Debating Conventional Wisdom About the Debate

I finally got around to watching the first Presidential debate this morning, as I was working last night. Maybe I’m just a wonk, as I neither found it as boring, nor thought Obama did as bad a job as many people, especially on the left (friends and progressive media), seemed to believe.

When I got home and checked first the news sites, then Facebook, everyone seemed agreed it as awful. One friend mentioned wanting to poke her eyes out during the debate, another posted a video of Charlie Brown’s teacher speaking to show what the debate sounded like to her and Andy Borowitz reported in The New Yorker  that “[m]illions of Americans lost consciousness on Wednesday night between the hours of 9 and 10:30 P.M. E.T., according to widespread anecdotal reports from coast to coast.”

James McMurtry’s pre-debate post made me smile, and seemed like it would have been the best way to watch the debate:

Decided to let Johnny D’s run the debate close captioned while I play. Never tried that. Should be interesting. Might even sync up. Come on out.

You Can’t Make It Here and Choctaw Bingo sounded like the perfect sound track for the state of our nation, which has only slowly turned around (and only on some issues) under President Obama.

Then the Tom Morello/Crosby, Stills & Nash concert to support California unions right to support candidates and defeat Proposition 32 in California Rolling Stone reported this morning also happened last night seemed even more relevant.

Not that I wouldn’t have loved to be at either concert, but I’m glad I finally watched the debate online.

I thought President Obama was considerably better than reports from, say:

Joan Walsh in Salon:

A subdued, deferential, over-prepared President Obama ceded the first debate to Mitt Romney on style and substance.

or Matthew Rothschild in The Nation:

[Obama] was sluggish and dull and let Romney box him all over the ring.

While I thought Obama was stronger on the issues than the left-wing pundits gave him credit for, I agree that he was too unwilling to attack Romney when he had an opening. I have mixed feelings about that, as I think it has a lot to do with Obama wanting to be a nice guy and play fair, and longing for a bi-partisanship that doesn’t exist any more.

I’m in full agreement that Obama should have fought back, for example as Truthout‘s William Rivers Pitt points out “when Mr. Romney re-re-re-re-re-told the $716 billion Medicare liearound 43 minutes into the debate.” I think President Obama is a little too hesitant to “[t]ag a liar for being a liar,” but he could have brought up the facts, without getting personal.

From the PolitiFact article Rivers Pitt links to:

Neither Obama nor his health care law literally cut funding from the Medicare program’s budget. Rather, the health care law instituted a number of changes to try to bring down future health care costs in the program.

What kind of spending reductions are we talking about? They were mainly aimed at insurance companies and hospitals, not beneficiaries. The law made significant reductions to Medicare Advantage, a subset of Medicare plans run by private insurers. Medicare Advantage was started under President George W. Bush, and the idea was that competition among the private insurers would reduce costs. But the plans have actually cost more than traditional Medicare. So the health care law scales back the payments to private insurers.

Then there was Romney’s hypocritical critique of the Wall Street bail out and the “too big to fail” banks, which I didn’t fully understand at the time, but struck me as odd coming from a venture capitalist (who has shipped jobs to China, something else Obama should have got him on).

In his column, Romney’s Obscene Posturing As a Wall Street Critic, George Zornick of The Nation takes it on, and explains what Obama should have in his response to Romney.

As Zornick points out:

Romney—the private equity veteran running a presidential campaign funded by Wall Street, on a platform that contains a full repeal of every financial regulation over the past four years—positioning himself as an opponent of those big “New York banks” was a historic moment in presidential debate cravenness. (And a real missed opportunity for Obama to wallop his opponent).

It turns out with the Dodd-Frank legislation “too big to fail” banks are subject to more regulation.

Dodd-Frank has two provisions regarding too-big-to-fail that Romney is talking about here. The first is the ability of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, created by the legislation, to name financial institutions “systemically significant.” This means they are so big that their failure could threaten the health of the financial sector, and that designation subjects them to heightened regulation and higher capital requirements.

The big banks hate this requirement, for obvious reasons—they come under increased scrutiny and restrictions. So Republicans have been dutifully attacking it. (Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, repeatedly blasted it before joining the ticket). The GOP argument, as you heard Romney deliver it, is that by giving them the “systemically significant label, the government is officially “designating” banks as too-big-to-fail—a very bad-sounding thing indeed!

The banksters need more regulation, not less; not that I think Obama and the Democrats have done enough, with both parties too much in bed with Wall Street and corporations.

What I do feel Obama did a pretty good job of defending was the Affordable Health Care Act (or Obamacare, as even he is calling it):

And let me tell you exactly what Obamacare did. Number one, if you’ve got health insurance, it doesn’t mean a government takeover. You keep your own insurance. You keep your own doctor. But it does say insurance companies can’t jerk you around. They can’t impose arbitrary lifetime limits. They have to let you keep your kid on their insurance — your insurance plan until you’re 26 years old. And it also says that you’re going to have to get rebates if insurance companies are spending more on administrative costs and profits than they are on actual care.

Number two, if you don’t have health insurance, we’re essentially setting up a group plan that allows you to benefit from group rates that are typically 18 percent lower than if you’re out there trying to get insurance on the individual market.

Further pointing out:

… the irony is that we’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, because Governor Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what is essentially the identical model and as a consequence people are covered there. It hasn’t destroyed jobs. And as a consequence, we now have a system in which we have the opportunity to start bringing down costs, as opposed to just leaving millions of people out in the cold.

Romney, in response claims “I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together.” He complains that the Affordable Health Care Act was passed without a single  Republican vote, and talks about “[w]hat we did in a legislature 87 percent Democrat, we worked together”. . .

There’s a major difference with the Republicans in Congress, though, and Obama rightly comes back with “I agree that the Democratic legislators in Massachusetts might have given some advice to Republicans in Congress about how to cooperate, but the fact of the matter is, we used the same advisers, and they say it’s the same plan.”

Above quotes from Washington Post’s transcript: http://apps.washingtonpost.com/politics/transcripts/2012/presidential/live/739/?wpisrc=nl_politics

While I wish it was stronger, the Affordable Health Care Act is a start and one of the things Obama tried to do. Like with jobs, there was a lot of push back from the Republicans in Congress.

Of more concern, with Obama (and even more so with Romney), are all the issues still not covered in this debate. Yes, I know I’m voting for the lesser of two evils. While I’m on the “for voting for the lesser” side of the progressive debate, I don’t feel like we should downplay (in addition to corporate influence) wars, drones, the NDAA, Guantanamo. . .

Oh, yeah, to take off my partisan hat for a moment, and switch to my favorite non-profit, how did we do with Amnesty International’s Human Rights Presidential Bingo?

Amnesty International Presidential Bingo
Amnesty International Presidential Bingo

Darn! A losing ticket again. . .

Just wish the stakes weren’t so high.

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Occupy – Reason for Real Hope?

I am inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the local gatherings like Occupy Seattle.  I have hope, almost (which is scary, because I remember what happened last time, or rather, what didn’t . . . on so many issues). Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and friends playing Occupy Wall Street at Columbus Circle reminded me of those heady days when so many of us thought “Change” was possible.

