunning (R-KY) not in attendance, 58 Democrats and 2 Independents voted aye, and every Senate Republican voted no. There’s some pretty serious implications of the dynamics at work here moving forward, and obviously more work to be done on the healthcare front, but it’s worth stopping for a moment to appreciate the historic moment.

American progressives have been working for a national healthcare plan since John Dingell Sr. introduced a national health insurance bill to Congress in 1933. He and his son have introduced a similar bill to every Congress since. It has been a 76 year uphill battle, with very few victories along the way. It’s worth keeping that futility in mind as we fight over whether or not the current bill is expansive enough to be worth passing. For whatever the bill’s flaws, for the first time ever, both the House and the Senate have passed universal healthcare bills declaring that the United States government believes equitable access to quality healthcare coverage should be universal. That’s not nothing, it’s arguably the hardest hurdle to clear.

A lot of paens to the moment have declared that this is something  of a hollow win, a legislative victory that doesn’t feel much like a win. Well I’m not having any of that. As someone who’s actually been involved in a fair bit of ground level organizing, it’s worth remembering that big changes rarely come at once. It might be getting cliche now, but these things really are long, hard, slogs. Progressive activism is like a football game, you accomplish your goal by moving the ball down the field, yard by yard, first down by first down. And while the ultimate goal is a touchdown, that’s no reason not to be happy about picking up a first down. So while the legislative process continues to be a mess, while fights over the adaquecy of the bill may cause headaches, and while the endless compromises with nitwits and sociopaths like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman may depress, that’s no reason not to feel joy over the accomplishment. For the first time in 76 years, the United States Senate has voted to move towards universal healthcare in America. The fight isn’t over, it never is, but this is a pretty big first down. And for that we can all be joyful this Christmas.

Great Moments in Progressive History

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

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Our country’s Leading Progressive Activist goes on Fox News to argue against taxes.

How about we just rename the bill after Hamsher? Anyone else think that would satisy her need for attention?

Why the Media is Responsible For Obama’s Flip-Flops

Monday, December 21st, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Ezra had a post this morning examining the fact that the bill likely to pass the Senate looks very much like the plan Obama ran on, with some exceptions, to which Marcy Wheeler responded by noting that the exceptions were fairly important. I think Wheeler is exaggerating the effect a little bit, after all, the bill is very large, and has hundreds of moving parts, so all things considered less than 10 things isn’t that much, but I do think she’s right to point out that they’re fairly important things, and they are largely the things that people are focusing on, some with more merit than others (that the excise tax on high cost insurance plans has drawn any criticism from the left is extremely depressing). Ezra had a fairly nice response, noting that Obama basically came around to the consensus of Democratic opinion on the matter:

Another way of saying this is that president is a follower who leads. Take health-care reform. Marcy Wheeler doesn’t agree with me that the reform bill we’re likely to pass is similar to the reform proposal that Obama campaigned on. She emphasizes the differences between the two, but consider for a second the size of those differences. Obama proposed, at least on the coverage side, a Massachusetts-style structure. So too did John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. The difference was that Obama initially fought the individual mandate.

In the end, he ended up supporting a … Massachusetts-style structure with an individual mandate. In other words, he moved from the Massachusetts-plan with one real variation to the Massachusetts-plan — towards the consensus, not away from it. The move wasn’t to Medicare for All, or a Clintonian managed care within managed competition, or Wyden-Bennett, or some approach that Obama dreamed up in consultation with Peter Orszag and Tom Daschle. It was just the consensus campaign approach with some concessions to the realities of the policy and the demands of Congress. Wheeler may think that’s a lot of movement. I’m surprised by how little of a stamp Obama chose to put on this policy, particularly given the work that past presidents, like Clinton, have put into developing an approach that is uniquely theirs.

