Obamacare Survives

I don’t have much to add to the reams of commentary about the Supreme Court’s upholding of the ACA.

Sometimes the Supreme Court really screws things up. Sometimes it muddles things. But sometimes, like today, it winds up clarifying things.

The healthcare “mandate” really should have been clarified as a tax from the very beginning. But that would have been politically untenable, so Obama went out of his way to pretend it wasn’t a tax. The result is that everyone focused on the first part — “you must buy health insurance!” — without focusing on the second part — “or else…”

Most people seemed to be acting like the “for else” was, you go to jail. If you don’t buy health insurance we put you in jail! Or, if you don’t eat buy broccoli we put you in jail! Because in this country we like to put people in jail. The United States has a culture of fear. We’re a pretty violent place compared to the rest of the first world; we focus on punishment a lot. And punishment usually means jail.

The Supreme Court — with the Chief Justice as the instrumental vote — showed the mandate for what it really is: a tax. You don’t have to buy health insurance. You can pay the tax instead.

This reframes the issue as a choice. Until now — due to poor political framing — most people seemed to think that under this law, if you didn’t buy health insurance, you’d be doing something illegal — you’d be a criminal. But that was never true. In reality, if you don’t buy health insurance, you have to pay a tax. (Of course, if you refuse to pay a tax, you’ll be treated like anyone else who refuses to pay taxes. But hey, I’m not allowed to withhold the part of my tax that goes toward funding wars or the part of my tax that funds the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group’s defense of DOMA. You don’t get to pick and choose which taxes you pay.)

In an ideal world, reframing the issue as a choice — pay for health insurance, or pay a tax — should reduce the temperature a bit. I don’t know if that will really happen, but I hope that at least some people who were uncomfortable with the mandate  — most likely, some people in the middle of the political spectrum — are now more comfortable with it. Because it was never really a mandate. It was a coercive tool.

The point of coercing most people into getting health insurance was not to make people do things just because Democrats like to make people do things. The point was to widen the insurance risk pool. This was necessary in order to offset the new law’s provision that prohibits insurance companies from refusing to sell health insurance to sick people or people with preexisting conditions. Without the mandate, the insurance rolls would become overwhelmed with sick people, raising premiums for those with health insurance. The risk pools need the influx of premiums from a bunch of healthy people in order to balance out the sick people. That’s how insurance pools work.

I used to be bothered by the analogy to auto insurance, because it didn’t seem accurate. People would say, “Health insurance is just like auto insurance! Everyone has to have auto insurance, so what’s the big deal with making everyone buy health insurance?” The difference, I would reply, was that they’re not the same, because you do not have to buy auto insurance unless you have a car. (New York City much?) Nobody is forced into the auto market, but the law would be forcing everyone into the health insurance market. This did bother me a bit.

But of course, as many people have pointed out, everyone is already a part of the health insurance market. Everyone gets sick, with the very rare exception of the few hardy souls who’ve never needed to see a doctor a day in their lives. Getting sick is part of the human condition. Having a car is not.

That’s why it’s troubling that a majority of the Court held that the mandate failed under the Commerce Clause. The activity/inactivity distinction was always pretty stupid, but Roberts and Kennedy fell for it. I have not actually read the opinion yet, so I’m not sure how far into the weeds they get with the Commerce Clause — SCOTUSblog’s Tom Goldstein seemed to say that this is an unusual situation that will not create much Commerce Clause precedent. I plan to read it when I get a chance.

Okay — a bunch of paragraphs later, I guess I did have stuff to add.

At any rate, I’m relieved the Court upheld the ACA.


I’m just going to quote this Talking Points Memo post in its entirety.

The Washington Post today has a profile of Mike Vanderboegh, the 57-year-old former militiaman from Alabama who last week posted a call for people to throw bricks through the windows at Democratic offices around the country to protest their votes for Health Care Reform. Whether the people who actually did this over the last week did so in reaction to his call to arms is not clear. But he’s happy to take credit and others are crediting him too.

But Vanderboegh really is a classic exemplar of scream-at-your-TV tea-partyish extremism. A radical libertarian, champion of getting big government off the people’s backs, his day job? Vanderboegh lives on government disability checks down outside of Birmingham, Alabama.

I have nothing to add.

Health Care Passes

Until the number “216” appeared on the screen last night, I wasn’t totally convinced it was going to happen. The fifteen minutes of voting were winding down and the tally was growing more slowly than I’d expected and I wondered if some Democrats were going to change their minds at the last minute.

But it really happened. Holy shit.

The Democrats have passed health care reform.

They did it!

If you had told me two months ago, after Scott Brown’s election and the Democratic disarray that followed, that we’d actually get here, I don’t think I would have believed it. I was depressed about politics and I was so sure that the wimpy Democrats would cave in like they usually did.

The turning point, I think, happened just ten days after Scott Brown’s election, when Obama met with Republicans in Baltimore and the session was televised live at the White House’s request. It was a great psychological boost for the Democrats — it was bold, it was different, and it showed that the Republicans in Congress were intellectually bankrupt and that Obama was not cowed. It was a prelude to the bipartisan session at Blair House a month later, where Obama was able to say to the Republicans: Look, many of the things in this bill are ideas that your party supported 15 years ago. You don’t want single-payer? There’s no single-payer. You don’t want a public option? There’s no public option. I’m willing to work with you, but you’re not willing to work with me. His performance gave congressional Democrats the leadership that Nancy Pelosi had insisted upon.

One of the things I admire most in Barack Obama is his capacity to learn from mistakes. He exercised poor leadership on health care last summer and fall, letting the debate go to Crazytown, and it cost him; had he taken greater charge of the debate, this health care bill might have had a public option, which will now have to wait for a future date. But he exercised much stronger leadership in the last two months, when everyone thought health care reform was dead. You could say it’s a wash: had he been a stronger leader back then, he wouldn’t have had to work so hard to save the plan. Would things have been different under Hillary Clinton, who said that we couldn’t afford to have a president who needed to learn on the job? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m so gratified to have a president who does know how to learn, a president who has flexibility and tenacity in equal measure. I’d rather have a president who learns on the job than one who thinks there’s nothing worth learning.

And Nancy Pelosi deserves great credit, too. I watched her closing speech last night and, to be honest, it was pretty dreadful. The Speaker is, ironically, not a very good speaker. But she’s apparently great behind the scenes, because she managed to hold a majority together with a few votes to spare.