Yet, that is part of the hope, both in seeing what the people did via so much grass-roots activism in getting Obama elected, and in the realization of most of us this time not to put our faith in a candidate and on the Democrats being different enough from the Republicans. Turns out too many of them are owned by Wall Street, too (and that is one of the most crucial things that needs to change, which is indeed a formidable goal).

Occupy Seattle March

Why are people occupying and marching? Is it really as vague, incomprehensible and unreasonable as some pundits make it? Personally, I think the “We are the 99%” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” slogans do a pretty good job of explaining why people are so upset.

Lets see, according to The Atlantic, “Half of all workers made less than $26,364, the median wage in 2010,” and “The size of the missing workforce is 10 million. ” In spite of being bailed out at public expense, banks are raising fees and trying to foreclose on people they talked into loans with unfair terms, even “losing” paperwork so they can foreclose, as in the case of Dixie Mitchell and her husband in Seattle which was reported in the PI (and fortunately, Washington CAN is helping them fight).

Alternet‘s article, Which Bank is Worst for America? details how the banks congressional influence led to the collapse.

One of its biggest coups was the overturning of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that created a firewall between investment banking and the commercial banks that hold deposits and make loans.

How much of our tax dollars went to the bailout?

Among our big five, Citigroup was the largest beneficiary of these funds, with $45 billion, but even Goldman Sachs got $10 billion. Wachovia/Wells Fargo and JP Morgan got $25 billion each, while Bank of America got $30 billion. According to ProPublica’s calculations, the big five have all paid back their TARP funds.

Oh, they’ve paid it all back? Wait, there’s more.

But TARP was only one way in which the federal government subsidized the big banks. The Federal Reserve also handed out trillions in unsupervised loans during the so-called crisis period.

And if those numbers weren’t big enough, just this August Bloomberg reported even more secret Fed loans to the big banks: “The $1.2 trillion peak on Dec. 5, 2008 — the combined outstanding balance under the seven programs tallied by Bloomberg — was almost three times the size of the U.S. federal budget deficit that year and more than the total earnings of all federally insured banks in the U.S. for the decade through 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.”

Just a coincidence, I’m sure, that so many in Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, had large donations from Wall Street.

Just who are the recipients of all this largesse? There are many, but most play key roles on Congressional committees that oversee their businesses. Consider just one example: Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, one of the most powerful members of Congress (Schumer is known as “the senator from Wall Street”).

According to the National Journal‘s rankings, Schumer is tied with two others as the 10th “most liberal” member of the upper chamber. But he owes his career to Wall Street.

The article also notes that “(t)wo of Obama’s top bundlers are also connected to Goldman Sachs,” but “Mitt Romney is the clear favorite candidate of Wall Street this year, having taken in $2,339,588 from securities and investment companies.” Don’t despair, or rather, do despair, if you’re not a Wall Street banker, because the Washington Post reports that:

. . .Obama has brought in more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies than all of the GOP candidates combined, according to a Washington Post analysis of contribution data.

As the Washington Post notes in another article:

(I)n the tug of war between Main Street and Wall Street, Obama has made his loyalties clear. Just take a look at the long list of Wall Street contributors to his campaign. Unfortunately, Mr. President, you are the company you keep.

How corrupt is Congress? According to the Spectator:

Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, our Congressional parties now post prices for key slots on committees. You want it — you buy it, runs the challenge. They even sell on the installment plan: You want to chair an important committee? That’ll be $200,000 down and the same amount later, through fundraising. Unlike most retailers, though, Congressional leaders selling committee positions never offer discounts. Prices only drift up over time.

Bank of America is trying to get more taxpayer funds, to cover their derivatives, which apparently many be ready to blow.

Why is Bank of America moving derivatives from Merrill Lynch to an insured subsidiary? Is it because the derivatives could blow up at any time leaving Merrill with gigantic, unsustainable losses? If that’s the case, then it would make perfect sense to shift them into a depository institution that’s covered by the FDIC. That way, the taxpayers would wind up paying for the damage and no one would be the wiser.

Back to the Occupy movement. I’m inspired that people are on the street, especially because they’ve got the rest of us talking. That is something that cannot be taken away, even though some jurisdictions are trying to crack down on protesters and Twitter may or may not be censoring trends (and maybe even tweets, although that may be my own paranoia and lack of sleep at the time; more at a later date).  What is going to be exciting is what changes are we going to be pushing for?  No matter how impossible it seems, getting money out of politics has got to be a major one if any other changes are going to work.

The Response and Military Tribunals

We’ve had a couple recent forums on human rights over the past week and a half that I went to. On February 17 Amnesty International showed the Oscar-nominated short documentary The Response, with a panel discussion on military commissions. Then on February 23, Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon, who tried to bring former Argentine dictator Augusto Pinochet to justice spoke at the UW Law School.

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Sara Schmidt, our field organizer from the San Francisco office, introduced the panel, who spoke briefly before the film, which we watched next.

The Response is based on transcripts from actual military tribunals, and highlights a procedure that is administrative (they can only rule if the prisoner has been properly categorized, not on whether he or she should be held), and allows for evidence the prisoner isn’t allowed to know the details of nor the source of to refute.

As Amnesty International notes, about the the commission system formed under the Military Commissions Act:

Notably, it strips the right to a speedy trial, permits the use of evidence obtained through compulsory self-incrimination, and restricts defense access to materials used to prosecute the defendant. There is no right to confront accusers, no exclusion of evidence based on the failure to obtain a warrant, and hearsay evidence is permissible.

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Joseph McMillan & Jamie Mayerfeld

Our panel included Arsalan Bukhari, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Jamie Mayerfeld, Associate Professor of Political Science at UW; Joseph McMillan Legal Defense for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s personal driver; and Tom Parker, Policy Director: Terrorism, Counterterrorism & Human Rights, Amnesty International.

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Arsalan Bukhari & Tom Parker

We talked about how both the US in other instances, and other countries like Britain have dealt with terrorism with regular courts (and without torture).  Ironically, the US courts are a far more effective way of prosecuting terrorism. According to the New Security Action website, “Only 3 detainees at Guantanamo have been convicted of any crime through the military commissions system,” while “(t)he Federal court system has convicted 195 terrorists since 2001.”

Arsalan also brought up the issue of profiling Muslims since September 11, and even before, like, ironically, after the Oklahoma City bombing, before it came out that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were responsible. Tom brought up a number of cases of recent right wing terror attacks and attempts that most of us and the general public has never heard of.

Ironically, again, the next day a right wing anti-tax fanatic flew a plane into an IRS office in Austin, Texas. I don’t see any difference. There are even people who see the man as a hero. Again, not much different from al Quaida or any other terrorist. Should we start rounding up clean cut white guys who are angry with the government, based on innuendo from their neighbors or co-workers who they won’t be able to confront, and hold them indefinitely because of what they might do? Or is that un-American?

