An Atheist’s Meditation on “Against Elegies”

4 04 2013

Looking up the Shel Silverstein poem “Sick,” I found this — a serious lamentation paired incongruously, thanks to, with the humorous Silverstein delight — from a poet named Marilyn Hacker, called “Against Elegies.” Here’s a snippet that made me think:

For every partisan there are a million gratuitous deaths from hunger, all-American mass murders, small wars, the old diseases and the new.

Who dies well? The privilege of asking doesn’t have to do with age.

For most of us no question what our deaths, our lives, mean.

At the end, Catherine will know what she knew, and James will, and Melvin, and I, in no one’s stories, as we are.

I don’t know that I agree with the sentiment — just because suffering is immense doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to put words to the suffering. They say the Holocaust is so huge that words fail it, but we keep trying, don’t we? “Unspeakable horrors” is really an oxymoron, because we speak of them all the time. In fact, speaking of them is how we exorcise the demons, how we deal with the pain. Elegies are not so much for the dead, just as funerals are not for the dead — they can’t see or care that we cry or celebrate them. (This is what scares me most about dying; that it’s just nothingness, without anything ever coming after . . . I know rationally that life just ends, but forever seems like such a very long time to be nothing. Of course, I suppose you don’t feel it if you’re not a person with feelings, etc. anymore.) But I can see Hacker’s point about death being a solitary experience – you know what you know at the end, no matter how much other people try to make it easier or ameliorate the suffering. Religious people would say that’s being called by God to account for your life, but to me it’s just the loneliness of the human experience. No matter what the end is like, after that end we all end up in the same silent, dark place. (Or perhaps it’s not silent or dark at all. Who really knows. But I have to assume that the end of thought, the ends of neurons firing, brings some sort of silence.) No one dies “well” because all deaths are the same. One person may go quietly while another may suffer in the process, but in the end we all end up in the sane place, as cruel and cold-hearted as that sounds. In a way, that’s depressing, but it’s possible that for a death we would describe as “terrible” — disease, suicide, murder, et cetera — it is a comfort to know that the final end is an identical nothingness, where there is no more suffering because there is no emotion, good or bad, at all.

I don’t think that Hacker is implying that most people have “no question” about what their lives mean because they are so certain of that meaning. The majority of people don’t really think at all about meaning; understandably, they live day-to-day and care more about the little things — family, children, being loved, work they enjoy — than finding some grand Meaning of Life that the Dalai Lama might prescribe. Perhaps she is suggesting that most people don’t ask the question at all — the very definition of going quietly into that good night. And perhaps that’s best. Self-examination is not always pleasant; in fact, too much of it can be painful, and it often doesn’t produce the sort of revelations that gurus and mystics want you to believe it will. It just leaves you more confused and scared and alone. The people who do engage in such rigorous self-examination are often deeply religious or mystical or — on the flip side — take it too far and end up ending their lives early. We must strike a balance between living in the real world, the present, and living with the reality in our heads. No life can be given inherent meaning by tossing a few anodyne words at it; they meaning of most people’s lives escapes us, as that meaning is personal and known only to the deceased. Most lives have no meaning at all in the stereotypical sense; they did not produce a grand invention or change the course of history. Attempting to attribute some superlative-laden grand meaning — he was the kindest man in the world — sells short the everyday, quotidian meanings that truly do characterize our lives. He was kind to animals. He kept doggie treats in his pockets for Mrs. Butterworth’s poodle. That is as touching and sincere an elegy as the lavish sort of praise most eulogizers tend to cram into their speeches. Meaning is a funny thing — it is something inside the spirit of every person, and when that person dies, some knowledge of that meaning dies with him. We can never fully put our finger on the meaning of a death, just as we can never fully understand the meaning of a life we did not live.

But I do take Hacker’s point about elegizing — or eulogizing, really — the few that we happen to know personally while ignoring the millions of deaths of people we’ll never meet or care about. One death is as powerful and sad, if you consider death sad and not just an Eastern-philosophy passing from one state to the next, as another, but we naturally care most about the deaths closest to us, just as we are more eager to read newspaper accounts of the car accident on a local freeway than the famine that killed thousands in sub-Sarahan Africa. We identify with people we see as similar to ourselves; that’s the human tribal mentality, and there’s no way around it. In a way, it’s our way of dealing with the enormity of human suffering . . . or at least that’s the charitable way to look at it. The less charitable interpretation is that we just don’t care about people who don’t directly affect us. Hacker mentions AIDS earlier in the poem, and that certainly didn’t become an issue in the U.S. until it was killing average Americans; when it was an African disease, or even a “homosexual disease,” as the vile Jesse Helms might have put it, we just shrugged and moved on. It’s human nature to rank the importance of deaths by how much they affect our own lives.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Each culture deals with death in its own way, and perhaps the people who die thousands of miles overseas are elegized in ways that Americans can’t even comprehend. Is it our duty to take on the guilt and sadness of all the deaths in the world? Perhaps it is, if we are complicit in those deaths — and first-worlders do tend to be complicit, whether they’re aware of it or not. They deny man-made climate change, which exacerbates famines in third-world countries and leads to wars over water supplies. They harbor irrational fears of genetically modified crops that could produce enough food, fortified with enough vitamins and grown with fewer pesticides, to ameliorate world hunger. They spread irrational and scientifically debunked fears about autism-causing childhood immunizations that lead to the full-scale elimination of methyl mercury as a preservative in vaccines that would have enabled large-scale immunization campaigns in poorer countries without adequate refrigeration. They fail to stop dictators who  massacre their own people — a guilt that is very real despite valid questions about intervention in sovereign countries and America’s right to be (or pragmatic self-interest in being) the world’s policeman. So to an extent, all our hand-wringing over the atrocities that occur in far-away places is laced with hypocrisy, as we are lamenting the very deaths we unknowingly promote. But most of the world’s horrors are not the fault of the poets or the elegizers; the blame lies at the feet of distant politicians and even more distant and complicated circumstances. It may seem hypocritical to mourn deaths we technically could have prevented, but compassion — even compassion without action — is not a meaningless virtue.

Elegies have always been more for the living than the dead. We hold wakes and funerals not because the dead can see us and nod sagely in appreciation but because it helps those left behind work through their grief. A teenager kills himself and the tragedy is not only for a life cut short but for the family and friends left without understanding, without an explanation and without the longed-for power to go back in time and intervene, to ask just the right question: “What can I do to help?” And perhaps the answer would have been “nothing.” In the end, the plates of little sandwiches and crudites are not to feed the souls of the past. Jewish families sit Shiva out of tradition and perhaps — I can’t say I’m an expert on the subject — because it helps move the soul from one realm to another. But the practice is really about reconciliation among the living, a coming to terms with loss by gathering to relate memories and share the grief. Elegies bind us together; they give us something to hang on to. They can’t make a vanished life any more meaningful, but the living may be more able to extract meaning from that life. Is that selfish? Is that using the experiences of someone else to assuage our own guilt? Perhaps. But once that person is gone, does it matter? Maybe a tribute to the dead will inspire something that Hacker would consider worthwhile — an effort to stem the death of AIDS in the developing world, or simply a dedication to provide hospice care to more dying Americans.

Of course words are useless in the face of mass suffering, but they are perhaps less useless for those who are not suffering directly, those who must pick up with their lives and continue — and those who, spurred by the sadness and inequity they see in such deaths, may attempt to make a difference in the world. There is nothing wrong with remembering; that, as much as death, has been part of the human experience since we first emerged from the caves. Even Neanderthals buried their dead with jewelry and items to help souls in the next life, whatever that life looked like. I understand the reluctance to churn out standard “wasn’t he fantastic” elegies, but not every memorial has to be in the vein of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Elegies don’t have to be completely laudatory; they can be a true reflection, an honest look at the bad and good points of a person’s life. So Jim was an alcoholic? Fine. But he also adopted a dozen stray dogs and never missed a Sunday dinner with his aging mother. People are a grab bag of good and bad, and Hacker seems to be focusing on the elegies that falsely illuminate only the good. The reflection that looking backward provides may not help the dead, but it certainly makes life more manageable for the living. And isn’t that ultimately the point? The dead are gone, and somehow we have to work through the guilt of what we did or didn’t do to stop mass killings or — on a smaller scale — what we did or didn’t do to ease the passing of a loved one. So much guilt, even if it is unwarranted, comes with death. We ask ourselves what we could have done better, if we could have loved harder or embraced longer.

Hacker’s line about “Catherine will know what she knew” is in a way depressing because, no matter how her family or friends reacted, “Catherine” will die all the same. But for those family and friends left behind, it’s important to feel that Catherine knew of their love. It’s the only way we can carry on. I’m entirely against elegies for the purpose of helping the dead — if you’re an atheist, as I am, there is no way of doing that — but if they provide comfort to the living, no matter how superficial, they’re worth something. Not everyone can single-handedly stop the Holocaust, and it doesn’t seem fair to say we abrogate the right to commemorate the victims just because we (or our ancestors) did not do enough to stop it. Regret is a powerful emotion, and looking back helps us look forward and not make the same mistakes again. Yes, elegies are useless, but they make the world a more bearable place. They put things in perspective for those who remain. And they address the real, if unfortunate, reality that the death of someone close to you inevitably means more than the deaths of thousands a continent away. We can lament this, or we can acknowledge the value of caring for those for whom we are able to care for. Better to love locally and parochially, even if it’s not as perfect as loving the entire world, than to abandon all deaths to the cold light of history and declare that there is nothing we can do or say to make our day-to-day lives any more manageable.

I would like to think, perhaps quixotically, that there is something after death — “pennies from heaven” and so forth. My grandfather ran into a bank teller with the same unusual name as my grandmother on a day close to the anniversary of her death. Coincidence? My rational mind tells me that, yes, coincidences happen all the time, but like a fine elegy, if such happenstance helps the grieving to get through the day, what’s the harm? It doesn’t diminish the beauty of the encounter. I may not believe in life after death, but I believe in the comfort provided by a line from many a sympathy card: “Perhaps they are not stars, but openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones shines down upon us to let us know that they happy.”


About That Car Obama Promised You . . . .

27 03 2013

Is there any corner of life into which politics has not managed to wedge itself? God forbid there be any remaining refuge for those seeking a vacation from all the D.C. nonsense. These days, you’re not even safe playing Words with Friends on your iPhone. (Well, you would be if you weren’t a cheapskate like me and you’d shelled out for the 99-cent ad-free version.) Interrupting my Scrabble joy are little advertisements like this: “New Obama policy lets you skip a mortgage payment!”

They remind me of those ads on the radio that try to convince you there’s some government program that hands out new car for free (shades of the stimulus package’s Cash for Clunkers, I suppose) or pay 20 years of back taxes without incurring a penalty. The cheesiest ones employ the clipped, professorial voice of an Obama impersonator who, judging from the poor likeness, moonlights as an Elvis double on the weekends. “I’m President Obama,” he announces grandly, “and I want to give every American a new Kia!” The savvier ads are designed to sound like a real public service announcement, a no-nonsense informational spiel about a refinancing program guaranteed to save you thousands of dollars . . . just send in your Social Security number and one-time payment of $150 now! Other television ads play off the constant right-wing drumbeat about Obama “devaluing the dollar” — that would be the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing, in the lingo of those who probably know enough not to fall for such scams — and splay large-print announcements across the screen: “The Fed Wants You to Have This Money!” Tea Partiers intimately aware of Ron Paul’s quixotic quest to eliminate the Fed and return to the gold standard (“Audit the Fed!” he cries, unaware that it’s one of the most carefully examined agencies in the government) will not sagely: Of course the Fed wants to give away free money. That’s just part of its mission to spend the U.S. into Weimar Republic-style inflation.

I’m sure this type of thing has been around for years, at least since the narrator was aping Bill Clinton’s drawl, but now it just plays into the conservative meme about Obama giving away stuff — what Mitt Romney referred to as “gifts” — to those low-income Democrats to win their votes. (Funny, in most developed nations, health care is a right, not a gift. But in the United States, our Constitution is much more focused on laying out the rights the government can’t take away or trample on — speech, guns, religions — and less on the “positive” rights the government is obligated to provide in exchange for paying taxes or simply being a living, breathing human being.) The ads recall the racist “Obamaphone” story that popped up during the election. Right-wing websites like the Drudge Report turned a Reagan-era program that subsidizes telephone service (and, under the expanded Obama version, pays for cell phones) for the poor. A video circulated of a woman — she was African-American, naturally — saying she was voting for Obama because he gave her a phone. The Tea Party was all over that: Just look at those stupid minorities, those low-information voters gladly leading us down the road to socialist Hell in exchange for a few perks. Heaven forbid we expect our politicians to actually help the people who elect them; I suppose it’s better to hand out tax breaks to millionaires than give away goodies like free health care to those undeserving poor. No good deed goes unpunished; try to help your constituents and you’re branded a socialist intent on destroying private enterprise and extending the “hammock” of the social safety net to the able-bodied. The mild income redistribution that Obama has engineered via health care reform, which essentially taxes the rich to provide insurance to the poor, and higher tax rates is twisted into a shower of Treasury-funded largesse cynically crafted to win elections.

At any rate, the gullible types who fall for such ads do so because they genuinely believe Obama is the sort of president who gives away free stuff to people irresponsible enough to want to skip a mortgage payment — that 47 percent of the country who will “never take responsibility for their lives.” The grain of truth in this philosophy — yes, Democrats do “give away” more things than Republicans, because they don’t see everyone who needs such things as lazy moochers and because they believe government is good for more than just getting out of the way — explodes into a giant con in which the president really takes to the airwaves to lavish more benefits on his constituents. You have to think such ads are targeted at conservatives, the same people who believe the banners on sites like Newsmax for amazing cancer-flushing pills and the investments in gold bullion necessary for when civilization collapses. These are the real low-information voters. Is there something about the sort of people willing to believe that the president is a Marxist Muslim from Kenya that makes them more inclined to believe junk like that? Undoubtedly. That’s why conservative commentator Dick Morris shares his e-mail list with Newsmax advertisers — he gets a kickback from every dime those people send to the super PACs or gold-coin-peddlers, and the hucksters get access to an audience already primed to accept the ridiculous. If you think the president is a liar trying to scam the American people, and if you think that the UN is masterminding a nefarious plot to destroy our golf courses (all that grass is an environmental disaster, you know) and institute Sharia law, of course you can be convinced that Obama is running some sort of mortgage deal for slackers.