As for the silly executive order that won over Bart Stupak and his caucus — an executive order that basically says that the law is the law — it seems like something out of The West Wing. I could just see Toby and Josh and Sam arguing with each other about how to win over the votes of these intransigent House members, and then Donna walks in and says something seemingly unrelated, and then a light bulb slowly goes on above Josh’s head as the camera closes in on him.

This really has been the stuff of high drama. But it’s not just about politics. This bill is going to do a great deal of good for millions of people. It’s the most significant social legislation Congress has passed in decades.

Obama just became a consequential president.

On Master of the Senate and Health Care

A couple of days ago I finished reading Robert Caro’s phenomenal Master of the Senate (which I earlier wrote about here). The last third of the book is about how Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader for much of the 1950s, helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

As I was reading, I kept shaking my head at the parallels to the recent health care reform efforts in the Senate.

We tend to associate the legislative successes of the civil rights movement with the 1960s: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, place of recreation, etc.), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discrimination against voters on the basis of race. But there was a Civil Rights Act of 1957 as well. The bill was intended as a sweeping measure against racial discrimination in everything from public accommodations to voting. But there was a big roadblock: the southern senators were dead set against it. No civil rights bill had passed the Senate since 1875, and the southerners meant to keep it that way.

But Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the de facto leader of the southern senators and an ardent enemy of civil rights, desperately wanted a southerner in the White House. No true southerner had been elected president since before the Civil War, and Russell considered this a great embarrassment. Russell himself had run in 1952 and had failed to win the Democratic nomination; he was too southern, too much an enemy of civil rights, had too much of the “scent of magnolias” on him, to win the support of northern Democrats. But he came to realize that Lyndon Johnson was a southerner who could win. And LBJ himself desperately wanted the presidency; he had half-heartedly run for the nomination in 1956 and had lost, and he vowed not to make the same mistake in 1960.

Both men knew that the only way for Johnson to win the 1960 Democratic nomination was for the Senate to pass a civil rights bill; Johnson, as the Senate majority leader, could reap much of the credit and win accolades from northern liberals. But the southern Democratic senators would filibuster any bill they didn’t like, and the northern liberals of both parties would stand for nothing less than a sweeping civil rights act.

Johnson needed to water the bill down enough so that southerners would at least agree not to filibuster it, but not weaken it so much that liberals would abandon it.

First he managed to throw out the sweeping “public accommodations” portion of the bill, so that the law would cover only voting rights. This angered the liberals, but he convinced them that voting rights were what was really important; if blacks could vote, they would have the political power to get the more sweeping antidiscrimination provisions passed eventually.

But he weakened the voting rights provision as well. As things stood, there was no federal law under which southern officials could be sued for prohibiting blacks from registering to vote. The 1957 bill meant to change that by allowing such lawsuits. But Johnson managed to get the bill amended so that these lawsuits would have to be conducted as jury trials. Of course, no southern all-white jury would ever convict a southern registrar. So this would render the bill completely toothless. Northern liberals were even more outraged.

What did Johnson give to the northerners? He managed to add an amendment that banned racial discrimination in any federal jury nationwide: not just in southern voting cases, but in all federal trials everywhere in the country. But while this seemed like a good thing, in the South it would have no effect on voting rights cases, because any conviction of a voting rights official would have to be unanimous, and no white on a southern jury would ever vote to convict.

This was enough to convince the southerners not to filibuster the bill. But northerners were dejected. The bill was practically worthless; why not let it die? Why vote for it?

Because it would be a psychological victory, and it could lead to more substantial victories later. As Caro writes:

[Johnson] knew… that the most important thing wasn’t what was in the bill. The most important thing was that there be a bill.

One of the reasons for this was psychological. The South had won in the Senate so many times that there existed in the Senate a conviction that the South could not be beaten, particularly on the cause that meant the most to it. … A victory over the South would begin destroying this mystique. Demonstrate that the South could be beaten and more attempts would be made to beat it.

Johnson saw this. … He used a typically earthy phrase to explain it. “Once you break the virginity,” he said, “it’ll be easier next time.” Pass one civil rights bill, no matter how weak, and others would follow.”

And there was a further reason, Lyndon Johnson saw, why the passage of any civil rights bill, no matter how weak, would be a crucial gain for civil rights. Once a bill was passed, it could later be amended; altering something was a lot easier than creating it.

The liberals came around, and the bill passed, and Eisenhower signed it into law.

And a few years later, Congress passed sweeping civil rights and voting rights measures. And the president who signed those bills into law was Lyndon Johnson.

(Look at Robert Kennedy in the front row of this photo — enlarge it, look at his face: what is he thinking, seven months after his brother’s assassination, as he watches his adversary Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act that his brother fought so hard to get passed? He looks haunted.)

The Democrats can’t give up on health care reform. Ironically, now it’s the House that needs to take action, not the Senate. The House needs to pass the Senate bill. It’s not a perfect bill, but once health care reform is signed into law, it will be easier to fix it later. The “virginity” of health care reform will be broken. They could do this in a day and then move on to other things. And it would be a huge psychological victory as well.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Political Grief

There have been a couple of nights in the past week when I’ve had trouble falling asleep. I’ve been anxious.

It’s not because of anything in my personal life. It’s because of tomorrow’s Senate race in Massachusetts.

It looks like Democrat Martha Coakley is going to lose to Republican Scott Brown. The Senate seat held for 47 years by Ted Kennedy — and held before him by his brother, John F. Kennedy — is probably going to go Republican. That seat hasn’t been Republican since JFK won it in 1952.

I am deeply, deeply upset that after months and months of debate, after all the angst, after all the arm-twisting and dealmaking, after all the grief, after the reform plan has approached death’s doorstep several times since August, only to keep surviving — after everything, after decades of waiting, we have, at long last, seen the House of Representatives pass a health care reform bill; and then, miracle of miracles, we have even seen the Senate — the United States Senate, where reform bills go to die! — pass a health care reform bill; after decades of effort, we are finally on the brink of passing health care reform; and now we are going to see it all fall apart, because Ted Kennedy — Ted Kennedy, of all people, whose life’s dream was to bring health insurance to millions of Amerians, who worked tirelessly for decades to achieve this goal — was taken away from us by brain cancer.

I have actually had trouble falling asleep because of this. Because I’ve been taking it personally.

It doesn’t make sense to take it personally. The death of health care reform wouldn’t affect me materially; my own health care coverage is fine.

But this bill could bring health care to 31 million Americans. I may be in decent financial shape, but millions of Americans are not. And I want this to be a country that gives aid to its citizens when they need it. It pains me that people die in this country because they can’t afford health insurance, that people come to financial ruin in this country because they get sick.

