Simple choices

The debt-ceiling deal protected Medicaid.
New ACA regulations require that all reproductive health services be offered without co-pays.
Neither of those policies would remain in place under a Republican President.
“No difference between the parties”? “Obama is a closet Republican”? Don’t make me laugh!

Everyone who thinks that a Republican President would have made coverage of all reproductive health services, including the morning-after pill, without any out-of-pocket charges, mandatory under ACA, or that a Republican President wouldn’t re-write that regulation on January 20, please raise your hand, and keep it up.

Now, everyone who thinks that a Republican President’s OMB Director would have kept Medicaid off the table in the budget-cutting discussion, please raise your hand, and keep it up.

Finally, everyone who is willing to throw reproductive freedom and health care for poor people under the bus on the principle of “the worse, the better” please raise your hand.

Everyone else should be thinking about how to get Obama re-elected in 2012.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

70 thoughts on “Simple choices”

  1. All excellent points. I’m looking forward to making my first 2012 campaign donation tonight while celebrating Obama’s birthday.

  2. Both are good points. I’m not ecstatic with how Obama has handled the negotiations, but I don’t think he botched them either like some posters are saying. I’m looking forward to making my first 2012 campaign donation at an event tonight celebrating Obama’s birthday (a day early).

  3. Don,

    It is one thing if people decide to vote for Rick Perry. It is another thing if people decide to vote for (say) the Green Party nominee, and as a result Perry wins with 49%. In the former case, Democrats would move to the right to win back the Rick Perry voters. In the latter case, Democrats would move to the left to win back the Green voters. Those results are distinguishable.

    Why would they necessarily move left in the second case? There might be more to be gained by moving right to get mroe Perry voters. In fact, this is plausible. The Democrats would need to pick up half as many Perry voters as green voters to change the result. Say it’s 490(R) 480(D) 30(G). The Democrats need to win over 6 Republicans to change the outcome, or eleven Greens. Of course, with either strategy they might lose some voters at the other end, but that doesn’t change the basic nature of the arithmetic.

  4. Tim says: Give your vote to Obama but give your money to progressive candidates who can win. Give like your life depends on it because it just might.

    Aye. Obama doesn’t need the moola anyways. Matt Taibbi, in his latest, asks questions that beg for something more than rhetorical answers:

    The Democrats, despite sitting in the White House, the most awesome repository of political power on the planet, didn’t fight at all. They made a show of a tussle for a good long time — as fixed fights go, you don’t see many that last into the 11th and 12th rounds, like this one did — but at the final hour, they let out a whimper and took a dive. We probably need to start wondering why this keeps happening. Also, this: if the Democrats suck so bad at political combat, then how come they continue to be rewarded with such massive quantities of campaign contributions? When the final tally comes in for the 2012 presidential race, who among us wouldn’t bet that Barack Obama is going to beat his Republican opponent in the fundraising column very handily? At the very least, he won’t be out-funded, I can almost guarantee that. And what does that mean? Who spends hundreds of millions of dollars for what looks, on the outside, like rank incompetence? It strains the imagination to think that the country’s smartest businessmen keep paying top dollar for such lousy performance. Is it possible that by “surrendering” at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?

  5. I would just like to point out that Mitch McConnell does seem to have offered a “clean” debit ceiling bill, which Obama seems to have rejected, apparently because it did not offer cuts aimed at deficit reduction. Had Obama accepted the McConnell proposal, I believe that would have dramatically changed the framework of the debate because, at that point, the onus would have been on the Republican leadership to deliver on their promises.  Yet, President Obama didn’t pursue the McConnell offer either as a means for getting a clean bill or even as a basis for tactical advantage. Why?

    My judgement is that he didn’t want a clean bill. He never really wanted a clean bill.
    He was absolutely determined to push for cuts in the social safety net.   I believe that he did this in order to burnish his “fiscal conservative”  credentials and to show yet again that he’s the only adult in the two parties.  Basically, he once again demonstrated his concerns about the deficit over improving jobs and the economy.  In other words, he wanted some variation on what he actually got.