Ironically, however, the actual slackers most likely to take advantage of such transparently fake schemes are the very people who don’t consider themselves slackers at all. They’re the industrious 53 percent, the upstanding portion of the country that wasn’t duped into voting for Obama by free cell phones or “amnesty” for “illegals.” Nope, the duping of the conservative class came later, via radio, iPhone and website. Leave aside the elderly and vulnerable people — not everyone desperate enough to leap at even a pie-in-the-sky chance is a right-winger — who might actually be harmed by such ads: Just think of the Dittoheads and Bill O’Reilly fans who happily take everything they see on Fox News, even the sketchy “101 Ways to Beat Obamacare” and “Become a Millionaire in Three Easy Steps” ads, as Gospel. Do they consider themselves hypocrites for taking advantage of the “government” refinancing programs they see in the ads? Maybe some if them think they’re beating Obama at his own game, taking for the red states the gifts aimed at his Democratic base. But most of them probably don’t think twice. They know that Obama is determined to bankrupt the country, but they’ll gladly participate in the looting. When the U.S. comes crashing down around Obama’s big ears, they’ll be just fine: After all, they’ve got that stash of gold bullion to fall back on.

Plus ça change . . . .

24 03 2013

“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Whether the quip is in French, that John Kerry-endorsed language of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, or English — which conservatives would redundantly declare the “official language of the United States” just to further alienate Spanish-speaking Latinos who can appreciate that unity doesn’t require conformity (does “press one for English” really threaten the dominance of the language learned everywhere from China to Sweden?), the message is the same. That many conservatives think so little of the merits of diversity — heck, it’s just another liberal excuse to undermine the Judeo-Christian character of the nation — and would rather play to their base’s irrational fears of a linguistic and physical invasion from the south than embracing a growing new constituency speaks volumes about the state of the Republican party. Just as it’s afraid that acknowledging that some Americans speak a second language will open the door to a multicultural country they no longer recognize (funny, I don’t see a national “Spanish Only” movement to mimic the English-firsters), it’s afraid that Obama is coming for its guns and the IRS is coming for its private enterprise. Such overblown fears make it difficult for the party to attract anyone who doesn’t share its paranoid nativist fears that take a sliver of reality — waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants, the very existence of the UN — and spin them, via the intolerance of talk radio and GOP subsidiaries like Fox News, into crisis-level panic.

But the real crisis is the one the GOP is ignoring in its own backyard — and I’m not talking about the sort of backyard you can build an electrified, double-thickness fence through.

Less than a week after the conservative shindig known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Republican National Committee released the “2012 autopsy” awaited with bated breath by the D.C. establishment. RNC chairman Reince Preibus announced that “We know that we have problems. We’ve identified them, and we’re implementing the solutions to fix them.” If the report was indicative of the GOP’s best stab at solutions, the party’s future is pretty dim. Amidst the 219 prescriptions for change — which included such no-brainers as minority outreach and digital platforms that didn’t collapse on election day — were gems like a call for an “RNC Celebrity Task Force,” a particularly rich idea coming from the folks that regularly slam President Obama for hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty. “We don’t have leadership coming out of Washington. We have reality television,” crowed Sarah Palin at CPAC. Palin, it should be noted, is the erstwhile reality TV star of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” and the mother of a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.” Of course, Palin had already bailed on politics and been rejected by “Washington” when she embraced reality TV, though the same can’t be said for the teleprompter that she used at CPAC in order to castigate Obama for . . . using a teleprompter.

Sigh. Some things never change.

As comforting as it is to know that Ms. Lamestream Media will remain the same, showing up like an addict for every mainstream media outfit that signs her paycheck, Democrats can also take comfort in the fact that Palin’s entire political party is equally averse to change. The CPAC takeaway from Politico, the dramedy-heavy site that Charles Pierce calls Tiger Beat on the Potomac, is that “If there was any doubt about the huge amount of discord within the Republican Party, the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference should put it to rest.” But discord is not what you’d think; not over whether to modernize or get new ideas but how fast and hard to double down on the right-wing principles that the establishment has supposedly violated over the years. How far to the right does a party have to swing to consider John “Benghazi” McCain and Mitt “Private Equity” Romney insufficiently conservative? Karl Rove, who dared to put his fundraising muscle behind more electable candidates than Todd Akin, was a favorite punching bag, as was anyone who preached greater moderation. Marco Rubio didn’t mention immigration once during his speech.

Between Eric Cantor’s Making Life Work speech, Bobby Jindal’s admonition against being “the stupid party” and Rubio’s deliberate pander to the middle class, there has been a lot of talk about revitalizing the GOP brand. None of these speeches put forward any new ideas, however, instead hewing to the same tired Paul Ryan prescription of “limited government” and “economic freedom” that may inflame Tea Party rallies but which failed to light a fire under the larger electorate last November.  The few folks who suggest that the Republican party may have a problem with substance, not image, have been pretty much silenced. It’s not the policy, it’s the packaging! When Newt Gingrich speaks of needing “new ideas” but not “new principles,” he reduces the GOP’s challenge to figuring out a better marketing strategy for policy prescriptions not updated since Ronald Reagan was in office. “We need to do a better job of telling people who we are and what we want to do,” proclaims former Florida Rep. Allen West, who has apparently never wondered whether “what we want to do” — eviscerate the social safety net, downsize government to bathtub-drowning size, and at least in West’s case, root out the 60-odd Communists in the Democratic party — is the problem. Without citing a shred of evidence, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell assured the audience that “it may not seem like it now, but we’re actually winning.” Displaying the same aversion to reality that led Mitt Romney to assume an old, white electorate would usher him into the White House, McConnell exhorted Republicans not to “let anybody ever tell you Democrats have the upper hand on issues. I don’t care what the polls say.” Because not caring about the polls really worked well last November, didn’t it?

Dan Phieffer, the senior adviser to the guy who actually won the election, expressed amazement at the level of delusion on the right, saying that “Continuing to double down on policies that have been firmly rejected by the American people flies in the face of everything the Republican Party said they would do in the aftermath of losing the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six elections.”

The talk at CPAC may have been about rebranding, but the New York Times doesn’t even see much of an appetite for even those changes among the people who actually run the party:

In Congress, Republicans are pushing an agenda that is almost identical to the one that their party lost with in November, with no regrets and few efforts to reframe it even rhetorically.

On reform, even the young guns who topped the convention’s straw poll are, as CPAC nonentity George W. Bush might say, all hat and no cattle. The two stars of tomorrow billed as the party’s best hopes, Marco Rubio and Paul  Rand, diverge from orthodoxy on a handful of high profile issues — immigration, drones — but overall peddle the same small government rhetoric that got the party in trouble in 2012. They may be fresh faces, stoking more enthusiasm at the conservative confab than “overshadowed” former luminaries like Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor whose lackluster State of the Union rebuttal turned him into yesterday’s “future leader” and who garnered only three percent of the straw poll vote, but beneath their criticism of the establishment, they offer very little that’s actually new. While Politico, with its vested interest in crafting click-worthy narratives that emphasize conflict and controversy, believes that Rubio and Paul are “offering two very different visions for the Republican party,” the more accurate take on the ostensible gap between the two potential leaders comes from the Washington Post’s “Fix” blog, which writes that “both men are, for the most part, down-the-line conservatives, there is a tonal and attitudinal difference between the two that speaks to the choice before Republicans over these next few years.” The Times, in attempting to paint the Rubio-Paul divide as a harbinger for a 2016 showdown, resorts to describing their respective attire: “Mr. Rubio showed up in a standard-issue dark suit and blue tie. Mr. Paul, following Mr. Rubio to the lectern, shed his Senate uniform for a pair of jeans and cowboy boots.”

In his CPAC speech, Paul did push back obliquely against old party hands like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who recently referred to Paul and his likeminded followers as “wacko birds” for filibustering the CIA nomination of John Brennan, when he said that “the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered. I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?” He advocated a greater focus on civil liberties and a retrenchment from the foreign adventurism of years past. On the surface, the libertarian Paul certainly represents a different direction for the party of Graham and McCain, with their dedication to the George W. Bush “freedom agenda” and their unflagging support for the Pentagon budget.

But how different was Paul’s prescription, really? It makes for nice headlines to project the very real split in the GOP between the reformers and the rebanders as a showdown between Paul and Rubio, and despite the lip service paid to party unity, both potential 2016 contenders have an incentive to highlight the differences over the similarities; after all, there can only be one presidential nominee in four years. But pet issues like drones and civil liberties aside, Paul and Rubio simply represent varying degrees of the same conservative brand that brought us supply-side economics and a visceral hatred for the programs of Johnson’s Great Society. The true reformers — people like Chris Christie, who are actually willing to challenge hoary Republican dogma for the good of their constituents — were nowhere near CPAC. That both Paul and Rubio have been anointed by CPAC as plausible leaders shows just how immersed in the hidebound mainstream both men are.  The Times gets a good article out of the supposed rivalry, with an attention-grabbing headline about “divisions in the GOP” being “laid bare” at CPAC, and both Rubio and Paul indeed fired up their respective bands of supporters,bringing activists looking for victory in 2016 to their feet” in Politico’s description. It’s a stretch, however, to think that Paul would really “reshape the party’s foreign policy” or transform the GOP into an unrecognizable band of isolationists, as the Times suggests. For one thing, to actually win the nomination and secure the backing of deep pocketed defense contractors and Wall Street bigwigs, Paul would have to slide so far in alignment with his party that he, not the the rest of the GOP, would no longer be recognizable.

Even today, he is hardly the renegade that the Times portrays him as. Beyond his veneer of civil liberties, what else does Paul have to offer besides radically downsized government and the same you’re on your own rhetoric that led a GOP crowd to cheer the idea, advanced by Paul’s father, that a young man without health insurance be allowed to die in the street? Paul’s “new ideas” are merely a nice new libertarian sticker on tired old supply-side rhetoric. Rubio is even blunter in his denial of the need for change. “We don’t need a new idea,” he  boldly told the CPAC crowd on Thursday. “There is an idea, it’s called America, and it still works.” Introduced as the Republican who  “epitomizes our road to victories in 2014 and 2016,” the Tea Party favorite delivered a speech that even National Review seemed to concede was full of shopworn dogma:

Rubio outlined familiar conservative ideas focused on the middle class, such as pro-growth tax and energy policies, school choice, encouraging “career education,” and solving the nation’s debt crisis, a burden on the economy and future generations, without raising taxes.

Liberal media outlets like Salon homed in on the less tolerant aspects of Rubio’s speech, as well as his strange avoidance of his signature issue, immigration. It is Rubio’s refusal to change along with an electorate that is increasingly accepting of gay marriage and other conservative anathema that make the Weekly Standard’s description of Rubio’s brand of politics as “big tent conservatism” so puzzling. Just because you say you welcome dissent clearly doesn’t mean you do: Rubio confirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage and denied that he is close-minded “just because I believe that life, all life, at all stages of development, deserves to be protected.” Rather, “The people who are closed-minded in our society are the ones who love to preach about climate science but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception.” ” (This is the same “science,” apparently, that can’t tell Rubio how old the Earth is.) All these 1950s positions should be embarrassing to someone so frequently advertised as the party’s future — though given that, the day after Rubio’s speech, North Dakota passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, banning the procedure around 6 weeks, it’s hard to argue that he’s too out of step with his party — but I will give Rubio some credit. Salon fumes that he “offered up a serving of red meat to the audience at CPAC” by “calling liberals freeloaders,” but come on. The guy was making an awkward attempt at humor, joking of middle-class Americans, “They’re not freeloaders. They’re not liberals.” Lighten up, Salon.

But Rubio’s eschewal of “new ideas,” as if anything new should automatically be suspect, could hardly have come as a surprise to John Boehner, who confidently tells the Times that “candidates and personalities — not Republican proposals on Medicare and spending cuts — accounted for the party’s defeats.” This is a mentality that holds that the GOP just needs to explain its ideas better, or perhaps to make small tweaks in strategy — hire digital consults whose technology doesn’t fail on election day, mimic the Democrats’ superior voter targeting and get-out-the vote efforts, bolster the sort of community outreach the Obama campaign excelled at — in order to come roaring back.

When Rubio says that “the people of America have not changed — what’s changed is the world around us,” he means that Americans are still hard workers with inherently conservative values, but he unconsciously gets at a larger truth: The GOP is still playing to the America of 20 years ago, when minorities could be pacified with an immigration pander and not actual policies that improve their lives, and comments about legitimate rape could be dismissed as crackpot outliers. In an advertising-industry analysis of the last election, Fast Company makes this observation about the choir Rubio is preaching to:

Turning to who “bought” the Republican brand in the last presidential election (per Gallup) you find the Republican party did well among men, whites, the religious, married people, those making $35K and over and the 65 and older segment. However, many of these segments (whites, married, religious) are becoming a relatively smaller portion of the electorate.

It’s a choir that even Republicans admitno longer represents mainstream America.” It’s a hard lesson to swallow, that the Republican mainstream is no longer synonymous with the American mainstream, and it’s one that the GOP has not yet learned. In part, this is because they haven’t had to. Just one in ten Republican voters in 2012 was not white. Census data compiled by the Cook Political Report shows that, though non-Hispanic whites dropped from 69 to 64 percent of the population between 2000 and 2010, redistricting and the geographic clustering of minorities in Democratic-leaning urban areas actually left Republican House districts whiter than before. The average Republican district is now 75 percent white, up from 73 percent, leading National Journal to observe that “House Republicans have done a remarkable job of “sequestering” Democrats into the minority, but in the process they’ve also reduced their own incentive to reach out to groups their party badly needs if it wants to stay relevant beyond the Southern confines of the Capitol.”

Such demographic trends make minority outreach dangerous for your run-of-the-mill Republican lawmaker. No matter how much the party’s long-term future depends on broadening its appeal, in the short-term alienating its traditional base has few benefits. Even Rand Paul, who made news after CPAC by seemingly attempting to get right with the immigration-friendly wing of the party, spoke of a path to legalization but pointedly did not include the word “citizenship,” as his post-speech reassurances to irate conservatives demonstrated. An op-ed he wrote for the Washington Times was titled “From Illegals to Taxpayers,” indulging not only in language (“illegals”) sure to turn off Hispanics but advancing the canard that illegal immigrants are moochers, when in fact they contribute payroll taxes that, without citizenship, will never be returned to them as Social Security or Medicare benefits. (Of course, the calculation changes if you factor in the benefits that accrue to illegal workers’ citizen children.) Matthew Continetti, a staunch right-winger who married into Kristol family royalty and edits the unhinged “Friends of Hamas” newspaper Washington Free Beacon, writes in the Weekly Standard:

The domestic proposals that have the greatest chance of making the Republican party attractive to the “coalition of the ascendant”—immigrants, members of the millennial generation, single white women—involve far more government intervention in the economy than the GOP coalition—married white people, Wall Street, the Tea Party—will allow.