And I admit, my feelings go beyond altruism.

The thing is, human beings are clannish. We like to divide ourselves into tribes, whether it’s in support of religions, or nations, or political parties, or sports teams, or late-night TV stars, or supernatural creatures. If Massachusetts voters send a corporatist Republican to the Senate tomorrow, I will feel like I have been personally attacked. I know this is not rational. But it’s what I will feel. I will feel like millions of Americans are jeering and laughing at me. I will feel like they hate me. I will feel like my team has lost.

(And I don’t even live in Massachusetts.)

It pains me that health care reform could die. And it angers me that 59 votes is not enough to get things done in the Senate. Jon Stewart channeled my feelings tonight on The Daily Show: the Democrats have more Senate seats than the Republicans have had since 1923; George W. Bush was able to do all the damage he did to our country without ever having a supermajority in the Senate. (By Tuesday morning, the relevant Daily Show clip should be here. Update: here it is.)

Even if Brown wins, the House can still save reform. All it has to do is pass the bill that the Senate has already passed. The fear, though, is that Democrats will be quaking in their boots after Brown wins — because that’s what Democrats do best, quake in their boots — and give up on reform for fear of being voted out by a wrathful electorate in the fall.

But the House has until the end of the 111th Congress to pass the Senate bill. It can even wait until after the November 2010 elections and then pass the bill in a lame-duck session. Hey — if the Republican-controlled House could impeach Bill Clinton in a lame-duck session after losing seats, and not even be punished for it, the Democratic-controlled House can pass health care reform in December 2010.

But again: we’re talking about Democrats. Footwear, quaking.

In this instance I’ve decided to take Dan’s advice and expect the worst. The Massachusetts Senate seat is lost, and health care reform is probably lost. The only upside I can see is that maybe, maybe, the failure of health care reform will take away some of the Republicans’ ammunition as the economy slowly improves. Clinton’s health plan failed and then the Republicans took over Congress, and then they overreached, and Clinton was re-elected two years later. Maybe the failure of health care reform will improve Obama’s re-election prospects. I would rather have an ineffective Democrat in the White House than any Republican; better a holding pattern than active harm.

So I’ve decided to let it go. There is nothing I can do about it, so getting upset is pointless. And I shouldn’t take it as a personal repudiation. I haven’t failed; Martha Coakley has failed. The voters of Massachusetts don’t even know me.

I’m still going to be upset. But I’m also going to try and chill out about it.

For my own sanity.

Obama Has Me Feeling Down

For a while I’ve had the idea of writing a post from an alternate universe, where Hillary Clinton is president, and things are going horribly for the Democrats, and we all say, “Darn, if only we’d only elected Obama, things would be going so much better for us!”

I’m feeling down about politics again — Democrat Martha Coakley is in danger of losing her Senate race against Republican Scott Brown, in Massachusetts of all places. If Coakley loses, that leaves only 59 Democrats in the Senate, which means that health care is dead unless the House passes the Senate bill as is. (Or unless both houses get their shit together and vote on a compromise bill already. The Senate passed its bill three weeks ago! What’s taking them so long?)

In the past I’ve blamed Harry Reid for the Democrats’ problems. But I also blame Obama. Things should never have gotten to the point they did last summer, when the “death panel” rumor ran rampant. The New Yorker article on marriage equality that I linked to yesterday has a part that struck me, about Chad Griffin’s experiences working on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign:

But the Clinton “war room” remained Griffin’s model of how to make noise in the world. “Every single hour was strategic,” he recalled. “I was this little freakin’ kid hanging around watching Paul Begala and James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. They did not let the opposition gain an inch, and if it did they knocked it down with firepower.”

Can anyone describe the White House efforts at health care reform that way? No.

It’s funny. In 2008, all the anti-Obama people were saying, “Obama’s an idiot, he’s all flash and no substance, all he knows how to do is give a speech.” But in fact, that wasn’t true. I can’t remember where I read this, but there was an article in 2008 saying that Obama as a candidate actually started out really wonky and earthbound and uninspiring, and his campaign managers had to convince him to spice things up a bit, inspire people, use more poetry instead of prose. But now that he’s president, he seems to be just a policy wonk again. Candidate Obama was full of inspiration and hope, but President Obama is just boresville. He’s Calvin Coolidge.

Sometimes lately, I find myself wishing that Hillary Clinton had been elected president. But who’s to say that things would be better if she were in the White House? It’s tempting to say, “Darn, Hillary Clinton would have been a much better president than Obama! She would have kicked ass!” But there’s no way of knowing. She might have turned out to be a bad president: remember her disorganized primary campaign, her wooden speaking ability, the landing-in-Bosnia-under-fire thing. Could she have gotten health care legislation as far along as Obama has? I can just as easily see her overplaying her hand and screwing it up as I can see her intimidating the Republicans and keeping all the Democrats in line.

When we imagine that things would have been better only if things had turned out differently, it’s basically “hope” aimed in a different direction. “Regret” and “hope” are cousins. In each case, we’re imagining some alternative world where things are going much better than they are now: it’s either the future (hope) or an alternate universe (regret).

There are, of course, factors outside of Obama’s control here. If Ted Kennedy hadn’t gotten cancer, there would be no special election in Massachusetts to worry about right now. If tons of white people weren’t racist and xenophobic, there would be no Tea Party movement to deal with. But there’s a lot more Obama could have been doing these last few months other than being idealistic.

Anyway, there is nothing that I, myself, can do to change anything going on in politics right now. So I can continue to follow it and get depressed about it; or I can just ignore it, which isn’t going to happen, because I’m a politics junkie. Finally, there’s the third option, which is that I can continue to follow it and realize that there’s nothing I can do about it so there’s no point in getting depressed about it.

I will probably choose the last one.

Master of the Senate

I’m about halfway through Master of the Senate, part three of Robert Caro’s wonderful, epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro’s been writing this biography for more than 30 years, ever since he finished The Power Broker (which itself is one of the best American biographies ever written). The first part came out in 1982, the second in 1990, the third in 2002, and the fourth and final volume, covering Johnson’s vice-presidency and presidency, will supposedly come out in 2012 or 2013, but who knows.

Master of the Senate, covering Johnson’s twelve years as a U.S. senator, is terrific. The first 100 pages are a wonderful capsule history of the United States Senate and tell you everything you need to know about why health care reform has had such a rough time this past year. In part, that’s why I finally decided to start reading the book last month. I’d been meaning to do so for years, and during the week before Christmas I spotted it in a bookstore and decided that given everything going on, now was an appropriate time to pick it up.

