Archive: September, 2009
It was a small episode in yesterday's Senate Finance Committee debate on health care. Nevertheless, it's worth a moment of scrutiny, because it spoke volumes about the intelligence-challenged mentality that has stymied reform in this country for lo these many decades.
Senator John Ensign, the Nevada Republican best known for having trysted with the wife of a top aide, strongly disputed all the health statistics which consistently show that the United States lags behind other western nations in terms of quality care. His protestations were entirely predictable; after all, most conservatives are incapable of accepting the notion that the United States lags behind anyone else on anything - because this is America, and America by definition is always number one.
As President Obama decides whether to sign off on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for a massive troop hike in Afghanistan - the president is slated to conduct high-level meetings today and tomorrow - his usual critics are already complaining that his pause for reflection is proof that he's a wimp and a wuss. As they see it, Obama should speedily say yes because the military commander in the field always knows best. For instance, from the cheap seats, here's potential 2012 challenger Mitt Romney: "This is not the time for Hamlet in the White House."
But presidents are not supposed to rubber stamp the military brass; that's not how our system is supposed to work. The head of the military is a civilian - that would be Obama - and the civilian, looking at the big picture, is constitutionally empowered to have the last word. The Pentagon has been trying to box Obama in, by leaking McChrystal's 40,000 troop hike request to The Washington Post last week - with McChrystal advertising himself in a 60 Minutes segment the other night - but it doesn't necessarily follow that Obama should forfeit his responsibility to think for awhile outside the box.
Ponder this: When voters size up a candidate, should they basically ignore the person's early beliefs and behavior - or should voters view those early beliefs and behavior as relevent conviction and character clues?
This question is hardly new. They came up in 1992 when Bill Clinton's detractors assailed his youthful efforts to avoid military service. They came up in 2000 when George W. Bush's opponents unearthed, at the eleventh hour, the DWI charge that fit the narrative of his reckless young adulthood.
Put your hands together for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who earlier this week at the U.N. delivered a stellar imitation of Alec Baldwin playing Saddam Hussein on Saturday Night Live. Rarely have we ever witnessed a mass murderer walk such a fine line between thuggery and buffoonery. The black hat was a nice touch, but, given the loony nature of his filibuster, his head should have been topped with whirling propellers. It was nice that he wants to solve the Kennedy assassination, but, since we're on the subject of murder conspiracies, let it be said that if Gadhafi had spoken up soon after that Pan Am plane was blown up over Scotland in 1988, he could have saved investigators a lot of time and trouble.
As I've noted twice here recently, President Obama's biggest political challenge is not health care reform. It is Afghanistan. And now that he's reportedly deliberating whether to OK the military's impending request for a sizeable troop hike, apparently with a fair degree of skepticism as to the value of such a move, his potential domestic quandary is coming into sharper focus.
The prime political task of any president is to secure the strong support of his party base. But the Democratic base is strongly opposed to a troop hike in Afghanistan; the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that two-thirds of all Democrats are saying no. So if Obama says yes to the military, and the troop hike fails to improve our prospects for success (which would not be a shock, given the current prowess of the insurgents, and the corruption and perceived illegitimacy of the Karzai government), he risks splitting his own party in ways reminiscient of what doomed LBJ 40 years ago in the wake of Vietnam.
Given all the obstructionist complaints and ideological catechisms uttered yesterday by Senate Finance Committee Republicans on the timely topic of health care reform, it's no wonder that the GOP continues to be held in such low esteem nationwide.
As the Senate Democrats prepare to go it virtually alone on reform legislation, amidst the predictable hardening of Republican opposition, it's worth taking note of the newly-released NBC-Wall Street Journal poll - in my estimation, the best of the nonpartisan surveys, because it is jointly conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter Hart. Even though the public continues to voice concerns about how President Obama is handling health reform, he is rated far higher than his implacable Republican opposition; whereas 45 percent of Americans endorse the way Obama is dealing with the issue, only 21 percent endorse the GOP's approach. And perceptions of the congressional parties are markedly different; whereas Americans generally give the Democrats a split verdict (41 percent view the party positively, 39 percent negatively), the verdict on the GOP is thumbs down (28 percent positive, 43 percent negative).
Put yourself in Barack Obama's shoes. What a relief it must have been yesterday to sit with David Letterman, in front of some fawning New Yorkers, and parry a handful of questions that barely even qualified as softballs.
Hey, that's why the president was appearing on Late Show in the first place - precisely because he could pitch health care reform without any concern that he might be substantially challenged to explain anything. Letterman's show is all about the power of celebrity, not the fine points of policy (the late-night shows haven't been substantive since Dick Cavett in the early '70s and Jack Paar a decade earlier); and, besides all that, Letterman as an interviewer is generally as dogged as an adolescent with ADD.
Not that I'm telling you anything new. Still, it was fascinating to watch Obama punch his ticket for a free ride. Here, for instance, was the sum total of the health care reform discussion:
My Sunday print column, updated and expanded:
The latest fit of conservative paranoia is that Barack Obama, the alien in our midst, seeks to transform America into Mother Russia, crafting a new totalitarian state that will be run by his own private army of policy "czars." The lunacy never ends.