That is exactly the problem on display at CPAC, and it’s a problem that the GOP seems determined to address by pushing the same old agenda of, in the words of Jeb Bush, “greater individual responsibility, more personal freedom, smaller and more effective government.” The real mystery is why supposed reformers like Bush think even average Americans closer to the traditional Republican base, much less minorities with a friendlier attitude toward government, will be attracted to the concepts that failed to ignite their interest in 2012.

Somehow, the party believes the middle class will sign on to a budget that goes against all its interests, from investing in the future of its children to revoking the ACA subsidies that would help 50 million people – many of them members of this same class – obtain health care. As heterodox conservative economics blogger Josh Barro writes at Bloomberg, Ryan’s regressive budget, which would either explode the deficit to hand a 20 percent tax cut to millionaires or raise taxes on the middle class through the elimination of the popular deductions and preferences necessary to pay for his $5.7 trillion hole in federal revenue, is a hard sell for a reason:

Soul-searching Republicans have identified lots of problems with the party: “tone,” an inability to relate to minorities, actual and perceived retrograde positions on social issues, a loss of credibility on foreign policy. These are all very real problems. But they pale in comparison to the fact that the party’s economic agenda, as embodied in the latest Ryan budget, is simply terrible for the vast majority of Americans.

The Atlantic concurs, agreeing with the Tax Policy Center that Ryan’s potential deficits “can only be made up by eliminating the biggest (and most popular) tax breaks,” a process that Ryan alludes to under the anodyne rhetoric of “tax reform” that disguises the consequences of paying for his rate reductions:

He would almost certainly have to tax employer-paid health care, mortgage interest, charitable donations … the list goes on and on. Ryan doesn’t say what he could cut because it would be despicably unpopular, even more so than his proposed cuts.

Further emphasizing Ryan’s difficulty in achieving his deficit-neutral goal, there is only a grand total of $2 trillion in itemized deductions in the tax code he could eliminate. That tax increase on the middle class — the same one Romney was accused of tacitly endorsing during the election — is looking likelier and likelier. Derek Thompson writes, also at The Atlantic, that the “simplified version” of the Ryan plan is to “save the rich, spare the old, forget the poor.” It is “essentially a vision of America where deficits fall because government assistance to the poor and sick rapidly shrinks. It solves our income inequality problem like a flamethrower helps a house fire.” Ryan himself cautions against “cutting spending indiscriminately,” and he’s right — he doesn’t cut willy-nilly. He very deliberately goes after the sickest and most vulnerable. When the Ryan budget passed the House, Rep. Barbara Lee of California quipped that Ryan’s so-called “Pathway to Prosperity” was more accurately described as the “Pathway to Poverty.”

For a party that claims to respect the invisible hand of free market, in which individuals acting in their own best interests produce the best possible outcome, Republicans seem oblivious to the reality that their own policies are unattractive to most Americans because they pay for perks for the wealthy at the expense of the other 99 percent of the nation. As Washington Rep. Jim McDermott said, mocking the oft-invoked conservative trope that the federal government should be tightening its belt just like a family cutting its spending (a family that apparently prints its own currency), “I don’t know any family in America that would use their children’s lunch money to pay down their credit cards.” Deficit reduction polls well, but the public votes with its feet, not Rasmussen survey responses, and asking John Q. Public to care more about the Treasury’s finances than unemployment and his next meal is a hard ask. (That’s why it’s so convenient to terrify people with apocalyptic scenarios of a debt-ridden, broke America.) Only in a fantasy world will better branding lead people to support dogma that indicts them as moochers and asks for the self-inflicted pain of austerity in return for the wonderful moral high ground of being “makers,” not takers. Even the GOP’s own polling bears this out. A survey commissioned by Eric Cantor’s Young Guns Network came to conclusions that, to no one’s surprise, track quite nicely with the Majority Leader’s own beliefs as laid out in his “Making Life Work” speech. Politico reports that the poll “shows that even Americans concerned about deficits and debt are far more concerned with their own personal economic well-being.” Perhaps it’s fitting that this directly contradicts the wisdom of Paul Ryan, who continues to swear that his austere budget is “what people want” and whose stab at the vice presidency was famously derailed by, uh, ignoring the polls.

John Murray, who heads the YG Network, confirmed that the poll was “specifically designed to challenge the assumption that spending cuts as a central theme is sufficient.”

It’s not that spending restraint is a bad issue for conservatives, according to Murray; it’s just not enough, on its own, to drive middle-class support for a center-right policy vision.

The problem is, beyond spending cuts and the national debt, the GOP doesn’t have much to offer. Conservatives have long discouraged the GOP from becoming the “party of less.” In this formulation, Republicans lose when they bill themselves as wanting to offer aid to the poor — just less aid than Democrats promise — or supporting investment in education and infrastructure — just at a lower level than liberals. It’s a good point, but the sad truth is that the GOP is the party of less. Its “center-right policy” vision is based on supply-side economics and concern for the “producer class” that doesn’t garner middle class support for the simple reason that it doesn’t benefit the middle class.

Even this startlingly honest bit of reporting from Politico, which seems to pretty accurately reflect the thinking of both parties, reveals just what a blow to the average American the policies of the GOP’s balanced budget would be:

Then again, is it balanced for Ryan to take two-thirds of his savings from low- and moderate-income households? Or is he balancing the tax hike on the wealthy in January with an almost equal $800 billion in savings from the likes of Pell Grants, food stamps or the earned income tax credit?

Even if you accept the latter argument, the fact is that Republicans disdain the progressive nature of the tax code. They will never ask those most able to contribute to pay more without exacting an equal pound of flesh from people who can barely afford to put food on the table. How does the middle class win when taxes on the class who has reaped 99% of the income growth of the past decade must be offset by reductions in benefits to those whose income has actually declined?

Nowhere is this philosophy on starker display than CPAC, which shunned the populist Chris Christie (whose poll numbers are in the 70s) for certified one-percenter Mitt Romney (the “severely conservative” governor who couldn’t break 50 percent of the population). Romney reminds Republicans that “We particularly need to hear from the Governors of the blue and purple states, like Bob McDonnell, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Susanna Martinez, Chris Christie” . . . . True, but wouldn’t it be helpful, then, to invite McDonnell and Christie to shindigs like CPAC? The funny thing is, CPAC fails not only as a revamp of substance but as a rebranding opportunity as well. Let’s assume that you can win over minorities and female voters simply by dropping the words “middle class” into a few speeches, that you can combat surveys in which respondents characterize the GOP as “for the wealthy” and “not for the people”

Your new brand is now the Party of the Middle Class, even if the stuff inside is still the same. If that’s true, does it make sense for your brand ambassadors to be Donald Trump and Mitt Romney? Does it make sense to pair an attempt to chart a new course for the party, as Marco Rubio tried to do with his strong denunciation of the 47 percent trope that got the GOP into such trouble in November, with the very guy who came up with the 47 percent? The extent of the conservative delusion is evident in a National Review post in which Betsey Woodruff enthuses that the former presidential candidate “won the hearts of just about everyone at CPAC” with “a speech that felt like classic Mitt.” Classic Mitt: winning hearts but not elections. Romney himself actually hit the nail on the head, saying that “As someone who just lost the last election I’m probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one.”

It’s like launching a mission to raise the Titanic and commissioning the White Star Line to do the job. CPAC’s organizers maintain that, by including Romney, they’re just keeping the tent wide. But just as they preach tolerance of the guy who demonized the poor, they’ve slammed the door – or lowered the flap, if we’re still using the tent metaphor – on those like gay-rights supporters GOProud who offer only mild criticism of bigots. (For what it’s worth, the GOProud founder did toss Rubio a bone, saying that he did not believe those who opposed gay marriage were necessarily bigots.)

Try as he might to shake off the effects of Romney’s distaste for those “who will never take responsibility for their lives” Rubio couldn’t quite get away from the fact that Romney’s position represents the fundamental belief of the Republican party – and, at heart, Rubio himself – that the nation is divided between moral, upstanding makers and mooching, lazy takers. In his “no-teleprompter paean to the common” that attempted to distance himself from Romney’s rhetoric, he defends the hypothetical middle-class family the GOP should be targeting:

They paid their mortgages on time, and now they have to pay the bill for bailing out the banks that caused [the crisis] They think one side is fighting for the people who have made it, and all the other side does is fight for government policies to pay for the people who are struggling.

But such lines are hardly the “anti-47-percent” the Washington Post thinks they are. Rubio unwittingly endorses the idea that no one who makes a mistake deserves government help, that we should all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that those who defaulted on their mortgages did so out of irresponsibility and greed and not because they were bankrupted by medical bills or left at the mercy of the stock market. This is convenient, as the GOP is offering absolutely zero prescriptions to deal with either dilemma. It tells the poor that the free market is the answer for their problems, ironically promoting solutions like “school choice” for the same low-income earners and welfare recipients that it doesn’t trust to stay off drugs without mandatory testing or to look for a job without the prod of expiring unemployment benefits. (Giving people choices is great if it kills off public education, but bad if it actually, you know, trusts people with real choices.) At heart, conservatives don’t trust the average voter — the “low information Obama voter,” as low-information pundit Dick Morris might say — any more than they trust those who did default on their mortgages or have taken advantage of government benefits. Rubio seems to think that “the people who are struggling” — the people liberals are paying off — are not the same morally upstanding folks who psychically predicted a layoff and thus never took out a mortgage they couldn’t afford. He still divides the honorable potential Republican — the “they” of his speech — from anyone in the position to rely on “government policies.” So much for bootstraps; in Rubio’s vision, the people getting paid by the government will never be the people paying the bills. The world is irrevocably split between that 47 percent of responsibility-phobic people that the GOP will never win over and the 53 percent of honest taxpayers who just need to be shown the conservative light.

Particularly telling was the fact that the strongest castigation of establishment Republicans came not from someone looking forward to 2014 but from Jim DeMint, who instead looked backward to 2010 and asserted, without much evidence, that the reason the GOP lost was that it was not conservative enough. “In 2012, with the presidential election on the line, national Republican leadership rejected the lessons of 2010 and went back the old way of campaigning.” The 2010 election, in which a wave of Tea Partiers swept into office on a wave of anti-Obamacare fervor, apparently taught DeMint that “conservatives shouldn’t give up on repealing Obama’s health-care reform law and and declared a hard line on immigration.” Likewise, Rick Perry, another failed presidential candidate with enough establishment cred to wrangle a CPAC invite, doubled down on this notion in his own speech:

The popular media narrative, it’s that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals as evidenced by the last two presidential elections. That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012.

A certain severely conservative governor and a vp candidate with the most regressive and radical budget in modern times might have something to say to that. honestly, how much more committed to dismantling the welfare state does demint think Reoublicans need to be? Slashing Medicaid by 40 percent just doesn’t cut deep enough? 33 votes to repeal Obamacare just weren’t enough? (Surely that 34th time would have been the charm.)

More accurate than any dramatic intonations about the “starkly different paths” supposedly laid about by Rubio and Paul back to prominence are headlines like this one from Politico: “CPAC Muddle Mirrors GOP Mess,” which emphasizes not a superficial libertarian-conservative split as the source of the party’s confusion but the very existence of a throwback confab like CPAC, where birthers and hucksters are in and pragmatic election winners are out, in the first place. Nothing that happens at the conference will showcase the GOP’s inability to reckon with the future more than the continued prominence of the conference itself, which the Politico article characterizes as “more carnival than conservative salon.” Still, the inside-the-Beltway website is correct to point out that it’s not what happens at CPAC itself but the controversy surrounding it that reflects the party’s utter confusion over its future. Publicity hounds and TV personalities like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are given speaking berths alongside isolationists like Rand Paul and Very Serious budget wonks like Paul Ryan, but the sitting Republican governors who are actually charting the party’s future are excluded for being insufficiently right-wing. When Politico writes that “the GOP’s identity crisis that now’s being reflected by CPAC,” it’s clear that the crisis is manifested not only in who is invited into the CPAC tent but who is kept outside it. Along with the ousting of GOProud, this rejection of the most plausible future leaders in favor of the Rubio-Rand-Cruz “trio of senators with far fewer substantive accomplishments but a far tighter emotional bond with the GOP base” shows that the Republican establishment will continue to eschew any real calls for change.

Of course, it may matter little that outsiders see little difference in the rhetoric emanating from the supposedly divergent wings of the Republican party represented at CPAC. To liberals, the GOP may look as backwards and conservative as ever, but as long as Republicans are convinced of their own disunity, they may offer enough of an opening for Democrats to win elections. If the party is consumed by the overblown differences between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, it may find itself mired in a 2016 repeat of 2012, when a bitterly fought primary pitted right-wingers against super-right-wingers. The contest was billed as a fight for the future of the Republican party, yet to skeptical observers, it looked like a beat-down between a guy opposed to abortion and gay marriage and a circus of guys and gals really opposed to abortion and gay marriage. Now, as Paul and Rubio battle to present the “newest” path to the White House — will it be immigration reform or ending airport patdowns? — the party is truly convinced it must choose between two wildly different paths. Rank-and-file members are lining up behind the faction they see as ascendant, with Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole saying after CPAC that “Historically, the GOP is a coalition of social, economic and national security conservatives,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “That is unlikely to change. The Rubio/Bush faction of the Republican Party recognizes this reality. Many in the libertarian wing of the party do not.” Meanwhile, that same Rubio/Bush faction is being slammed by pundits more hostile to the establishment; Ann Coulter’s own CPAC speech drew applause when she said, “I can see why Democrats would want amnesty, but why on earth are Marco Rubio and these endless Bushes supporting it?. No wonder that the Washington Post writes that “Parties that find themselves in the political wilderness often take an “eat their own” mentality in the near term.” This magnification of minor differences may prove to be a distraction useful for Democrats. As long as the Republican party faithful, abetted by media reports that dramatize the idea that “you could be forgiven for thinking that there were two Republican parties on display over the last few days” at CPAC, is convinced that the party is in disarray, it may as well be.