As Caro points out, the Senate was meant to be undemocratic. The Framers preached representative government, but they were wary of the masses. The Senate would serve to cool the popular passions and allow for deliberation and debate, unlike the rambunctious House. The Framers accomplished this in part by making the Senate an undemocratically apportioned body, where every state gets two senators no matter how big the state’s population. (This was also a compromise to get the South to hop on board, of course.) They also created a small number of senators, as opposed to the crowded House of Representatives: with only two senators per state, every member of the Senate is important.

And they granted senators six-year terms, longer than presidents or congressmen would get.

And there’s a very important point about those six-year terms: the Constitution provides that those terms are staggered. This is a subtle but powerful characteristic of the Senate that we often forget. Caro quotes a scholar:

It was so arranged that while the House of Representatives would be subject to total overturn every two years, and the Presidency every four, the Senate, as a Senate, could never be repudiated. It was fixed, through the staggered-term principle, so that only a third of the total membership would be up for re-election every two years. It is therefore literally not possible for the voters ever to get at anything approaching a majority of the members of the Institution at any one time.

I think this observation is brilliant.

Grafted onto this original undemocratic structure were certain rules and traditions, such as unlimited debate; its cousin, the filibuster; and seniority. And don’t forget that until the early 20th century, senators were chosen not by the public but by state legislatures. And because we elected a president indirectly through the electoral college, the only body that was directly elected by the people was the House of Representatives.

I read part of Caro’s first book about LBJ, The Path to Power, a few years ago, but for some reason after about 250 pages I put it down and never got back to it. Master of the Senate stands on its own, though; you don’t need to read the first two volumes to get into it, because Caro summarizes Johnson’s life up to then.

Caro on Johnson is alternately exciting and frustrating and maddening. LBJ comes off as a master tactician — you can’t help but be awed by his audacity and brilliance in achieving power — but he also comes off as a Machiavellian asshole who is willing to ruin the careers (and lives) of perfectly innocent men in order to get where he wants to be. I don’t really enjoy reading about people who aren’t likable, so it’s depressing at times. But if you have any interest in 20th century American history, or any interest in politics at all, this is an amazing book.

Health Care

Health care reform has me dejected, but this bill needs to pass. We can’t “kill the bill.”

I’m annoyed at Obama for not risking political capital to fight for what he believes in. More importantly, I have nothing but contempt for Harry Reid. I blame Reid for this fiasco more than Obama. If not for this ridiculous notion that any bill needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, we would have a much better health care bill today. The idea that Democrats are being allowed to threaten to filibuster their own party’s legislation is absurd. Are you kidding me? The way I see it: you want to filibuster your own party’s legislation? You want to pull that kind of shit? Fine, then you’re getting stripped of all your committee chairmanships and any other special perks you get from being a member of the majority party. I’d rather have 53 Democratic senators led by the ass-kicking Lyndon Johnson than a 60-member majority led by Harry Reid, that milquetoast fuckwad. Any time Reid opens his mouth I want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him awake. He practically whispers in front of the microphone. He barely looks at the camera. He’d lose a fight against a ham sandwich. You could run him over with a tricycle. The guy has less charisma than John Kerry. He has negative charisma.

Fortunately, he’s up for re-election next year and he’ll probably lose. Since it’s unlikely the Democrats will lose their majority next year, we’ll probably have a new Democratic majority leader in the next Congress. But by that point it will be too late to put together a better health care plan.

Which is why, as disappointed I am in the Senate bill as it now stands, I’m more annoyed with people on the left who say we need to “kill the bill.” If we don’t pass a bill now, we won’t have this chance for another 15-20 years. And there are some great things in this bill. For starters, under this bill, 30 million more Americans will have health insurance. Some people on the left are saying that because there’s no public option, it will be a windfall to the insurance companies. Um, no it won’t. In return for being paid premiums, the insurance companies will have to provide health insurance to people. It seems like many lefties aren’t thinking clearly — they’re beholden to the notion that anything corporate is evil, that health insurance companies are the spawn of hell. They’re more interested in punishing insurance companies than in helping millions of Americans get health insurance. They think that if insurance companies benefit, that must mean that everyone else loses. But be real. Just because you hate insurance companies, doesn’t mean they are evil. The world is not in line with your emotional reality. It’s really immature to see the world through the eyes of Michael Moore. I don’t like it when right-wingers see the world as black and white, and I don’t like it when left-wingers do so either.

It’s the Nader voters all over again.

Furthermore, one of the problems with our health insurance system is that lots of healthy people don’t buy insurance, meaning that the risk pool is smaller and somewhat skewed toward the unhealthy. A bigger risk pool is better, because it results in lower premiums for everyone. And the risk pools will increase by 30 million people.

Even if these numbers are off and it’s just 20 million more people with health insurance, that’s still phenomenal, and it’s the greatest progress in health care that we’ve had in more than 40 years.

I also read something that said under the current bill, insurance companies will be able to charge older people three times as much as younger people, and OMG how horrible that would be. Um, as opposed to now, when there is no limit on what they can charge?

So, yes, this bill could have been a lot better, and it’s Obama’s fault as well as Reid’s, as well as the fault of every senator who opposes a public option and a Medicare buy-in. (It’s also the Republicans’ fault, of course, but that goes without saying.)

But there’s lots of great stuff in this bill. It needs to pass. In the early 1970s, the Democrats scrapped a health care deal with Richard Nixon because it wasn’t good enough for them, and what did they get for it? Nothing.

If they don’t pass this bill now, there won’t be another chance for years.

Primal Scream Politics

“It’s times like these when the difference between political activism and self-expression and primal scream therapy become really apparent. Politics isn’t easy. Political change isn’t easy. It includes tons of reverses and inevitably involves not getting a lot of what you wanted, at least not at first. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to agree on policy or priorities. People don’t agree on things. That’s life. But that’s different from cashing out of the process if you don’t get just what you want.”

Josh Marshall

I’m really annoyed by people who say Obama is “just like Bush” or isn’t the leftist we elected. That’s an incredibly naive and simplistic view. First of all, Obama never put himself forth as a leftist. But more importantly, being president of the United States is really an impossible job. The public expects you to change the world with a wave of your hand, but the only real power the Constitution gives you is the power of persuasion. You have no concrete way to make Congress pass laws; you can only try and convince them to do it. (This list of presidential paradoxes is worth reading.) Granted, if you are talented enough a populist, you have more leverage, but even so, there’s no guarantee that this will work.