We also talked about what has been a major disappointment for me, that President Obama has back tracked on Guantanamo and issues like military commissions and indefinite detention. One of the things that impressed me about Obama during the primary was that he had been a constitutional law professor who understood the importance of habeas corpus and other legal issues relevant to Guantanamo and the “war on terror.” I realize he’s getting a lot of pressure from the right, but still thought he would stand his ground because it is so important.

We collected postcards to send to President Obama at The Response screening, and you can take action online at:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/counter-terror-with-justice/fair-trials/page.do?id=1041195

We had co-sponsorship by and shared tabling with a number of good groups, including CAIR, the WA State Religious Campaign Against Torture, Veterans for Peace and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The conversation continued out to the reception in the lobby another hour, making it difficult for the young man sent to clean up and put our tables and chairs away.

Coming next (and hopefully soon), Judge Garzon’s visit.

Afghans & American Veterans Say No to War

While it came as no surprise when President Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan last night, it still, as a friend put it, felt like a punch in the gut.  It felt like betrayal.  I voted for this President, and to be fair, I still believe he’s the best we could have gotten in there at this point in American history.

Why do Democrats still feel they have to compete with Republicans on being macho, on how many we can kill to show we’re tough, whether it’s war or the death penalty? 

The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They’ve been confronted with occupation — by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes.  So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand — America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. 

So why are we sending more troops? Of course, theoretically, we’re sending more troops so we can get out of there.  Where have we heard all this before?

Ahh, yes.  Vietnam.  I’m old enough to remember a great deal of it, although I was a kid at the time.  I have many veteran friends who unfortunately were old enough to have been sent over and fought in it.

Bill Moyers ran this episode a couple weeks ago, detailing through audio tapes how then President Johnson took my friends and other young men and women into the quagmire that was Vietnam.  What’s amazing, or maybe not, is that nobody seemed to think it was a good idea, or even winable – neither the President nor his advisors.

Why did Johnson get us into it?

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Well, I opposed it in ’54. But we’re there now, and there’s only one of three things you can do. One is run and let the dominoes start falling over. And God Almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up, compared to what they’d say now. I see Nixon is raising hell about it today. Goldwater too. You can run or you can fight, as we are doing. Or you can sit down and agree to neutralize all of it.

So he gets the country deeper and deeper into the quicksand, even though he really on some level knows better.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: It’s damned easy to get in a war but it’s gonna be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.

But you can’t appear to be weak!

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: But they say that, well a fellow like A.W. Moursund said to me last night, -damn, there’s not anything that’ll destroy you as quick as pulling out, pulling up stakes and running, that America wants by God, prestige and power. And they don’t want-I said, yeah, but I don’t want to-I don’t want to kill these folks. He said, I don’t give a damn. He said, I didn’t want to kill ’em in Korea, but said, if you don’t stand up for America, there’s nothing that a fellow in Johnson City-or Georgia or any other place-they’ll forgive you for everything except being weak.

RICHARD RUSSELL: Well there’s a lot in that. There’s a whole lot in that.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Goldwater and all of ’em raising hell about go on, let’s hot pursuit. Let’s go in and bomb them […]

RICHARD RUSSELL: It’d take a half million men. They’d be bogged down in there for ten years. And oh hell no.

Then the Gulf of Tonkin and an incident which later turns out to be overblown. . .

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: My fellow Americans–

BILL MOYERS: He announces that U.S. fighter jets, for the first time, have attacked naval and oil facilities in North Vietnam.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Our response for the present will be limited and fitting. We Americans know, although others appear to forget, the risk of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.

Sound familiar?  President Obama as well seeks no wider war. . .

Like President Obama, President Johnson worries about the young men (and now women, but we had women in the war as combat nurses even then):

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I do not find it easy to send the flower of our youth, our finest young men, into battle. I have spoken to you today of the divisions and the forces and the battalions and the units. But I know them all, every one. I have seen them in thousand streets, of a hundred towns, in every state in this union – working and laughing and building, and filled with hope and life. I think that I know, too, how their mothers weep and how their families sorrow. This is the most agonizing and the most painful duty of your President.

This is no Vietnam, according to President Obama, or is it?

BILL MOYERS: Now in a different world, at a different time, and with a different president, we face the prospect of enlarging a different war. But once again we’re fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.

Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.

And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he’s got the guts, by sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die, while their own country is coming apart.

And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the decision.

We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.

And now, a week and a half later, President Obama is saying yes to a wider war in Afghanistan.  Of course, like Vietnam, it isn’t supposed to get wider. . .

So, is there a way to stop this now, or must we repeat history (ours and the Soviet Union’s – Afghanistan was their Vietnam)?

Brave New Foundation, in a coalition with Credo and True Majority, has a website called Rethink Afghanistan and a petition to Congress telling them to stop the escalation.

Watch the video and see what the Afghan people and some of our veterans think about escalating the war in Afghanistan.

Tell Congress to say no to the war in Afghanistan!

http://rethinkafghanistan.com/?f=25

Ray McGovern: Accountability for Torture

On November 12 I went to hear former CIA analyst Ray McGovern speak on “Why Accountability for Torture is Crucial for Human Rights, Our Security and Our Souls,”  an event sponsored by the Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture (WSRCAT) and co-sponsored by our local Amnesty International groups among others.

As the evening’s program notes:

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years. He is active in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) and has been an outspoken critic of the flawed intelligence used to justify the Iraq war and of the use of torture.

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Rep. Jim McDermott

Representative Jim McDermott spoke before Ray McGovern. McDermott was one of the few members of congress willing to speak out on the lies leading up to the Iraq War, as well as against the use of torture.

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Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern spoke of the documents now available online detailing the Bush Adminstration’s justification and use of torture, including:

The Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody:

http://levin.senate.gov/newsroom/supporting/2008/Detainees.121108.pdf

The International Committee of the Red Cross Report on the Treatment of  Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody:

http://www.nybooks.com/icrc-report.pdf

The Department of Justice memos (available on the ACLU website):

http://www.aclu.org/accountability/released.html

and the CIA Inspector General’s Special Review of Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001 – October 2003):

http://luxmedia.vo.llnwd.net/o10/clients/aclu/IG_Report.pdf

Torture does not provide reliable information, so McGovern raised the question of “Why torture?”  As he noted, it’s great for getting unreliable information.  in the build up to the Iraq War, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was sent to Egypt to be waterboarded and confessed that Saddam Hussein was training  Al Qaeda operatives. This “intelligence” was used by the Bush administration to justify the war.

As Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff of the Department of State during the term of Secretary of State Colin Powell revealed in May (shortly before the d:

Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002–well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion–its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

There in fact were no such contacts. (Incidentally, al-Libi just “committed suicide” in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi….)

McGovern stressed to importance of speaking out, and before the question and answer session, Rob Crawford from WSRCAT came out to tell us what we could do locally, and another WSRCAT member handed out action sheets to contact members of the Obama administration and congress.