If Republicans have any advantage going into 2016, its one that has little to do with CPAC. Despite a dearth of new ideas — is there any clearer sign of this than the continued fealty to Reagan, and the relative amnesia for any supposed accomplishments of the three Republican presidents who succeeded him? — the GOP is not equally lacking in the personality department. Whether they were invited to the increasingly irrelevant CPAC or not, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio offer st least superficially attractive mouthpieces for the future of the party. None except perhaps Paul diverges much from the tired Reagan rhetoric, but all excite broad cross sections of the GOP and inject new blood into a party that has too often been rooted in the past. What was Mitt Romney’s candidacy, after all, than a replay of his failed 2008 bid, with 2008 assumptions about the demographic composition of the electorate and America’s hunger for a cool-headed but cold-hearted economic manager to boot? There’s the looming return of the Bush dynasty, but Jeb’s bungled rollout on immigration revealed a party that has moved beyond that relic of the 20th century. Paul’s rant on drones, not any carefully hedged policy prescriptions from Bush, captured the attention of the younger, media-savvy voters who hold the keys to the party’s future. The Democrats, on the other hand, seem firmly mired in dynastic politics, with a thin back bench of governors from which to pick a 2016 candidate and a paucity of dynamic second stringers like the aggressive Ted Cruz. Of course, these troubles are also the fruits of success; by winning the presidency, Obama ensured his place at the center of the Democratic Party, leaving little room or necessity for another charismatic leader to emerge. But the party is also hemmed in by an aging congressional leadership, with even the successors to Nancy Pelosi belonging to an older generation than Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio. That the brightest democratic stars are the relatively untested Elizabeth Warren and the nationally inexperienced San Antonio mayor, Julian Castro, shows the thinness of the Democratic ranks. Rep. Chris Van Hollen has received some positive liberal press as a possible successor to Pelosi, but he lacks the spark, profile and defining issue of, say, Rand Paul.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing that Democrats have not produced a showy, extremist counterpart to Paul or Cruz; in fact, Ezra Klein muses that this continued commitment to centrism as the GOP has shifted sharply to the right has helped Democrats maintain control of the Senate, where broad-based appeal is more crucial to winning statewide races than it is in sweeping a homogeneous, gerrymandered House district. But the biggest Democratic names floated for 2016 are of another generation: Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, the ultimate elephant (donkey?) in the room. The liberal spotlight is hogged not only by a sitting president but by the wife of the last one. Until Clinton — it is difficult not to call her simply “Hillary,” which is due not so much to her gender as to the fame of that other Clinton, just like Jeb Bush is known by his first name and not his last — makes up her mind, no one else will dare to seriously step forward. Even if New York’s Andrew Cuomo or Maryland’s Martin O’Malley is brave enough to float talk of a bid, the reluctance of deep-pocketed donors to commit to a candidate other than Clinton will stymie their efforts. The GOP is hampered by no such dutiful nods to the past; if Cuomo or Newark Mayor (and Twitter star) Cory Booker were Republicans, their profiles would surely be higher. There is simply more elbow room on the conservative side of the aisle. It’s an interesting inversion; the party that seems most resistant to change actually has the younger and more dynamic standard bearers, while the party that appeals not only to young people but the changing face of the American electorate is stuck with dynasties rooted in the last century. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had a point when he said at CPAC, “Don’t tell me Democrats are the party of the future when their presidential ticket for 2016 is shaping up to look like a rerun of the ‘Golden Girls,'” though one might question whether all the young blood in the world is enough to make the party of immigration hard-liners and forced childbearing the “party of the future.” (One might also question how Joe Biden would fit in with the Girls.)

The Washington Post’s Fix blog weighs in:

For GOPers looking to update their brand, it’s also helpful that the new crop of Republicans that has quickly moved to the forefront of the 2016 conversation is mostly youthful, in political years. Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) are in their 40s. Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) are 50. At 60, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) is the eldest. But he’d still be younger on Election Day than the previous two GOP presidential nominees.

Part of the Democratic youth appeal is luck, and not just the luck personified by 2008’s young, barrier-breaking senator from Illinois. The fastest growing demographic groups, like Latinos, are also groups with a traditionally strong liberal lean, even on issues beyond immigration. This is less because Democrats gathered in a smoke-filled room in the 1950s and plotted about which groups to target to maintain an electoral advantage (oh, that the left were so organized!) but because the policies which help poorer and traditionally marginalized groups have happened to come from one side of the aisle. Had America seen a boomlet of Wall Street millionaires or old white guys, the GOP would be the one sitting pretty and looking prescient. Of course, parties make conscious decisions about their policies, and the GOP had plenty of chances to adjust to the changing electorate. Until now, they just haven’t had to; the white population that makes up their base was sufficient to win elections, and a party that’s winning in the moment is, to its detriment, under little pressure to think about the future. It took a series of losses in the 1990s for the Democratic Party to wake up, retriangulate and make a concerted slide to the center in the empowerment of the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference and the selection of a charismatic governor from Arkansas who would declare the era of big government to be over. But today, even in victory, Democrats find it easier to adjust to the shifting priorities of the electorate on issues from gay marriage to immigration.

President Obama won reelection, but he hasn’t stopped evolving on gay rights; he shows little of the complacency toward tomorrow’s voters that the GOP showed during the Bush years. Perhaps this is to he expected, as conservatism by definition seeks to preserve the best traditions from the past and sees its mission as “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop.” If you think Western civilization was generally on the right track before those uppity women elbowed their way into the labor force and people stopped outsourcing their morality and ideas about sexuality to the Bible, your party will naturally have less appeal to those who think differently or who are more amenable to changing with the times. Republicans like Marco Rubio are convinced that those changes aren’t as deep or profound as Democrats would like to think; at their core, he believes, most Americans still cling to conservative virtues of individualism and hard work. Despite reams of survey data to the contrary, he believes most people still oppose same sex marriage, even as fellow Republicans like Rob Portman rethink their stances in light of, you know, reality. Portman revealed recently that his son is gay, leading to tepid praise from liberals who noted that, though Portman suddenly got empathy on an issue personally effecting his family, he doesn’t seem to have used the opportunity to reevaluate his position on other issues on which his party’s lack of empathy might hurt people. “Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut,” Matt Yglesias writes bluntly. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.” Like Sarah Palin, who detested government spending with the notable exception of that which benefited her disabled son, the GOP in general has a hard time reaching out to a wider population because it refuses to look at problems like poverty and immigration through the eyes of anyone who is not just like themselves. Here’s Yglesias again:

The great challenge for a Senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

For all their faults, Democrats have been better able to do this than Republicans, and it has paid off. “Portman is going to be treated as self-serving by majorities on both sides,” frets Daniel Foster at National Review, and he’s right — because Portman, and the rest of his conservative colleagues, are indeed self-serving. “Empathy is a crucial moral virtue, but it isn’t always the best guide to public-policy debates, pace our friends on the left,” Foster writes, without explaining what could replace empathy on issues like gay marriage, which hardly come down to cut-and-dry economics and which are approached on the right with as many emotional appeals — same-sex couples will change society, ergo their unions must be bad public policy — are on the left.

Rubio, in his contention that “the people of America have not changed,” grossly overestimates more than how quickly Americans getting ahead of him. He overestimates as well the GOP’s monopoly on good ideas, and perhaps even overestimates the degree to which selfish, you’re-on-your-own politics ever appealed to a nation that seems quite content to speak out of one side of its mouth about reducing wasteful spending while simultaneously being quite content with the personal benefits they reap from big government programs of the Great Society. Even those who consider themselves part of the put-upon “maker class” (though there is a 53 percent chance that they actually don’t earn enough to contribute more than payroll taxes) readily take advantage of the very safety net that conservatives keep insisting fosters dependence and passivity. Demonizing the 47 percent is a winning strategy only if you are absolutely sure you have the votes of the other 53 percent; unfortunately for Mitt Romney, though less than half the country pays income taxes, more than half reaps the benefits of programs like Medicare and Social Security, and more than half are concerned less with the mounting deficits they fret about to pollsters than about policies that work in the real world to help them find jobs (or survive the loss of one), educate their children (school choice only goes so far if half the schools you can choose from are starved of funds), and marry whom they choose. If you write off nearly half of the electorate before you even start campaigning, there is little margin for error. At CPAC, however, that lesson seemed lost on Republicans, who seem content to tinker with their ever narrowing and frequently insufficient margins.

It’s bad news for the GOP, perhaps, but I am short on pity. The giant reptiles of the Jurassic died out because they were unable to adapt, a sad turn of events for the T. Rex and the Triceratops but a definite plus for the small, furry mammals better suited to the new environment, who moved in to fill the void left by the dinosaurs. Here’s hoping that Democrats are the war-blooded ancestors of Buzzfeed’s “101 Great Corgis” slideshow . . . and that Republicans stick to the positions that make them the doomed characters from The Land Before Time.

Nancy Pelosi Is Not Giving Up Your E-mail Without a Fight

23 03 2013

Sometimes I swear Democrats are just as sleazy as Republicans. Not in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, though with senators like Robert Menendez in the news for possibly soliciting prostitutes and probably dealing out favors to a contributor, you do have to wonder. Liberals at least don’t waste time tilting at windmills with crusades against energy-efficient lightbulbs (Michele Bachmann), the United Nations’ plan to eliminate American golf courses (Ted Cruz) or creeping Sharia law (Bachmann again.) But when it comes to the little things — the tiny, everyday issues on which basic ethics are on display — Democrats aren’t pure as the driven snow either.

Like any good liberal who has ever innocently offered up her e-mail address in response to a plea to Help Defeat the Paul Ryan Budget! or Stand Up for Women’s Right’s Today!, my inbox is swamped with missives from everyone from Planned Parenthood to the DCCC to MoveOn. And like millions of other people, I am apparently on a first-name basis with the Obama folks, regularly receiving entreaties from “Jim” (as in Messina), “Anita” (as in Dunn) and Alixandria (no idea, but apparently she’s associated with the DNC) and being asked to “confirm” my “supporter record” (helpfully laid out in dollar terms) by kicking in $3 as soon as possible. Campaign-season metrics showed that the e-mails with the most banal subject lines — “Hey” or “Listen to this” — drew the best responses, but I have to say, anything that isn’t absolutely up-front with what it wants gets a one-way ticket into the trash bin. And the melodramatic hyperventilating that characterizes every NARAL e-mail I receive — is another doomed amendment to a random piece of legislation really going to end women’s rights as we know them? — doesn’t endear me to the cause either. For that reason, the automated Democratic response to an early-morning attempt to prune some of the biggest offenders from my Yahoo account particularly disappointed me.

Want to unsubscribe from the constant stream of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee e-mails? It’s not as easy as it looks. I didn’t expect to get away without a well-deserved guilt-trip; heck, of course I want to help elect liberals, and are a few quickly-deleted e-mail solicitations really such a high price to pay? (That said, has a DCCC e-mail ever actually prompted me to contribute? Nope. I gave at the website, thanks.) But the screen I was taken to when I clicked the “unsubscribe” link struck me as irritatingly disingenuous.


Did you catch the dodge? A casual observer might assume that, by clicking on the link in Nancy Pelosi’s morning grovel that claims to remove your e-mail address from the DCCC list, you’ll be directed to a site that allows you to . . . remove your e-mail address. But instead of re-entering your address to OK the deletion, you’re asked to only “receive our most urgent messages.” It’s only a small ethical step away from the spammers who trick you into “unsubscribing” in order to confirm that, yes, there is a live person at the other end of that Yahoo account. In both cases, the solicitations won’t stop. And in the DCCC’s case, I have to wonder how many “urgent” issues will pop up every day, or how many events will be billed as “BREAKING” news.

There is an option at the bottom to actually unsubscribe, but it’s one more step away, a step that an irritated supporter trying to clean out her work inbox before an 8:00 a.m. meeting could miss. Now, I know this is a standard practice for online outfits. Even charities are determined to preserve their backers’ priceless personal information at almost any cost. Complaining about it will get me nowhere. But is it too much to expect that the party that paints itself as better, more ethical and closer to the people than the GOP actually be better and more ethical? Granted, perhaps the donations the DCCC takes in from an expanded e-mail list outweigh any reputational benefit of dealing with supporters in a straightforward fashion. However, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when the politicians I elect to represent me in Washington turn out to be no more principled than, uh, your average politician.

I almost feel guilty for complaining about how Democrats treat their supporters, as they certainly do better than the GOP on this front. The time I spent this fall volunteering for the Obama campaign was one of the best experiences of my life, and the campaign’s ability to reach out to literally anyone who walked through the door (from slightly unhinged women who offered us anchovies to high-level executives willing to make a few phone calls) and put them to work was one of the drivers of the president’s victory. I realize that politics is big business and that Obama succeeded in 2012 due in no small part to his campaign’s tech-savvy ability to capture e-mail addresses and mobilize supporters online. Indeed, one of the campaign’s most valuable assets is its vaunted e-mail list, which the GOP has been dismally unable to match. For this reason, I’m wary of being too critical about the Democrats’ online practices. Hey, they’ve worked pretty well so far. But sometimes you wish the people on your “team” would take the high road. Find some principles, stick to them, and occasionally stand up for them, even if it makes it slightly harder to hang onto those precious e-mail addresses.

Americans trust politicians so little and hate them so much that Congress’ approval ratings rarely make it out of the single digits. Surely Washington-hating citizens are thinking more about pork-barrel legislation and backroom horse-trading when they express distaste for the political class, but even the littlest incidents of sleaziness only contribute to the sense that our representatives will double-cross us at every turn, if given the chance. Ideally, politicians would eschew the biggest sins — giving preferential treatment to high-dollar donors, caving to special interests like the NRA — and receive a pass on the minor infractions. But it’s actually more realistic to hope for improvement on the little things. Often, as well, it’s the little things that cement a party’s reputation and come together to add up to an image that is either welcoming and honest or uncaring and shady. The GOP’s problems with Hispanics are rooted in its hostility to government and its history of opposition to anything that smacks of “amnesty,” but seemingly insignificant slights — their dogged use of the word “illegals,” Mitt Romney’s articulation of the party’s “self-deportation” philosophy — don’t help either. Likewise, the DCCC’s inability to produce an honest option to unsubscribe from its e-mail list sends the message to people that the party cares more about your money and your personal information than your trust.