The Constitution discusses the Congress before it discusses the presidency. (Literally, Congress had to come first; the first act after the Constitution was ratified was for Americans to elect a Congress, because Washington couldn’t assume the presidency until after Congress had certified his election.) Not only that, but it divides Congress into two bodies. Not only that, but one of those bodies isn’t even apportioned democratically. So right off the bat, even if everything is working well, our system of government is constitutionally set up to make change difficult. Throw in the spineless Harry Reid, the incorrect notion that the Constitution requires a 60-vote majority to pass legislation, and the cult the Republican party has become, and it’s a miracle that health care legislation has gotten as far as it has.

The problem is that if Obama tries to explain this to the American people, he’ll come off looking weak, because we like our presidents to seem strong. (We invest the presidency with monarchical trappings: the White House, Air Force One, “Hail to the Chief.”)

If only he could argue that terrorists were trying to deny us single-payer health care.

Politics is not primal scream therapy. The last decade would have turned out much differently if a bunch of Florida Naderites had sucked it up and voted for Gore. And don’t even get me started on the teapartiers.

Politics isn’t about magic ponies. Don’t drop out of the process just because you don’t get what you want.

1990 Pages

I’m tired of hearing people complain that the House’s health care bill is 1,990 pages.

First, here is the health care bill. The pages have wide margins and are double spaced, and most lines are indented at least once.

Second, it’s not like this is the PATRIOT Act, where members of Congress were given hardly any time to read it or debate it before voting on it.* Congress has been working on health care for months. Any member of Congress who wants to read the bill has the opportunity to do so. And anyone who doesn’t has staffers to read bills and summarize them — which is not ideal, of course, but it’s better than not having time to read it at all.

(* The same people who criticize the health care bill do not seem to have criticized the PATRIOT Act, except for libertarians.)

Third, although Joe Q. Public also has the opportunity to read the bill online, there is no constitutional requirement that members of Congress give us time to do so. “Good old-fashioned Americans” are always talking about going back to the principles on which this country was founded. Well, this country was founded on the principle that you elect people to represent your interests in Congress, and then you shut the hell up and let them do their work. You are not a lawyer and you have no idea how to read legislation. If you don’t like what your elected representatives do, you vote them out at the next election.

Okay, I’m being snarky. Of course we’ve always been a rambunctious country, and citizens have always had the right to protest against their government. But my point is that the founders didn’t create a direct democracy, they created a representative democracy. There was no Internet 220 years ago, no telegraph, and no expectation that the average citizen would read legislation. If you’re going to complain about getting back to the ideas on which this country was founded, at least know what you’re talking about.

If you want to complain about the health care bill, fine, but base it on something substantive, not on OOH IT’S TOO MANY PAGEZ!

Obama and the Gays

I watched Obama’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday night. I was underwhelmed.

Many others have pointed out that it was the same speech Obama could have given as a candidate. As Dan Savage wrote, “Imagine all the wonderful things this guy is going to accomplish if he ever actually gets elected president.” Ooh, Obama mentioned Stonewall in his speech! What is this, 1992? Mentioning Stonewall is like buying a Hallmark card. It means you don’t really give a shit, so you’re going to resort to a cliché. What about Frank Kameny? What about Harry Hay?

Then there was the appalling email that the head of the HRC, Joe Solmonese, sent out a few days ago, apparently saying that we shouldn’t judge Obama’s gay rights record until January 2017. I don’t think he was saying what some critics claim; I think he was merely making the point that by the end of Obama’s administration, we will have seen progress on gay rights, and hey, let’s be optimistic and hope Obama serves two terms instead of one. But that’s not how it came off to some influential people, such as Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage and John Aravosis, and that’s not surprising given that the HRC has accomplished nothing except raising money and holding fancy dinners. To Sullivan and the others, Solmonese seems to be saying that we should wait until 2017 to see any progress. So we may as well have waited until 2012 to elect a Democrat.

Yes, Solmonese’s email was misinterpreted, but it serves him right. Oooh, hate crimes laws! Yay! As if hate crimes aren’t already prosecuted as crimes.

Meanwhile, my frustration with Obama is growing. I’m guessing that he’s waiting until health care passes before addressing gay rights, and that in early 2010, we’ll see him start to move on DADT. He’s afraid of bringing up any “touchy social issues” until health care’s out of the way, and he’s spooked by what happened to Clinton in 1993. But this is 2009, not 1993. Ending DADT is no longer controversial; nearly 70 percent of the public supports ending it.

To be honest, if the choice were between health care reform and gay rights, I’d choose health care reform, because that affects tens of millions of people and it’s one of the biggest problems our country faces. But who says there has to be a choice? Is gay rights really going to drain political capital from health care? Really? If it can survive fake death panels, it can survive DADT.

Obama, despite what the teapartiers think, is not a radical. He’s cautious about moving too quickly — in this case, perhaps too cautious. And nothing can excuse those awful legal briefs in which the administration defended DOMA. I’d be amazed if Obama actually takes any action against DOMA, especially since he’s on record as not supporting marriage equality. (Never mind that both Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA, and even Bob Barr, the former Republican congressman who wrote DOMA, think it should be repealed.) That said, if Congress passes the Respect for Marriage Act, I don’t doubt Obama would sign it.

Still — once again, we are lured for our votes and our money, but a Democratic president isn’t going to lift a finger to actually do anything to help us. If he doesn’t do anything next year, we’ll know Obama doesn’t give a shit about gay rights.

Health Care Basics

So, the health care debate.

But first, a really long tangent. Feel free to skip this part, but it does kind of relate.

* * *

One day when I was a boy, I was reading some old Jewish folktale that took place in a shtetl. There were some robbers, and they were stealing from a family’s home. My dad was shaving in the bathroom, and I went in and asked him, “Is there such thing as robbers?”

It seemed so weird to me that there could be a group of people who snuck into someone’s house and stole their stuff. It… just didn’t make sense. It was too scary and unsettling. It was… wrong. Why would people do something that was wrong?

I tend to be idealistic about humanity — or naïve, depending on how you look at it. I like to throw away the assumptions and ask the questions a child would ask. Why do dogs have four legs? Why is the sky blue? Why are people mean? Why can’t they just not be mean? Grow the hell up, someone might say. People are just mean. What? Come on! I can’t even ask why?

