Mark Pryor has a problem. A Democratic senator in a state Barack Obama lost by 24 points, in a region where party identification is an increasingly rigid tribal marker, Pryor needs to get voters to look beyond the D next to his name if he's going to win re-election next year. So how does he do it? By appealing to an even higher tribal identification. Forget politics, he all but says in his new ad—all you need to know about me is that I'm right with the Lord. Take a look:
They had the formula down, and that was 40 years ago.
As long as people have been publishing, they've been trying to figure out what will make large numbers of people burn with a desire to read the things they're publishing. Like much of the study of human psychology, what we don't yet understand far outweighs what we do understand. But now, with the rise of social media, the search for the perfect formula to make people say both "I have to read that" and then "I have to encourage as many people as I can to also read that" has become an outright frenzy.
Don't worry, this isn't some pretentious "Thus did America descend into the quicksand of triviality, never to return" pronouncement. I'll confess that I watch the number of tweets and Facebook likes all of my posts and articles get, and if a post takes off, I'm pleased. After all, writers want their work to be read by as many people as possible. We do a lot of serious journalism and analysis here at the Prospect, and we understand that much of it will never go viral, but we're no more immune to the desire for eyeballs than anyone else.
CNN has been having problems for some time, with anemic ratings and something of an identity crisis. In a world where people can get news of the moment from a million places, just what is the network that pioneered cable news for? Not that the network doesn't still make plenty of money (it does), but unlike Fox and MSNBC, CNN hasn't seemed to have been able to figure out what its model is.
In an interview with Capital New York, CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who has been on the job less than a year, said what the network needs is "more shows and less newscasts," in order to grab "viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E." It all adds up to "an attitude and a take."
As easy as this is to mock, I think they should go for it. Because really, would our democracy suffer if, say, we only got one hour a day of Wolf Blitzer's vaguely befuddled "take" on the news instead of the current two hours?
Eight stitches? That'll be $4,000. (Flickr/Sarah Korf)
Twenty years ago I had my first knee surgery, after tearing some cartilage while skying for a thunderous dunk on the basketball court (or it might have been just falling backward while getting faked out on defense—who remembers the details?). Although I had insurance, I was responsible for a substantial copay, and I vividly recall the one item that stood out among the dozens on the bill. For the two steri-strips that covered an incision—tiny pieces of tape that even today cost about 20 cents retail, and which hospitals buy in bulk so surely cost them just a couple of pennies—I and my insurance company were charged $11, or $5.50 per strip. A miniscule amount in a five-figure bill, but it struck me as the most absurd, since it represented a markup of approximately 10,000 percent, if not more. More recently, I was getting some physical therapy for the same knee, and in what turned out to be a session that wasn't covered by my insurance, a therapist put a piece of kinesio tape around my kneecap. The retail price for that length of tape is around 40 cents (though again, they buy it in bulk so it's probably a quarter of that); and there was the therapist's time to retrieve, cut, and apply the tape, which took about sixty seconds all told. Total tape charge: $75.
My experience is not at all uncommon, as an excellent piece in today's New York Times explains.
In the late 19th century, major American cities began installing networks of underground pneumatic tubes between post offices, enabling them to whisk hundreds of letters back and forth at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, with the satisfying thurp sound as an added bonus. Most of the systems were dismantled in the 1920s, but somehow New York's managed to stay in use until the 50's (here's a description of this odd bit of postal history).
Sadly, the dream of universal pneumatic tube delivery to the home was never achieved. But in a 14-minute ad for Amazon that was cleverly staged as a report on 60 Minutes ("If you can do this with all these products, what else can you do?" gushed Charlie Rose on the floor of a fulfilment center. "You guys can organize the world!"), the company revealed the future of package delivery: drones.
Now that healthcare.gov seems to be working reasonably well (at least on the consumer end), Republicans are going to have to find something else they can focus on in their endless war against the Affordable Care Act. So get ready for the return of "death panels."