Scoff at my naivete if you want, but I put in a lot of time to get Pelosi and Co. elected. If we’re friendly enough for her minions to address me as “Emily” and enthuse about “an incredible opportunity to meet Barack and Joe,” surely we’re friendly enough for her to at least pretend to treat me as a friend, not a cash cow. It may be an act, but in politics, image is everything. Every interaction is a chance for voters to decide whether their elected officials are basically honest, trustworthy emissaries to Washington or just another group of glad-handing opportunists. The little things count; they add up to big things. Aristotle once said that “we are what we repeatedly do.” To cite a less lofty source, H. Jackson Brown (the guy who wrote Life’s Little Instruction Book) quips that “character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”

It may not matter much to the DCCC, but if anyone’s listening: Hey, Nancy. I’m looking.

North Dakota, Abortion, and a Long Pro-Choice Reflection

21 03 2013

It’s a veritable race to the bottom as anti-abortion Republicans around the country leverage their control of state legislatures to enact the strictest possible limits on women’s reproductive rights. In a bizarre competition to pass the most stringent, plainly unconstitutional laws, North Dakota last week one-upped Arkansas, which just last week made national headlines by overriding the governor’s veto of a bill that banned abortion after 12 weeks, far earlier than the 23-24 weeks typically protected by Roe v. Wade. The Arkansas ban, which prohibits the procedure after a heartbeat is detectable by conventional ultrasound, has been blown out of the water by north Dakota’s six-week limit. That’s before many women even realize they’re pregnant, and the Guttmacher Institute estimates it would outlaw up to 75 percent of the state’s abortions.

Though the law does not say so in so many words, that it draws the line at the first sign of a heartbeat implies that transvaginal ultrasounds — the invasive procedure which sunk a Virginia bill in 2012 after drawing widespread mockery from late night talk shows and earning its own Doonesbury storyline – would have to be used. The Times notes that, though the Arkansas law was deliberately designed to avoid that morass, North Dakota’s effort may not:

One of the newly passed North Dakota bills outlaws abortions when a fetal heartbeat is “detectable” using “standard medical practice.” Heartbeats are often detectable at about 6 weeks, using an intrusive transvaginal ultrasound, or at about 10 to 12 weeks when using abdominal ultrasounds.

The bill does not specify a time threshold or whether doctors with a patient in the initial weeks of pregnancy must use the transvaginal probe. But some experts said that doctors in North Dakota, which has only one clinic performing abortions, in Fargo, could face prosecution if they did not use the vaginal ultrasound when necessary to detect a heartbeat. Doctors who knowingly perform abortions in violation of the measure, if it is adopted, could be charged with a felony that carries a five-year prison sentence; the patients would not face criminal charges.

Well, gee, that’s generous. Women can be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, with no more rights than a farm animal, but North Dakota at least draws the line at throwing them in jail.

The bill headed to the governor’s desk was not even the farthest-reaching proposal on the table. Another bill would have outlawed abortion altogether, and still in the works is an amendment to the state constitution declaring that life begins at conception. If approved by the House, voters would weigh in on the amendment — and potentially commit the state to spending taxpayer dollars to defend it against the inevitable legal challenges — in November 2014. State Rep. Bette Grande, who sponsored the bill, tells Politico that “I dispel the notion that this bill should be defeated because of litigation costs.” Leaving aside the fact that Grande can dispute the notion but hardly dispel it in the eyes of those who don’t want their taxes wasted on a futile court battle, I would imagine that many women in North Dakota would disagree.

The Arkansas law is already being challenged in court, and even the ten states that ban abortion at 20 weeks face high legal hurdles. Idaho’s 20-week ban, which was predicated on the scientifically dubious theory that the fetus can feel pain at that point, was recently struck down by a federal judge who bitingly criticized the the law as unconstitutional, citing legislators’ “clear disregard of this controlling Supreme Court precedent and its apparent determination to define viability in a manner specifically and repeatedly condemned by the Supreme Court.” If such “fetal pain” laws can’t survive a challenge, the prospects are dim for North Dakota’s earlier “fetal heartbeat” limit. There’s little question that the laws, which blatantly contradict Roe, will be overturned. The ant-abortion activists and legislators who pushed the ban know this full well — but they don’t care. It’s all part of their strategy, a strategy that represents a major shift among activists previously content to chip away at legalized abortion piece by piece. “It’s as though legislatures all across the country are saying, ‘We don’t really care. We’re just going to do it anyway in the face of the Constitution,” says the lawyer who successfully challenged the Idaho ban. (He brought the suit on behalf of the woman whom the state had the audacity to charge with a felony for obtaining an illegal abortion. Classy, Idaho.)

The North Dakota legislation is part of a nationwide crackdown on abortion that the Guttmacher Institute estimates resulted in an unprecedented 92 number of state- level restrictions in 2011 and 43 more in 2012. Most of these restrictions follow the playbook that has guided the anti-abortion movement for the past generation; instead of seeking the pipe dream of a complete reversal of Roe, they have sought to erode its foundations, to pass laws that eat away at its edges and make it harder and harder for women to obtain a procedure that, in states like Mississippi, remain legal in name only. So called TRAP laws (for “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers”) saddle clinics with such capricious, onerous rules — everything from the width of hallways to the size of the waiting room is prescribed in exacting detail — that they are effectively pushed out of business. Requirements that doctors obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals hostile to abortion and bans on tele-medicine prescriptions of chemical abortions or the morning-after pill make life as hard as possible for organizations like Planned Parenthood, which also takes financial hits from state and federal lawmakers seeking to bar it from government programs and restrict its access to Medicaid and women’s health dollars. Never mind that federal law already mandates that such funds go not to abortion but to Pap smears and STD tests; for conservatives, the only good Planned Parenthood clinic is a shuttered one. When they’re not attacking access to abortion, opponents are restricting the rights of women themselves, imposing multi-day waiting periods, requiring parental notification for minors, and forcing women seeking an abortion to listen to a lecture from a crisis pregnancy center that peddles false information about links to breast cancer and informs her that killing her baby will send her straight to Hell.

As ridiculous and radical as these laws are, they are promulgated by a relatively pragmatic faction of the anti-abortion movement. Knowing that the chance of the Supreme Court overturning Roe is slim and concerned that challenging the ruling directly might backfire, producing the sort of reaffirmation of abortion rights that the Court handed down in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, opponents have settled for dramatically curtailing, not ending, a woman’s right to choose. The folks behind north Dakota’s law have no such compunction. Frustrated with incremental progress, they have abandoned caution for brazen challenges like six-week bans, preferring instead to launch a frontal attack on Roe, consequences be damned. This new front in the reproductive wars include groups like the Family Research Council and the Susan B. Anthony List, which stood by Todd Akin after his controversial comments about “legitimate rape” rarely resulting in pregnancy. “They don’t see him as a politician who has made a career ending gaffe,” Sarah Kliff of Wonkblog wrote at the time. “In their view, he’s a strong abortion right opponent who articulated a tenet of the pro-life movement: Abortion should be illegal in all situations, rape included.”

Of course, prohibiting abortion in cases of rape and incest is wildly unpopular with the American public; 75 percent feel that it should always be legal in such situations, far outpacing the number who believe abortion is permissible under any circumstances. The extremist wing of the anti-abortion movement is gaining steam; in many cases, it’s endorsed by politicians like Paul Ryan regarded as extreme only on the budget, not social issues. Ryan was a prominent co-sponsor of the Sanctity of Life Act, a “personhood” bill that defined life as beginning at conception and that would have outlawed abortion altogether. Even the official platform of the Republican party has repeatedly bowed to the strain of radicalism evident in North Dakota, endorsing the idea that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed” in any circumstances, rape or incest included. (The state bill likewise eschews those exceptions, permitting abortion only in cases that threaten the mother’s life or “irreversible impairment.”) By claiming that “the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children,” the GOP officially granted “life and liberty” to embryos — a step even North Dakota’s legislators were unwilling to take. At the time of the Akin controversy, Kliff detailed the unpopularity of personhood measures, which were rejected by comfortable margins in Missippi and Colorado, largely on the premise that they would never pass muster with the courts:

That’s left the pro-life movement choosing between the lesser of two evils: Supporting abortion bans that do not have a shot at becoming law, or standing behind imperfect restrictions with fewer political liabilities.

With today’s news from North Dakota, it’s clear which direction the movement has chosen. Six weeks is only the beginning, however; Bette Grande, the state representative who sponsored the law, makes it clear that it was engineered to directly challenge Roe. As the Times reports:

“A heartbeat is accepted by everyone as a sign of life,” she said in a blog posting on Tuesday as she argued that it was time for the Supreme Court to revisit the definition of viability.

In light of the North Dakota bill, Sarah Kliff takes another look at the state of anti-abortion activism, contrasting the incrementalists with the all-or-nothing crusaders:

The other faction tends to be more aggressive; they don’t accept the Roe v. Wade decision as law and don’t use it as a framework for passing legislation. They tend to be more ideological and less pragmatic, thinking about the best ways to restrict abortion regardless of whether they’ll be upheld by the Supreme Court.

The more aggressive wing of the antiabortion movement up until now, has had difficulty gaining traction with it’s “all-or-nothing” approach. A slew of proposed bills to declare life as beginning at conception all failed, most notably in deep red Mississippi. In 2013, however, they appear to be taking hold. Arkansas and North Dakota have passed abortion restrictions that skew more toward the ideas of those who want to eschew Roe altogether, even if those laws are likely to get struck down in court.

The split to some degree mirrors the divide in any movement for social change; even civil rights advocates were divided between incrementalists who thought it better to push for slow changes and more radical members like Malcom X who demanded immediate, total equality. Anti-death penalty activists are similarly torn, with one group playing on public sympathy for the wrongly convicted and mentally ill, and another that refuses to acknowledge that eye-for-an-eye justice is ever appropriate for anyone, even the most odious of killers. It’s pragmatism versus principle, and sometimes it’s results versus ideals. Even pro-choice advocates have a similar split, with some forces encouraging the debate to be framed as one over a woman’s fundamental freedom of reproductive choice and others rooting their appeals in sympathetic cases of rape and incest that even many anti-choicers agree should make women “worthy” of abortion. The civil rights movement had more success in pushing for hard for a complete end to “separate but equal”; it bet on the strength of its convictions, that racism in any form was wrong and not to be accommodated.

Anti-death penalty absolutists and gun control advocates have been less successful. On gun control, despite a seeming upswell in the number of Americans willing to consider stricter regulations, the incrementalists have won out. The assault-weapons ban is dead in the Senate, which — depending on your point of view — represents either lawmakers’ predictable capitulation to the NRA or a pragmatic pulling back from a “reach” measure that even the Brady Center conceded was unlikely to pass in the first place. Perhaps this is no big deal; after all, the previous ban was so full of holes (unlike its draconian North Dakota abortion-rights counterpart) that it was difficult even for proponents to find evidence that it made much of a difference. Easier-to-pass bills expanding background checks and cracking down on straw purchases may do more to curb gun violence, but they also lack the moral victory of an assault weapons ban. Were gun control advocates as unhindered by political and legal reality as abortion opponents, they would have waged an all-out crusade for the ban, consequences — it could, for example, have taken the less controversial measures down with it — be damned. But as the Times quotes Jon S. Vernick of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research as saying, the ban “made it harder to reassure some folks that advocates of gun-violence prevention measures were not trying to take away anyone’s guns, but simply trying to make it harder for high-risk people to acquire guns.” That is the epitome of the pragmatic, incrementalist philosophy.

The legislators in North Dakota have the advantage of a split in their movement; even when the six-week ban is struck down by the courts, the efforts of the incrementalists to erode abortion rights via waiting periods and TRAP laws will persist. Either way, the movement notches a win. By contrast, gun control advocates decided they could not afford to fight on two fronts at once, as the assault weapons ban realistically would be paired in the Senate with the less extreme measures. The defeat of one could poison the well for the others — the Republican rejection of even the extremely popular step of universal background checks as a supposed “precursor to a national gun registry” that is actually prohibited by federal law shows just how touchy gun control issues are — unlike the North Dakota ban, which seems unlikely to dissuade the more traditional wing of the pro-life movement from continuing to advance inch-by-inch legislation. On a state level, however, opponents or abortion and guns share more similarities than differences. The federal “personhood” bills sponsored by Paul Ryan and Todd Akin are doomed, but at the state level, conservative legislatures are far more conducive to defining embryos as people and mandating transvaginal ultrasounds. Likewise, though the gun control movement is weak on a national scale, it has had more success in deep blue states like New York and Illinois, where Democratic governors are far more open to the assault-weapons bans and restrictions on magazine size that make U.S. senators and representatives nervous.

Likewise, the movement to abolish capital punishment is torn between accepting halfway victories and pushing for the whole enchilada. And like the anti-abortion movement, it plays on public sympathies for the most media-friendly examples of their cause. If more states have moved to repeal capital punishment, as Maryland recently did, it is not because the American public agrees that murdering murderers is wrong but because, as Ezra Klein writes, “the media has won the death penalty debate.” Coverage of DNA exonerations and criminals hemmed in by violence and broken families, not any great moral shift, has made the public skittish about executions. Those who insist that the death penalty is wrong because of its moral implications for the executioners — vengeance is not a legitimate reason for such severe punishment — are not winning based on their unbending demands for abolition, just as pro-abortion activists will never win their case based on the idea that reproductive choice is a fundamental right. (Interestingly, I am an absolutist on both issues: the death penalty is wrong full stop, any specious comparison to “killing innocent babies” notwithstanding, and abridging a woman’s rights is wrong full stop.) Likewise, the anti-abortion movement has thus far had more success in chipping away at Roe gradually through waiting periods and regulations. Is it poised to have the wider, more monumental success that anti-death penalty advocates have been denied?

If so, it may be because the absolutists behind North Dakota’s ban have paired their efforts with incrementalist strategy by finding a way to simultaneously appeal to conventional sympathies. Just as the average person is horrified at the idea of executing a mentally challenged perpetrator who understands so little of his situation that he asks to save the dessert of his last meal “for later,” the average person recoils at two specific motivations for abortion: sex selection and genetic “weeding out.” The former draws more distaste than the latter, but both are issues that make the public queasy and win emotional support for pro-lifers, who can easily conflate the termination of a female or genetically flawed embryo with the killing of a female or disabled individual.

Thus, beyond the viability standard, the North Dakota bill pushes the envelope in other ways as well. It would make the state one of four to ban sex-selective abortion, on the supposition that parents eager to have a boy are discriminating against female embryos, and the first to prohibit abortions based on genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome. More than the debate over viability, which is fairly clearly defined under Roe and is an issue on which conservatives attempting to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds have been ridiculed by the public, these two restrictions present thorny questions for abortion-rights absolutists. It’s easy to caution against a slippery slope — once doctors start demanding that women explain the reason for an abortion, how long will it be before cases of failed birth control and simple personal preference are declared unworthy? — and indeed, the director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project released a statement condemning laws that seek to substitute the judgment of politicians for the personal choices that must be made by a woman and her doctor:

We urge the governor to veto all of these bills to ensure that this personal and private decision can be made by a woman and her family, not politicians sitting in the Capitol.