    I would also point out that, according to several published accounts, Obama’s putting of Medicare and Social Security cuts “on the table” was purely gratuitous.   Which, again, means that Obama wasn’t forced to do anything.    I believe he knew last December that there would be another “hostage crisis” now and chose to embrace yet another opportunity to appeal to “Independents” with some deficit cutting and hippie punching. In other words, Obama won but the Democrats, the poor, the working class, the middle class and the merely wealthy all lost. Plus, he drove a stake through the heart of the Democratic Party’s congressional and state hopes for 2012 by gratuitously undercutting what he knew would be their main campaign points: Preserving medicare and social security from cuts.

  6. @Mitch Guthman (8/3, 2:34 pm) I think you’re probably right that Obama didn’t care much about a clean debt-ceiling bill. McConnell may have sincerely offered one, but I seriously doubt—given what we’ve seen of the House Republican caucus—that House Republicans would have gone for it. Then we’d be back pretty much where we ended up—with the tea party tail wagging the rest of the Republican dog and through them, the entire Congress.

    I disagree with your last point about the Democrats’ ability to campaign on Medicare, Social Security (and I would add Medicaid). Jonathan Bernstein makes the argument better than I can. (Also click through to the earlier post he links to.)

    Obama has spoken in the past about the “Moses generation” and the “Joshua generation”: the Moses generation being the generation that waged the 2nd Civil War we call the civil rights movement, the Joshua generation being the generation that followed. (And yes, among other things, in this formulation there’s not much doubt that Obama was staking his claim to the role of Joshua.

    The Book of Joshua is one of the ugliest and bloodiest books in sacred scripture (not just Jewish scripture, religious scripture around the world). Crossing over Jordan and taking possession of the Promised Land from its prior inhabitants is not done easily or prettily. Nobody in Israel’s army is without blood on his hands (or without blood shed).

    If the “Joshua generation” of today is to take possession of the “Promised Land” in the United States, it will require “dispossessing” its current owners. In this metaphor it’s the contemporary conservative movement that plays the role of the Canaanites.

    We progressives should not be surprised that:

    1 – conservatives so fiercely resist Obama and the Democrats’ agenda;
    2 – it will take many years, perhaps decades, to enact a progressive agenda in the US;
    3 – that we will suffer defeats and setbacks; and,
    4 – that even our best leaders will disappoint us (bitterly) at times.

    In the “world as it is”, there’s no way to cross into the Promised Land without a struggle, and a long, hard, difficult one at that.

  7. @massappeal–I doubt Obama has “happily” moved right…(I have no evidence as to his state of mind.)

    Point taken. Let’s say he’s moved right without any apparent signs of distress (and had already gone partway by the time of the primary campaign, although this seems not to have been evident to many/most of his progressive supporters). Assuming it were possible to move the center back to the left, how far would he be willing to return with it?

    Passage of the ACA and repeal of DADT are perhaps the two strongest examples of progressives setting an agenda and moving it forward

    Do you have anything in mind for a specific agenda item to attempt to move forward next?

  8. @Swift Loris (8/3, 3:36 pm) Thanks for the response. I’m not sure how helpful hypotheticals are, but I’ll give it a try.

    Let’s assume that in the 2012 election Democrats retake the House, hold onto the Senate, and hold the White House. Let’s further assume that in January 2013 the Senate changes Rule 22 and eliminates the 60 vote cloture requirement for most Senate actions, and that the Senate therefore functions largely on a majority vote.

    In that scenario, if Congress passed a public option for health care, cap-and-trade as part of a wider clean energy reform, a large transportation/infrastructure bill, comprehensive immigration reform, increased education spending, and tax reform that—in the wake of the death of the Bush tax cuts on Dec. 31, 2012—reformed the tax code to shift the tax burden increasingly onto those best able to pay, I think Obama would sign all of them into law.

    As for what agenda item to attempt to move forward next? I’m no strategist, but here are a couple that come to mind (and are close to my heart):

    1 – the DREAM Act. When people ask why young people aren’t putting themselves on the line in the fight for social justice like the young people of the 1960s, my response is, “They are. They’re risking their continued existence in this country by fighting for the DREAM Act.”

    2 – Card Check Union Representation. Polls indicate that about 40% of US workers would like to be in a union. They can’t because it’s (de facto) virtually illegal and/or impossible to organize workers in the private sector—and has been for the past three decades. (Thomas Geoghagen’s “Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When Its Flat on Its Back” explains why.)

    P.S. Both the DREAM Act and Card Check have the added political virtue of adding large numbers of voters to the progressive/Democratic base.

  9. @massappeal,

    I think your reply hints at what is the crux of the difference between people like yourself and people like me who are disaffected with Obama. If Obama really didn’t care about a clean bill then I would say that Obama is the worst economic steward in this nation’s history. If there is a double dip recession or, God forbid, another crash because of his focus on everything but growing the economy and putting people back to work, he is at least as much to blame as the Republicans.

    But let’s say that he wasn’t trashing the economy and throwing the people who are struggling under the bus just to burnish his mantle as a “fiscal conservative” (although, truthfully, I think he did). Had he taken advantage of the opening McConnell provided he might have been able to (1) shape public expectations and put pressure on McConnell. For the first time in his presidency, he would have had a rallying cry to motivate his supporters and to focus their energy and of those Republicans and independents who might respond to his demand that McConnell deliver a clean bill (at least in the Senate and (2) push back effectively by giving people a clear and simple demand that they can make when calling one’s congressman. The “call to action” Obama made in this situation was the same as the one from the health care debate, e.g., something along the lines of “call your congressman and ask him to be reasonable”. But since every congressman always claims to be acting reasonably, it’s a total nothingburger.

    On the other hand, there were a lot of very credible people out there (many of them from past Republican administrations) who would and did support a clean bill. That was a real point of vulnerability and Obama could have very effectively orchestrated a very powerful campaign: Conservative economists and political thinkers being booked on every television or radio show—including local ones which is very meaningful to congressmen—to say why this hostage taking is bad for the country. And when Obama called on people to call or email their congressmen, he would have been able to ask them to make a simple, yes or no demand: “As your constituent I demand a clean bill. Will you vote for a clean bill or not?”

    I don’t say for sure that Obama would have won, but at least it’s a way to fight that offers a path to victory. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to either you or Obama that you can move people. Change them minds. Get them on your side and they will fight for your. At least there would be some prospect of winning.

    As for your argument about the “Joshua generation,” (and bearing in mind recent admonishment towards civility), I would just say that President Obama started out his term facing a Republican party that was in total disarray. If he’d started poisoning their wells and salting their land on the day he moved into the White House, they’d surely have gone the way of the Whigs in no time at all. Plus, he enjoyed the largest majorities and the greatest freedom to advance liberal policies of any Democratic president in my lifetime. The struggle pretty much was over and we’d won—until Obama either gave it all back or decided that winning over a narrow slice of the electorate was worth another forty years in the wilderness for the Democrats.
    As for whether Obama’s having gratuitously offered something that no Democratic president has ever put on the table before will preclude the party from running against the Ryan plan in 2012, you’re right it what he did doesn’t prevent us from arguing that the Democrats will trash Grandma’s golden years less totally than the Republicans. In the same way carrying a 60 pound pack while trying whilst running a footrace only makes it massively more difficult to win, rather than totally impossible.

  10. MassAppeal, I don’t feel picked on, but perhaps need to clarify. The only reason left for wanting Obama to win has been the Supreme Court. Obama has shown less and less interest in doing anything that smacks of lefty or progressive agenda. The preponderance of his behavior has become progressively more clearly Republican. My conclusion is that he is simply not at all interested in traditional Democratic values and that he is more and more interested in making his right-wing promoters happy. The evidence that Obama operates to satisfy a right-wing agenda. He continues to receive tremendous financial support from them and they don’t pay for nothing.

    Today he named a U.S. Attorney – one of the aides to Mike Lee, a Tea Party senator. Not the way I would go about supporting liberal values. I wouldn’t give even odds on Obama choosing progressive justices after 2012. Given that, the main reason for voting for Obama, for voting for the mendacious evil he has demonstrated is gone. If Obama is elected again, we will see an attack on the safety net. Just as Nixon went to China, we’ll see a Democratic president gutting the New Deal. The fact is that Obama has made “good” choices for the previous two Supreme Court appointees, but the increasing exposure of his basic Republicanism brings into question any expectation for the future. In fact, my expectation is that his next choice will not nearly as felicitous as the past two were.