I think Ezra’s on to something, and it is good to point out that there are some unique features to healthcare reform relating to the fact that so many center-left and leftist types have been chasing that goose for so long. Barack Obama is a politician who has been on the national scene for all of 5 years, but he’s surrounded by people who have been in Washington thinking about healthcar reform for twenty years, give or take. And some of those people are in Congress (I’m looking at you John Dingell). The Democratic Party’s committment to universal healthcare goes back to before Obama was even born. It is, in other words, a fairly odd situation at the intersection of party and issue, and Obama is in the odd position of being a President who, to a large degree, is simply overshadowed by the achievement itself, but to an even larger degree, he’s walking into a governing situation where a lot of key players in Congress have spent a long time working on this issue, and aren’t necessarily inclined to suddenly cede ground to the White House on putting the bill together, particularly a President who is as new on the scene as Obama. Allowing Congress to take the lead on the bill was probably a smart move, if for no other reason than Congressional Democrats probably weren’t going to allow the situation to play out any differently.

Another way of looking at it is outlined by Matt Yglesias:

I think that most people vastly overrate the President’s ability to influence this kind of thing. But one reason that people overrate it is that presidential candidates encourage unrealistic expectations. Obama didn’t canvass the country saying “I will use my agenda-setting powers to encourage congress to take up comprehensive health reform and then meekly accept whatever the 60th-most-liberal senator is willing to agree to.” Primary candidates competed with one another to offer the most aggressively sound climate change plans instead of acknowledge that this was all wishful thinking and congress would constrain the limits of the possible. Obama in particular encouraged the idea that he could and would deploy his undeniable skills at set-piece speech delivery to cause legislative action.

I’ve made the point for some time that the way we act as though Congress simply doesn’t exist, with pretty much every candidate declaring that, “when I’m President, we’re going to get…” obscuring the broader point that these things have to go through Congress, clear the filibuster in the Senate, and so on. And while Matt frames this as the fault of candidates, I don’t really think it is, and all else being equal I think legitimate candidate, anyway, would very much like a campaign that was more reflective of the systemic reality. Rather, I think the problem is pretty much exactly what you see playing out right now; voters want a Presiddent to “lead,” and acknowledging the primacy of Congress doesn’t seem much like leading, especially since most Americans generally don’t much like Congress. So as long as a certain number seemingly legitimate candidates are willing to play along, everyone else is basically forced into the game as well. I mean, imagine the reaction John McCain would have gotten if instead of putting out policy white papers or trying to discuss healthcare or climate matters with Barack Obama he just acknowledged that it was highly unlikely he would be able to pass anything with a Democratic Congress. And that, I think, is te fault of a political media who, largely ignorant of the way American government works, plays along with the charade instead of putting on the brakes and trying to inform their viewers, because arguments between Presidential candidates that are presented as being crucial make for better television I guess.

The Campaign Against the Mandate

Monday, December 21st, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Ezra doesn’t quite go far enough here, in my opinion, but he does a pretty good job breaking down the shallowness of the progressive campaign against the backlash:

Indeed, last night, an activist friend angrily asked me why I thought I knew how to spend people’s money better than they did, which is exactly the attack I’d expected the right to launch. My friend is a supporter of Medicare-for-All.At the most basic level, Medicare-for-All and the House and Senate health-care reform bills are all coercive. Medicare functions through taxation. You pay your taxes, or you go to jail, or pay penalties. Affordability is dependent on getting the distribution of the tax burden right, which is no small task. Somewhat similarly, health-care reform functions through the mandate. You pay for insurance, or you pay a penalty (assuming that the monthly premiums would not be more than 8 percent of your monthly income, in which case you’re exempt from the mandate). Affordability is dependent on getting the distribution of the subsidies right, which is no easy task.

There is, of course, a big difference between forcing people to purchase a private product and forcing people to purchase a public product. But not, I think, as big a difference as some have implied. Many of my progressive friends warn of a backlash that will overwhelm health-care reform, but would spare a reform plan with, say, a public option. That doesn’t make sense to me. The comparison with Medicare-for-All, which I’d prefer to the current plan, is instructive. The idea that taxes do not cause backlash is belied by the past 30 years of American political history, which are largely the story of one sustained anti-tax backlash.

