July 2, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Conservative pundits have spent a good part of the past several days theorizing that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts changed his opinion on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act from “nay” to “yea” at the eleventh hour. This appears to be true. In a blockbuster scoop, Jan Crawford of CBS News writes,
Chief Justice John Roberts initially sided with the Supreme Court’s four conservative justices to strike down the heart of President Obama’s health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, but later changed his position and formed an alliance with liberals to uphold the bulk of the law, according to two sources with specific knowledge of the deliberations. Roberts then withstood a month-long, desperate campaign to bring him back to his original position, the sources said. Ironically, Justice Anthony Kennedy – believed by many conservatives to be the justice most likely to defect and vote for the law – led the effort to try to bring Roberts back to the fold…. The fact that the [conservatives'] joint dissent doesn’t mention Roberts’ majority was not a sign of sloppiness, the sources said, but instead was a signal the conservatives no longer wished to engage in debate with him.
Still, it is unlikely Roberts switched sides because he was overmedicated or because President Obama threatened Roberts’ family. (Yes, these are actual wingnut theories.) One thing we do know: Roberts’ ruling was a surprise to almost everyone, including CNN and Fox “News” who “scooped” other reporters by announcing Thursday morning that the Supreme Court had invalidated the law. They and splashed breaking news alerts across their screens reading “Mandate Struck Down” and “Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional” in “Dewey Defeats Truman” fashion.
It appears the Chief Justice also caught New York Times columnist Ross Douthat by surprise. The tenor of Douthat’s column in the Times‘ “Sunday Review” suggests he wrote the first draft before the Supreme Court rendered its decision to preserve most of the Affordable Care Act. Douthat devotes a good part of his column to the impending demise of health care reform and the defeat of Barack Obama: “For President Obama, the consequences of health care may still be fatal to his re-election hopes.” I’m thinking Douthat added that word “still” in a post-Thursday-morning rewrite. Referring to President Obama’s decision to pursue healthcare reform, Douthat uses terms like “disastrous,” “ideological,” “wildly out of touch,” and worst of all, “liberal.” Douthat then adds that “the chief justice’s grudging imprimatur is unlikely to make a deeply unpopular piece of legislation suddenly popular instead.” Hmm. How unlikely is it? Patricia Zengerle of Reuters reports,
Voter support for President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul rose after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it but most people still oppose the law, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Sunday. The online survey showed increased backing from Republicans and, crucially, the political independents whose support will be essential to winning the November 6 presidential election.
Thirty-eight percent of independents support the healthcare overhaul in the poll conducted after the court ruled Thursday the law was constitutional. That was up from 27 percent from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken days before the justices’ ruling. Among all registered voters, support for the law rose to 48 percent, from 43 percent before the court decision.
If not “suddenly popular,” ObamaCare is “suddenly more popular” than it was on Wednesday. Paradoxically, ObamaCare actually is popular; it’s just that the public doesn’t know it. As Steve Benen of “The Rachel Maddow Show” noted last week, before the Court announced its decision,
… the public has been conditioned to reject ‘Obamacare,’ but Americans don’t really know what’s in it. When asked about the provisions of the law, however, they’re quite popular. That was the case in 2009, 2010, and 2011. And the new Reuters-Ipsos poll suggests nothing has changed. In this case, Greg Sargent obtained the poll internals and found, ‘What’s particularly interesting about this poll is that solid majorities of Republicans favor most of the law’s main provisions, too.’
What remains extremely unpopular is the individual mandate – the part of the law which the litigants in the ACA cases challenged. But if the President and Democrats would use the 2012 campaign season to embrace the Affordable Care Act, to promote it instead of mumbling about it only when cornered, and to explain the benefits of the law – then I think the law’s bitter pill would go down more easily. Instead of letting the right get away with defining the individual mandate as a “broccoli clause” – and now “a tax Obama lied about” that “is taking away your freedoms,” why not call it what it is? – a “freeloaders’ fee.” That’s what Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) calls it, and she’s right. Besides, the percentage of people who end up having to pay the freeloaders’ fee is likely to be quite small. It applies only to those who can afford health insurance and don’t buy it. Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon reported on Friday,
Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economist who helped design both Romneycare and Obamacare, said today on a conference call organized by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund that Obama’s penalty will affect only a tiny portion of Americans. ‘The Congressional Budget Office estimates that about one percent of the population will end up paying this penalty. This not a broad new tax on the middle class. It is trivial…. The CBO estimates it is $4 billion in revenues from this penalty. That is trivial relative to the almost $100 billion that you would get in [subsidies], once it’s phased in, in new tax credits to individuals to buy health insurance. So this is on net this an enormous tax cut for the middle class. This is not a tax increase,’ he explained. [Emphasis added.]