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Rob Crawford

During the q&a, someone asked about what had changed for Ray McGovern, given his 27 years in the CIA, that he was now speaking out.  Interestingly enough (and I recall Bob Baer on the Amnesty International panel in San Francisco), McGovern didn’t have a problem with what he had been doing as an analyst with the CIA, which was providing accurate intelligence information to the White House. His job, as he noted, was “to speak truth to power.” Of course, often the President for other political reasons didn’t listen.  One case he noted was Johnson’s bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, which none of the CIA analysts thought would work.

What the problem was (and Baer said this too), was adding in the former spies to the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency, who’s mission was to provide accurate intelligence in one place.  Also, Presidents telling the CIA to start wars, which totally goes against the mission of providing objective information.

Another reason for torture that McGovern brought up in the q&a session was the intimidation factor.  Citing the case of John Walker Lindh, who was the first person tortured in “the war on terror,” McGovern raised the issue of whether they really expected to get any information from Lindh, a misguided young man who had only recently joined the Taliban?  The green light was given despite the fact of Lindh being an American citizen.  Part of the message was “Don’t mess with us,” as McGovern notes, not only to those abroad, but to those in the US who might question what they were doing.

A major change McGovern sees is that we no longer have a free media reporting on what’s happening in DC and around the world (“the fawning corporate media”, is how he refers to them). I know others have noted how even papers like the New York Times and Washington Post have become stenographers for those in power, not questioning.  On the other hand, as McGovern notes, if you know your way around the web, you can find out considerably more than was possible in the past. Information most of the American public doesn’t see.

In closing, Ray McGovern said he did see the glass as half full, and was encouraged by the steps Obama has taken in releasing documents and letting Holder investigate in the face of pressure not to. Also, that it is up to us to hold Obama and the rest of our government accountable.

Ray McGovern’s whole lecture from November 12 is currently online, thanks to Talking Stick TV, and I’ve included it above. 

I wish I could say my memory would be this good a week and a half after the event, but the truth is, I just watched it again and took notes.

President’s Address / Republicans’ Town Hall

I was impressed by the President’s speech Wednesday night – he did stand up for the public option, presented the facts about what the health care legislation is proposing, and called out the Republican obstructionist tactics for what they were. Many of the Republicans seemed to be at a Town Hall (one of the kind they stage manage these days) and it wasn’t just the “You lie!” guy, Joe Wilson (who did wonders in fundraising for his Democratic opposition candidate, Rob Miller, with that infamous outburst).

President Obama laid out the case:

Our collective failure to meet this challenge — year after year, decade after decade — has led us to the breaking point.  Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy.  These are not primarily people on welfare.  These are middle-class Americans.  Some can’t get insurance on the job.  Others are self-employed, and can’t afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer.  Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or too expensive to cover. 

Indeed, why is America, of all countries, so backward?:

We are the only democracy — the only advanced democracy on Earth — the only wealthy nation — that allows such hardship for millions of its people.  There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage.  In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point.  And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage.  In other words, it can happen to anyone.

He told of some of the horrors:

One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn’t reported gallstones that he didn’t even know about.  They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.  Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne.  By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer had more than doubled in size.  That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America. 

Our healthcare is expensive and inefficient:

Then there’s the problem of rising cost.  We spend one and a half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren’t any healthier for it.  This is one of the reasons that insurance premiums have gone up three times faster than wages.  It’s why so many employers — especially small businesses — are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance, or are dropping their coverage entirely.  It’s why so many aspiring entrepreneurs cannot afford to open a business in the first place, and why American businesses that compete internationally — like our automakers — are at a huge disadvantage.  And it’s why those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it — about $1,000 per year that pays for somebody else’s emergency room and charitable care. 

Then he dismisses the single-payer way too easily. Which is what we should have, and which is why it cracks me up when the teabaggers claim Obama and the other Democrats are flaming socialists. We wish they were socialists, like Bernie Sanders.

I like when he said “The time for games has passed.”  Unfortunately, the Republicans would prove him wrong before the night was over.

Then the President starts addressing the fear mongering:

Here are the details that every American needs to know about this plan.  First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.  (Applause.)  Let me repeat this:  Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.

Then he brings up what the legislation will do, like not allowing insurance companies to deny you coverage based on a pre-existing condition, drop your coverage when your sick, or have a lifetime cap. Making sure the insurance covers routine checkups and preventative care.

Then the idea of having health insurance for those who don’t have it now. The insurance exchange, using the high number of customers to keep costs down, as large businesses and the government do, as Congress does for themselves. Here’s a thought – if those Republican congess people are so willing to let their constituents do without affordable insurance as they try to derail health care, would they be willing to do without it?  It is a government program.  Maybe they should show how much they’re against government programs by their families doing without.

Then the President says it will take awhile to get it off the ground and proposes offering low cost coverage now for those who can’t due to pre-existing conditions.  A proposal by Senator John McCain (and it was good to see he was willing to work with President Obama on it).  This is the McCain who existed before the Presidential election, when he veered off into the Republican nastiness because it was required of him. I may disagree with him on a lot of issues, but Senator McCain used to, and maybe now is again, be principled and reasonable.

Requiring everyone to carry insurance (and there is mention previously of help in the form of subsidies for those who need it).  Fair enough, unless we end up compromising everything away until it’s just welfare for the insurance companies.

Then he calls the right wing talk show hosts and Congress people out on their obstructionism:

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost.  The best example is the claim made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but by prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.  Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible.  It is a lie, plain and simple. 
 
There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants.  This, too, is false.  The reforms — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. 
Ahh, here’s where Joe Wilson came in with the “You lie!” Now, while I happen to disagree with the President and think we should, in fact, provide health care for all, alas, that is not true, as has been noted by PolitiFact, the President is telling the truth.
 
Here is is from the legislation:

H.R. 3200: Sec 246 NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.

So, where did Congressman Wilson get his “facts” from? Well, PolitiFact notes there was a chain e-mail claiming “that page 50 of the House bill gives free health care to illegal immigrants.”

That page didn’t say that. Rather, it included a generic nondiscrimination clause that said insurers may not discriminate with regard to “personal characteristics extraneous to the provision of high quality health care or related services.”

So it isn’t there, but Rep. Wilson and others are reading it into the bill.  Let’s think about this in a moment.

 

As the President points out, “consumers do better with choice and competition.”  Competition that doesn’t exist now in many areas.  Then he makes the case for public option:

But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. Now, let me be clear.  Let me be clear.  It would only be an option for those who don’t have insurance.  No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance.  In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up.

 
Despite all this, the insurance companies and their allies don’t like this idea.  They argue that these private companies can’t fairly compete with the government.  And they’d be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option.  But they won’t be.  I’ve insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.  But by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities. 
So President Obama does makes the case for a public option, but he leaves wiggle room (which does make me nervous, given that he was previously willing to back down).  He says that “the public option is only a means to that end — and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal. “

 

Then he talks about Medicare and the fear mongering going around that when his suggestion is eliminating waste, calling out the Republicans on their hypocrisy:

So don’t pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut, especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past and just this year supported a budget that would essentially have turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program.  That will not happen on my watch.  I will protect Medicare. 