That last point, I think, is pretty important. The campaign against the mandate is ostensibly built upon two premises, the first being that they’ll be a political disaster. And while that may be true, there really isn’t any obvious corrollary to make one draw the conclusion that the inclusion of more public insurance options would make that any better, nor even that a full blown single-payer plan would be any better. As Ezra points out, there isn’t any obvious reason why a tax regime would necessarily be structured perfectly to achieve affordability for most people, at least any more than the mandate with subsidies and exemptions does, or at least could. And it really isn’t clear why a populace that has shown itself to be anti-tax to the point that even unions and some feminists have raised objections to the healthcare reform bill over taxes on unusually expensive insurance plans and a 5% tax on elective cosmetic surgery procedures would assuredly be more open to a system that achieved universality through taxes and direct spending than the mechanisms being proposed.

The second objection from the left is that the mandate represents a massive giveaway to corporations (I’ll have more on this so-called corporatism later). And while this may be true enough, the new found anti-corporate streak rings a bit hollow, to say the least. Keith Olbermann has been a bring proponent of it, and he’s spread his thoughts from the perch of his television show on MSNBC, a network owned by General Electric. And so far as Markos, Jane Hamsher, and Arianna Huffington go, they certainly don’t seem to have much of a problem appearing on those corporate television networks to promote their anti-corporate message. Beyond the superficial silliness of the messengers though, the message itself doesn’t really make much sense. While in a general sense I agree that, all else being equal, it’s a good idea to not take public money and give it to corporations, how exactly does one do healthcare reform without giving corporations any money? Even if we expand Medicare to everyone, the payments Medicare makes go to profit-drive doctors and corporate hospitals and other providers. If we somehow manage to construct an NHS style socialized medicine regime, payments will still be made to corporations that manufacture medical devices and pharmaceuticals. So unless you’re proposing we nationalize literally every aspect of the healthcare industry, the ultimate effect of healthcare reform is going to be to redistibute some public money to some corporation in the healthcare industry at some point.

More broadly than this, the aspect of the mandate debate I’ve found most troubling is the way in which those opposed to it have largely decided to just ignore its policy implications. To sum it up briefly, if you’re seeking to bring more sick people into the insurance pool, you also need to guarantee their will be healthy people in the pool over which to spread costs. If healthy people opt out, or see their incentives realigned by guaranteed access once they get sick, then you’re just spreading the cost amongst sicker people, which will have the effect of making the cost of insurance prohibitively high. This has been explained a number of ways by a number of places by a number of people, and for the most part it appears those arguing against the mandate just aren’t interested in hearing it. It wasn’t that long ago that people like Huffington and Hamsher were proud to be a part of the “reality based community” and were proud to listen to wonks on policy matters, but now that the center-left is back in political power and George Bush has exited the stage, they’re apparently just not interested in any policy explanations that don’t serve the conclusions they want to reach. Other mainstream progressives, bloggers, activists, or otherwise, need to recognize this, as well as its implications, and figure out what it means for broader progressive goals.

More Focus Needed On Poor People

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

One thing that’s been sadly lacking from the intramural skirmish amongst progressives over whether or not the Senate healthcare bill is a bill worth passing is any sort of grappling with the bill’s impact on poor people, as opposed to the middle and working classes. Not that middle and working class people aren’t important or shouldn’t be important to progressives, but as tough as things are for them, it’s much harder to be poor in America than it is even to be middle class. And the plight of the poor has been one of the hallmark issues of progressivism since its beginnings, so it’s rather odd to see Uber-Awesome Progressives like Kos and Hamsher more or less never mention poor people, like, ever.

But via Yglesias, a chart that illustrates that, as much as healthcare reform may be an important policy matter for the entire country, it’s a very important issue for poor people:

Now, on the one hand, there’s something unsurprising about this. Poor people need healthcare as much as anyone (even more really), but they have less money, so care is going to eat up a larger portion of their incomes. That’s just math. On the other hand, as Yglesias says, it illustrates how much issues of “affordability” largely miss the point; healthcare is already unaffordable for millions of people. That’s one of the big problems.

