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Archive: November, 2009

POSTED: Monday, November 30, 2009, 10:43 AM

Now that Thanksgiving is over, we're all watching to see whether a certain American leader can extricate himself from crisis and rebuild his popularity...but enough about Tiger Woods. Lest we forget, the president of the United States also has a big task ahead of him. Here is my Sunday print column, updated and expanded:

Barack Obama is poised tomorrow night to expand America's military commitment in Afghanistan, a troop hike decision that is likely to enrage his liberal Democratic base. This strikes me as a problem that could seriously undermine his presidency.

POSTED: Friday, November 27, 2009, 11:50 AM

Much will be written in the days ahead, here and elsewhere, about President Obama's imminent decision to up the ante in Afghanistan. For starters, it'll be interesting to see how we plan to pay for the wider war, given our current financial straits. A little math frames the stakes quite nicely: the reported cost of each U.S. soldier in Afghanistan is projected to be $1 million, so if we multiply that figure by roughly 30,000 additional soldiers...voila, that's another $30 billion on the national tab.

One high-ranking Democrat, House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, is proposing that the expanded war should be financed by - what a concept - the current generation of American taxpayers. In other words, us. He'd do this by levying a graduated surtax on upper-class and middle-class Americans. He wants to "end the practice of paying for the war in Afghanistan with borrowed money." He's arguing that if Americans (especially Republicans) truly believe that this war is vital to our national security, and that if Obama truly believes he can't finish the job without a troop hike, then those who pay taxes should be prepared to "share the sacrifice." Which I suppose is akin to saying, "Put your money where your mouth is."

POSTED: Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 12:37 PM

The holiday has started already around here. I will write on Friday, however.

A happy Thanksgiving to all.

POSTED: Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 11:17 AM

With respect to the future party composition of the U.S. Senate, the Democrats' top goal is to emerge unscathed from the 2010 elections and preserve their numerical dominance, which (at least on some issues) now stands at 60 seats. But, in the tradition of Democrats behaving like Democrats, they appear determined these days to make life difficult for themselves in a number of states, by waging the kind of intramural strife that drains party money, divides the partisans, and provides ammo to the Republicans.

Pennsylvania, of course, is Exhibit A, as evidenced yet again by the latest skirmishes featuring Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak, combatants for the '10 Senate Democratic nomination. The more they try to outflank each other on the left, as they vie for Democratic votes in the Democrats-only primary scheduled for May, the more they potentially cede the center to Pat Toomey, the conservative Republican who will meet the Democratic victor next autumn.

POSTED: Monday, November 23, 2009, 10:35 AM

President Obama clearly needed that key parliamentary victory on Saturday night, when the Senate Democrats voted in unison to bring health care reform to the Senate floor for the very first time. But Harry Reid arguably needed it more.

Unlike Obama, the Senate majority leader is up for re-election next year in Nevada, and it's hard to see how he wins a fifth term and keep his leadership post unless he can show diehard Democratic voters back home that he has the clout to deliver on Obama's signature issue. Indeed, these days, clout is what he's all about. Reid is already airing TV campaign ads in Nevada, essentially rolling the dice like a true Nevadan, seeking even in this anti-incumbent environment to sell his incumbency as a prime asset. In the words of one Reid commercial, he is "the most powerful senator Nevada has ever had."

POSTED: Wednesday, November 18, 2009, 8:46 AM

I’m traveling for the rest of the week, so postings will be light or non-existent. But not quite yet. This is an expanded version of my latest Sunday print column:

Perhaps you’ve long believed that extremist Islamic terrorism poses the greatest danger to America. Well, the Republicans wish to disabuse you of that notion.

House leader John Boehner declared the other day that health care reform is actually “the greatest threat to freedom that I’ve seen in the 19 years I’ve been in Washington” - an enlightening assertion, since I’d foolishly assumed that al Qaeda scored higher on the fright meter than the prospect of Americans getting the same health protections that are common everywhere else in the democratized world.

Worse yet, real health reform hinges on a proposal that Republicans call “a stunning assault on liberty.” They’re incensed about the so-called “individual mandate,” the idea that virtually all Americans should be required to carry health insurance. Republicans see this mandate as an unconstitutional curb on personal freedom, arguing in essence that Americans have the inalienable right to be uninsured; in the words of Senator Charles Grassley, “Individuals should maintain their freedom to choose heath care coverage, or not.”

Republicans often have been quite successful in political disputes when they invoke words like freedom and liberty, which pack an emotional wallop. But there is also something called the social compact, the notion that the American community is strengthened if everybody pitches in. That’s where the health care mandate comes in.

It’s simple, really: An effective, affordable insurance program spreads the risks. If only sick and high-risk people sign up for health insurance, coverage will be too costly for many purchasers. But if virtually all healthy people are compelled to sign up, premiums will be cheaper across the board and there will be more money in the till for the sick folks who truly need costly care.

What’s ironic is that many Republicans in the past have agreed with this inescapable logic. They were for the mandate before they were against it.