Our President sounds like he’s willing to fight:

But know this:  I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to improve it. I won’t stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are.  If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out. And I will not — and I will not accept the status quo as a solution.  Not this time.  Not now.

Wow, he remembered he won the election!  Now will his Democratic friends in Congress, especially the “Blue Dogs” remember they won theirs?  The American people really need them to take a stand for the people, for health care for all.

 

Now back to the Republican Town Hall side show.  It really wasn’t just Joe Wilson, even though many of his Republican colleagues said they were appalled as well. All though the President’s speech, Republicans were waving their copies of the legislation.  What was that all about?  Well, we all know the wing-nuts (and the Congress members and talk show hosts egging them on), say “Read the legislation!”, implying none of the rest of us, especially congressional Democrats, have read it.

 

What they really seem to be asking though, is “read into the legislation.”  Note the innocuous passage above that Joe Wilson and the sender of those e-mail use to claim that illegal aliens are covered with this legislation.  The “death panel” for grannies and Trig claim from including counseling on end of life options such as hospice care, something that former Governor Palin actually signed into action, before she was against “death panels”

 

So, read (into) the legislation.  Read into it whatever the fear mongers want you to believe.  Do away with meaningful health care reform that would guarantee your family affordable coverage and make sure you don’t face life threatening choices for your grannies and children because of the unwillingness of your insurance care to cover it.  One suggestion though – ask your Republican congress people to give up their government provided health insurance that guarantees their families will be secure.  Insist they join you in your war against the federal government (which is, by the way, all of us – liberal, conservative or whatever politics) by refusing their government paid for, and very good, health insurance.  Let’s see how fast they stick to the principal of letting them and their loved ones fall through the health care cracks that they’re trying to sell you.

Health Care – We Won’t Back Down

I felt inspired and empowered as I walked away from Seattle’s Health Care for All rally Thursday night with Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down playing as the crowd streamed out of Westlake Park. On the way home, though, I got to thinking about news reports that the President will drop the public option, and his administration seems to expect the Democrats to just fall in line; and worrying “Will they back down?”

I don’t think our Rep., Jim McDermott, will back down, but what about the others?

IMG_4801

We had about 3000 people in Westlake Park, but as the blog Horse’s Ass reported, the Seattle Times didn’t report it.  I was there, though, trying to connect with my Amnesty International friends and regretting I hadn’t thought to exchange phone numbers with the newer ones so we could find each other.

IMG_4785

Amnesty International believes that health care is a human right, and is working on it as part of our new Demand Dignity campaign.

Here’s some video of the highlights of the rally from the Washington State Labor Council:

In addition to Rep. McDermott, and the Rev. Leslie Braxton, who mc’d the event, we heard from a father struggling to get health care for his sick son because of the “pre-existing” condition clause, and from Jody Hall, the owner of Cupcake Royale on the struggles of a small business owner to keep her employees covered under a system that charges more and gives less in benefits for small businesses. Jody said that 25 cents of every cupcake go to employee health care, which is a larger expense than the combined rent of all four Seattle locations of her business.

We also had the Backbone Campaign’s puppets, including Count Bleed ‘Ya Dry, with his bats from the insurance and pharmaceutical companies, taking blood through an IV from a seriously ailing American health system.

IMG_4789

So, speaking of backbone, how are we doing on making sure President Obama and the other Democrats get and keep one on this issue?

I believe President Obama and the Democratic majority we elected can get meaningful health care with a needed public option to keep down costs from the insurance companies, if they are willing to fight for it. 

What is interesting is that the polling data that the Washington Post reports was sent around in a memo to the congressional Democrats by Joel Benenson, the President’s pollster, show a wide support for health care reform:

–82% of Americans say that the U.S. health care system needs either fundamental changes (55%) or needs “to be rebuilt” (27%). (CBS, Aug. 31)

•A substantial majority of Americans believe that the problems in the country’s health care system will eventually affect most Americans if they are not addressed.

–65% of Americans believe that the health care system’s problems will eventually affect most Americans, while only 31% believe most Americans will continue to get good health care. (CNN, Aug. 31)

What is the problem, then?

–Only 31% say they “understand the health care reforms under consideration in Congress, while 67% say they find them confusing. (CBS, Aug. 31) 
–Indeed, even Republican pollster Public Opinion Strategies found that 37% have no opinion yet on the President’s plan, while 25% support and 37% oppose. (POS, August 13)

However:

•When voters learn about the composition of the plan, support grows considerably.
–For instance, an NBC poll found that initially, only 36% said that the President’s health care plan is “a good idea” while 42% say it is a bad idea. (NBC, Aug. 17).
–However, 53% said they favored the plan after hearing a short description of it that included:
* Requirements on insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions;
* Requiring all but the smallest employers to provide health coverage or pay a percentage of their payroll to help fund coverage for the uninsured
* Tax credits to help families and individuals to help them afford coverage

This is why the President’s televised speech to Congress on Wednesday is so important, and frankly, why both Congressional Democrats and pro-health care organizations should be focusing as much on educating the public as on rallies to counteract the conservatives whipped into a frenzy by talk radio.

Will the President have the courage to include the public option as an important piece of the plan in his speech?  President Obama certainly pushed for the Presidency, and inspired many by doing so.  One of his former campaign staffers, Mike Elk, has started a petition, and asking former campaigners and others to sign it, holding the President to the promise he made election night (and their promise to hold him to his promise):

He said, “I promise you if everybody in this hall is willing to keep doing what you guys did over the last two years, then I am optimistic about America. I may make some mistakes, but you’ll set me right.”

Mr. President, we have not forgotten the promise we made that night. We are here to set you right.
There are rumors that you are considering dropping the public option, despite 77% of the American public and the majority of U.S. Senators supporting it. Sir, there is no way we can have real health care reform without a public option. Any real change requires the inclusion of a strong public option to promote competition, bring down costs and serve the people.
If a vigorous public option is not included, it would be a major victory for the health insurance industry.

If the President is willing to take the stand, we are with him, as Mike Elk notes:

We are the most powerful grassroots army ever assembled in American history, and we want you to fight for a public option. We promise to fight with you every step of the way, just as we did during the campaign.
Mr. President, We are fired up and ready to go!
Are you ready to lead?

Bill Moyers has called for President Obama to stand up to the Republicans and insurance companies as well:

He understands President Obama’s wish for bi-partisanship, but recognizes with the current political climate, that just isn’t possible:

Poor Obama. He came to town preaching the religion of nice. But every time he bows politely, the harder the Republicans kick him.

No one’s ever conquered Washington politics by constantly saying “pretty please” to the guys trying to cut your throat. 

Moyers notes that:

As it is, we’re about to get health care reform that measures human beings only in corporate terms of a cost-benefit analysis. I mean this is topsy-turvy — we should be treating health as a condition, not a commodity.