I would add that one thing i find troubling is how freely some people are calling this a “shitty bill,” because if you’re poor, this is definitely not a shitty bill.  On the whole I would say the bill is good, not great, but it’s very good from the perspective of the poorest Americans. And the degree to which some leftist commentary is deriding the substance of the bill as being not very good, it suggests that those commenters aren’t very interested in the plight of poor Americans.

Everybody Loves David: Another Exciting Capitol Hill Hearing

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

General Petraeus goes to Washington:

The chief of the regional U.S. Central Command told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “additional mission force elements” would be sent to Afghanistan in the spring, but he declined to provide details in an open congressional hearing.

Although such “elements” have not been publicly discussed in the administration’s strategy announcements, counterterrorism efforts — missiles fired at specific insurgent targets from unmanned aircraft and bombs from manned planes, as well the use of Special Forces units and intelligence surveillance — are expected to increase along with the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. ground troops.

Off top, it’s nice to see someone talking about counterterrorism in Afghanistan rather than counterinsurgency.  Most folks think they are the same thing, and they are most definitely not.

The “additional elements” are almost certainly Special Forces and Special Operations teams that will spend a good portion of their time hunting Al Qaeda chiefs in the Pakistani borderlands. Throw in some more Predators and CIA paramilitary spooks for good measure. And here’s why:

The use of air attacks in Afghanistan has been curtailed in recent months as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander there, sought to avoid civilian casualties. But as described by Petraeus, the new concentration on pushing the Taliban out of population centers will allow more robust action against fighters in the countryside.

U.S. drone attacks have been used extensively against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan, although their frequency has diminished recently as the Pakistani military has been engaged in a ground assault in South Waziristan. Obama has warned Pakistan that it must step up its effort in that region and others along the border it shares with Afghanistan or risk an escalation of U.S. activity.

The Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan, which is where the Al Qaeda ruling council most likely resides, is a joke, we most likely cut back drone strikes to avoid accidentally killing a Pakistani soldier and sparking a diplomatic incident.  Pakistan’s army is a conventional force that is geared entirely towards a land war with India, so we’re talking armor, mechanized infantry and lots and lots of artillery.

They are not cut out to fight insurgents in extremely mountainous terrain. They have engaged the Pashtun tribes several times over the years since 9/11 and managed to lose decisively to ragtag tribal militias. So this is either a public relations stunt to keep American aid flowing, or they think they can get the anti-Pakistani Taliban faction that has been giving them so much trouble in the Swat Valley, because they’ve been known to kick it with Al Qaeda from time to time.

These are not the same Taliban who are attacking us in Afghanistan. The leaders of the major Afghan factions like Haqqani, Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are good friends with the Pakistani military and secret police.

Senators sharply questioned the officials about remarks Tuesday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said he anticipated a U.S. combat presence in his country for five more years — about the same timeline Obama described, beginning with an initial troop escalation that started in the summer and leading to a withdrawal that would start in July 2011, depending on Afghan capabilities. Karzai said he envisioned U.S. funding for Afghanistan’s own security forces to continue for 15 years, a cost that Petraeus estimated would total about $10 billion a year.

Noting that Karzai’s timeline would extend to 2024, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that “we’re talking about $150 billion just on the security side,” for Afghan forces alone, “before we get to the development side.”

You have to admire Karzai’s cojones for just blatantly coming out and saying it, when most politicians would deny such a long-term commitment would happen despite the fact that they knew it was inevitable.  Not to mention that American-funded security for a decade or so is probably the only thing that would keep the Pakistanis from killing him (they’ve already tried twice). They see Karzai as pro-India (which he is) and the shady way he bounced pro-Pakistan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah out of the election has probably made them ever less happy.

Petraeus also provided additional details on plans to “reintegrate” Taliban fighters into Afghan society or security forces with monetary and other incentives. He described a new Force Reintegration Cell, headed by a retired British general who held the same job under Petraeus when the latter was the U.S. commander in Iraq, that will identify insurgents likely to switch sides if provided the right incentives.