I believe, or I want to believe, that every human being wants to be good, that human beings care about their fellow human beings, and that if you just try to communicate with someone who is ill-informed — if you calmly lay out your reasoning, clearly and logically — the other person can’t help but come around; perhaps not right away, but eventually. Even if the person protests, I believe (or, again, I want to believe) that your words will seep into the person’s subconscious, take root, and flower when the time is right.

I believe deeply, almost religiously, in the power of logical argument. That doesn’t mean an argument divorced from emotion or morality; ultimately, arguments for the preservation of humanity or for the idea that we should treat each other well are moral ones, not logical ones. But the process by which you get from a moral premise to a moral conclusion, that involves logic.

As for the substantive part, the moral part: I do think everyone wants to do good. We can be selfish, fearful creatures, but we are also capable of great empathy and generosity. That empathy and generosity just needs to be teased out sometimes, and it has to be done in the right way. I don’t always know what that way is, but I believe it’s possible. I just refuse to believe that there isn’t a person who can’t ultimately be convinced.

Again, call me idealistic or naïve. I don’t care.

* * *

Okay, that’s the end of the tangent. You really should have read it.

But back to the health care debate.

All the craziness is making people forget what this is all about:

Either you care about what happens to strangers, or you don’t.

Either (1) you believe your fellow citizens deserve health insurance, or (2) you don’t believe your fellow citizens deserve health insurance.

Either (1) you see other human beings — most of whom you will never meet and who may have life circumstances or cultures that are completely different from your own — as actual, living, breathing people, or (2) you see your fellow human beings as subhuman.

Why do I say subhuman? Because if you don’t ascribe to other people the same three-dimensionality that you ascribe to yourself and your own family members, if you don’t think their lives matter as much, then you’re not treating them as human beings. You’re treating them as less than human. As subhuman. (This is why good fiction writers are probably better people than the rest of us: because they take the time to imagine fully real, fleshed-out characters. Because they appreciate that every human being has value.)

It’s weird. For most of 2008, and most of the years before that, I thought that the health care debate was about the fact that millions of Americans don’t have health insurance. Either they can’t afford it or they’re denied coverage, but for whatever reason, they don’t have health insurance. So they get sick and die because they can’t afford to see a doctor for minor issues that become major issues or even for preventive care. Or they have an accident or develop a catastrophic illness and then they go into bankruptcy because they have to pay for everything themselves.

So health care reform is about insuring all of our citizens, like every other modern nation tries to do.

But then suddenly it’s 2009, and people are saying, “Health care reform, as we’ve long said, is primarily about reducing costs.” What? When did this happen? I thought health care reform was about insuring all of our citizens. When did it become about cost? Cost is an issue, but it is a secondary issue. The primary issue is that there are millions of Americans who lack health insurance.

The cost isn’t really a big deal. Why are people so selfish that they’re not willing to pay higher taxes to help out millions of other people? Our taxes are already so low compared to other countries. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, taxes were way higher than they are now — the top rate was 91 percent — and the economy thrived.

The response is, “Are you kidding? I’m struggling as it is.” Well, guess what? There are millions of Americans who are much worse off than you.

“But this is my money. I should be rewarded for my hard work.” Yes, but you have a moral obligation to the rest of human society.

“But if these other people just worked harder, they’d be doing as well as me.” Tell that to the woman working two minimum-wage jobs to feed her family.

“It’s not my fault she’s worse off than I am.” No. But again, you are part of human society, and therefore you should care about her.

You should care about her.

“Why can’t we all just give to charity?” If that worked, we wouldn’t be in the mess we were in. Besides, mandatory payment — taxes — takes the social pressure off you. We care about how we’re doing in relation to other people, and if you know that everyone else has to give money for the common good, you won’t feel like a chump for being the only one doing it.

I don’t understand why more preachers and pastors and other religious leaders aren’t pleading with their congregants to support universal health care and the higher taxes that are necessary to achieve it.

I can be selfish and irritable and scared and suspicious just like anyone else can. But that’s why I need to be made to contribute, just like everyone else. We can’t rely on charity. Charity relies on our moods and our moods are inconsistent. We need to be made to pay higher taxes.

I don’t understand why citizens have to carry guns to rallies and why politicians have to spread blatant lies. (Chuck Grassley.)

Either you care about what happens to strangers or you don’t.

I guess I’m just naïve.

* * *

[Update: I don’t mean to suggest that health care costs are not important at all. There’s no need for our taxes to go toward inefficiencies or for us to pay more taxes than are necessary. But reduced health care costs are a means to an end — health insurance for as many people as possible — and not the end in itself.]

Judicial Liberalism Not Happening

If you believe in judicial liberalism — which I sometimes do and, to be honest, sometimes don’t — the current direction of the Court is a little depressing. Tom Goldstein, Supreme Court analyst extraordinaire, points out that the conservatives on the Court are free to move at a measured pace in overturning liberal precedents, at least for a while:

For the moment, there is no reason to rush. Time permits a jurisprudence of not just originalism, or textualism, but actuarialism. The sand running through this hourglass will not expire for eight years.

Later in his term, President Obama will likely replace Justice Stevens with someone else on the left. If he is reelected in 2012, he will replace Justice Ginsburg with someone on the left. Nothing changes.

It isn’t until the election of 2016 at the earliest that there is a real prospect for a significant shift to the left in the Court’s ideology. Actuarially, that election is likely to decide which President appoints the successors to Justices Scalia and Kennedy (both on the right, and both 73 now) and Justice Breyer (on the left, and 70 now). Absent an unfortunate turn of health, between now and the summer of 2017 there is no realistic prospect that the Court will turn back to the left. Over the course of that eight years, it is possible to take enough measured steps to the right to walk a marathon. Again, no need to rush.

Unless something happens to Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito, or Kennedy in the next few years, the Court is on a slow rightward trajectory.

On the issue dearest to my heart — gay rights — it probably doesn’t mean much. Kennedy has been pretty pro-gay (Romer, Lawrence), but I don’t expect the Court to take up same-sex marriage for a while. It didn’t overturn the nation’s sodomy laws until only 13 states were left with such laws; the Court is too cautious to constitutionalize same-sex marriage rights at this point, when only six states allow such marriage.

What else could the Court tackle? Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell will be history in the next few years — I’m pretty sure Obama will get around to it after health care and energy are taken care of. DOMA (full faith and credit clause) is a possibility — which would be a sidelong way to rule on same-sex marriage. But I don’t think the Court will touch that right now. Again, the issue is just too volatile, and the Court generally knows when to stay out of things. (It has learned from abortion; would Roe v. Wade come out the same way today? Who knows; the opinion would at least be less intrusive if it were written today.)