As with the former campaigners, Bill Moyers remembers the promises President Obama made during the campaign, and is calling on him to keep them:

Come on, Mr. President. Show us America is more than a circus or a market. Remind us of our greatness as a democracy. When you speak to Congress next week, just come out and say it. We thought we heard you say during the campaign last year that you want a government run insurance plan alongside private insurance — mostly premium-based, with subsidies for low-and-moderate income people. Open to all individuals and employees who want to join and with everyone free to choose the doctors we want. We thought you said Uncle Sam would sign on as our tough, cost-minded negotiator standing up to the cartel of drug and insurance companies and Wall Street investors whose only interest is a company’s share price and profits.

This is important:

This health care thing is make or break for your leadership, but for us, it’s life and death. No more Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. President. We need a fighter.

Fortunately, it looks like many of our Congressional leaders will stand their ground.  According to Politico:

Obama spoke by phone Friday with leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“Caucus leaders expressed absolute commitment to the idea of a robust public option, and said they expect it to be part of any health care reform legislation,” the groups said in a statement. “The president listened, asked many questions, and suggested the dialogue should continue.”

It looks like the White House is leaning toward putting the public option back in, but still leaving room to waffle?

One top official gave this formulation: “He has consistently said that he thinks the public option is an important way to make sure there is both cost and competition control.  He has also consistently said that if someone can show him a better way or another way to get there, he’d be happy to look at it.  But he’s never committed to going another way.  He’s always said he’d be happy to look at any other proposal that gets to these goals, but he thinks this is probably the best better way to do it.”

I’d like to hear a more certain and committed statement than that on Wednesday, Mr. President.  You’ve showed you can fight and stand up for your principles during the election.  We are asking you now to stand your ground. 

PresidentAtWork

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

We are behind you, and there are a lot of us, even if newspapers like the Seattle Times don’t want to acknowledge it. Speak to the American public Wednesday and tell them the truth.  Give us hope for a health care system that really works, for all Americans, not the insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Health Care – Yes, We Can (& Need to Fight for It)

Last Sunday, the New York Times said the public option in the health care plan may be dropped, quoting Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius statement that “the public option was ‘not the essential element’ of reform” and President Obama himself saying at a town hall meeting:

“The public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the entirety of health care reform,” the president said. “This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it.”

Similar statements came from others in the Obama administration:

In an interview on Sunday, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, said the president remained convinced that a public plan was “the best way to go.” But Mr. Axelrod said the nuances of how to develop a nonprofit competitor to private industry had never been “carved in stone.”

and other (Blue Dog?) Democrats:

On Capitol Hill, the Senate Finance Committee is expected to produce a bill that features a nonprofit co-op. The author of the idea, Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota and chairman of the Budget Committee, predicted Sunday that Mr. Obama would have no choice but to drop the public option.

Rachel Maddow rightly confronted President Obama and on her show Monday:

“Yes, we can’t!” Certainly if that amount of conviction was all we had from then candidate Obama and other Democrats last year, we’d be facing a McCain/Palin administration.  

Good thing at that point, he knew how to fight.

ObamaFighting

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Fortunately, the Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus still do know how to fight.  According to the New York Times:

After administration officials, including Mr. Obama, wavered on their commitment to the public option last weekend, leaders of the Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter to Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, on Monday saying they would not vote for a plan without the public option. They attached a second letter signed by 60 House Democrats demanding the inclusion of a government-run insurance plan in the final legislation. Their 60 votes would be enough to kill a House bill if it had no Republican support.

The Washington Post reported:

In the Senate, where negotiations are now focused, John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) said that a public option, as the plan has become known, is “a must.” Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) said that “without a public option, I don’t see how we will bring real change to a system that has made good health care a privilege for those who can afford it.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said that the plan will be included in whatever bill is voted on in the House. “There is strong support in the House for a public option,” she said, though she did not demand that the administration express support for the idea.

Co-ops are being pushed as a possible alternative to the public option by the White House and “Blue Dog” Democrats. In a Washington Post article on co-ops, Group Health Cooperative, a major HMO here in Seattle, is being cited as one possible example. Group Health has been around for years and has a whole system of hospitals and clinics, though.  So are we going to create these systems, including building health care facilities, around the country, and without the aid of the government, as that’s part of the selling point?

Would co-ops be an adequate alternative to the public option?  As noted in the Washington Post article:

However, co-ops would lack perhaps the main advantage of the public option: reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals set by federal law, like those paid by Medicare, the program for older Americans. Federally determined reimbursement rates were central to the cost-saving promise of a government-run health plan and a potentially powerful competitive advantage.

Will the Republicans support a bill if the public option is changed to co-ops? No, according to the Huffington PostIn a conference call with reporters, Senate Majority Whip calls co-ops a “’trojan horse’ for a government-run system.”

While Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has put forth co-ops as a compromise proposal that could get 60 votes in the Senate, Republican support is elusive. Indeed, earlier in the call, Kyl said that the GOP stood no closer to offering up their votes.

“I think it is safe to say that there are a huge number of big issues that people have and these are a couple of the most prominent,” he said. “But start with the cost of it. There is no way Republicans are going to support a trillion-dollar-plus bill. And when the chairman of the Finance Committee in the Senate said, ‘ah, great success, we think we got it under a trillion dollars,’ you did not hear a big round of applause from Republicans.”

According to the New York Times, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who is now working for the lobbying firm Alston & Bird, has been pushing for co-ops.

It is an idea that happens to dovetail with the interests of many Alston & Bird clients, like the insurance giant UnitedHealth and the Tennessee Hospital Association.

Ummm, just a coincidence, I’m sure. . . ; )

Then we have the now infamous “gang of six”, reported in the Washington Post as “three Democratic and three Republican members of the Senate Finance committee” who are currently putting together the Senate bill.

As Robert Reich asks on his blog “who, exactly, anointed these six to decide the fate of the nation’s health care?”

I don’t get it. Of the three Republicans in the gang, the senior senator is Charles Grassley. In recent weeks Grassley has refused to debunk the rumor that the House’s health-care bill will spawn “death panels,” empowered to decide whether the sick and old get to live or die. At an Iowa town meeting last Tuesday Grassley called the President and Speaker Nancy Pelosi “intellectually dishonest” for claiming the opposite. On Thursday Grassley told the Washington Post that Congress should scale back its efforts to overhaul health care in the wake of intense anger at town hall meetings. But — wait — the anger is largely about distortions such as the “death panels” that Grassley refuses to debunk.

This week on Fox News Grassley termed the House bill “the Pelosi Bill,” and called it “a government takeover of heath care, exploding the deficit because it’s not paid for and it’s got high taxes in it.”

and then he asks the obvious question:

I really don’t get it. We have a Democratic president in the White House. Democrats control sixty votes in the Senate, enough to overcome a filibuster. It is possible to pass health care legislation through the Senate with 51 votes (that’s what George W. Bush did with his tax cut plan). Democrats control the House. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is a tough lady. She has said there will be no health care reform bill without a public option.

So why does the fate of health care rest in Grassley’s hands?

Do we want to leave it in Grassley’s hands?  It’s time to push back and that has started, both from the public and with the Progressive and Black Congressional caucuses saying emphatically, “No!  We won’t stand for the public option being taken out of the bill.” 

Also, people concerned about real health insurance reform are putting their money where their mouth is.  Daily Kos reports that so far $374,000 has been raised for those who signed the congressional letter in support of a public option on the Act Blue website (including my Representative Jim McDermott, I’m happy to say).

Robert Reich is calling for a march on Washington on Sept. 13 in support of the public option on Politico and Daily Kos is calling for organizing nationwide rallies. Obama’s organizers are calling for rallies and events earlier in September, but it’s going to be important to insist on his administration and all our congressmembers to included the public option at those as well. 

Yes, at one time, not too long ago, the President knew how to fight.  Now he’s acting too much like a typical Democrat, appeasing Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats instead of pushing for what he knows as well as any of us is needed.  One thing is for sure, I don’t think we should leave it to his administration or organizers if we want change.  We need to be pushing him to do the right thing, which, as I recall, was why FDR ended up with such a progressive legacy.  We always forget that the leaders don’t get there on their own.

One last thought, to all those progressive organizations and politicians out there, is why not get beyond “preaching to the choir” and beyond the commercial sound bite war?  There are a lot of people out there who are interested in health care, who would like to hear more about what this all means (single payer, public option, co-ops, etc.).  I know we’re not going to change the mind of the screamers who think we’re going to pull the plug on grandma.  That’s just the problem for the rest of the public though.  All they’re hearing is the inanity and some shouting back from our side, or sound bites.  Just like the Obama campaign did during the election, there should be more outreach so people know what the debate is, and why it’s so important for them and their families.

Something like this video where Christopher Hayes from The Nation explains the public option at the Netroots Nation, a gathering of liberal bloggers, but taking it to the general public, instead of just “preaching to the choir”:

Getting Back to a Real Discussion on Health Care Reform

I’m hoping with President Obama and other Democrats taking the offense that we can finally get back to talking about health care and health insurance reform.  First they had to, unfortunately, address the “death panels” issue, as President Obama did at a town hall forum in Grand Junction, Colorado yesterday. 

The President’s abridged comments from the Huffington Post (which includes a video from CNN that I can’t seem to post here):

“What you can’t do, or you can, but you shouldn’t do — is start saying things like we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on grandma.” President Obama paused and grew emotional, “First of all, when you make a comment like that, I just lost my grandmother last year… I know what its like to watch somebody you love, who’s aging, deteriorate… When you start making arguments like that, that’s simply dishonest. Especially when I hear the arguments coming from members of congress in the other party, who, it turns out, sponsored similar provisions!”

I did find AP video of the Grand Junction town hall of President Obama taking the discussion back to how current insurance industry practices hurt the American public, however.

Back to the alleged “death panels” for a moment, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, noted on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos (as reported by the New York Times) “all the administration was thinking about was reimbursing doctors who would engage in bedside consultations with families whose relatives are near death and who are ‘conflicted about what to do next.’ “

Unfortunately, she added, such a provision “is off the table” for now in the Senate Finance Committee because of the outcry.

“I think it’s really horrific that some opponents of the health reform bill have used this painful, personal moment to try and scare people about what is in the bill,” she said on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

So, now this help for patients and families won’t be in the bill (even though it was included in medicare reform passed by the Republican congress a few years back, as President Obama noted).

As President Obama did Saturday by recalling his grandmother’s death last year, Ms. Sebelius spoke of her mother, who spent 10 weeks in three hospitals at the end of her life. Only relatively late in the process, Ms. Sebelius said, did the family have a consultation with a doctor about what could and could not be done for her mother.

“It was the most agonizing, most painful, most terrible time for not only me and my siblings, but for my dad,” she said. “And what every family wants is good information and an ability to make a decision that suits their loved one the best way that the family is involved and engaged.”

So, what will be included in the legislation?  The problem is, it is still being hammered out and as both Katha Pollitt in The Nation and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich pointed out on his blog last week, it’s hard for the public to get behind health reform when they don’t know what’s going to be in it, or what compromises will be made.

 In his Why We Need Health Care Reform op-ed in today’s New York Times, the President lists “four main ways the reform we’re proposing will provide more stability and security to every American.“

First, if you don’t have health insurance, you will have a choice of high-quality, affordable coverage for yourself and your family — coverage that will stay with you whether you move, change your job or lose your job.

Second, reform will finally bring skyrocketing health care costs under control, which will mean real savings for families, businesses and our government. We’ll cut hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and inefficiency in federal health programs like Medicare and Medicaid and in unwarranted subsidies to insurance companies that do nothing to improve care and everything to improve their profits.

Third, by making Medicare more efficient, we’ll be able to ensure that more tax dollars go directly to caring for seniors instead of enriching insurance companies. This will not only help provide today’s seniors with the benefits they’ve been promised; it will also ensure the long-term health of Medicare for tomorrow’s seniors. And our reforms will also reduce the amount our seniors pay for their prescription drugs.

Lastly, reform will provide every American with some basic consumer protections that will finally hold insurance companies accountable. A 2007 national survey actually shows that insurance companies discriminated against more than 12 million Americans in the previous three years because they had a pre-existing illness or condition. The companies either refused to cover the person, refused to cover a specific illness or condition or charged a higher premium.

President Obama has made his case for the last item especially through American’s personal stories, as noted in another New York Times article, following his visit Saturday to Grand Junction:

At a town-hall-style meeting in a high school gymnasium here on Saturday, Mr. Obama was introduced by Nathan Wilkes, whose family nearly lost their health coverage after costs to care for his 6-year-old son, Thomas, who has severe hemophilia, approached the $1 million lifetime policy cap.

On Friday, in Belgrade, Mont., Mr. Obama was introduced by Katie Gibson, who was dropped by her insurer after she received a cancer diagnosis. On Tuesday, in Portsmouth, N.H., Lori Hitchcock introduced the president; she cannot find insurance, she said, because she has a pre-existing condition.

“If you think that can’t happen to you or your family, think again,” Mr. Obama said here Saturday, adding, “This is part of the larger story, of folks with insurance paying more and more out of pocket.”

The President talks a good talk, and so do many of his allies in Congress.  How many compromises will need to be made to get the bill through (if the ultra-conservatives don’t succeed in derailing it like they’re trying to?

Robert Reich, among others, raises concerns about the deals the President has apparently already made with the pharmaceutical industry for their support (even while talking tough about them at town halls).

Last week, after being reported in the Los Angeles Times, the White House confirmed it has promised Big Pharma that any healthcare legislation will bar the government from using its huge purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. That’s basically the same deal George W. Bush struck in getting the Medicare drug benefit, and it’s proven a bonanza for the drug industry.

and

To be sure, as part of its deal with the White House, Big Pharma apparently has promised to cut future drug costs by $80 billion. But neither the industry nor the White House nor any congressional committee has announced exactly where the $80 billion in savings will show up nor how this portion of the deal will be enforced. In any event, you can bet that the bonanza Big Pharma will reap far exceeds $80 billion. Otherwise, why would it have agreed?

The New York Times reported today that “The Obama administration sent signals on Sunday that it has backed away from its once-firm vision of a government organization to provide for the nation’s 50 million uninsured and is now open to using nonprofit cooperatives instead.”