This is the part that is going to drive both sides of the political spectrum insane, because the Taliban has been conflated with Al Qaeda for so long. I’ve said it before, but how long do you have to kill people for their government having bad house guests? It’s been almost a decade; they’ve most likely learned their lesson. Of course the strategy is sound, every counterinsurgency ends with political negotiations, but try explaining that to your average American.

Those who cannot be reintegrated “can be killed, captured or run off,” Petraeus said. But the idea, he said, was to make individual fighters “part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said Wednesday that they are funding a raise in Afghan military pay — from $180 a month to about $240 for an entry-level soldier, along with other tangible benefits — to compete with the Taliban, which offers up to $300 a month.

Word. Good ideas.

The strategy also includes development of “community defense” forces, tapping local leaders to defend their territory in conjunction with coalition and Afghan forces. That effort has long been pushed by the U.S. Special Forces Command, which has argued that the extremely localized nature of Afghan culture should be matched by a localized U.S. approach.

“It’s a village-by-village, valley-by-valley effort,” Petraeus said, “and we’re using some of our best Special Forces teams right now to really experiment with this.”

This puts the American Special Forces in the role they are best at: Force multiplication and foreign internal defense. Though most people see them as elite hunter-killer teams (and there’s no doubt that they are),  a Special Forces A-Team of just twelve men can raise, train and command a company-sized unit of militia fighters. They are experts at turning a bunch of ragtag native fighters into a disciplined and effective fighting unit. Foreign internal defense (FID) is milspeak for fighting an insurgency inside a “host nation.”

And why are we just trying this now eight years later you ask? Well, it’s simple: It’s office politics. The Cold Warriors who trained to fight the Soviets in Europe that now run the Army have a reflexive distrust of the individual branches’ Special Operations Forces and especially the Special Operations Command, which covers the whole world and thus don’t fall under the authority of the individual theater commander where they are operating at.

Why? It could be resistance from generals who were lieutenants either during Vietnam or in the immediate aftermath and swore never to fight another counterinsurgency. It could be that the Army is a crazily massive bureaucracy (you would not believe the amount of typing and filing it takes to kill people in significant numbers all across the word) and turning it to a new direction is a painfully slow process. It could be that they don’t believe in the COIN mission and think there’s a better way

It’s most likely a combination of all three. Eventually, though, they need to accept the fact that unconventional warfare is the Next Big Thing, and that the combination of Special Operations units, SF operators, close air support and indigenous fighters can accomplish with less than a thousand soldiers and airmen what it used to take a massive conventional force to do.

If one looks at history, every occupation of Afghanistan has been a disaster, but punitive strikes have worked multiple times: Get in, kill a bunch of people, and depart posthaste. One would think the ghost of William Macnaughten would hover over our politicians’ shoulders in this debate, but how many do you think knew who he was or what he did?

Ben Nelson Does Something Good

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

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Thank the good flying spaghetti monster, Ben Nelson (D-NE) has decided to vote for cloture on a healthcare bill after he was able to reach an agreement with the leadership of the caucus. The deal, as it turns out, is a surprisingly decent one. The first part of the agreement concerns Medicaid funding, and is basically a thinly veiled bribe to transfer some cost from small states like Nebraska to the federal government. But hey, it’s not that much money in the grand scheme of things, and getting Nelson’s vote for cloture has a lot more value than having states pick up the cost of Medicaid expansion one year earlier. It says something about how trivial the Senate ultimately is, but that’s hardly worth getting worked up about at this point.

The other element of the deal concerns abortion rights, and this is a bit more sketchy, in part because I’m not totally sure what, exactly, the details are going to be. As I understand it, the agreement centers around language that is stronger than the original Senate bill, but less strident than the Stupak amendment. Apparently it centers around allowing states to opt out of abortion coverage requirements, and would probably produce little to no effect on access to abortion services over the present. In any event, Stupak is furiously working against the deal, so that probably says something good about Nelson’s deal.

Do Voters Have to Like Healthcare Reform?

Friday, December 18th, 2009

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Atrios writes:

I know I’m a broken record on this subject, but I do think it’s the thing most lacking from the insider conversations on HCR. Not that I really know, because I’m not an insider, but occasionally I get a wee sense of what’s actually occupying staffers in various places. “Voters liking this thing” seems to be at best an afterthought.