Of course, I could be wrong. Issues have a way of showing up on the Court’s docket unexpectedly, especially since it only takes four Justices to vote to hear a case.

But for now, things seem to be in stasis, at least where gay rights are concerned. As for everything else — drifting right.


I’m so tired of all the talk about “bipartisanship.”

“If there is any chance we can do a bipartisan bill, it has to be in the Finance Committee,” Harry Reid said yesterday about health care reform.

Currently the Senate has 59 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and a vacancy in Minnesota.

If the Senate had 51 Democrats and 48 Republicans, and 8 Republicans joined 51 Democrats to pass a bill by a vote of 59-40, everyone would gush about how wonderful it was that a bipartisan bill passed.

But the Senate has 59 Democrats and 40 Republicans. If all Democrats vote for a bill today and all Republicans vote against it, it still passes, 59-40. But in that situation, it’s not “bipartisan.” So it’s a very bad thing.

Why is the same vote acceptable in one context but not in another?

If there were 90 Democrats and 10 Republicans, Harry Reid and others would still be fretting about winning over one or two of those Republicans in the name of “bipartisanship.”

Enough with the fetishizing of bipartisanship. If spineless centrists are going to worry about winning over members of the opposition no matter how small that opposition is, then what is the point of having a 59- or 60-member Democratic Senate caucus instead of a 51-member caucus or 54-member caucus? Yes, it’s nice to be able to break filibusters. But Congress recently decided that health reform could pass by a simple majority vote if necessary. So why are Reid and others being so obsessive about “bipartisanship”?

The Senate is an exclusive club divided into two teams. There’s a Democratic caucus and a Republican caucus, a Democratic leader and a Republican leader. Members of each party have their own retreats. Party controls everything. Most Americans aren’t loyal to one party or another — they vote for whoever seems like the better choice in any given year — but senators are obsessed with party. That’s especially true today, when party loyalty is much stronger than it used to be. Only three Republicans broke ranks to vote for Obama’s stimulus bill — and one of them switched parties soon after.

The bipartisanship fetishists in the Senate and the media are making an important mistake: they’re confusing bipartisanship with consensus.

We emerged from the 2008 elections with a Senate containing 59 — and it really should be 60 — Democrats. The Republican Party currently has a 25 percent approval rating. So the consensus of the American people is that the Republicans suck.

The consensus is that the Democrats should use their 60-member caucus to pass health care reform. Nearly three-quarters of Americans think there should be a public health care plan; this is a consensus. But “Democrats in the Senate have considered nixing the proposal in order to win Republican support for the bill,” according to that link.

Politicians do not have to listen blindly to what majorities want — people can be ill-informed and majorities can be wrong — but if they’re going to buck the public, they should do so for substantive reasons, not because they’re worried about upsetting the guy who jogs next to them in the Senate gym or sits next to them in the Senate dining room.

Bipartisanship is meaningless. It’s as antidemocratic as the Senate itself. In the Senate, every state gets two seats, no matter how big the state’s population; likewise, each of the two major parties apparently gets a voice, even if the American people think one of those parties is intellectually bankrupt.

Exactly how big a majority do we need before we can start using it?

Repubs Take NY Senate

Fucking fucking fuck. Two Democratic state senators have defected to the Republicans, giving Republicans control of the New York State Senate. So much for marriage equality in New York in the next year and a half.

The two who defected are a real couple of winners:

Why Mr. Espada and Mr. Monserrate suddenly defected on Monday afternoon was not immediately clear. Both men are under investigation by the authorities. The state attorney general’s office is investigating a health care agency, Soundview HealthCare Network, that Mr. Espada ran until recently. And Mr. Monserrate, who was indicted on felony assault charges in March stemming from an attack on his companion, would automatically be thrown out of office if convicted.

What the fuck is wrong with this state? Why is it so hard to get marriage equality in New York, of all places? First the state supreme court screws us, and now this. It’s not just upstate that’s the problem — these anti-gay Democrats are from New York City: the Bronx and Queens.

I am so pissed off right now.

One Good Thing

There’s one good thing that has come out of the prolonged Obama-Clinton race.

There seems to be a big chunk of Clinton voters who say they’re dead-set against voting for Obama. They’ll vote for McCain before they vote for Obama. Basically, their order of preference was: (1) Clinton, (2) McCain, (3) Obama.

The thing is, had Clinton not stayed in the race, we’d never know who these people are. Those Clinton voters who say they’ll never vote for Obama would have been indistinguishable from voters who would vote for John McCain over any Democrat whatsoever.

But because Clinton stayed in the race, we know who they are. We know they’re receptive to Democratic arguments, since they voted for Clinton. It will be easier to convince them to vote Democratic than it will be to convince die-hard Republicans to do so. Just convince them that Obama holds the same positions on the issues that Clinton does.

It may or may not work, depending on whether you see Clinton as the centrist and Obama as the liberal (Clinton and guns, Obama and his bad bowling), or Obama as the centrist and Clinton as the liberal (see universal health care). But it’s a thought.

That Was Fast

Tomorrow’s the Pennsylvania primary? Already? It arrived faster than I thought.

I’m serious. Seven weeks ago, when we had the Texas and Ohio primaries, I agonized that we were going to have to go through another seven weeks of this. Now those seven weeks have passed, but it doesn’t feel like that long. I don’t know why. Maybe time moves more quickly when primaries or caucuses aren’t happening every week.

The whole nominating contest is a blur at this point. I’m numb. I almost don’t care who the nominee is anymore. Obama is bruised and battered, and Clinton has morphed into Richard Nixon with a universal health care program. In other words, Lyndon Johnson. Well, Lyndon Johnson minus Vietnam. Actually, Lyndon Johnson minus Vietnam doesn’t sound so bad.

Hillary Clinton = (Nixon + universal health care) – Vietnam

Hillary Clinton = Nixon + (universal health care – Vietnam)

Hillary Clinton – Nixon = universal health care – Vietnam

As of tomorrow, time elapsed since the Iowa caucuses: 110 days.

No, seriously.

Obama’s Speech II

Many people have praised the speech Obama gave yesterday. But other reactions to it have left me depressed.

I used to be optimistic and idealistic about the power of dialogue to change the world. If we could all empathize with other people more, I thought, the world would be a better place. (Empathize: identify with, and understand, another’s situation, feelings, and motives.)