That’s true, as far as it goes; there is no justification for telling a woman that she must have a good reason to exercise her constitutional rights. Imagine what the Second Amendment crowd would say if a deep-blue state like New York attempted to pass European-style laws that require those purchasing a firearm to prove they need it for self-defense. There should be no qualifications of a right as fundamental as a woman’s ability to control her own reproductive system. But bans on things like gender discrimination that most of the population finds distasteful and from which people automatically recoil — after all, isn’t it just a step from aborting a female fetus to actual female infanticide? — tend to put organizations like Planned Parenthood on the losing side of public opinion. Yet if you believe, as I do, that the right to abortion rests on a woman’s autonomy and that the reason for her decision should never be anyone’s business but her own, you are forced into the uncomfortable position of seeming to approve of sex-selective abortion. Given that I’m such an unabashed feminist that I roll my eyes at anyone cowardly enough to shrink from the label (feminism is the radical notion that women are people, too) and think the word “Mrs.” should go the way of corsets and poodle skirts, it’s a quandary that seems important to consider.

My own conclusion? It’s possible to frown on the morality of prizing boys above girls without feeling that such morality is something that should be legislated. People make decisions of which I do not approve all the time — they cheat on spouses, betray friends, et cetera — that nevertheless should not be illegal. What makes me uncomfortable about sex-selective abortion is not that I think it kills a baby girl — if an embryo is not the equivalent of a person, the harsh truth is that a female embryo is not a girl — but that it says something disturbing about the parents who make such a decision and the society that encourages it. I disapprove of the mindset that one gender is better than another, but discrimination is only illegal if it hurts a person — and I don’t think a fetus is a person. Conservatives have the easier argument to make here, as it is easy to conflate aborting a female fetus with killing a female baby, but giving into such logic begs the question and unwittingly adopts the anti-abortion framing device of fetuses as people. Choosing abortion simply because the gender of the fetus isn’t “right” is not a choice I would make or even one that I think is ethical, but it is one that every woman must decide for herself. It is certainly not one that should be policed by elected officials attempting to divine the motivation of every woman that turns up at a Planned Parenthood clinic. How, exactly, would we know when an abortion was prompted by dissatisfaction with the sex of the potential child? Would couples be forced to wait until the delivery room to learn the gender of their offspring? Procedures that reveal the fetus’s gender could always be banned — oh, but then what would happen to the ultrasounds mandated by the law itself? Perhaps we could draft Stasi-like government agents to show up on couples’ doorsteps to inspect the color scheme of the nursery. Blue, when the child you’re carrying suggests pink? No abortion for you!

Such a ban also constitutes a solution without a problem. There is no evidence that sex-selective abortion is rampant in the U.S., certainly not to the degree that it is in places like China, where the preference for boys over girls has created an imbalance in the gender ratio that now stands at number. Conservatives often present the situation in China as a grim harbinger of what will happen in America without bans like the ones passed in North Dakota, and though this is an effective tactic for winning public sympathy, it simply doesn’t comport with reality. The problems in China are real; what was once a personal decision has, when combined with the practice of female infanticide that should obviously be as illegal as any other type of murder, produced dangerously skewed gender ratios that undermine the stability of society and present a demographic problem for a society whose birthrate is already slowing. Only if the United States shared such problems could I conceivably consider regulating sex-selective abortion. Constitutional rights have long been subject to limits based on the public good; speech that incites violence or constitutes obscenity is not protected by the first amendment, the right to bear arms does not confer the right to bear any arms in any situation (think machine guns and permit requirements), and even abortion is limited to the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy, before the state is thought to have a legitimate interest in the survival of the fetus. If America truly were descending into a womanless post-apocalyptic hell, perhaps such legislation would be warranted — and even then I would find the argument a tough one to accept. You just can’t criminalize a moral decision that doesn’t hurt an individual or society at large.

Anti-abortionists would argue that even moral decisions can hurt society; this is the same logic they use to argue against gay marriage, claiming that the government has an interest in promoting stable families and traditional values. Needless to say, I would disagree. Sure, the state has an interest in, say, promoting public health, as it foots the medical bills of those who go without insurance. But the state has no inherent interest in favoring one value system over another. While we can all agree on values like murder is wrong, when we disagree on what defines murder, conservatives should not be allowed to substitute their definition for the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court. “Public interest” is often hard to define; both conservatives and liberals can be hypocritical when they push their respective visions of how the state should intervene to encourage a better society. It’s a hard line to draw, and one that relies on often tenuous connections between morality and its real-world effects. A study comes out demonstrating that delaying marriage hurts the economic prospects of young people: Is this a problem government policy should seek to remedy or not? Is it like soda regulation (a public health problem) or more akin to abortion, a moral question that liberals firmly believe should be off-limits to “nudging” by the state? Even if a policy can produce beneficial outcomes — stronger marriages, more children — how far should we go in legislating morality? Are liberals hypocrites — am I a hypocrite — for embracing regulation on small matters like plastic bags and nutritional labeling while at the same time rejecting similar rules designed to shape society? Why do I accept that government policy should seek to remedy, say, poverty, while bristling when conservatives propose remedies (tax breaks for married couples, etc.) that infringe on what I see as as sacrosanct: a woman’s ability to make her own decisions, whether on marriage or childbearing? Of course, conservative policy prescriptions might be easier to stomach if they truly supported ones that tackled real-world problems — health care and child care for women who do choose to carry their pregnancies to term — rather than simply dictating right and wrong without regard to the future of the children they would force women to bear.

If there’s any issue surrounding abortion more fraught than gender, its disability. Couples who end a pregnancy based on a predilection for blue or pink may be rare, but research shows that the vast majority of women who learn that their fetus carries the genes for Down Syndrome choose to terminate. Prenatal testing has become so routine and common that women are regularly informed when their potential child carries a genetic defect. Is it wrong to end such pregnancies? Those who argue that doing do discriminates against those with disabilities again conflate fetuses with people; it may sound horrible to say that a disabled baby is “unwanted,” but I suspect that a couple presented with an actual baby would want it as much as any other. An embryo, however, is not a baby, and having an abortion is not the same as killing your child. Of course, conservatives would disagree — the personhood of a fetus is the crux of the abortion debate in general, and that the logic used to argue against genetics-based abortion is identical to that used to argue against the procedure overall indicates to me that, as cold as this sounds, there is nothing unique about disability-related abortion (beyond its emotional valence) that should precipitate a law that treats it any differently from any other abortion. Conservatives would say that declining to carry to term a “flawed” pregnancy devalues life, that it makes a judgment about whose life is worthwhile and whose is not, but you could just as easily make the opposite case: perhaps parents who choose not to have a disabled child are in fact more sensitive to the value of life, in that they do not want to impose one filled with suffering — and we can argue until the cows come home about what degree of disability causes suffering — on their future child. The morality of “weeding out” individuals we regard as defective, especially when many of those labeled as such can lead happy and fulfilling lives, is tricky. How far would we go to ensure that our children are “perfect,” and where to we draw the line between disability and preference? Though a Gattaca-like world is indeed dystopic, I think many prospective parents would take exception to the idea that choosing only a healthy pregnancy is the same as choosing one in which the fetus has blue eyes or athletic ability.

These are difficult issues; if I were faced with such a pregnancy, I don’t know what decision I would make. But I know that its a decision that should be mine and mine alone to make, not one that should be outsourced to politicians whose ideas of morality may be starkly different from my own. Ironically, the very women ensnared by the North Dakota ban are those least likely to be the careless, loose women demonized by the GOP as using abortion as birth control or failing to take responsibility for premarital sex. The women who will be hit by this law are those who genuinely want to have a child, who are making an agonizing decision to end a pregnancy that they otherwise would happily carry to term. They want to be mothers, and are most likely to share the conservative morality that emphasizes the family and champions child raising. Yet these are the women that lawmakers in North Dakota would seek to dictate to.

There’s also the not-insubstantial matter of how to police abortions based on disability or gender; would anyone undergoing a prenatal test be prohibited from having an abortion, on the off chance that she would be acting based on the results? How would lawmakers distinguish between a woman whose prenatal year revealed a disability who would have sought an abortion anyway and one who was seeking to end a Down syndrome pregnancy? Until doctors can read minds, there is no way of differentiating between the two cases. Simply banning any abortion of a fetus discovered to have a genetic abnormality would not only ensnare women desiring an abortion for myriad other personal or health reasons but would have the perverse incentive of discouraging the very prenatal testing that can lead to in utero treatments or prepare parents for a disabled child. Other logistical problems abound; if sex-selective abortion is banned, what about in vitro fertilization techniques that are also able to determine gender? Surely some conservatives would be content to ban anything that tampered with an embryo (or even an egg), but most Americans would likely find that as radical as transvaginal probes. For abortion rights advocates who reject the idea of fetal personhood, this should only reassure them of their stance. If an embryo in the womb is no different than an embryo in a Petri dish and discarding the latter is permissible, it follows logically that the former should not be accorded special protection. We may look with distaste on couples undergoing fertility treatment who select embryos based on gender, but there seems to be less appetite for regulating this practice than regulating sex-selective abortion. It simply doesn’t present as compelling an emotional appeal.

It’s no surprise that the anodyne statement issued by Planned Parenthood in response to the six-week ban spoke of politicians who demonstrate “disregard for a woman’s personal medical decision-making” makes no reference to the particulars of the bill. The organization knows it is not going to win a messaging battle with the Frank Luntz spinmasters of the right, the same people who have so successfully turned abortion from an absolute, non-negotiable right into a tragedy that even liberals are forced to concede should be “safe, legal and rare.” Of course, no one relishes an abortion, and it can indeed be a wrenching decision, but the word “tragedy” plays into the conservative framing that equates the procedure to the murder of a baby. Likewise, equating sex-selective abortion with the murder of baby girls is a relatively easy leap for opponents, and even advocates like Planned Parenthood seem reluctant to challenge anti abortion forces on the fundamentals of the issue. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that the organization recently backed away from the phrase “pro- choice,” reasoning that thinking of abortion as an easily-made choice and not an unfortunate necessity lacks appeal to a generation of women wooed by pro-lifers and exposed to bloody poster-sized photos of dismembered fetuses. Perhaps Planned Parenthood is just being pragmatic, but such pragmatism speaks to its underdog status. The law may currently be on the side of abortion rights, but the enthusiasm and audacity are on the side of the activists in North Dakota bold enough — and apparently confident enough in an eventual victory before a Supreme Court that has shifted dramatically to the right — to pass a law that is so obviously and intentionally unconstitutional.

Even beyond touchy issues like sex-selective abortion, the pro-choice movement doesn’t always do much to help itself in the court of public opinion. There are a few bad apples in every profession, and like the scheming Lehman bankers who gave Wall Street a bad name, abortion practitioners like Philadelphia physician Kermit Gosnell don’t do anything to endear the movement to a public generally skeptical of what conservatives have labeled “abortion on demand.” Gosnell is currently on trial for performing illegal late term abortions after the 24-week pre-viability window and is accused of operating under unsanitary conditions that may have led to the death of a patient. The doctor is defending himself, arguing that the fetuses could not have survived outside the womb and alleging that the case is a racially “prosecutorial lynching,” but he does seem to have ignored dangers to vulnerable women, and the trial undoubtedly gives the abortion-rights movement a black eye. Even staunch advocates aren’t pressing for the right to abortion until two seconds before delivery — I don’t pretend to know when a fetus “becomes human,” as conservatives might say, but there is a point at which survival outside the womb is so likely that the abortion, unless performed to save the mother’s life, crosses the line — but it does play into the right-wing accusation that liberals support “infanticide” because, like the president, they oppose restrictions that undermine Roe with dramatic talk about saving “babies” that “survive botched abortions.” However, it is indeed legitimate for pro-choicers to ask ourselves why, if we don’t believe that fetuses are babies, we nevertheless recoil at cases like that of Dr. Gosnell. Does such a reaction make us hypocrites, or just not as certain as the right-wingers convinced of the evils of abortion that we know when life begins and when a woman’s right to choose is superseded by the understandable (if not entirely logically consistent) unease over late-term abortion? In one respect, pro-choicers like myself seek to define the debate in black and white — abortion is permissible because fetuses are not people, end of story — while in other respects we acknowledge that, yes, there are shades of gray. Just because we don’t see a six-week-old embryo as worthy of protection does not mean we feel the same about what is essentially a premature birth. We argue that deference to a woman’s autonomy requires us to consider whether she wants a pregnancy or not, and our language defers to this reality (we speak of fetuses at NARAL rallies but readily talk of “the baby” and “your child” when we attend friends’ baby showers), but even we are reluctant to defend someone like Gosnell, especially given his apparent disregard for the safety of his female patients.

It’s easy — and, in my eyes, necessary — to condemn the North Dakota ban. But such infringements on freedom raise complicated questions that the pro-choice movement would do well to at least consider, if only for the purpose of working through its own positions and asking itself how far it will push its principles. If we’re not entirely comfortable with some of the conclusions we come to, that’s something to think about. There’s something to be said for thinking, and if Aristotle is correct that the unexamined life is not worth living, such discomfort or cognitive dissonance is a small price to pay for a little examination.

Paul Ryan’s Favorite Tax Hike

17 03 2013
betsy cpac

A sign of the times for the “Repeal” crowd?