It’s sorta weird, really, because on most subjects it’s the first thing they think of, both about the policy itself and the myriad imaginary attack ads that can be run based on the policy. If voters don’t like this thing, it’ll likely be repealed before most of it even takes effect, either because Republicans take over or because frightened members of a Dem controlled Congress do so.

First of all, I think it should be said that the idea that a healthcare reform bill would be reformed is pretty fantasical. For one thing, Republicans would have to regain control of the White House, Senate, and House at once again. For another, they’d have to overcome the filibuster. And given that red state Democrats are the most likely to lose their seats in the near term, the Democratic Senators most friendly to repeal likely won’t be around to vote for it.

But beyond that, this idea that Democrats should be worried that the healthcare bill they pass will be unpopular and shouldn’t vote for anything that might cost them votes just seems bizarre to me, in large part because I simply can’t imagine a healthcare bill that’s popular with the marginal voter in the short term. The simple fact is that any healthcare bill worth passing is going to help the disadvantaged, whether it’s sick people or poor people, and passing legislation to help disadvantaged people simply isn’t good for short term popularity in this country. Among other things, banning discrimination against pre-existing conditions will probably increase the costs of premiums, as insurance companies are forced to cover people who are more costly to cover. Whether that’s popular depends on how willing the average person is to pay a higher premium price in exchange for not screwing over sick people. Perhaps Atrios has a more charitable view of Americans than I do, but from what I can see, one can never go wrong betting that Americans are perfectly happy giving a short stick to the poor or otherwise disadvantaged if it saves them a buck. With that in mind, progressives ought to be more concerned with how much a healthcare reform bill helps the people who need help than how many seats it might cost Democrats in 2010, or 2012, or 2014, because until we get a major change in the median view on social welfare spending that primarily benefits poor people in this country, passing any truly progressive legislation is going to require a willingness to incur short term political loss.

Sociopaths to the Left of Me, Clowns to the Right…

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

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Apparently Tom Coburn is so interested in delaying healthcare reform he’s willing to risk the temporary defunding of the Defense Department to do so:

Way back on December 2nd, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) filed a single-payer amendment to the Senate health care bill, which was supposed to come up for a vote this afternoon. But at the last moment, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), at the behest Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), demanded that the entire 700-plus page amendment be read aloud on the floor. That’s happening now.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a 10 or 12 hour dilatory tactic. But not today. Today, Democrats were planning to file for cloture on the Defense Appropriations bill, in order to get it passed by Friday before midnight when department funding runs out. If the entire amendment is read aloud, it’s likely that the Senate won’t be able to pass the defense bill until Saturday at the earliest, and would have to pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep money flowing.

“The only thing that Sen. Coburn’s stunt achieves is to stop us from moving to the DoD appropriations bill that funds our troops – not exactly the kind of Christmas gift that our troops were expecting from Dr. No,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Sigh. On the one hand, it’s easy to read stories like this and perk up. Hypocrites!, you think. If Democrats had done this to stop, say, Social Security privatization the entire Republican Party would have been anywhere they could get their face declaring that Democrats were traitors who didn’t care about the troops! And you’d be right, of course, but then you stop and think and, well, what does that get you?

This is a great example of how Republican mendacity and media stupidity intersect to fundamentally tilt the field against progressives. On the one hand, the opposing party is made up of completely amoral sociopaths who have no problem being brazenly hypocritical or opening lying to advance their goals. Hell, look at all of the talk radio show hosts hawking gold merchant scams. That’s how they treat their own audience! You think they give a damn about telling the truth to anyone else if it costs them a marginal dollar? So what do you do, call them out on it? Well there’s no harm in trying, but it’s just not going to permeate the noise unless it takes hold as part of the larger media narrative, but that’s never going to happen because everyone knows Republicans love the troops and would never ever do something like that right? Or if it does get mentioned, no one would put two and two together and point out that that meme is total bullshit, and that Republicans are shameless opportunists first, last, and always. And no, you can’t return the favor when they’re in the majority, because the media will have a field day with that, because Democrats Hate the Military.