Earlier this year, Grassley told Fox News that there wasn’t “anything wrong” with a mandate. Just as motorists are required to carry auto insurance, he said, “the principle then ought to lie the same way for health insurance.” At least seven other Republican senators have spoken favorably of such a requirement (South Dakota’s John Thune: “There are good arguments on behalf of getting everybody into the pool”), and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney made it a centerpiece of his health insurance overhaul in Massachussetts (the ex-Bay State governor wrote in Newsweek that when the uninsured show up for treatment at hospitals, “require them to either pay for their own care, or buy insurance”).

But Republicans, mindful of the need to placate the tea-baggers and right-wingers who equate health reform with various forms of totalitarianism, can ill afford to echo their previous statements. Nor they can afford to agree with their former Senate leader, Dr. Bill Frist, who has endorsed the mandate concept, arguing recently on the Fox Business Network that it’s “about the only way” to achieve reform, that Americans “should be responsible to paying for it” - and face federal penalties if they don’t.

The Democrats continue to tweak the proposed penalties, much to Boehner's chagrin. Last weekend, shortly before the House passed a health reform plan (thus becoming the first chamber to do so in the 60 years since Harry Truman put it on the agenda), the GOP leader delivered this statement on the floor:

“We have an individual mandate in this bill in front of us, that says every American is going to buy health insurance – whether you want to or not. And if you don’t want it, you’re going to pay a tax….Now, this is the most unconstitutional thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”

Translation: Even if President Obama ultimately signs a health reform law, the fight may well continue. The opposition could hire lawyers and ask the courts to throw it out.

Whether they would succeed is highly debatable. It’s true that the Congressional Research Service has looked at the constitutionality of a mandate and come up empty, saying only that “it is a novel issue whether Congress may…require an individual to purchase a good or service,” and calling it a “challenging question.” But Supreme Court rulings since the 1930s put the reformers on fairly solid ground.

When Boehner declared the mandate to be the most unconstitutional thing in his whole life, he was presumably referring to the Constitution’s commerce clause, which says that Congress has the power “to regulate commerce…among the several states” – in other words, economic issues – but certainly says nothing about requiring Americans to buy health insurance or any other product.

The problem for Republicans, however, is that the high court has long given the commerce clause an expansive reading, and allowed the feds to regulate all kinds of behavior.

To cite the most famous example, the landmark ’64 Civil Rights Act invoked the commerce clause in order to bar whites from discriminating against blacks, even though the core issue was not economic. The court was fine with that. The court has overturned only two commerce-clause laws since 1935, as even mandate opponents grudgingly acknowledge, which is why Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs was correct on Oct. 28 when he said, “I don’t believe there’s a lot of case law that would demonstrate the veracity” of the GOP’s position. (The high court nixed a federal law that curbed gun possession near schools, and a federal law making it easier for women to file gender-related claims. The court said that neither law had the remotest connection to national economic issues covered by the commerce clause.)

Health care, by contrast, is indisputably an economic issue. It would be tough for the Republicans’ lawyers to argue in court that an insurance mandate falls outside the commerce clause – given the reality that health care costs have a major impact on economic commerce. In fact, the Republicans themselves have repeatedly made that link, by complaining about how the Democrats are seeking to restructure “one sixth of the economy.”

The Republicans have also asserted that the proposed federal non-compliance penalty, which would target anybody who refuses to buy health insurance, is tantamount to a brand new tax. Maybe that’s a good political argument – a new Associated Press poll reports that 64 percent of Americans oppose an insurance mandate if a non-compliance penalty is attached – but it’s a lousy constitutional argument, because the high court has repeatedly upheld Congress’ broad taxing powers.
Nevertheless, this is potentially fertile rhetorical turf for the Republicans. If health reform is enacted and signed, they can stoke conservative base turnout for the ’10 congressional races by inveighing against the Democrats’ “unconstitutional” attempt to require health insurance and thus infringe on freedom and liberty. And even if reform fails, they can recount how the Democrats tried to pull an unconstitutional fast one. The mandate is hardly a threat akin to al Qaeda, and I doubt that even the tea-baggers think so. But there’s ample red meat in the argument that Americans resent being told what to do. Social compact notwithstanding.

POSTED: Tuesday, November 17, 2009, 10:56 AM

Way back on May 13, I predicted that Florida would be the setting for "the next Republican civil war." Perhaps that was an understatement. A more updated assessment has been offered by David Frum, the conservative commentator and former George W. Bush speechwriter. He writes on his blog that "Republican fratricide" in Florida will result in a "spectacular bloodbath."

Just as in the recent New York congressional race - where conservative-versus-moderate fratricide screwed things up so badly that a Democrat wound up winning a House seat that hadn't gone Democratic since around 1870 - the escalating Florida feud between conservative purists and moderate pragmatists in the GOP Senate race threatens to imperil the party unity that Republicans will need in order to recoup at the ballot box in 2010.

POSTED: Monday, November 16, 2009, 10:26 AM

The Obama administration's decision, announced Friday, to prosecute the avowed 9/11 mastermind in federal court struck me as a no-brainer that didn't require any comment. After all, the U.S. Constitution and the American rule of law - which we routinely tout as models for the rest of the world - seem more than adequate to the task. But I am now inspired to comment further, after having seen Rudy Giuliani running scared Sunday morning on three different networks.

Surely Obama's detractors can do better than to be fronted by the likes of Rudy Giuliani.

About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.


All commentaries posted before April 18, 2008, can be accessed at www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

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