The Obama Administration

The Myth of Obamacare's Bad Sales Job

Flickr/Brent Moore

When they went forward with their plan to shut down the government in order to undo, defund, or otherwise undermine the Affordable Care Act, conservatives convinced themselves that their plan was going to work because Americans hate Obamacare. If you look at it in an extremely narrow, context-free way, that's sort of true. If you just ask people whether they approve of the ACA, you get between 35 percent and 45 percent approval. But the closer you look, the more complicated it gets. Some people disapprove of it because they feel it didn't go far enough; add them with those who say they approve, and you'll get a majority. Furthermore, and most critical for what I'd like to discuss, the actual components of the law, like giving people subsidies to buy insurance, outlawing denials for pre-existing conditions, and so on, are all extremely popular (the one exception is the individual mandate).

One thing's for sure, though: You can't say that the ACA as an abstract entity is overwhelmingly popular. That has led a lot of liberals to blame Barack Obama for doing a bad job selling the law. I must have heard or read this from a hundred liberals over the last couple of years. If only he had sold it better! Then we wouldn't be in this mess. Sometimes, I've actually heard people say that he never really tried to sell it.

This argument is complete bunk. Here's why.

Dancing with the Shutdown Spin that Brought You

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Spin is overrated. Alas, it’s never going away. If there’s one thing that political scientists try, repeatedly, to convince the reporters and correspondents who cover politics of, it’s that fundamentals tend to matter a lot more than they think, and opinion manipulation matters less. Not none—but in many cases, not very much.

Good News About the Debt Ceiling May Mean Bad News About the Shut-Down

John Boehner apparently will let the debt ceiling rise, even if he has to rely on Democratic votes to do it. This is both good news and bad news.

It’s good news because we won’t have a global financial panic in two weeks time. Boehner apparently got Wall Street’s message loud and clear: If you make the United States government default on its debts, you take responsibility for a worldwide economic catastrophe.

The Cruelty of Republican States in One Chart

Click through for exciting full-size version.

Many people are talking today about this article in today's New York Times, which focuses on the particularly cruel doughnut hole created when the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the expansion of Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act. The problem is that if you live in a (mostly Southern) state run by Republicans, you have to be desperately poor to qualify for Medicaid under existing rules. But it isn't until you get to 133 percent of the poverty level ($31,321 in yearly income for a family of four) that you're eligible for subsidies to buy insurance on the exchanges, because when the law was written the idea was that everyone under that income would get Medicaid. When all those Southern states decided to refuse the Medicaid expansion in order to shake their fist at Barack Obama, they screwed over their own poor citizens. So millions of people will be caught in the middle: not poor enough to get Medicaid, but too poor to get subsidies on the exchanges. But when we say "not poor enough," what we're actually talking about is people who are, in fact, extremely poor. And you'll be shocked to learn that in those states, the poor are disproportionately black. Could that have anything to do with it? Heavens, no!

In any case, I thought it might be worthwhile to lay out in one handy chart how, state by state, this will affect people. Under pre-ACA law, each state sets its own eligibility level for Medicaid. In more liberal states, these levels are fairly high; for instance, Massachusetts gives Medicaid to families up to 133 percent of poverty, New York up to 150 percent, and Minnesota up to 215 percent. But in conservative states, the levels are far stingier; as someone in the Times article says, "You got to be almost dead before you can get Medicaid in Mississippi." In addition, in most states childless adults can't get Medicaid no matter how poor they are, but under the ACA it will no longer matter whether you have children. This is just one more way conservative states that forego the Medicaid expansion (for which the federal government is picking up almost the entire tab, by the way) are harming their own citizens.

On to our chart...

Can Bibi Take Yes for an Answer?

The weeks leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday had been the most positive between the U.S. and Iran in decades. Conciliatory gestures from both sides, as well as a reportedly productive meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, culminated in a phone call between Presidents Obama and Rohani, the first ever between a President of the United States and a President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on Friday. Netanyahu clearly saw it as his job to put the brakes on, like a sitcom father dashing down the stairs to stop the kids from making out on the couch.