    So, will Democrats oppose their president when he offers up Medicare and Social Security? or would they do a better job resisting Perry, Bachman or Romney? We each must answer this question as these programs are now in play and their fate is on the line.

  11. @Mitch Guthman (8/3, 5:55 pm) Continuing to extend the “Joshua generation” metaphor, in my view Obama’s election did not represent progressives having wrested control of conservatives’ land so that we could poison their wells and salt the land. Obama’s election merely represented the Israelites crossing over Jordan and securing a foothold. 2011 is the year the Canaanites attacked and tried to drive us back into the river.

    In the live recording of Arlo Guthrie’s cult classic “Alice’s Restaurant”, Guthrie has the audience join in singing the chorus. He then says to them, “That was terrible. If you want to end the war and stuff, you’ve got to sing loud!”.

    Well, singing’s not a bad start, but if you want to end the war, or win legal status for millions of long-term residents, or any of a number of other progressive goals, it actually take a lot more work and organizing and struggle than can be accomplished in a year, an election, or a presidential term.

  12. “Stupak tried and got what seemed like a promise–and now not only is abortion covered, it’s covered more generously than almost anything else.”

    Whoa whoa whoa, when did this happen? Or are you one of those zealots who thinks birth control pills = abortions because every sperm is a human life?

  13. @massappeal,

    Interesting analysis with the Joshua metaphor. Interesting but wrong, as I see it. It seems to me that we’d already made a lot of progress on the way to the Promised Land by the time Obama took office. As I mentioned, the Republicans were pretty much vanquished. They were, at most, a rump Southern party about to lose what little remained to them in the rest of the country. Obama took office with tremendous majorities, he had a free hand and the country was prepared to follow him. There’s been a lot of working, sacrificing and struggling in the Democratic Party since 2000 and I think most of us really thought we made a lot of progress by the time Obama took office. So, not only do I kind of see a lot of contradiction between your various metaphors, it’s also difficult to see why you so strongly support the man who took all our gains and pissed them away either because of personal incompetence or, perhaps venality, for the “goodwill” of a handful of Republican/Independent support or perhaps for great wealth in his post-presidency. I can’t look into the man’s heart but I do know that he came into office a whole lot closer to the Promised Land than we are now. From which, I conclude that he’s either been a bad leader who can’t get things done or he’s pretty much playing for the other team.

    As an aside: I, too, always liked that Arlo Guthrie line but I always thought he was ironically chiding his audience for their out of touch niceness and reminding them that you can’t end a war or change the world just by singing kumbaya. It takes imposing real consequences on one’s opponents and making a better life for ordinary people through positive, sustained action. That’s why even a DFH like myself often pauses at times like this to reflect on the words of Al Capone who supposedly said: “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone”. Say what you will about him, he was a guy who knew how to get things done.

  14. @massappeal–2011 is the year the Canaanites attacked and tried to drive us back into the river.

    And Joshua said to the Canaanites, “You want us to go back into the river? Sure, no problem.”

  15. @Mitch Guthman (8/3, 7:48 pm) and @Swift Loris (8/4, 12:59 am) Thanks again for your replies. This has been an interesting and challenging thread.

    I think we’re now getting into the question of *how* to defeat the Canaanites (to continue the metaphor). Again, I don’t agree with everything Obama has said and done—and I expect to have future disagreements with him. It can be emotionally satisfying (to me at least) to imagine President Obama acting like Al Capone taking out his gangland rivals, or Chuck Norris kicking ass, or any number of tough guys talking smack and laying down a beating. However, I remind myself that one of the consequences of electing an African-American president is that it means the president can’t do that kind of stuff. He has got to remain, at all times, calm and reasonable and patient and willing to compromise.

    Now, that may be an argument in favor of having a white Protestant male lead the Democratic party—so that he can be more of a tough guy, at least rhetorically. But it also would have meant electing John Edwards three years ago—which would have had its own problems as we all now know.

    P.S. (A historical and demographic perspective) If you think about the demographic changes happening in the country now, here’s what it means to older white men: those fears so many of them have (fears stoked by Limbaugh and Fox News and the rest of their ilk) of dark-skinned people buying their land, taking their jobs and marrying their children are quite literally true. Close to half of the next generation is not “white”. They will be entering the work force, marrying and starting families, renting and buying houses (in most cases, from previous owners). It’s all but inevitable that they will bump up against even the most WASPish of families. (Remember George HW Bush talking about his “little brown” grandchildren—and he was speaking with pride.)

    For a historical perspective, go back and read the reactions of (many) white Protestants to the “invasion” of Catholics and Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can practically smell the hysteria and the irrational, belligerent fear rising off the page. It’s what led to—among other things—a full 10% of the white Protestant men in Indiana joining the KKK in the 1920s. It wasn’t until 40 years later that the first (and so far only) Catholic president was elected. (He was a disappointment to many progressives too.)

  16. > In the “world as it is”, there’s no way to cross into the Promised
    > Land without a struggle, and a long, hard, difficult one at that.

    IMHO that line of analysis is tremendously insulting to Barack Obama: it denies him perception, intelligence, and agency. When a seemingly intelligent and thoughtful politician says that he wants to slash Social Security, hires a billionaire whose has dedicated the remainder of his life to destroying Social Security, and “puts [Social Security] on the table” in a hostage negotiation situation then I think one has to reasonable conclude that /his goal is to slash Social Security/. Similarly with Obama’s desire to have a kinder, gentler, better-organized and managed system of secret prisons, assassinations, “enhanced interrogation”, etc. He does what he does because he thinks that is the right thing to do, moving the nation toward the hard right-wing position and all. Arguing that he is “really” executing some sort of 40-year plan is infantile and infantilizing of Obama.


  17. @Cranky Observer (8/4, 5:23 am) Thanks for this response. A couple of thoughts in return:

    First, for the record, I think Pres. Obama has as much perception, intelligence and agency as pretty much any other human being.

    Second, in the sentence you quoted, I was thinking as much, if not more, about all of us as I was about Obama. Let me try again from a slightly different angle.

    In the “world as it is”, there is no such thing as a morally pure social movement. Mohandas Gandhi was, I think it’s fair to say, in many ways obsessed with moral purity. One of his tactics as a satyagrahi was to fast (for a just resolution to a mill workers strike, to end the communal warfare after independence, etc.). He once wrote that he considered every fast he undertook to have, in retrospect, failed to meet the moral standards he himself believed a satyagrahi should strive to achieve.

    I use Gandhi as an example precisely because of the strength and extremity of his commitment to nonviolent social change.

    Now, anyone who runs for, let alone gets elected as, president of the United States is already a long way from Gandhi’s (or King’s or any number of social/political leaders) commitment to nonviolent social change. In Obama’s case, he ran on a platform of expanding the Afghanistan War—as if the people of Afghanistan haven’t suffered enough from war in general, and our war in particular, over the past 40 years.

    And we elected him. Progressives across the US knocked on doors, gave money and voted in record numbers to elect Obama.

    All of which is to say—what? That Obama and his administration are grievously flawed. And that we are too.

    That’s not an excuse, in my view. That recognition doesn’t buy Obama a free pass from progressives. It just establishes something of a foundation from which we can build and move forward.

    P.S. There’s an interesting post and thread over on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog title “The Problem of Radical Heroism” which touches on some of the same these as our discussion here.

  18. Bernard,

    Why would they necessarily move left in the second case? There might be more to be gained by moving right to get more Perry voters.

    Partly it would depend on the numbers (how big the defection is), partly it would depend on whether the Democrats could accurately understand what was happening (liberals leaving the party, as opposed to a general rightward shift in the whole population).

    I can only offer an historical example of how it has worked out. The Conservative Party in NY comes to mind. They made up their minds that the Republican Party was too liberal, so they formed a third party and voted for it. Democrats started winning. In response, the Republicans moved to the right and the Democrats moved to the right.

  19. @Don (8/4, 6:36 pm) Don, thanks for this example. It’s my understanding the experience of 3rd parties in New York doesn’t translate to most (all?) other states in the union because most states do not allow multiple parties to run the same candidate for office.

  20. The threat to vote for someone other than a Republican wasn’t empty: the Conservatives put up their own candidate in 1990 for Governor, resulting in a Democratic win. In 2009 they put up their own candidate for Congress, driving the Republican nominee out of the race, and lost to the Democrat. That threat to withhold Conservative votes—and the resulting political shift—is the essential element in the story, and isn’t New York-specific.

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