This Saturday is the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shooting, and it's remarkable where we've come in that time. In the weeks that followed, everyone said that now we could finally pass some sensible measures to stem the river of blood and death and misery that is the price we pay for America's love of firearms. President Obama proposed some extraordinarily modest measures: enhanced background checks, limits on the kind of large-capacity magazines mass murderers find so useful, perhaps even a new ban on new sales to civilians of certain military-style weapons. Not a single thing that would keep a single law-abiding citizen from owning as many guns as he wants.
So here we are, a year later, and what has happened? First of all, at least 30,000 more Americans have had their lives cut short by guns; tens of thousands more were shot but survived. Around 200 children have been shot to death in that time—another 10 Newtowns. There was no federal legislation on guns. It died, because there are a sufficient number of Republicans (and a couple of Democrats) who, quite frankly, looked on one hand at a child getting murdered, and on the other hand at some armchair Rambo having to go a whole mile to the police station to get a background check before buying an AR-15 from his neighbor, and decided that the latter would be a greater moral outrage than the former.
After a long period in which few people outside liberal circles talked about increasing the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour, the issue is now in the headlines almost every day. Fast food workers will be striking in 130 cities around the country to demand a higher minimum wage on Thursday. The Washington, DC city council just voted unanimously to increase the city's minimum wage in stages to $11.50.
Paul Ryan, still a conservative in good standing. (Flickr/House GOP)
Have we finally reached a point where the perpetual anger of Washington conservatives is no longer a threat to the republic? The budget deal announced yesterday suggests that it may well be, at least for the moment. It isn't that conservatives aren't raising a stink about it—they're displeased that it doesn't repeal the Affordable Care Act, slash Social Security and Medicare, and do more to punish food stamp recipients, among other things—because they certainly are. Indeed, they were decrying it even before it was announced, which tells you how concerned they are about the details. But they seem to be just going through the motions. Send the press releases, say you'll vote against it, tell Fox News why it doesn't get to the real problems...and then we'll all move on. The budget will pass, mostly because it averts the possibility of a government shutdown (at least over the budget, though not over the debt ceiling) for two more years. And even the most conservative Republican knows that's a good thing for their party.
"You know how to whistle, don't you, Mr. President?" (Wikimedia Commons/Truman Library)
It's no surprise that Nelson Mandela's memorial service would produce a rain of stupidity and feigned outrage from conservatives over Barack Obama's behavior, since they see it as part of their purpose to police his every word, gesture, and blink for signs of transgression. The only appropriate reaction to this stuff (OMG, he shook Raul Castro's hand!) is probably mockery, but there is one thing that's worth a bit of consideration.
Whenever a bunch of world leaders get together and have time to stand (or sit) around and shmooze, there are going to be interesting photos that result. That's true even if nothing weird happens, like George W. Bush looking over at the most powerful woman in the world and saying to himself, "Hey look, a dame. I think I'll stroll over there and give her an unsolicited back rub." Any time we see powerful people just acting like people, there's something interesting about it. So when Obama, British prime minister David Cameron, and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt were photographed taking a little group selfie, it was bound to be noticed as one of those they're-just-like-us moments.
But because some photos of the moment show Michelle Obama with a serious expression on her face as she looks in the other direction, lots of people immediately fit this into a familiar story line, the one in which the First Lady is a castrating harpy always ready to smack her husband down if he gets too close to another woman, particularly a white woman.
It's been said to the point of becoming cliche that once Democrats passed significant health care reform, they'd "own" everything about the American health care system for good or ill. For some time to come, people will blame Barack Obama for health care problems he had absolutely nothing to do with. But there's a corollary to that truism we're seeing play out now, which is that what used to be just "a sucky thing that happened to me" or "something about the way insurance works that I don't particularly like"—things that have existed forever—are now changing into issues, matters that become worthy of media attention and are attributed to policy choices, accurately or not. Before now, millions of Americans had health insurance horror stories. But they didn't have an organizing narrative around them, particularly one the news media would use as a reason to tell them.
The latest has to do with the provider networks that insurance companies put together. This is something insurance companies have done for a long time, because it enables them to limit costs. If an insurer has a lot of customers in an area, it can say to doctors, "We'll put you in our provider network, giving you access to all our customers. But we only pay $50 for an office visit. Take it or leave it." An individual doctor might think that it's less than she'd like to be paid, but she needs those patients, so she'll say yes. Or she might decide that she has enough loyal patients to keep her business running, and she wants to charge $100 for an office visit, so she'll say no.
So every year, doctors move in and out of those private provider networks, and the insurers adjust what they pay for various visits and procedures, and inevitably some people find that their old doctor is no longer in their network. Or they change jobs and find the same thing when they get new insurance. And that can be a hassle.
But now they have someone new to blame: not the insurance company that established the network, and not the doctor that chose not to be a part of it, but Barack Obama. It's not just my hassle, it's a national issue.