Except that Rohani hasn’t even gotten to first base.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to the Tea Party

Newly famous Rep. Marlin Stutzman, seen here at left playing dress-up with other members of Congress. (Flicrk/SpeakerBoehner)

I'm always reluctant to make too much of any particular off-the-cuff statement a politician makes, to play that game where people on the other side say, "Aha! You have revealed yourself to the be the scoundrel we always knew you were, and this is the proof!" But sometimes, politicians do say revealing things, particularly in a situation like the one we're in now, where the outcome of a controversy that is already affecting millions of people and could threaten the entire economy is dependent on things like hurt feelings and the desire to feel like you won.

So the quote of the day comes from this article in the Washington Examiner, in which a Tea Party congressman sums up nicely the fight over the government shutdown:

"We're not going to be disrespected," conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., added. "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."

And there you have it.

What Happens to Conservatism When the Obamacare War Is Over?

Flickr/Fibonacci Blue

When we look back decades from now, one of the keys to understanding this period in our political history will be the story of how a set of market-based health insurance reforms that started as a proposal from the Heritage Foundation and then was successfully implemented by a Republican governor who later became the GOP presidential nominee, ended up being viewed by virtually all conservatives as not just an abomination but the very essence of statist oppression. Liberals have often expressed wonder or exasperation about the way conservatives changed their opinions about this particular brand of reform. But now that it's driving a government shutdown (and soon a potential default on the debt), we have to acknowledge that it's more than just a policy conservatives hate. The Affordable Care Act is far, far bigger than that. It has become the most important definer of conservatism in America circa 2013. It isn't that conservatives don't still want to cut taxes for the wealthy, or slash the social safety net, or liberate corporations from pesky regulations on worker safety and the environment, because they still want all those things. But Obamacare has swallowed conservatism whole.

Eric Holder's Big Voting-Rights Gamble

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Just about everyone who goes through a musical theater phase at some point falls in love with Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls. In the movie version, Marlon Brando plays the gambler who will wager “sky high” stakes and finds himself singing “Luck Be a Lady” while rolling the dice to see if he gets the girl.

Going all in may be what you’d expect in a fictional-singing crapshooter, but it’s a bit more surprising in a U.S. attorney general.

Obama's Opening Salvo In the War of Words

President Obama making a statement today.

Starting today, Americans are going to learn three things when they watch media coverage about the government shutdown. First, they'll see Republicans say that Obamacare totally sucks and everybody hates it, and also that President Obama is being super-mean by not giving them what they want. Second, they'll learn that their fellow citizens have a pox-on-both-their-houses view on this whole thing, because nothing says "journalism" like going out on the Mall or to the local diner and getting a few quotes from average folk saying, "They're all acting like children!"

And third, they'll hear Barack Obama say that with their intransigence, Republicans are hurting regular Americans. And not just regular Americans generally, but actual, specific regular Americans. Many of these Americans will be seen standing patiently behind the President as he tells their stories. That's what he did today in his first post-shutdown statement, which combined a celebration of the opening of the health care exchanges with a critique of the shutdown.

This Madness Will Never End

AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander

I wish I could write something optimistic as we begin the government shutdown. I wish I could, but I can't. In fact, this morning I can't help but feel something close to despair. It isn't that this shutdown won't be resolved, because it will. It will be resolved in the only way it can: when John Boehner allows a vote on a "clean CR," a continuing resolution that funds the government without attacking the Affordable Care Act. It could happen in a week or two, whenever the political cost of the shutdown becomes high enough for Boehner to finally find the courage to say no to the Tea Partiers in his caucus. That CR will pass with mostly Democratic votes, and maybe the result will be a revolt against Boehner that leads to him losing the speakership (or maybe not; as some have argued, Boehner's job could be safe simply because no one else could possibly want it).

But the reason for my despair isn't about this week or this month. It's the fact that this period in our political history—the period of lurching from absurd crisis to absurd crisis, with no possibility of passing a budget let alone legislation to address any serious problems we face, with a cowardly Republican leadership held hostage by a group of insane political terrorists who think it's a tragedy if a poor person gets health insurance and it's a great day when you kick a kid off food stamps, a period where this collection of extremists and fools, these people who think the likes of Michele Bachmann and Steve King are noble and wise leaders—this awful, horrific period in our history, when these are the people who control the country's fate, looks like it will never end.

Budget Roulette: The Uncertain End Game

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster

This budget crisis, weirdly, has nothing to do with the budget. It is the expression of the Tea Party Republicans’ animus against Obamacare, their general loathing of government, and their willingness to resort to wildly destructive tactics. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the few heroes in this mess, put it so aptly, “They’ve lost their minds.”

Why the Tea Partiers Think They'll Win

Their fearless leader. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Way back in the days when bloggers carved their missives out on stone tablets (by which I mean 2005), Digby noted, in response to the nascent trend of conservatives deciding that George W. Bush wasn't a conservative after all, wrote, "Get used to hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren't true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets." We've seen that a lot in the years since—the interpretation of every election Republicans lose is that they weren't conservative enough, and if they had just nominated a true believer or run farther to right, victory would have been theirs.

There's already a tactical division within the Republican party about the wisdom of shutting down the government in an attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act. The members who have been around a while understand that no matter what happens, Barack Obama is not going to bend on this one. He won't dismantle his greatest domestic policy accomplishment, and he won't delay it for a year. He just won't. The members who are newer, particularly Tea Partiers who got elected in 2010 and 2012, think that if they just hold fast, eventually Obama will buckle.

And there's another difference between the two groups.

Have Too Many Cooks Spoiled Obamacare?

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

It's safe to say that if Americans don't understand the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by now—and they don't—they never will. The slightly better news is that consumers don't have to understand it in order to benefit from it, but even so, almost all the problems the ACA has encountered or will encounter are a result of the law's enormous complexity. That complexity grew out of early decisions made by Barack Obama, but along the way Congress added their own layers of complexity in order to pass it, then conservatives on the Supreme Court added some more. There were reasons, most of them perfectly good, for each of these decisions; everyone thought they were responding to reality or doing what was in the best interests of the country. But as full implementation of the law is upon us, we should acknowledge how much damage has been done by all this complexity.

Memo to Republicans: You Lost. Now Deal with It.

Artist's rendering of the House Republican Caucus. (Flickr/Ian Turk)

Imagine you're a third grade teacher, and the school announces that all the classrooms are going to be repainted, and the kids will get to choose the colors. You let your students each make a case for the color they'd like for their classroom, and it comes down to a choice between blue and green. The two sides give cute little speeches to the class about their favorite colors, and then you take a vote. There are 20 kids in the class; 12 choose blue and 8 choose green. Blue it is.

But then the kids who wanted green insist that the color has to be green. They go to the principal's office and make their case that blue sucks and green rules. The principal tells them that the class chose blue, so the walls are going to be blue. Then the pro-green kids return and say that since there was a new kid who joined the class since the vote, we have to have the vote again. Another vote is held; it's still blue. Then the pro-green kids announce that because anyone can see that blue is sucky, they're going to write in green magic marker on any wall that gets painted blue. Then they announce that if the walls get painted blue, they're going to break the windows in the classroom, smash the chairs, and fling the contents of everybody's cubby on the floor.

When they're told they can't do that, they say, "OK, tell you what: we'll refrain from breaking the windows and trashing the class, but only if you give us pro-green kids cupcakes every day, excuse us from homework for the rest of the year, and let us choose all the games we play at recess. It's either that, or we start smashing." Would you respond to these children, "Well, what if we just give you the cupcakes?" Of course not. You'd say, "Listen, you psychotic little turds. The goddamn walls are going to be blue. YOU LOST. Now suck it up."

I Was Wrong about Elena Kagan

AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

One of the central arguments made by In the Balance, Mark Tushnet's terrific new book about the current Supreme Court bench (reviewed here by Garrett Epps), concerns the counterweight to the conservative faction led by Chief Justice John Roberts. If Democratic nominees are able to wrest control of the Supreme Court back from the Republican nominees who have controlled the median vote on the Court for more than four decades, Tushnet argues, it is Elena Kagan who is likely to emerge as the intellectual leader of the Democratic nominees. And despite what many liberals feared, there is every reason to think that this would be an outcome supporters of progressive constitutional values would be very happy with.

When I say "many liberals," I include myself.