Chief Justice Roberts also noted in his opinion that the fee/tax itself is minimal: “for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance, and, by statute, it can never be more…. It often may be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance.” [NFIB v. Sebelius, pdf pp. 41-42] Indeed, the Affordable Care freeloaders’ fee – er, tax – is less than half as steep as the tax/penalty then-Gov. Romney signed into law in Massachusetts.
Here’s something else Douthat doesn’t want you to know about that “deeply unpopular piece of legislation”: “journalists” like Douthat and his colleagues on the news side of the Times have helped make that piece of legislation deeply unpopular. Adam Serwer of Mother Jones writes,
The latest study from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found that … [media] coverage of the Affordable Care Act was dominated by rhetoric used by the law’s opponents. According to Pew, ‘the concepts used by opponents were nearly twice as common as those used by supporters.’ … Journalists are supposed to separate truth from falsehood, but instead spent the bulk of their resources speculating about ‘politics and strategy,’
What “journalists” couldn’t do to discredit the Affordable Care Act, Republican-leaning PACs obliged. As Abby Goodnough of the New York Times reported, “In all, about $235 million has been spent on ads attacking the law since its passage in March 2010…. Only $69 million has been spent on advertising supporting it.” Underwriting the anti-ACA ads: “an array of conservative groups, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($27 million) to Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS ($18 million), which includes the billionaire Sheldon Adelson among its donors, and the American Action Network ($9 million), founded by Fred V. Malek, an investor and prominent Republican fund-raiser.”
And this doesn’t count the “death panel” charges, the astroturfed Tea Party insanity – “Keep the Government’s Hands off My Medicare” – and the Congressional Republicans’ unrelenting apocalyptic pressure to characterize the law as a freedom-destroying, jobs-killing, socialist, government takeover of the God-blessed American free enterprise system. So when Douthat writes that President Obama’s decision to pursue healthcare reform was “disastrous,” “ideological,” and “wildly out of touch,” readers should remember that the “disaster” part was almost totally the work of Republicans and their allies. In fact, the act itself would be much better – would probably be much closer to “Medicare for All” – if Republicans like Douthat himself had not devoted such Herculean efforts to defeating, undermining and discrediting it.
Douthat blames President Obama for “turning from economic crisis management to sweeping social legislation before the crisis had actually abated.” I believe the technical term for this argument is the one-must-not-walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time fallacy. Let’s just add that Douthat’s hypothesis is pretty hypocritical coming from a representative of the Party of No. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine makes the case that the Obama administration’s attempts to manage the economic crisis had little to do with its health reform initiative:
Health-care reform was the culmination of a legislative consensus built up over years among policy wonks, elected officials, and interest groups. There was no such consensus for any additional stimulus in 2009 or 2010…. There was no public base of support for more stimulus – if anything, the public believed that cutting the deficit would help the economy…. There was no force to support more stimulus in 2009 or 2010, and after that, of course, the House was captured by fanatically anti-stimulus Republicans.
I don’t know if Douthat reads the columns his colleagues write, but if he does, he will notice that the public’s belief in deficit-slashing arises out of the brains of Douthat’s fellow conservatives David Brooks and Tom Friedman, among others, who have been deficit-hawking for a long time. That is how Washington’s Very Serious People occupy themselves.
Jonathan Chait’s position is admittedly debatable, with respectable observers disagreeing. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, who did extensive reporting for a book titled The Escape Artists, How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery, agrees with Douthat. Scheiber claims his reporting supports Douthat’s view that healthcare legislation preoccupied the White House to the point that staff ignored the need for more stimulus. But, countering his own argument, Scheiber notes that the Obama team and Congressional Democrats did pass some small stimulus legislation “while health reform was pending” and also pushed through two huge payroll tax cuts designed to have a stimulative effect.
(One place Obama definitely should have done much more to help the economy was by addressing the home mortgage crisis. Here he made the foolish choice of allowing Treasury Tim Geithner to call the shots. Geithner, “Wall Street’s Man in Washington,” purposely slow-walked the mortgage assistance program to ease the burden on the big banks that held the mortgages. If there is an Obama scandal, it has nothing to do with gun-walking or Solyndra. It’s all about slow-walking mortgage relief.)
Let us remember, too, that it is a Republican-generated myth that Democrats enjoyed control of both Houses of Congress for two years, thus allowing President Obama to dictate whatever legislation his heart desired. While the House was solidly Democratic throughout the 2009-2010 Congressional session, Democrats in the Senate held a 60-vote majority for only about five months in 2009: “from July of that year, when Al Franken was finally sworn in after winning the recount against Norm Coleman, through November 2009, when Democrats lost Barack Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois to [Republican] Mark Kirk. Then in a special election the following January, [Republican] Scott Brown won Teddy Kennedy’s old seat, and was sworn in on February 4th.” Remember, too, that those 60 votes included Independent Joe Lieberman and Southern and Western ConservaDems. Republican Senators filibustered everything but Post Office namings, so Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Obama always needed the support of a few Republicans to break the GOP filibusters. And with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell determined to undermine every Democratic effort, persuading those few Republican Senators was usually impossible and always required undesirable concessions.
So Douthat’s “shoulda-coulda-woulda”s are nonsense. Douthat blithely suggests the agenda Obama “should have had”: “financial reform and perhaps tax reform would have preceded health care reform, and the kinds of jobs bills the White House demanded of a recalcitrant Republican Congress in 2011 might have been sought from a Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010 instead.” (Emphasis added.) Let’s break down Douthat’s helpful way-after-the-fact suggestions.
Financial Reform: Evidently Douthat is not aware of the Dodd-Frank law, aimed at what Douthat calls “financial reform” and signed into law in July 2010. Weak as it is, that bill passed the Senate only with the help of Scott Brown, who watered it down in exchange for his vote and has continued to try to weaken the rules regulators are putting in place.
Tax Reform. Douthat’s pretense that the President could get meaningful tax reform through the Republican gauntlet is laughable. Major tax reform requires bipartisan support. Neither party likes tax reform because, by definition, reforming the tax code creates winners and losers. To accomplish tax reform, then, both parties have to not only compromise but also share the blame the losers will heap upon them (while the winners remain mostly silent and/or clueless). But, as Steve Kroft reported, in November 2011, 270 members of Congress [all but a few of them Republicans] and “nearly all of the 2012 Republican presidential primary candidates” had signed Grover Norquist’s “pledge promising never to vote to raise taxes.” Not one of these lawmakers could be trusted to sit down at a table and negotiate tax reform legislation in good faith. Not one. The Grover Norquist pledge is a pledge to violate their Constitutional responsibility “To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises [and] to pay the Debts … of the United States.” By pretending that tax reform was ever doable during Obama’s tenure, Ross Douthat is signaling that he is not a serious person.
Jobs Bills. First, the 2009 stimulus bill – a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – was primarily a massive jobs bill; the Congressional Budget Office and others estimated it saved or created millions of jobs. Douthat seems to want the reader to forget this. He doesn’t mention it, and he may be relying on the hope that his readers, like so many Americans, confuse the stimulus bill with TARP, which was the bank bailout bill passed under George W. Bush. What Douthat definitely wants readers to forget is that Democrats didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate at any time in 2010. So when Douthat writes that Obama should have pushed through “the kinds of jobs bills the White House demanded … in 2011 … [in] a Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010,” he is either ignorant of the facts or is purposely misleading his readers. Obama did seek and get a huge jobs bill in 2009, and he did not have a Democratic super-majority in the Senate in 2010. Douthat’s entire alternate scenario is built on false claims.
Having thoroughly misrepresented three-and-a-half years of American political history, Douthat does see clear to chastise Republicans for offering no healthcare alternative:
There was no meaningful Republican plan for reform during the heat of the original debate, and for all the notional talk about repealing and replacing, much the same void exists today. Individual conservative politicians and policy wonks have plans, but the party leadership has deemed it too risky to counter the Democratic legislation with anything save boilerplate. Paul Ryan has personally proposed a health care alternative, but his House budgets have conspicuously lacked one.
Yet, in an almost childish posture, Douthat holds out hope for a meaningful Republican policy proposal: “… there’s still time for Mitt Romney to lead his party to some kind of consensus on a health care alternative,” he writes. It should go without saying that the last thing in the world Mitt Romney wants to talk about is healthcare reform. Although he once urged President Obama to adopt the Massachusetts model, Obama did adopt the Republican model at about the time Right Wing World unanimous declared that anything connected to Obama became the greatest threat to American freedom since King George III. So Romney became ObamaCare’s most virulent opponent, declaring he would “repeal on Day One” of his presidency. The unpopularity of ObamaCare has forced Romney to spend his entire campaign pretending he was never governor of Massachusetts and RomneyCare never happened. When forced to own up to his disreputable past, Romney is quick to say that RomneyCare is “based upon conservative principles that, frankly, came from Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation.” Connect the dots, and Romney’s position – had he the slightest inclination toward honesty and intellectual consistency – would have to be, “Obamacare is based upon conservative principles that, frankly, came from Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation.”
Ross Douthat’s entire column is a fairy tale – from his fractured history of ObamaCare to that dreamy ending in which handsome Prince Willard vanquishes (Douthat actually uses the word “vanquish”) the wildly out-of-touch liberal, shortly after he revealed a healthcare miracle plan which is entirely unlike Romney- and ObamaCare, covers all Americans, brings down healthcare costs and unites America forever behind the Republican banner. This is all pure fantasy – a Lewis Carroll story for Right Wing World. Think of Ross Douthat as the White Rabbit.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com