Once again, because the administration feels it needs to compromise.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, has fought to retain the government insurer in the Obama health plan but conceded last week that the White House might not have a choice.

“We have heard from both chambers that the House sees a public plan as essential for a final product, and the Senate believes it cannot pass it as constructed and co-op is what they can do,” he said in an interview. “We are cognizant of that fact.”

But what are insurance co-ops?  Katha Pollitt is still checking on that for the Nation:

Maybe it won’t even have a public plan; it will have insurance co-ops instead. And then, maybe, I should say those will be just as good, as Rahm Emanuel’s brother, Ezekiel Emanuel, the MD/PhD bioethicist, says.

OK, but what are insurance co-ops? I poked around online for fifteen minutes and discovered that they’re untested, small, unregulated, that they exist in twenty states and that Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota really likes them–but I didn’t discover what they actually are.

I don’t know what all these compromises are going to mean, and hope at the end of all this debate we’ll have adequate coverage for everyone, especially the poor and working class, children, the elderly, those with disabilities or already ill or injured.

BidenObama

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I know none of these negotiations are easy, and think the President and my members of Congress are trying to work for the best deal possible.  I also think those of us who care need to keep pushing them, so they have the support to do the right thing.  Especially with so much of a push on the other side – both for pro-insurance industry “reform” and total fear-mongering nonsense like “death panels.”

Palin for “Death Panels” Before She Was Against Them

So, it turns out that while Sarah Palin is now claiming the section of proposed health care providing for counseling patients in end of life care means there will be “death panels” deciding whether Trig or your grandma lives or die, as Governor she signed a proclamation supporting the same kind of services be available to Alaskans (two days before Trig was born, as someone pointed out).

So was then Governor Palin for “death panels” and she’s now against them?  Or – is she lying to terrify her far right supporters into opposing real health reform? 

According to Think Progress:

However, on April 16th 2008, then Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed some of the same end of life counseling she now decries as a form of euthanasia. In a proclamation announcing “Healthcare Decisions Day,” Palin urged public facilities to provide better information about advance directives, and made it clear that it is critical for seniors to be informed of such options:

WHEREAS, Healthcare Decisions Day is designed to raise public awareness of the need to plan ahead for healthcare decisions, related to end of life care and medical decision-making whenever patients are unable to speak for themselves and to encourage the specific use of advance directives to communicate these important healthcare decisions. […]

WHEREAS, one of the principal goals of Healthcare Decisions Day is to encourage hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, continuing care retirement communities, and hospices to participate in a statewide effort to provide clear and consistent information to the public about advance directives, as well as to encourage medical professionals and lawyers to volunteer their time and efforts to improve public knowledge and increase the number of Alaska’s citizens with advance directives.

Of course, former Governor Palin isn’t the only conservative apparently for “death panels” before they were against them.  As Think Progress points out “At a conference in April of this year, Gingrich said advance directives can ‘save money’ while also helping to ‘decrease the stress felt by caregivers.’”

According to the Huffington Post, Sen Chuck Grassely, who is also now railing against “death panels” voted for counseling for end-of-life issues in the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill. He wasn’t the only one. “Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who both claimed end-of-life consultations could result in “government encouraged euthanasia,” also voted for similar policy in 2003.”

So either Republicans were for death panels in 2003 before turning against them now–or they’re lying about end-of-life counseling in order to frighten the bejeezus out of their fellow citizens and defeat health reform by any means necessary. Which is it, Mr. Grassley (“Yea,” 2003)?

As Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer notes in article in Crosscut, the most disturbing part of this is the outright lying.  Apparently, with the Republicans, no good deed goes unpunished.  It was Blumenauer’s amendment made to help make sure dying patients’ wishes would be respected that some of the far right Republicans have been making dire “death panels” warnings about.

Blumenauer, who joined the powerful Ways and Means Committee only in 2007, placed his amendment in HR 3200 as it passed the committee. His intent, which he says was shared by Republicans on the committee, is to improve patient-doctor communication when the end of life nears, to be sure patients understand all the options. Specifically, the language authorizes Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes. The Blumenauer language prohibits payment for counseling that involves physician-assisted suicide, which has been legalized by popular vote in Oregon and Washington.

So, physician-assisted suicide, the right-to-die legislation we passed in both Oregon and Washington (I voted for it both times), will not be covered.  It’s a non-issue as far as national health care (and if it’s something you’d never consider, it’s a non-issue for residents of Oregon or Washington; it’s there for those of us who would consider it if the pain is bad enough and there’s no hope and our choice, not yours).

Claims by Betsy McCaughey that “the elderly would be required to have counseling on assisted suicide” were “quickly debunked by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning independent fact checker, PolitiFact.com.”  Palin’s claims “envisioning ‘death panels’ for the disabled and elderly” were quickly proven false by fact-checkers for the Associated Press. That wasn’t enough to stop Palin, though.

Palin on Thursday refused to retreat, causing Blumenauer to say he was “astounded” that Palin had not withdrawn her comments. “If she wasn’t deliberately lying at the beginning, she is deliberately allowing a terrible falsehood to be spread with her name.”

What is happening here?

This willingness to spread outright false statements, the Oregon Democrat told Crosscut, is one of the most disturbing aspects of the new political climate. “This would never have happened in the politics of our youth,” he observed. “This is not just a philosophical or policy dispute,” he continued; “it’s outright lying and then refusing to admit it when caught. They are fighting to stop the conversation [with disruptive acts at some healthcare forums].”

This is a disturbing continuation of the type of lies that started during the election. McCain deliberately misunderstanding Obama’s use of the common “lipstick on a pig” expression as being a personal attack on Palin instead of directed at McCain’s policies. Ads claiming Obama wanted to teach in depth sexual education to kindergarten students.

On the one hand, the lies are so blatant that it’s tempting to just laugh at the lies and discredited liars.  Given the amount of screaming and shouting and threats of violence these lies are stirring up, I can’t help but find the lies of Palin and others a bit more sinister, though.  I recall other big lies that worked – Nazi Germany, Rwanda. 

Yes, it’s ironic because some of these right wing nuts are bringing signs with Obama as Hitler (and other, more obviously racist signs).  That’s the idea, though – to demonize those you oppose, to make them less than human.  Instead of trying to get fair and equal health care for everyone including and especially children and the elderly, those of us on the left are allegedly really pushing for “death panels,” even though people are really dying under the current system.

There’s still the underlying racism, too, that these lies are appealing to.  Just witness the “birthers”.  Obama isn’t one of us.  No matter that a birth certificate, closely examined by FactCheck.org had been produced.  No matter that there are copies of newspaper announcements from Honolulu papers at the time.  Some how, these must all be fake and the President was, what, secretly born in Kenya or maybe Mars?

True, the birthers are the right wing fringe and we still have those on the left who claim Trig isn’t Sarah Palin’s son.  Some of the “death panels” claims are coming from elected and formerly elected Republican officials, though, including former Governor Palin.  Many of whom, including Palin, obviously know they are telling lies, yet willing to stir up hatred and anger anyways.