The GOP appears to be wavering on Obamacare, and the Tea Partiers who rode a wave of anti-ACA sentiment into Congress in 2010 are not happy. Even as Republicans notch tiny victories, joining with turned-traitor Democrats to repeal the medical device tax that both parties have demagogued as a “job killer” (hardly, considering the law will also goose demand for said devices), they are badly losing the overall battle. When the Times reports that conservatives are now resigned to “chipping away” at the law, you know the Bachmann-Palin wing of the party is faltering. With another Republican governor accepting the Medicaid expansion with every passing day (eight already have, and now even Maine’s Paul LePage is considering it), and John Boehner remarking “Obamacare is the law of the land,” no wonder there is dissension among the ranks. Some Republican governors are even accepting the ACA’s Medicaid money with the caveat that it would fund private insurance for the poor — which, as it would actually cost the feds (and eventually states) more than the traditional program, lays bare the GOP’s faux commitment to fiscal rectitude. (Rule: Hatred for anti-poverty programs like Medicaid always outweighs any feigned concern for deficit reduction.) Betsy McCaughey, the originator of the “death panel” tall tales and the author of “Beating Obamacare,” saw a less than stellar turnout at her booth at CPAC, the annual conservative confab. And those Republicans still plagued by Obamacare Derangement Syndrome couldn’t have been pleased with a Politico story noting that, “after rallying against the health care reform bill during the 2012 campaign, House Republicans have taken no action to stop it in Washington.” The repeal provisions attached to nearly every 2011 spending bill have disappeared, leaving right-wing activists to complain that “the Republican leadership needs to stop worrying about being blamed for this or that and simply stand up for the American people.” Opponents of the law are feeling betrayed; as Brent Bozell fumes, “Conservatives had every reason to think this fight would be waged.” Prompted by such urging from their base, hard-liners like Ted Cruz have resurrected the effort, long the handiwork of luminaries like Michele Bachmann, to make “Repeal!” the rallying cry of 2014.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones makes a hilarious observation about Florida Senator (and Tea Party darling) Marco Rubio’s recent appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio program. The Tea Party darling committed to amending the Senate version of the continuing resolution — a must-pass piece of legislation to keep the government open through the rest of the year — to include anti-ACA language:

I think it’s coming next week….and I think it’s a perfect opportunity for us to have a debate once again on Obamacare. I don’t think there’s been enough attention paid to it.

Drum just rolls his eyes. “Right,” he writes. “Obamacare hasn’t gotten enough attention from Republicans who want to repeal it. What planet are we talking about here?”

By one measure, the GOP has certainly lavished attention on this nonstarter. It has tried 33 times to repeal the law. Salon estimates that this raft of futile legislative efforts have eaten up “approximately 80 hours of work” in Congress. That’s six Rand Paul daylong filibusters!

Not everyone is so gung-ho about the poison pill of repeal, however. The Republican leadership actually wants to pass legislation and is skittish for being blamed for a government shutdown, as was demonstrated when the continuing resolution passed by the House did not include the boilerplate “repeal” language that could have made the CR DOA. More than 24 Republican legislators signed onto an amendment that would have defunded the health care law, but Boehner rejected the idea. Washington Monthly notes that House leaders face the dilemma of losing rank-and-file support for even procedural votes that don’t bow to the enthusiasm for ACA repeal.

Sixteen Republicans defected Wednesday in a vote on the rule governing consideration of a government-funding bill meant to prevent a government shutdown. The defections could have caused the rule to fail since most Democrats voted also voted against it.

Worse, from a leadership perspective, is that some Republicans say they plan on doing it again if they feel leaders are limiting them from offering controversial amendments on the floor.

But what do renegade freshmen care about a functioning government? Senators like Ted Cruz owe  nothing to the leadership; elected by the Tea Party faithful and supported by Texas billionaires and the same super PACs that kept Newt Gingrich in the running in 2012 despite pleas from the Republican establishment to drop out, these members are free to push their radical agendas, which often have nothing to do with legislation and everything to do with scoring ideological points among their base back home. They may not be slaves to the reasonable checks and balances of the traditional party machinery, but they are increasingly held captive by the people who do fund their efforts in the new Wild West of deregulated campaign finance. With no loyalty to Boehner or McConnell, they are more than happy to throw sand into the gears.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, may be catching on. He’s still pushing for a “clean” CR, but he has also signed on to Paul Ryan’s new budget, which includes a repeal of all the spending provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Calling the law “a costly mistake” and vowing to  “repeal it, root and branch,” McConnell’s declaration prompted conservative pundit Michael Barone to suggest that Ted Cruz’s quixotic quest is “gathering momentum.” Ah, yes. Momentum that will be promptly arrested by the Democratic majority, but momentum nevertheless! This must be the sort of “momentum” that right-wing writers like Peggy Noonan were convinced would send Mitt Romney to the White House.

Naturally, the amendment was voted down along straight party lines. So much for momentum.

On the surface, the GOP is united, with party standard-bearer Paul Ryan making the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to announce his support for repeal – while simultaneously maintaining that he’s  working to find “common ground with the president.” Huh? What part of basing a budget on ideological panders to the base that Democrats will never in a million years support is an effort to stake out “common ground”? Dave Weigel takes a good shot at Ryan for labeling his budget full of “tough choices” to reduce the deficit and put the nation’s fiscal house in order. A tough choice for Ryan would be telling the Pentagon that it no longer has a blank check to order budget-busting aircraft like the F-35. A tough choice for Ryan would be throwing a bone to the 35 million people who he’ll deprive of health insurance, rather than slicing anti-poverty programs in favor of reducing tax rates on the wealthy. “That’s why the ‘tough choice’ framework is chuckle-ready,” Weigel writes. “Asking Republicans to support ‘Obamacare repeal’ is easier than getting offended at a GoDaddy ad.” Instead, Ryan asks the average Americans who don’t make up the GOP base — the poor, the uninsured — to make the real “tough choice” of supporting a budget that does nothing but inflict pain. Listen to Ryan’s rhetoric and you’d think that his plan would transform unhappy, lazy low-income voters into industrious, wealthy workers. “None of his choices actually seem tough” when couched in Ryan-speak. But the truth is harsher, writes Ezra Klein:

He doesn’t say that his $5 trillion-plus in cuts will end important services and kick millions on Americans off Medicaid, but that these difficult decisions are necessary to fix America’s finances. That would be a “tough choice.” But if massive cuts are just “an opportunity to reform government, to make it more effective,” that doesn’t sound so tough.

It’s truly Orwellian. The Tax Policy Center estimates that a tax-code rewrite that junks the current progressive system in favor of two rates of 10 and 25 percent would hugely benefit the rich, boosting the after-tax income of millionaires by 20 percent but that of a worker making $50,000 by 2 percent. Paying for such cuts could reduce the benefit to the rich but would, like Mitt Romney’s infamous tax plan that the TPC dinged for raising taxes on the middle class, likely eliminate so many popular deductions and exemptions that the poor could actually see their bill increase. Yet in Ryan’s anodyne phrasing, “By making the tax code more conducive to innovation, investment, and sustained job creation, we can safeguard the American Dream for generations to come.” Then there’s this:

He cuts Medicaid by more than $700 billion. That will mean millions of people lose health-care coverage. But you wouldn’t know it from reading his budget. “One way to secure the Medicaid benefit is by converting the federal share of Medicaid spending into an allotment tailored to meet each state’s needs, indexed for inflation and population growth,” he writes. Phrased like that, it sounds like he’s adding to the Medicaid budget!

In the cold light of day, Ryan’s budget hardly bolsters his undeserved reputation as a “courageous” deficit hawk. The former vice-presidential candidate lays out an apocalyptic vision of a debt-ridden future in which “the debasement of our currency” encourages “intergenerational theft” (no word Ryan’s own theft from this generation of disadvantaged Americans) and the government will “cheat us of our just rewards,” then cites this unlikely future as justification for his savage cuts to everything from food stamps to infrastructure spending to Medicaid. Ryan’s dystopic “Mad Max” version of a world without his brand of fiscal restraint is “why this budget is an act of mercy rather than cruelty — because if this future is the only alternative, then this budget is painful but necessary medicine.” That’s the verdict of Klein, who goes on to point out that Ryan sets up a false choice, presenting his budget as the only alternative to the European-style socialist hell that he imagines President Obama is constructing. “The relevant question isn’t Ryan or nothing,” Klein writes. “It’s Ryan or a more modest alternative that includes fewer spending cuts, more tax increases, and a significant, though slightly smaller, level of overall deficit reduction.” His final judgment is damning:

Ryan’s budget is intended to do nothing less than fundamentally transform the relationship between Americans and their government. That, and not deficit reduction, is its real point, as it has been Ryan’s real point throughout his career.

If Klein is too partisan a judge, try this similar interpretation from the only slightly left-leaning wonks at the Tax Policy Center:

It is not an overstatement to say the House budget panel sees government as the enemy of the people, poised to destroy all that individuals build for themselves. Thus, its goal is to remake the very role of government by slashing planned spending and restraining revenues.

Though Ryan insists that “we have a moral obligation” to balance the budget, Klein is correct to say that “the real justification for Ryan’s budget and the choices it makes is not fear of a debt crisis but fear of government.” The confusion between the two goals has led to bizarre sight of reasonable people like Matt Yglesias trying to patiently explain to Republicans that deficits aren’t a big deal, or wondering whether Ryan really is an “inflation nutter,” as two Bloomberg columnists do when they opine that “either Ryan is being dishonest or he’s placed himself on the Spam-hoarding radical fringe.” A colleague of Klein’s muses at Wonkblog that “rarely is the question asked: Why should we want to balance the budget?” His answer is that, well, we shouldn’t — rich countries can run a small deficit in perpetuity without troubles — but it’s clear what Ryan gets out of his budget-balance rhetoric. It’s just good politics for him. Ryan knows very well that the debtocapylse he darkly predicts will never happen, but it’s a great excuse for shrinking the welfare state. He confidently warns that we are turning into Greece, Greece I tell you, but every one of the studies he cites that connect high debt loads with fiscal crises rely on countries that, unlike the US, have no control over their own currency. Unless Ryan is planning to truly “debase the currency” by making the United States a member of the EU (a move that would go over about as well with the GOP as inviting the UN’s “blue-hatted thugs” to take over the U.S. army), we have nothing to worry about.

Part of the “transformation” that Ryan advocates is the rollback of “Obamacare” provisions that would expand Medicaid and provide subsidies for millions of Americans to obtain health insurance. At first glance, this is perfectly in line with the GOP’s visceral hatred of the ACA. Look closer at the budget, however, and you’ll see a Republican leadership that’s decidedly of two minds about health care reform. Ryan talks a good game, but in truth he wants to have it both ways, rejecting the legislation that infuriates his base while hanging onto the provisions that help him balance his budget. As he did in his previous budgets, before he adopted the Romney-style criticism of the billions Obama “stole” from seniors to “pay for new entitlement we didn’t even ask for” became problematic, this years’s budget preserves the $700 billion in Medicare cuts that the 2012 GOP ticket spent the entire campaign demagoguing. Politico observes that Ryan is budgeting “as if the campaign had never happened.” Of course, Ryan claims that the repeal of “Obamacare” ensures that these savings will be used to shore up Medicare rather than provide health care for the uninsured — a dubious contention given 1) that higher Medicare spending will translate higher cost-sharing by beneficiaries and 2) that Ryan proposes to turn Medicare into a voucher-esque program that would likely force seniors to pay more in the first place.

The hypocrisy of Ryan’s budget goes even further than relying on the savings he lambasted just a few short months ago. As Ezra Klein (really, I should just outsource this entire piece to Klein) wrote prior to the document’s release:

Ryan has also said he’ll use the new revenue baseline as the basis for his revenue-neutral tax reform plan — that means including both the tax increases of the Affordable Care Act and the “fiscal cliff” deal. Ryan’s version of repeal means getting rid of all the parts that spend money to give people health insurance but keeping the tax increases and the Medicare cuts that pays for that health insurance, as without those policies, it is very, very difficult for Ryan to hit his deficit-reduction targets.

That bolded bit is the bombshell here. Ryan not only preserves the cuts to Medicare that he condemned during the campaign but also counts the tax revenue generated by the very legislation he would otherwise repeal. The Medicare cuts are unsurprising, merely a return to the pre-2012 budget; indeed, Ryan was hit repeatedly by Democrats for  abandoning the savings he’d previously endorsed for official Romney line on those “devastating” cuts. What I hadn’t realized, however, is that Ryan’s budget sets in stone not only the cuts – hey, what Republican doesn’t like spending cuts? – but the tax increases as well. He rolls back $1.8 trillion in subsidies to help Americans afford insurance, eliminating the law’s benefits while keeping the tax hikes designed to pay for that $1.8 trillion. One might think that axing the spending would lead Ryan, normally a proponent of lower taxes, to get rid of the offsets as well. But that wouldn’t be convenient, as Roll Call reports:

Ryan’s budget eliminates the deficit in 2023 not because of large new spending cuts relative to his past budgets, but because he’s keeping hundreds of billions of dollars a year of President Barack Obama’s own budget policies in place. Ryan’s claim to a balanced budget rests entirely on the 2010 health care law, known in GOP circles as “Obamacare.” Ryan’s budget keeps the tax revenue from the health care law, as well as its $700 billion-plus Medicare trims and other cuts.

Because Ryan is understandably reluctant to talk about the parts of the ACA he doesn’t find so reprehensible, it was initially hard to get a clear picture of whether those “Obamacare” taxes were really included in his budget. The Times is less definitive in its proclamation that Ryan has kept the ACA’s specific taxes, writing that “to make spending align with revenues, the money raised from taxes would have to stay at current levels, even as it repeals the tax increases in the president’s health care law and eliminates the alternative minimum tax.” (So where would Ryan get the revenue — some fantastical, impossible-to-score economic expansion driven by lower tax rates? He can’t claim that outright because the CBO won’t buy it, so he never bothers to explain an imaginary ACA-revenue replacement.) But the details have slowly emerged, though outrage among supposedly tax-phobic conservatives as well as hypocrisy-seeking liberals has been curiously muted. Most of the media doesn’t seem to care that Ryan has again been revealed as a hypocrite, though Paul Krugman is a notable exception, branding the Republican a “flim-flammer.” Columnist Dana Milbank notes that the self-proclaimed budget wonk “proposes abolishing Obamacare — a futile gesture — but would pocket for other purposes $1 trillion in tax increases that came with the program.” Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen finally hit back at Ryan on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe”:

They eliminate the benefits in Obamacare but in order for them to hit balance by 2023, in ten years, they actually keep all of the taxes in Obamacare and they keep all of the savings we made in Medicare, the $215 billion that they ran against.