So the next time you’re ready to piss in somebody’s cornflakes because Democrats are bitches, take a second and consider what they’re playing against. After all, the Detroit Lions could hang with the 2007 Patriots if the referees let them get away with pass interference on every play too.

Academics and Urbanites

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

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Booman had a very interesting post a little bit ago, addressing the issue of a divide between white progressives and non-white progressives. I might want to address that question on my own later, but for now I’m going to leave it aside and focus on a couple of other questions he hits on. First, Booman sees a fundamental divide between “academic progressives” and “urban progressives.” I wouldn’t disagree, per se, but healthcare actually seems to be an issue with little divide between those groups. But here’s how he characterizes the academics:

The progressive blogosphere is completely dominated by academic progressives. Bloggers of color tend to be just as highly educated as white bloggers. Most of the really well known progressive bloggers have advanced degrees, in law, economics, political science, or something else. They tend to be interested in the theoretical aspects of public policy, like determining what might be the ideal way to deliver affordable, accessible health care to all our citizens. That’s good. We need that. But urban and labor activists tend to work on the ground in communities of need. They are focused on giving people help right now, not on winning some epic ideological battle in Washington DC. Their idea of progress is much more mundane. Can they help Mrs. Smith keep her house? Can they can get Mr. Jones the dialysis treatment he needs? What can they do about these payday lenders? Can they negotiate slightly more pay or better benefits for their workers?

So, when it comes to something like the health care bill, you’ll see academic progressives throwing up their hands and saying that no bill should be passed if it doesn’t do x,y, and z. And they have solid reasons for saying that, reasons that are substantive both politically and policy-wise. And then you’ll see a lot of urban progressives looking at them quizzically, asking “are you out of your ever-loving tree?”

Maybe Booman and I have a different idea of who counts as “academics” in the blogosphere, but as best I can see, at least in the healthcare debate it’s not the people I would classify as such, the Ezra Kleins, Matt Yglesiases, Kevin Drums, etc., arguing that healthcare reform should be struck down because it lacks X, by and large they’ve got the same concerns Booman ascribes to the urbanites; how many uninsured people will it expand coverage to, how large will the Medicaid expansion be, will the subsidies extend to 300% or 400% of the federal poverty level, etc. I appreciate the point that urban activists tend to have more “mundane” concerns, but these are basically the same kind of concerns, just on a larger scale. But the academics seem very concerned with doing anything possible to improve the lot of working class and poor people, it’s the self-fancied activists in the netroots like Hamsher and Markos who have picked out pet provisions and decided everyone can fuck off if they don’t get their ponies.

Joe Lieberman: Very Serious Person

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

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Uh oh, this is going to make Chuck Lane’s job difficult:

Mr. Lieberman had supported the Medicare buy-in proposal in the past — both as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2000 and in more recent discussions about the health care system. In an interview this year, he reiterated his support for the concept.

But in the interview, Mr. Lieberman said that he grew apprehensive when a formal proposal began to take shape. He said he worried that the program would lead to financial trouble and contribute to the instability of the existing Medicare program.

And he said he was particularly troubled by the overly enthusiastic reaction to the proposal by some liberals, including Representative Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, who champions a fully government-run health care system.

“Congressman Weiner made a comment that Medicare-buy in is better than a public option, it’s the beginning of a road to single-payer,” Mr. Lieberman said. “Jacob Hacker, who’s a Yale professor who is actually the man who created the public option, said, ‘This is a dream. This is better than a public option. This is a giant step.’”

So there you have it; Joe Lieberman used to think Medicare buy-in was a good idea, then he found out that Rep. Weiner and Jacob Hacker thought it was a good idea and he changed his mind. Nothing about the intricate workings of policy, budget mechanics, or anything like that; the fact that a couple of liberals were happy with the idea was enough to get Holy Joe to do an about face on it.

The most important public policy question this country has dealt with in the last 60 years is being held hostage by an admitted sociopath right now.  Yay Senate!

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