Yesterday, Tim Noah made a point in an MSNBC appearance that I think deserves a lot more attention. Media outlets have been doing lots of reporting on the problems of the Affordable Care Act rollout, but what they haven't done is provided their audiences with practical information that could help them navigate the new system. Of course, most Americans don't have to do anything, since they have employer-provided insurance. But for all the attention we've been paying to the individual market, media outlets haven't done much to be of service. "The New York Times has published the URL for the New York exchange exactly twice," Noah said, "both before October first."
My experience in talking to journalists about the publication of this kind of thing—unsexy yet useful information, whether it's how to navigate a new health law or understanding where candidates stand on issues—is that they often think that addressing it once is enough. When you ask them about it, they'll say, "We did a piece on that three months ago." The problem is that for it to be effective, they have to do it repeatedly or people won't get it. What we have seen is that this information can be found somewhere on news outlets' web sites (here's an example), but it isn't on the evening news broadcast or in the print edition of the paper.
This morning, I was listening to NPR—because yeah, I'm an effete pointy-headed liberal and that's how I roll—and I heard a story about people in California who got insurance cancellation notices, but then wound up getting better coverage and couldn't be happier about it. And the other day there was this story in the Washington Post about droves of poor people in rural Kentucky getting insurance for the first time in their lives—free, through Medicaid—because of the Affordable Care Act. In other words, after spending weeks telling the tales of people losing their health coverage (who in truth could get other health coverage), the media are finally putting at least some attention on the people who are benefiting from the ACA.
And encouraging news seems to be breaking out all over.
On the other hand, we could just listen to this guy's not-at-all-oversimplified argument. (AP photo by Seth Wenig)
If you want to know how the neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War are reacting to the interim deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program, the best way is to head over to the web site of the Weekly Standard, where you can witness their wailing chagrin that the Obama administration doesn't share their hunger for yet another Middle East war. All five of the featured articles on the site concern Iran, including editor Bill Kristol's "No Deal" (illustrated with twinned photos of Bibi Netanyahu and Abraham Lincoln, believe it or not), one titled "Don't Trust, Can't Verify," and "Abject Surrender By the United States" by the always measured John Bolton.
These people would be simply ridiculous if they didn't already have so much blood on their hands from Iraq, and the idea that anyone would listen to them after what happened a decade ago tells you a lot about how Washington operates. But there is something important to understand in the arguments conservatives are making about Iran. Their essential position is that now that Iran has finally agreed to negotiate, we must "keep the pressure on" by not actually negotiating until they offer, to use Bolton's words, an actual abject surrender. We should not just maintain but increase sanctions, to make them understand that they'll get nothing and like it. The only way to get future concessions from Iran is to maximize their pain now.
You'll recall how much progress the Bush administration made in getting Iran to pull back its nuclear development with this approach (none). It seems pretty clear that the neocons understand about as much about negotiating as my dog does about delayed gratification. So let me suggest that an easing of sanctions now is exactly what could get them to agree to more concessions at the end of the interim agreement's period of six months. The reason is that what we've done is give the Iranians not only something to gain, but something to lose.
More than a few conservatives are of the opinion that should the Affordable Care Act fail to achieve its goals, it would make the adoption of single-payer health insurance in the United States more likely. The reasonable ones who believe this argue that their side hasn't done enough to come up with ideas to address the very real problems in the health care system, so if the ACA doesn't work, they don't have much to offer in response. If the question is, "Well now what?" and their response is, "How about making it impossible for you to sue your doctor if he cuts off the wrong leg? And can I interest you in a health savings account?", the American public may well turn to the big-government solution instead. I've spoken to conservatives who think that scenario is a real possibility. Carnival barkers like Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, are telling the rank and file that the rocky rollout of the ACA was all part of the secret plan: things would go wrong, and then the socialist in the White House would be able to swoop in and implement single-payer before anyone realized what was happening.
And there are plenty of liberals who would say, "Sounds good to me!" Not that they're rooting for the ACA's problems to remain unsolved, but they are trying to make people understand that the difficulties are a result not of the ACA containing too much government, but of it not containing enough (this is a point I've made myself). But a belief that the ACA's failure would make single-payer more likely fundamentally misreads our political history.