Ryan’s willingness to accept the revenues included in the “fiscal cliff” deal should have been the first sign that the Republican had pulled a convenient U-turn. He justifies factoring those higher taxes into his budget by reasoning that they are “current law.” (Though, as Eugene Robinson points out, so is the ACA!) The $600 billion incorporates not only the increases in marginal tax rates on income above $400,000 but the revenue-raising provisions of Obamacare – the 3.8% surcharge on investment income, the additional 0.9 percent in payroll taxes – as well. In short, Obamacare is baked into the fiscal cliff deal. Without the taxes levied by the ACA, Ryan can’t get to the $700 billion he assumes the deal will generate. Rhetorically, it is easier to embrace the fiscal cliff – which, after all, was somewhat of a win for Republicans as Obama campaigned on raising rates above the much lower threshold of $200,000 – than to admit on national TV that his budget will keep the nastiest strands of the ACA intact. But that is be exactly what Paul Ryan intends to do. An article in Politico illuminates Ryan’s contradictory logic on the fiscal cliff and the ACA:

“We’re not going to re-fight the past because we know that’s behind us,” Ryan said of accepting the fiscal cliff’s $600 billion in new revenue. But he doesn’t apply that logic to Obamacare, which he and his fellow Republicans do want to re-litigate. Fighting to repeal it was “never a doubt” in Republican minds, he said Tuesday.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, who goes so far out of his way to be impartial that he embraces false equivalence with stunning regularity, even dings Ryan for the hypocrisy, noting that though Ryan accepted the fiscal cliff revenue,

What is less well-noticed is that Ryan also pocketed the taxes raised by the president’s health-care plan, aka “Obamacare,” while at the same time pledging to repeal the law to generate significant budget savings. As we noted this week, the health-care law includes about $1 trillion in taxes.

The column observes drily that “You have to look hard to find this detail. The 2014 budget document simply shows a line of zeroes for new taxes (table S-2). But the current budget plan is missing the harsh complaints in previous years about the ‘job-destroying tax hikes’ in the health-care taxes.” The Fact Checker indulges in a bit of snark: “The problem with the health-care taxes apparently is not that they are job-killers, but that they are being used for the wrong purposes; there is no explicit pledge to repeal them.”

Right-wingers are not happy with this. Though Klein was the first to take notice of Ryan’s inclusion of the ACA tax increases, conservatives are slowly catching on that the budget makes “an enormous concession” not only on Medicare cuts but tax hikes as well. The editors of National Review write:

Ryan’s budget grants President Obama and the Democrats their recent tax increases, including those associated with Obamacare. (Obamacare itself would be repealed, but the tax level it established would be maintained.) On this point, we think the Republicans made the wrong choice.

Despite his avowal of the GOP’s dedication to repeal the ACA root and branch, Ryan’s acceptance of the law’s Medicare cuts and tax increases betrays some hidden fault lines in the party. Look no further for evidence of these cracks than the differing assumptions made by Ryan and Sen. Jeff Sessions, who released a hilarious study last week to bolster his contention that Obamacare will increase the deficit by $6.2 trillion. To get to this number, Sessions asked the GAO to assume that every tax increase and savings measure included in the law suddenly vanished, leaving only the spending provisions . . . which naturally would increase the deficit. He looks at all the costs of the law and none of its pay-for provisions, which is a bit like saying that Apple is headed for bankruptcy because it spends billions to manufacture iPhones but somehow can’t “count” the corresponding billions in sales. (Sessions never addresses how, if in his fantasy world, Republicans had the votes to repeal the ACA’s tax increases, they wouldn’t also cancel its out of control spending as well. Is Sessions suddenly in favor of a Kenyan socialist takeover of the health care system?) Jonathan Chait has an amusing indictment of Sessions’ logic:

So, yeah. If Congress keeps the parts of the law that cost the government money, and repeals the parts that save money, the law will increase deficits. Alternatively, if the government repeals the parts that cost money and keeps the parts that save money, it will reduce the deficit by more than we’re projecting. Who knows? If I were a senator, I’d ask GAO to model what would happen if Jeff Sessions acquires a loose nuclear weapon and sets it off in Manhattan, and then tout my incredible new report finding that Jeff Sessions is going to kill 4 million people.

In a later post, Chait subjects the Ryan budget to the Sessions standard:

If you keep the tax rate cuts and military spending hikes in the Paul Ryan budget and phased out the parts that shrink the non-retirement functions of the government to 1938 size, you’d have a huge deficit-increasing law.

Ironically, in his desperate attempt to make the ACA look like a budget-buster, Sessions completely contradicts his own party’s official plan for “Obamacare.” Paul Ryan’s budget does just the opposite of what Sessions instructs the GAO to assume, tossing out all of the legislation’s spending increases but cravenly preserving the oh-so-convenient savings that Sessions wishes away. Chait eventually catches onto this contradiction as well (so much for my glee in thinking I’d be able to point out something no one else had), noting that it would be a “crazy assumption,” wouldn’t it, to think that Congress would “keep all the taxes and cost-control measures in place and repeal the coverage expansion. If you assumed that, and measured the saving part while ignoring the cost part, Obamacare would be a massive deficit-cutting bill.” Well, crazy is a good word to describe the Ryan budget. Sessions himself is a delightful hypocrite; while touting a study that assumes the repeal of every ACA tax hike, he has the nerve to complain that the Democratic budget doesn’t include “any of the ObamaCare spending increases or tax hikes or the spending blitz before 2010.” (I’m not sure what he’s getting at here; as far as I can tell, Murray’s budget includes both.)

Ryan wants to have it both ways – reject the law that inflames his base, yet keep the tax increases that allow him to keep the mantle of a deficit-hawk. Ryan is nothing if not an opportunist; taxes are evil, except when they’re used to lend a veneer of fiscal responsibility to a budget that preserves low rates for millionaires while hacking away at the social safety net for the nation’s poorest. Even conservatives like AEI’s Jim Pethokoukis find this unwise: “Ryan is offering them fewer benefits so that a small high-income minority can pay lower taxes. That’s a tough sell.”  Not only is Ryan offering fewer benefits, but he might even be offering a tax increase for middle and lower class Americans, as his commitment to reducing the top rate to 25 percent is achieved through nebulous and unspecified “reforms” that would lower rates dramatically for people currently paying 39.6 percent while possibly taking away enough tax credits and other “loopholes” to actually raise the burden on those making under 100,000.

Ryan may hate Obamacare, but he is so attached to his reputation as a Very Serious Thinker that he’s willing to swallow its most odious provisions to preserve his reputation as someone who knows how to balance the budget. The Tea Party base runs from higher taxes as if fleeing a burning building, yet Ryan thinks the electorate is stupid enough not to notice that the GOP’s plan for repeal takes away everything the public favors about the law – insurance subsidies, guaranteed coverage for people with pre-existing conditions – and leaves everything Americans (and ostensibly the GOP itself) hate. Ross Douhat,the New York Times’ token conservative opinion writer, has some harsh words for the new budget, which he calls “a step backwards”:

What’s more, the quest for perfect balance leaves the House G.O.P. officially committed to a weird, all-pain version of Obamanomics — in which, for instance, we keep the president’s tax increases and Medicare cuts while eliminating his health care law’s assistance to the uninsured.

Ryan shouldn’t get away with picking and choosing the parts that benefit him politically while simultaneously throwing his uninsured constituents under the bus. That some pundits are giving him credit for accepting the reality of the fiscal-cliff tax increases is ludicrous. This isn’t realism, it’s hypocrisy. While there’s something to be said for dealing with reality as it is, not as one wishes it to be (never a Republican strong point), Ryan’s budget is not an exercise in reality in the first place. He knows it will never pass the Senate because he includes poison pills that, in reality, Democrats will never accept. AEI’s Pethokukis of AEI chides Ryan for assuming an ACA repeal that is “highly unlikely. Better to have shown how the ACA can be fixed.” Because he is already crafting an exercise in wishful thinking, he could easily wish away every tax increase included in the ACA. That, however, would reveal his budget — which mandates lower spending without detailing how to get there and slashes funds for a convenient bucket of “other mandatory spending” (read: food stamps, veterans’ programs, etc.) —  for the gimmick it is.

Good for him for accepting that the $600 billion in revenue secured by the fiscal cliff deal are here to stay, though he never explains why, if he’s laying out a blueprint for the ideal GOP future, he doesn’t take his idealism all the way. (Apparently Ryan’s Republican utopia includes plenty of “job-killing” tax hikes.) But let’s not applaud him for accepting the reality of “Obamacare” when he does no such thing. He still clings to the notion of repeal; apparently that’s a fantasy he can stomach. In the fantasy world in which Republicans have the votes for repeal, they would also have the votes to get rid of the tax increases — just as, in Jeff Session’s fantasy world, any Congress able to toss out the tax increases that make the ACA deficit-neutral would also be able to get rid of its spending. Both Ryan and Sessions acknowledge that their party will be hypocritical in one way or another, variously keeping and chucking whichever parts of the law support their current batch of talking points.

Grover Norquist, who is generally such a noisy gadfly on the issue of taxes, has been conspicuously silent on the issue of Ryan’s cynical half-embrace of “Obamacare.” Perhaps he’s just busy at CPAC, the annual conservative jamboree that this year welcomed Mitt Romney and Donald Trump while snubbing the popular members of the party — Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell — whose violations of right-wing orthodoxy happen to have received more press than Ryan’s. One wonders if the CPAC crowd will similarly reject its erstwhile VP nominee when they find out that his tax increases are just as real as McDonnell’s maneuvers on his state’s gasoline and sales taxes. Ryan is such an icon of the extreme right that it’s not likely he’ll ever be ejected from the tent, no matter how quickly it shrinks, but I would like nothing better than to see the faux deficit hawk mount the stage at CPAC and admit that he’s all for “Obamacare” repeal, except . . . oh, actually, we don’t want to repeal that part of the law.

“A budget is supposed to be a display of your vision,” Ryan recently told National Review. “Our vision is a world without Obamacare.” A world without Obamacare, yes, but apparently not one without the Obamacare taxes.

Yeah, About That Liberal Media . . . .

15 03 2013

The “Obamacare” application from hell?

The AP had a scary story yesterday, immediately picked up by a dozen right-wing websites, about the onerous 21-page “Obamacare” application. “Applying for benefits under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul could be as daunting as doing your taxes,” wrote Ricardo Alonzo-Zalvidar, who goes on to lament that “the idea that getting health insurance could be as easy as shopping online at Amazon or Travelocity is starting to look like wishful thinking.” The article includes a lot of red meat for conservatives, who will naturally seize on the statement that “at least three major federal agencies, including the IRS, will scrutinize your application” to conjure imagines of jackbooted government thugs breaking down your door to handcuff you for a couple of typos. “That’s just the first part of the process,” fumes the AP, adding that the application is “a mandate, not a suggestion” and slamming the White House for what it sees as hypocrisy, as the application materials “run counter to the vision of simplicity promoted by administration officials.”

From the frothing folks at to the more sedate National Review, conservative media erupted with glee. The AP story confirmed that the Affordable Care Act is “a bureaucratic mess,” according to NR’s Wesley Smith, who is usually seen stoking fear about death panels, calling out random “liberal professors” who supposedly think pigs are “more human” than fetuses, and predicting darkly that liberal moral relativity will lead to bestiality, forced euthanasia and polyamory (huh, I thought it was the Republican candidate who had the polygamist ancestors). In a particularly sleazy move for an outfit that stakes its identity on bashing the ethics of the mainstream media, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze republished the AP article under the byline of the site’s own blogger, Jason Howerton. Hot Air block-quoted the story and added some comma-riddled snark: “So, apparently, we had to ‘pass it to find out what’s in it,’ but finding out what’s in it first requires hiring an ‘army of counselors’ to help everyone figure it all out.”

The AP may go overboard in its attempts to prove that it’s not just another member of the liberal media playing for Team Obama, but leave it to the real liberal media — Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum — to actually page through the application and come to the following conclusion:

Obamacare requires a 21-page application!? Well, yes it does, but in fairness, there’s a single 2-page section you have to fill out, and then there are five more 2-page sections for other members of your family.

Well, that’s just peachy. But really, won’t it still require the health insurance equivalent of TurboTax to puzzle through? Drum doubts it.

So sure, it might be long if you have a big family, but a lot of it is repetition. And if you’re just a single earner? Then aside from instructions, there’s really only about four pages (five if you’re an American Indian or Alaska Native): one page of basic contact information, two pages of income information, and one page of current insurance information. And even the repetitive pages you mostly leave blank if they apply to your children, who have no income or job information.

As economics blogger Brad DeLong would ask, “Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?”

Most Americans, it should be noted, manage to complete their taxes, as “daunting” as the process may be. And taxes are ultimately a downer; all that work, and you end up paying the government for the privilege. The Affordable Care Act application, on the other hand, entitles you to some serious benefits: Medicaid enrollment, if your income is low enough, or hefty subsidies to assist in the purchase of private insurance. And despite the AP’s ominous warning about a “mandate,” most people who currently have insurance won’t even have to fill the darn thing out: They’ll just keep the employer-sponsored coverage, Medicare or Medicaid policies they already have. For the uninsured, the new application is no more of a headache than the standard red-tape-filled process to apply for Medicaid or state high-risk pools. Of course, those uninsured people will no longer have a choice about whether to brave said red tape, but the return — health insurance, an end to unpaid medical bills, freedom from worrying that about a bankrupting hospital stay — is pretty substantial.

This reminds me of nothing more than a study cited by Washington Monthly’s Aaron Carrol, who observes with a roll of the eyes that media coverage of various countries’ health care systems is so exaggeratedly evenhanded that a British Medical Journal article praising the UK’s National Health Service — that evil example of socialized medicine that conservatives claim has wait-lists so long that patients routinely die before obtaining treatment — for “access to care” also notes that that the UK fares worse on measures of mortality. In fact, it’s second from the bottom when compared to other developed countries. This is vindication for private-market enthusiasts vehement NHS-bashers like the aforementioned Wesley Smith, right? Not quite. Which country ranks even lower than the the UK? That would be the United States.

Carrol’s post won’t get much attention from the mainstream media. Likewise, I don’t expect many of the fear-mongers on the right — or many average AP readers, for that matter — will see Kevin Drum’s exasperated rejoinder. But even if they do, they’ll still have the cynical comfort Sen. Jeff Sessions’ moronic “study” proving that the ACA will add $6.2 trillion to the deficit (uh, only if you’re math-challenged and count all of the law’s spending and none of its offsetting tax increases), as well as the I-told-you-so satisfaction of this photo, retweeted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, of the “828 pages” of ACA regulations released last week:


Because if you’re worried about the waste of time embodied in those 828 pages, the most logical thing to do is to spend an hour printing them all out and tying them up with a nice little bow. Oh, well. Even if the “Obamacare” application proves to be easier than the scare-mongers the AP predict — the administration anticipates it will take about 30 minutes online — it will undoubtedly be a ribbon-festooned gift that keeps on giving for bored conservatives. The application may be finite, but right-wing joy at lambasting its supposed complications? Endless.