I used to think that only children were in thrall to their fears and emotions, and that when they grew up into adulthood, the fear would go away, and it would be replaced by understanding.

But it strikes me that so many adults in this world are actually just children in grown-up bodies. They are people who can lift heavy objects, and reach the top shelf, and drive a car, and hold down a job, and make a living, and raise a family. They are people who can generally function in this world day to day, independently. And yet so many of these people haven’t really grown up. They’re still too much in thrall to their fears and emotions. And it prevents them from understanding the world. From knowing the world. From knowing the people in it.

Obama gave a wonderful speech yesterday — a speech, by the way, that he apparently wrote himself. (That shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, he wrote a highly-praised, nuanced and deeply felt book back in 1995, when he wasn’t a politician and wouldn’t have had motivation to use a ghostwriter. And he was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review, so he’s not exactly an idiot. Maybe he received input on the speech from others — I haven’t seen it reported that he did, but maybe he did — but even if he did, the thoughts were his. It’s not like someone pushed a sheaf of paper in front of him and said, “Read this.”)

It’s not an easy speech to digest. You have to do a little more work to understand it than you have to do with most politicians’ speeches. It’s only words, but it demonstrated a fine understanding of the racial divisions that contribute so much to mutual suspicion and animosity in our country today. And, not incidentally, Obama also did a fine job, I thought, of explaining that sometimes, you have emotional ties to people in your life who may say things and hold beliefs that you profoundly disagree with. You might choose to shun these people. Or you might choose not to shun them, because even though you disagree with them, they’ve become like family to you, and you prefer not to shun family.

And yet some people think it’s their place to judge Obama for the choice he’s made.

I was particularly frustrated by a comment to a post on Eric’s blog. (I don’t know Ryan, the commenter, so I take issue only with his words, and only because those words are representative of what other people have written elsewhere on various blogs in the past 24 hours. I don’t mean to criticize the commenter himself.)

Ryan wrote:

I did read the speech. And I still don’t care. Actions speak louder than words and as a gay, I walked away from hateful religon, so can Obama, esp. when “unity” is his buzz words. So the world being complicated doesn’t “cut the mustard” so to speak. Wright is wrong. Obama sat and listened to his spew for 20 years. There’s no excuse. None.


Obama’s ACTIONS have spoken louder than any fancy speech his writers write. He supports hateful Wright, for whatever reason Wright is angry. I care not.

Hate is wrong. Wright preaches hate. Obama supports that hate by donating to his church, by attending his sermons, by naming his book after one of those sermons, by bringing his daughters to hear him preach.

End of discussion.

End of discussion?

That’s a level of certitude I can’t imagine holding. About almost anything.

I’m tired of reading comments by people who think it’s their place to judge how another human being handles a particular situation. As I said, I’ve seen similar comments on numerous blogs in the last 24 hours, and it frustrates me to no end. People are coming to a situation with their preconceived notions, and they won’t let anything change their minds.

I’ve been guilty of this myself, of course. In this political season, I’ve felt a visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton over the last couple of months, and I’ve expressed it on this blog. I’ve been trying to combat that dislike. I can’t presume to know what’s in her heart or her mind. I don’t think she’s an Ambitious Dragon Lady; I think she has deeply held, deeply felt beliefs about health care, and about children, and about making this country a better place. I don’t know if she has the political skill to achieve her goals as president; she might be deluding herself, as all politicians do (including, perhaps, Obama). And I think she’s made some dishonorable political choices in this campaign. My primal instinct is to hate her guts and hold her in contempt for the way she’s conducted it. But I’m trying to get past that, because, really, what the hell do I know?

“What the hell do I know.” I wish more people lived by that creed instead of feeling secure in their certitude. I try to, even though I’m not nearly as successful at it as I’d like to be.

There have always been wars and there always will be. There have always been dictators who weren’t loved enough or secure enough as a child, and there always will be. Throughout history, a large portion of the human population has remained childlike, and a large portion of the human population always will.

Why bother with the dialogue and the words? What good can it do? Damned if I know sometimes.

While writing this, it was pointed out to me that tomorrow would have been Mr. Rogers’s 80th birthday. (In his honor, tomorrow is “Won’t You Wear a Sweater?” Day.)

I adored Mr. Rogers as a child; sometimes he seemed to be the only person in the world who wouldn’t judge me, who would accept me unconditionally. He taught us some of the most emotionally healthy lessons there are. Here are some:

Of course, I get angry. Of course, I get sad. I have a full range of emotions. I also have a whole smorgasbord of ways of dealing with my feelings. That is what we should give children. Give them … ways to express their rage without hurting themselves or somebody else. That’s what the world needs.

You know, you don’t have to look like everybody else to be acceptable and to feel acceptable.

I have a very modulated way of dealing with my anger. I have always tried to understand the other person and invariably I’ve discovered that somebody who rubs you the wrong way has been rubbed the wrong way many times.

If more people were like Mr. Rogers, the world would be a better place.

Obama’s Race Speech

Barack Obama gave an amazing speech about race and religion in America this morning. Appropriately, he gave it at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, because it was a very American speech. You can read it and I’m sure you can watch it somewhere [update: here].

It blew me away. I’ve never heard anything like it from a presidential candidate. I’ve never heard a politician speak so honestly, intelligently and insightfully about the racial and religious divide in this country.

It appears to have been prompted by the Rev. Wright comments. But he used the opportunity to speak not just about Rev. Wright but about larger issues. He explained the source of Wright’s anger without justifying it. He explained what Wright has meant to him personally, even though he thinks many of Wright’s views are deeply flawed.

He said that while Wright’s views come from a place of anger, so do the views of many working-class white Americans who blame their place in life on affirmative action, or who resent, rightfully, the implication that they themselves are somehow responsible for this country’s history of slavery.

I don’t even know what part of the speech to excerpt here, because passage after passage is insightful. Here’s a taste.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS…

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

I think this is going to go down as a legendary speech, on a par with Kennedy’s 1960 speech about his Catholicism.

Obama could have disowned Wright and quit his church. It might have been the easier thing to do. He could have been that calculating. Another politician might have thrown his friend overboard. But Obama has principles. He stood up for himself and defended someone who has played a meaningful role in his life.

I wonder if Obama is too smart and insightful to be President of the United States. But then I think to myself how wonderful it is that we finally have a candidate who doesn’t treat us like idiots – who has enough faith in us to appeal to the better angels of our nature.

I don’t know if that faith is justified; it might be proven wrong. But it’s so refreshing to see a politician take that gamble.