A few weeks ago, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann released the follow-up to their 2009 best-seller Game Change, given the best title their publisher's Department of Inane Clichés could devise (though I'll grant that Double Down: Game Change 2012 was a bit better than Game Change 2: Game Changier would have been). The revelations weren't particularly revelatory, sales have been less than overwhelming, and an HBO film version seems unlikely. The behind-the-scenes campaign account as a journalistic genre is now half a century old, having been initiated by Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960, and it's showing its age. Is it interesting to know what Mitt Romney thought of the ads that were produced for his campaign, or whether one Obama strategist was feuding with another? Sure, if that's your thing. But it's hard to argue that learning the inside dope means you understand what happened in a truly meaningful way.
The Republican Governors Association is meeting in Arizona, and naturally the talk has turned to how the only way Republicans can win the next presidential election is if they nominate a governor. One after another, the assembled are taking to the microphones to say things like, "While D.C. talks, governors act" (South Carolina's Nikki Haley), "The cure for what ails this nation will come more from our nation's state capitals than it ever will from our nation's capital" (Indiana's Mike Pence), and "What I have seen here is the incredible contrast between what is being discussed here and accomplished by these people ... as opposed to what is going on in Washington D.C." (New Jersey's Chris Christie). While there were four former governors who ran in the 2012 primaries—the remarkably lifelike Mitt Romney, the foolishly moderate John Huntsman, the man who brought new meaning to the expression "all hat and no cattle" (Rick Perry), and the incandescent fireball of charisma that was Tim Pawlenty—in 2016 there could be even more, including Christie, Pence, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, John Kasich, and maybe even Jeb Bush.
And barring the unexpected emergence of the John Thune Explosion (feel free to take that as a name for your garage band, Senator) or the kind of collective suicide pact that would produce a Rand Paul nomination, it seems strongly likely that one of those guys is going to end up topping their ticket in 2016. So what is it that makes governors appealing as candidates?
It has been said many times over the last few years that now that Democrats successfully passed a comprehensive overhaul of American health insurance, they own the health-care system, for good or ill. Every problem anyone has with health care will be blamed on Barack Obama, whether his reform had anything to do with it or not. Your kid got strep throat? It's Obama's fault! Doctor left a sponge in your chest cavity? Stupid Obama! Grandma died after a long illness at the age of 97? Damn you, Obama!
OK, so maybe it won't be quite as bad as that, but pretty close. Here's an instructive case in exactly how this plays out
Behold my terrible rage! I will drink your blood and feast on your entrails! (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
So now the Democrats have exercised the "nuclear option," which is really not particularly nuclear. They've changed existing Senate rules so that judicial nominations can not be filibustered, but can pass with a majority vote. Over the next couple of days you'll hear Republicans say that this is the most horrifying power grab since the February Revolution of 1917. They will weep and beat their breasts, lamenting the death of fairness and democracy, predicting all manner of horrors, perhaps culminating in a zombie apocalypse, now that a judge nominated by the president can be confirmed with a vote of a majority of senators. But then, their grief will turn to steely determination. "You shall rue this day!", they will cry. "Revenge shall be ours!"
And that might sound like a reasonable argument for why this rule change was ill-advised. After all, as Iowa senator Chuck Grassley recently threatened, "So if the Democrats are bent on changing the rules, then I say go ahead. There are a lot more Scalias and Thomases that we'd love to put on the bench." In other words, without the restraint of the filibuster, the next time Republicans have the White House and the Senate, which will happen eventually, they'll go hog-wild, appointing the most radical conservatives they can find. But there's one big reason that argument fails: They would have done it anyway.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has released their latest health indicators report, and while you may not find 200 pages of charts and graphs on cross-national health comparisons as fascinating as weirdos like me do, let me just point to a couple of interesting things. Most of the findings will be pretty familiar to people who have followed the health care issue in the last few years, but there's at least one thing that surprised me, which I'll get to in a minute. First though, I have to point to this graph, which shows just what an outlier the United States is in terms of what we spend on health care and what we get. It shows the relationship between spending and life expectancy: