A Guide to Democratic Healthcare plans

I squinted at wonky websites for hours so you didn’t have to. Here is the result: a guide to Democratic healthcare plans for dummies (like me).

First, a confession.

I’m the last person you should look to to understand healthcare proposals. I’m one of those people who procrastinate endlessly over even filling up a 1040 EZ and can never keep acronyms like PPO, HMO, HSA, FSA straight. I’ve foregone money in my pocket in order to avoid having to upload yet another medical bill onto websites whose passwords I’ve long forgotten.

Regardless, I am a voter; and I’m willing to squint at wonky websites that other experts with actual bona fides are willing to write, so here goes. This is a guide for dummies, but I myself am prime among them.

Every single one of these plans gets us to a better place than today’s situation; and is certainly much better than Trump, who has and will continue to take us backwards. In fact, as we speak, his administration is supporting a case to rule the entire ACA unconstitutional.

I am classifying these along the lines of Charles Gaba’s super-dense and useful website, ACA Signups; in fact I’ve linked to his website wherever I could, if you are interested in a deeper dive.

ACA Upgrade

It was clear, even when the ACA became law in 2010, that this was merely a step towards a more complete solution: a step whose biggest virtue was that it could actually pass a fractious Congress that for one glorious moment had 60 Democratic Senators. It was debated through 2009 and 2010 amid angry town halls with cries of “Death Panels” and protests. It gave rise to the populist Tea Party movement and ruined careers of many Democratic freshmen in the red electoral wave that followed.

Miraculously, it made it into law, bloodied and broken. Since then, the Trump Administration and conservative Supreme Court have bloodied and broken it some more.

So while it remains law, it is clear that it needs shoring up. What does shoring up mean? Some or all of the following:

  • While the ACA subsidizes premium for lower income families, those subsidies fade out and offer no help for families that have higher incomes but are still struggling. No one should have premium costs that are above, say, 8.5% of their income.
  • Increase Cost Sharing Reductions that reduce out-of-pocket costs (like deductibles, co-pays, etc.) and lower the maximum out-of-pocket cost you might have to pay. Recently, the Trump Administration killed Cost Sharing Reductions altogether, so it would mean reversing that change.
  • ACA had an error in its wording that left some families unable to get coverage at affordable rates. This is known as the “Family Glitch“. This should be fixed.
  • Reverse Trump’s sabotage of ACA: ban junk plans, enforce coverage for preexisting conditions, and ensure that Essential Health Benefits are covered.
  • Undo Trump’s sabotage of ACA enrollment and enrollment assistance efforts.
  • Improve stability in the insurance marketplace, and reduce premiums, through reinsurance programs
  • Lowering prescription drug costs by letting Medicare negotiate drug prices
  • End “surprise billing” from out-of-network hospitals and doctors
  • Use Gold plans as the benchmark for determining tax credits instead of Silver plans (Silver plans are less comprehensive, and less expensive, than Gold plans; and more comprehensive/expensive than Bronze plans).

Variations on the above theme have been knocking around in Democratic policy shops since 2015. That was the year that the SCOTUS case King v. Burwell was decided in favor of the ACA. If the ACA had lost, it would have spelled disaster for household premium costs and their ability to get insured. Since the ACA won, policy shops got busy trying to build on it.

Here are some Democratic plans, all of which could fall under the ACA 2.0 rubric.

Public Option

Pedro Rojas holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, on February 5, 2015 in Miami, Florida. JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

When I said above that the ACA emerged bloodied and broken from the legislative battles of 2009/10, I was thinking of one particular chopped off limb: the Public Option.

The Public Option would have allowed a government-run health insurance to compete with private insurance on the exchanges; given the government’s behemoth-like size, it would have driven down premiums and basic healthcare costs.

How it was lost is a story of a Senatorial high-wire act that almost resulted in no ACA at all. The House passed its version of a healthcare bill in the Fall of 2009. Upon the insistence of Pelosi and other members of the House, it included a Public Option (at one point, Pelosi derided a healthcare bill with no Public Option as “kiddie care“). The Senate tussled for months, but eventually could not pull together 60 votes for a Public Option. A Senate bill passed without one on Christmas Eve, 2009. Under threat of a filibuster from Joe Lieberman, they had removed the Public Option.

Even getting to 60 votes without the Public Option had proved to be a challenge. Democrats did not start that term with 60 votes. But then, in April 2009, Arlen Specter defected and joined the Democratic party. In July 2009, Al Franken won his court battle and was finally seated in the Senate as a Democrat. This brought up the total to 60 Democrats.

A month after that, in August 2009. Ted Kennedy passed away after a fight with cancer. While Democrats still had 60 votes—the governor appointed Democrat Paul Kirk in Kennedy’s place—this was not for long. The Special Election of January 2010 brought disaster for Democrats poised to take legislative wins on the ACA: Scott Brown, a Republican, won Kennedy’s seat in MA.

This was devastating for progressive hopes about what the ultimate version of the ACA would look like. The idea had been to come up with a compromise bill somewhere in between the House’s bill that included a Public Option, and a Senate bill that did not. Once they lost that MA Senate seat, passing substantive legislation through a 59-seat Democratic majority became impossible. So, the House swallowed their misgivings about the Senate bill and passed it as it was written in March 2010, with a few minor changes in a second bill.

But it is a new day now. Not only is the ACA hugely more popular that it was at its inception, the two most conservative Democratic Senators (Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson) are gone from the Senate; and Scott Brown, the Republican whose election sabotaged Democratic hopes, is now replaced by progressive champion Senator Warren. As such, there have been several proposals made to bring the Public Option back.

  • The CHOICE Act from Sen. Whitehouse
  • HI Senator Brian Schatz’s bill that would provide a public option with an expanded Medicaid for states. This is sponsored by Sen. Corey Booker, Sen. Sanders, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein among others.
  • Medicare X by Senator Bennett
  • Choose Medicare from Senator Merkley & Murphy. This plan is also called Medicare Part E (for “Everyone”), and is based on Yale Profressor Jacob Hacker’s proposals, described in more detail below. It includes a Public Option that employers can choose to buy into.

And two proposals to permit a Medicare-style Public Option only for people above a certain age:

ACA Upgrade + Public Option

It’s no surprise that every Democratic candidate who has run for President since then proposed at the very least both the small-bore-with-big-impact ACA improvements, and also bringing back ACA’s lost limb—the Public Option. Every one of these plans envisions changes very similar to the ones laid out in the Urban Institute policy papers linked to above..

Other than Bloomberg going with the Silver benchmark and the others going with Gold, these plans are all very similar to each other; and often only differ in emphasis. For example, Biden held up his plan as an alternative to Medicare For All, while Buttigieg framed his as a glide path to Medicare For All. While that difference might help you judge the candidates, it does nothing to help you judge between their plans.

Single Payer

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act participate in a “Save Obamacare” rally in Los Angeles on March 23, 2017.  Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images

People often think of Single Payer as government-run healthcare, but this is not quite right. Because the healthcare would still be provided by privately-run hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and doctors; it is just that their fees are paid by a single, giant payer: the federal government. Consumers can still choose where they want to receive care: they are not “assigned” a hospital.

(This is like Canada’s system for healthcare also informally called “Medicare”; and not really much like the UK’s NIH, where the government also runs the providers, such as hospitals. In the US, the closest thing to the NIH is the Veteran’s Health Administration.)

People also often refer to Single Payer as Medicare For All: this this is also not quite right. Because most such plans envision an expanded set of services than what Medicare currently provides: such as dental, vision, and long-term care.

Under a single-payer system, everyone is automatically enrolled in a government-run insurance company that is funded by taxes. No one pays premiums any more: they are gone. Who is taxed more, and who is taxed less, is the entire ballgame: single-payer plans sketch this out in varying levels of detail.

However, Single Payer systems might still require you to pony up on co-pays, though most envision a yearly out-of-pocket maximum. The reason for this is simple: “free” plans such as this have to discourage running willy-nilly to the doctor or specialist for every little thing that doesn’t necessarily need medical attention.

Another sure-to-be contentious issue is who the Single Payer system actually covers. They all claim “universal” coverage, but who is in the universe? Is it only citizens and permanent residents, or are undocumented immigrants included? Some plans address this head-on, some don’t.

So why is Single Payer better than what we have now? For one thing, everyone is automatically enrolled, with pretty much the same coverage. This means no more medical bankruptcies; government-provided coverage leaves workers free to move between jobs or get out of the workforce for a while without worrying about illnesses tanking their savings.

Single Payer would save massively on administrative costs (though obviously the federal government would be picking up those costs rather than people paying premiums).

Consider the sort of things the current system needs to keep track of: it involves a mish-mash of private insurers, each striking their own deal with providers. Every person covered has their own level of coverage, premium, and out-of-pocket costs based on income. All of this necessitates large billing departments that have to keep track of these details. As journalist Jon Walker says in The Road to Single-Payer:

…traditional Medicare has an overhead cost of 1.8 percent. The average private insurance company has an overhead cost of about 13 percent.

Transitioning to Single Payer

People are extremely risk-averse when it comes to healthcare. This is why the signing of the ACA into law caused nationwide anger even though ultimately it was a small-to-medium-sized change to the existing system that had already been successfully implemented in Massachusetts.

Single-payer advocates have already bowed to this reality by branding it as “Medicare”—thus using the name of a plan that most are familiar with and isn’t scary, even though all Single Payer plans would offer much more than Medicare.

So a lot depends on how we take healthcare in America from Point A to Point B.

Backend Transition and Auto-enrollment

This type of transition aims to minimize disruption by keeping the great bulk of the employer coverage system in place, with one major difference: a new government-provided Medicare-like insurance, that employers can choose to redirect their dollars into, instead of into private insurance. This is why I refer to it as transitioning through the “backend”—it would not be consumer-facing.

Employers can choose to remain with private insurance. But, it would be heavily regulated, both in terms of coverage and in terms of cost: following rules much like the ACA Upgrade plans above. Given these set of rules, the government insurance would most likely be cheaper; thus most employers will prefer to purchase it rather than the private one, with a gradual changeover.

So far it looks like a hefty Public Option. What makes it a Single Payer plan at all? This is because of auto-enrollment. People who do not have coverage would be automatically enrolled into the expanded Medicare-like insurance: in addition, so would all newborns. In a matter of one generation, all would be covered through Single Payer.

The virtue of this sort of plan is to minimize political opposition to the drastic nature of a transition to Single Payer, while getting its foot in the door. Since it is financed by redirecting existing payments into the new program, the “how will you pay for it” question has a ready answer.

There are a number of such plans knocking around in various Democratic policy shops, sketched out in varying levels of detail. But they all owe their intellectual allegiance to Yale’s Jacob Hacker, the man who invented the Public Option.

  • Jacob Hacker’s Medicare for Everyone plan is based on both of these core concepts: an employer option to purchase a Medicare-like plan for employees, and automatic enrollment for the uninsured and newborns. It, in turn, was based on his own Health Care for America plan from 2007.
  • Healthcare expert Jon Walker’s MICA (Medical Insurance and Care for All) from 2017
  • The Center for American Progress came out with their Medicare Extra for All plan in 2018. It rolls up Medicaid and CHIP into their new Medicare-like plan, with a Public Option for both employees and employers as laid out above, and auto-enrollment for newborns and uninsured. Even in the years before everyone is covered through government-plans, it gets to universal coverage—Ezra Klein of Vox explains how.
  • Rep. DeLauro and Rep. Schakowsky’s bill introduced in Congress in 2019, called Medicare for America, that is based on CAP’s proposal. It is described here at Vox by its intellectual progenitor, Jacob Hacker.

Sometimes these sorts of plans are seen as Single Payer with a Private Option: in other words, the default choice for most would be government-funded Single Payer, but consumers would have the option to buy private insurance instead.

Frontend Transition

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a health care rally in San Francisco on September 22, 2017.
 Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For many years, Rep. John Conyers introduced a “Medicare For All” bill in each session of Congress. By the millennium, the Medicare program had become quite popular, and it was trusted by lawmakers as capable of reducing costs. Although the notion of “Single Payer” had been created by the doctors’ group Physicians for National Health Program (PNHP) in the 1980s, by 2003, when Rep. Conyers first introduced his bill H.R.676, Medicare had become the most often cited vehicle for instituting a Single Payer system. In recent years, Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced a more detailed version of the Medicare For All bill in the House, and Sen. Sanders introduced one in the Senate.

What all of these bills have in common is that they both transition to the full system by gradually expanding the age groups covered by Medicare. Rep. Jayapal’s bill does this over two years, while Sen. Sanders bill does this over four years. This is why I call it a “frontend” transition—it is consumer-facing.

There are other differences between the House Jayapal bill and the Sanders Senate bill. According to Single Payer activist Kip Sullivan, Jayapal’s bill is a true Single Payer bill, while Sanders’s bill is not. This is because Jayapal’s bill includes a provision to set budgets for hospitals (much like the federal government sets budgets for fire departments), while Sanders’s bill does not.

According to Sanders’s bill, the federal government does not, in fact, pay hospitals directly. Rather, it makes payments to ACOs—these organizations are the latest version of “managed care”—a sort of hybrid of hospital chains and private insurance companies (Kaiser Permanente is an example). Thus, Sanders’s bill cannot set budgets for hospitals: it sets premiums for ACOs instead. This means it foregoes the major cost-containment feature available to the Jayapal plan.

As Kip Sullivan says in this interview: “Single Payer with ACOs is an oxymoron.”

Transitioning through States as Laboratory

After decades of failures of health care reform in the US, the Affordable Care Act finally passed after Massachusetts implemented a similar plan successfully. Obamacare for the country followed RomneyCare in a state, four years after.

We now think of Canada as a country where citizens harmoniously voted in a Single Payer system. But Single Payer was first implemented in the 1960s in a single province: in Saskatchewan, where the proposal led to widespread protests and doctors’ strikes. The government pushed through regardless. Compared to the first implementation of Single Payer in a province, the transition to it in the entire nation was relatively smooth and quick. Within ten years of the doctors’ strike, all of Canada was covered by Single Payer.

States often act as laboratories that countries use to judge the practicality of plans and gain political support.

In the case of Single Payer, the States-As-Laboratories in the US has had a shaky start. Green Mountain Care in Vermont, which was to be a version of Single Payer (Sen. Sanders later picked up a similar plan under his bill), failed just as the Affordable Care Act was being implemented in the country. It failed for one primary reason: they could not find a way to pay for it. The doubled state budget would have required higher state taxes and payroll taxes, neither of which were palatable.

At the same time as Green Mountain Care failed, the ACA was offering dollars to states who expanded their Medicaid program. Many states took advantage of it, including Vermont. If those federal dollars could have been rerouted into paying for a brand new Single Payer program, could it have bridged the gap and stayed afloat?

Rep. Ro Khanna of California has released a bill that addresses this very shortfall. Called State-based Universal Health Care Act, it provides federal dollars and regulatory flexibility to states that want to experiment with universal healthcare (including Single Payer). He wrote this bill responding to a call from California’s Governor, but if this plan passes, it is quite likely that at least one state out of fifty will implement a version of Single Payer; and show the way to the other forty-nine.

“Two-stage rocket booster” Transition

I will admit I am stealing Charles Gaba’s colorful phraseology to describe Elizabeth Warren’s plan for transitioning to Single Payer.

As far as I am aware, hers was the only plan that not only included multiple planned bills, but also separately mapped out Executive Actions that are within a President’s power to take unilaterally, all as steps in a roadmap to full Single Payer.

The Executive Actions she would have taken are obvious. The sabotage of healthcare by Trump has all been done by choosing to not enforce regulations and defend laws; those can simply be reversed by the next President: laws regarding coverage of preexisting conditions, banning junk plans, etc.

In terms of legislation, Warren’s roadmap included all of the ideas I have outlined above, but as milestones, instead of as the final destination. It included ideas from her own ACA Upgrade bill, CHIPA. It included a Public Option of the kind proposed by Rep. Stabenow, that could pass through budget reconciliation with 50 votes. It included automatic enrollment for the uninsured, along the lines of the Medicare for America bill mentioned above.

And then the money shot: if these transitional steps are completed, instituting a full Medicare For All bill, like the one proposed by Sen. Sanders, would be a relatively mild proposition.

If you are interested in a deeper dive, Charles Gaba has one; and of course you can go to the source.

Warren may have left the race (much to my dismay), but her roadmap is still out there, sketched out in great detail: ready for the next Democratic President to take up whoever and whenever that might be.

Further Reading:

  1. Charles Gaba’s website ACA Signups is chock-full of useful information
  2. Vox is a wonk’s paradise, in particular Sarah Kliff and Dylan Scott
  3. Vox’s The Weeds podcast often has deep-dive discussions
  4. Jon Walker’s series in ShadowProof is extremely valuable

Don’t fall into the Electability Trap

No matter who the nominee, they will be slimed by the right-wing machine. Vote for who you like, but steel yourselves to the coming onslaught.

Welcome, passionate Democratic Primary voter. You love the candidate you have chosen, just like I love the one that I have chosen. It is your very love for your candidate (whoever that might be) that fills you with dark imaginings about all the others. In every candidate not your own, you see a laughing specter of Trump. If we nominate [Insert Candidate Here] we will be handing over the election to Trump in a cakewalk. Is that what you want, you say, passionately, eyes wide with concern.

No. That’s not what I want.

But I’ve got news for you. This is a country where a black man with the middle name of “Hussain” (and a pastor who once said “God damn America”) won twice. Handily. Once, against a war hero and longtime Senator. And once against a man who looked like he was out of central casting for the role of President. This is a country that elected a buffoonish conman over a former Secretary of State in a victory that no one expected, least of all the buffoonish conman and his team.

Any of these candidates can win against Trump. Yes, I mean any—including the Socialist Jew, the young gay-married Vet, the women, the touchy-feely fuddy-duddy, the Asian book-writer. How do I know this? For proof, I offer the man sitting in the White House. QED.

But looking at it another way, every single candidate running for the Democratic nomination can lose. Every single one of them will piss off important constituencies. Every single one of them has glaring inadequacies. Every single one of those inadequacies will be endlessly flogged on Fox News and some that don’t even exist and have to be made up. They will make them up. There is no candidate who will emerge unscathed from the right-wing slime machine.

In fact, it is almost guaranteed that Trump will open bogus investigations into the Democratic nominee, whipping up a frenzy. Remember Emails? Uranium One? All of which came from nothing, amounted to nothing, but did their damage.

Let alone the slime that will come from the Right. The nominee will also face deep suspicion from other blocs within the Democratic party, no matter whether it is a centrist or a leftist who wins. The mutual recrimination is already intense and will only grow.

Think about the constituencies in the Democratic coalition that the nominee must please. The young (mostly white) Progressives. The hard-core Lefties. The White Working Class that inhabits the diners that beat reporters haunt. The Hipsters in the coffee shops that Jacob Wohl haunts. The Moderate voter who is always seeking, but never finding, bipartisanship. The Centrist, equally frightened by Socialism and Fascism. The Racist who nonetheless is very angry about being called a Racist. The older church-going African Americans. The young Latinos who resent being thought of as solely concerned with immigration. The Farmers. The Coal-miners. The Toothless. The Heartless. The Penniless. The Wall-Streeters. The Religious. The Spiritual. The Atheists. The Celebrity-obsessed. The Conspiracy-theorists. The Political Pundits and their doppelgangers, the Political Analysts.

Why, it is a miracle that anybody wins, ever.

In fact, among the Democratic field today, you can argue and second-guess every single candidate into Trumpian Hell in short order. In fact, I’ll show you how it’s done.

These attacks may be impressionistic and juvenile but the Democrat will be facing a juvenile opponent with a juvenile media as the peanut gallery. I lay these out there so we can steel our spines and anticipate them.

The Oppo dump

Joe Biden

How he will be attacked: Old. Gaffe-prone. Is he facing cognitive decline? Fuddy-duddy with old-fashioned notions of women. Treated Anita Hill shabbily in the 1990s. Voted for the Iraq War. Long career with many questionable votes. Likes Republicans (is he insane?) and thinks he can work with Mitch McConnell; will give away the farm instead. Trumped up accusations about corruption in Ukraine might have an impact. Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden. Uses old-fashioned language like “malarkey.”

Was he really sniffing that one woman’s hair?

His pluses: Will bring normalcy back. Has done this before. Good guy and basically nice. Been through personal tragedies which taught him empathy. Trump is obviously terrified of him to the point of getting impeached over trying to muddy him up.

Says “malarkey” frequently. People love that (think of the SOTU drinking games). Experienced. Reminds people of the halcyon days of the Obama Administration, when all was love and harmony, green fields grew golden corn, and Russia was that country that had Olympics or something.

Bernie Sanders

How he will be attacked: Old. Had a heart attack. Yells. Angry. Socialist. If you think Middle America will vote for Breadline Bernie you’re insane.

Suspiciously Soviet-friendly—he actually honeymooned in—wait, in Moscow? Who does that when he could have gone to Paris or Rome? Why on earth were Soviet officials congratulating him for winning a mayoral race in the People’s Republic of Burlington? Why were the Russians trying to help him in 2016? It says so in the Mueller Report. Read it for yourself. What shenanighans did his wife pull at Burlington College that the FBI was investigating?

What has he done in his 30 years in Congress besides naming Post Offices? Why did he call the first female nominee of any major party “unqualified”? Why doesn’t he control the social media trolls who attack anyone—women, especially—who dare to say a word against Saint Bernie, sometimes with snake emojis? Does he really think he can convince people in McConnell’s state to support Medicare For All? That is a fantasy, and he is a fantasist. If that could be done, why doesn’t Vermont have single-payer?

His pluses: He has created a movement, not just a base. His candidacy has inspired a generation to fight for Medicare For All and other basic things that other Western nations all provide. He is authentic, has never changed his message for different audiences, and nothing if not consistent. Anti-Iraq-war from the beginning. In 2016, he polled better than Clinton in head-to-heads against Trump. Seems to have a similar appeal for the populists and the rurals that Trump had. Joe Rogan has endorsed him; and that is about 100 times more meaningful than a New York Times endorsement in this fallen world.

Elizabeth Warren

How she will be attacked: Female. Contains ovaries. Speaks of female things like childcare and selfies and her Aunt Bee. Who cares about her Aunt Bee? Or Cee or Dee or other relatives she might have. Tries too hard to be the populist with those folksy stories and comes across as fake. Is a school teacher, and looks like she might scold you. Wall Street hates her and Wall Street is the engine of all that is good. Scoldy, angry, female. Don’t tell me what to do, school teacher.

She’s a liar. She lied about being Native American. She can never survive being called Pocahontas and Fox News will rebrand itself as Pocahontas News if she is the nominee.

Centrists think she is too far left, more-or-less the same as Sanders. Leftists think she may as well start heading up Goldman Sachs.

Her pluses: She is tough, smart, pragmatic, and has the deepest policy understanding of any of the candidates. She has shown she can solve problems. Created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Wall Street is legitimately terrified of her. Has the best understanding of the structural inadequacies of the country and how to solve them with detailed, workable solutions.

Pete Buttigieg

How he will be attacked: Who is this guy? Looks like Alfred E. Neuman from MAD Magazine. A mayor of some small town somewhere? What makes him think he can be President? What does he know, what has he done? Wasn’t even a good mayor. Marijuana prosecutions in South Bend went up disproportionately for African Americans while he was mayor. People of color don’t think much of him.

He’s gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But did I mention he’s gay? The country has moved beyond homophobia. But have those 80,000 voters in WI, PA, and MI?

A McKinsey consultant and it shows. Isn’t that the nihilistic company that puts lipstick on some pigs, including Saudi Arabia and the maker of OxyContin? Or something? His responses sound rehearsed, as though they’ve were produced during a brainstorming session at a consulting company workshop. A master of platitudes who can impress people at first glance but what’s beneath the facade? He’s the teacher’s pet front-bencher that everyone hated.

He is good friends with Mark Zuckerberg and takes advice from him. Will he be tough on big tech? Sure doesn’t look like it. Big tech billionaires love him for a reason. If Neoliberalism was given a human form, it would be Pete Buttigieg.

His pluses: Young, fresh-faced, so unlikely to have a lot of baggage that he can be pilloried with. A Vet. Says reasonable, smart-sounding things. Not divisive. Seems capable-ish.

Amy Klobuchar

How she will be attacked: Female. Many people will not vote for woman. Boss from hell. Throws things and yells when a subordinate displeases her. Vindictive. Eats salad with a comb…or was it a hairbrush? Did she pick out the hair at least?

Inspires no one. Flat affect and moderate policies. Not known for any policies in particular aside from airy generalities. Ex-cop. Sucks on environmental issues. If you want same-old same-old, vote for Klobuchar. You’re not going to have “Klobucharmentum”, like ever. Can never fill a stadium. Hey, have you seen the number of people at a Trump rally? Beat that!

Her pluses: Practical, calming, humorous and comes across as someone who’s got this. Can handle it. No Drama Klobuchah. Just efficiency and competence in a nice Midwestern package. One of the most popular Senators in the country. After Trump, people will be yearning for the Basic Girl of American politics.

The Woman Thing and Other Things

I get it. Democrats lost an election in 2016 and we are all suffering from PTSD. Clinton is a woman. Does that mean, therefore, that “this country will never elect a woman”?

No, of course not. This country did elect a woman.

Yes, I know she lost by a surgical strike exactly where it mattered: in the heart of the electoral college. But think of the forces that needed to align against her in order to pull that off. Trump had come through the Apprentice, a ten-year informercial about his skills as a businessman framed as a “reality” show, even though we know now that it was not, by any means, reality. He was always destined to get partisan Republican votes in a strongly partisan country; plus, Clinton had faced over two decades of propaganda, with Wikileaks and the Russians pitching in. Despite this, she almost won.

No candidate will escape Trump’s jabs, and the media will dutifully play along. Each jab at each potential candidate jabs at the very soul, increasing our worry that perhaps that will be the killer shot. How can we choose? No one actually knows who is electable. In the absence of data, we permit our fears to drive us.

But look. We need not ascribe magical powers to Trump. He’s no political savant. He has run in two elections in his life. He won the first (the Republican Primary of 2016) quite emphatically, because his demagoguery against immigrants and Obama-hatred was tailor-made for the Republican base, and none of the others felt the resentment that the base jived with.

He won the second election by a hair.

By an absolute razor thin, feather-light, puff-of-wind; by a flap of a butterfly’s wings: under 80,000 votes in 3 states.

Since then, many who thought he’d be the competent businessman portrayed in the Apprentice reality show are tired of his bullshit. Yes, his base has stuck with him. We can’t shake them. But they don’t matter. He needs more than his base to win.

Democrats are in a solid position. The midterms of 2018 showed that voters are fired up; the turnout was higher for a midterm than any election since 1914. Those who learned to distrust Trump by 2018 have not learned to love him since.

Democrats can lose. Elections are full of contingencies; Nate Silver, statistician extraordinaire, pontificated that if it hadn’t been for the Comey Letter in the last week before the election, Clinton might well have won. One cannot draw grand conclusions from a loss that narrow.

Any such contingency can arise again. We will have to fight for every vote. It’s going to be an insane dash for the finish line no matter what. But Trump is incredibly beatable. And any of these Democrats can beat him.

Why I am voting for Elizabeth Warren

I will vote for any Democratic nominee against Trump. But I do have my favorites.

Warren’s campaign has recently framed her as the unity candidate.

For those who like her, this formulation makes sense. She started life as a Republican from Oklahoma. Her brothers are Republican. She understands heartland culture from the inside. She is a capitalist down to her bones—she just wants to fix it so it works for everyone. This has led her to one of the most progressive platforms of all candidates in the Democratic field. This, as I imagine she would say, is a reflection of how far into the direction of oligarchy our particular version of capitalism has strayed.

On the other hand, for those who don’t like her, she is easily pilloried. For centrist Democrats, her antagonistic stance towards corporations and desire to restructure great swaths of the economy make her a Leftie, barely distinguishable from Sanders. For the Sanders Left, her friendliness towards the idea of capitalism makes her a Neoliberal, the same as Clinton, Obama, or Biden.

I can’t tell whether this Rorscharch nature of her candidacy is a strength for the General Election or not. Will it enable all stripes of voters to see her candidacy as a solution to the dissolution of Trump? Or will voters be demagogued into believing the worst of her, no matter what their ideology?

Oh, did I forget to mention that she is a woman?

But this is neither here nor there. The General Election appeal of a candidate is impossible for me to surmise. I can be afraid of aspersions that will be cast by this team or that team. But the Primary season is one for making one’s choice, not guessing at the choices of others, that we only have a dim understanding of in any case. This is a time for choosing.

This is why I am voting for Warren in the CA primary. I hope she wins.

From the time she came into national politics, I have been impressed by two things: one, her intellectual heft at being able to home in on the heart of the problem and identify the exact thing to do that would solve it. As a software engineer, this impresses me perhaps more than it would a normal person—she comes across as a fantastic debugger.

And second, her ability to connect intellectual theorizing down to the ground level, with real people and their lives.

The former quality may be called competence, or pragmatism, take your pick. A couple examples. Of all candidates running for President, she was the first to home in on the exact structural problem that strangulates progressive legislation in the Senate: the 60-vote threshold. This is by no means a built-in rule of the Senate. It isn’t sacred. It’s just the weaponization of an arcane rule that permits filibusters, that lay fallow until Mitch McConnell weaponized it to block everything. Warren has suggested dropping it. This excites me greatly.

That she is competent is best shown by the work she did setting up and staffing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She stood this up against the odds, and it struck fear into the hearts of many Wall Street miscreants. Her Presidency would be a continuation of this work.

The second quality that impressed me may be characterized as empathy. One small example will suffice. During the IA caucuses, her campaign is offering free childcare to caucus-goers, offering a slate of options for each child. It’s one thing to tout the need for government-provided family leave, as Warren famously does by using her reliance on her own Aunt Bea as an example. It’s another to connect that policy with what is happening in the here and now.

In addition, she has surprised me by being a spectacular retail politician. You may scorn the selfie lines and the First Dog Bailey giant cutouts. But it helps create a groundswell and excitement among the grassroots and helps to feed a movement. If she becomes President, these skills will come in handy selling policies in towns across the country.

It also helps negate the image of her as being angry. Two people (make that three) have said to me that they see her as angry, and that detracts from her appeal.

I suppose she is angry. I am too. But, I don’t see her as fundamentally an an angry person, but rather, as a happy warrior, bouncing up on stage, dancing clumsily to music—situationally angry at where we in the country find ourselves.

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

Who has leverage in the impeachment fight?

Who actually has leverage in the Impeachment fight? Is it Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, or Trump?

The House passed two Articles of Impeachment back before Christmas on December 18th. Meanwhile McConnell (Senate Majority Leader) and Lindsey Graham (Chairman of Judiciary Committee) were both signalling that the Senate trial would be a total sham and that they would instantly acquit Trump.

This is why, after rushing through impeachment due to its national security implications, Pelosi became reluctant to hand it over to the Senate urgently. Not a surprise, because no prosecutor wants their case to be put through a sham trial. Indeed, although people unfailingly try to read into her public statements to intuit motive, she has been fairly upfront: she wants to know what rules the Senate will agree upon before she sends the articles over.

Since then, people have argued about who has the most leverage in the impeachment fight. In order to judge this we have to figure out what the incentives are on each side.

Best outcomes for each player:

Pelosi & House Dems: (1) Senate holds a fair trial with witnesses; convicts Trump. (2) Failing that, continued scrutiny on Trump’s crimes, and plenty of heat on GOP Senators for running a sham trial.

McConnell & GOP Senators: (1) The House to not have impeached at all. (2) Failing that, articles of impeachment to arrive at the Senate as soon as possible, so that the trial can be quick and painless without TV drama; acquittal without much focus on what Trump crimes they might be covering up.

Trump: (1) The House to not have impeached at all. (2) Failing that, a Senate trial full of drama: Hunter Biden, Pelosi, and Schiff called to the witness stand; grandstanders Jim Jordan & Matt Gaetz yelling and disrupting; chaos; for nothing to make any sense; acquittal and an abject apology.

Worst outcomes for each player:

Pelosi & House Dems: (1) A super-quick Senate trial, no witnesses, over before one can blink: and exoneration for Trump. (2) The public losing interest in impeachment.

McConnell & GOP Senators: (1) Continued drip-drip of impeachment-related news; (2) Continued focus on the sham Senate trial; (3) Articles to drop into the Senate at any moment without much warning, perhaps during a low cycle for Trump, or during a vulnerable moment for GOP senators.

Trump: (1) Conviction. (2) Non-acquittal—have the impeachment charge hanging over his head. (3) A “proper” Senate trial with witnesses, serious questions, proper handling of processes by Chief Justice Roberts.

So, who has leverage?

With this laid out, one can see that no one is getting best outcome. Trump/McConnell aren’t getting the House to un-impeach (even if that were possible), and Pelosi is probably not getting a conviction in the Senate and possibly not even a fair trial.

But Pelosi is already sitting on her 2nd best outcome, while avoiding Trump and McConnell getting theirs. And she is doing this while avoiding what she wants least: she postpones the inevitability of a sham trial, while the constant will she/won’t she news dribbling out of the House keep the public mind on impeachment. She gets to bask in constant breaking of impeachment-related news: the latest being Lev Parnas’s phone records being released to the House. Finally, she also has Trump and McConnell stewing in one of their least favored situations, at least for the moment.

So I ask you: what is her incentive to deliver articles to the Senate, without assurances that the trial won’t be a sham one?


Indeed, through the din of pundits arguing this way and that, the actions of the players have confirmed the landscape of leverage as I’ve laid out above.

Pelosi hasn’t said much about when she intends to proceed. When asked, she has been consistent: some variant of wanting to see what the rules of the Senate are going to be before she decides on House Managers, or how to proceed. While McConnell and Trump keep rattling the cages.

One day McConnell dares Pelosi to send along the House’s “shoddy work product“. Another day Trump claims the holdup is “unfair” while Pence’s Chief of Staff states confidently that she won’t be able to hold onto them for long. Then McConnell chides Pelosi for the “fantasy” of daring to believe she can shape the trial; while Lindsey Graham tries to “break the deadlock” by moving forward without the articles being received at the Senate. Then McConnell colorfully says Democrats are “floundering” and warns that if Pelosi doesn’t send the articles over soon, that the Senate will move on to other business: to this, Pelosi retorted that . This is akin to threatening Pelosi with legislation while they wait: as if to threaten that then the Democrats will be left a dry husk of a pointless impeachment.

The one thing they haven’t done is stay silent. From the day the Articles of Impeachment passed the House, through their recess, till today, they have kept up the goading.


I believe they are bluffing. For the reasons I listed above, I believe Pelosi can afford to wait as long as she wants, perhaps forever. She is the master of the wait. She withstood intense pressure from her own caucus to start impeachment until she was good and ready; she can face down McConnell without flinching. Trump is already impeached.


McConnell and Graham must recuse: how to make them

Two Republican Senators have made public comments that show that they cannot be fair jurors in Trump’s impeachment trial. They must recuse.

On December 12th, Senate Majority Leader McConnell went on Hannity’s show on Fox News and laid an egg. He reassured Hannity’s viewers that there was no way Trump would be removed from office and that he was coordinating closely with the White House counsel for the upcoming Senate impeachment trial, going so far as to say that he would “take his cues” from the White House team.

For normal Senate business this would be unremarkable. The Senate Majority Leader coordinating with the White House on Senate business, particularly if they are both of the same party, is quite normal. But he wasn’t talking about normal Senate business.

Senate trials for impeachment are a unique setting, especially impeachment of the President. The trial will be presided over by Chief Justice Roberts. The case for the prosecution will be presented by House Managers—members of the House or counsel selected by them to prosecute the articles of impeachment. The President will be defended by his lawyers. Each side can summon witnesses to the stand.

That leaves the Senators. They will have one job: to shut up and listen. The normally garrulous bunch are not permitted to talk: according to Rule 19, they must not “engage in colloquy“. Any questions they might have must be put in writing and handed to the Chief Justice.

This is because, during the Senate trial, Senators play the role of Jurors. They will take a Juror’s Oath, to be administered by the Chief Justice: ‘‘I solemnly swear … that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.’’ Their role is to be impartial and weigh the facts presented at trial.

This is why Mitch McConnell’s statement was so inappropriate. He was not only reneging on the promise to be impartial, but also colluding with the defense.

Continue reading “McConnell and Graham must recuse: how to make them”

Excuses, excuses!

Since the Whistleblower’s Complaint, Republicans have scrambled to find excuses for Trump. The only problem? The excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny and often contradict each other.

Remember when Trump’s call with Ukraine leader Zelensky was “perfect” with “no quid pro quo” except that his Chief of Staff said yes, there was a quid pro quo, it happens all the time and we all need to get over it? Remember when Republicans stormed the SCIF, courted arrest, and ordered pizza—but the hearing they tried to block still took place, if delayed?

While the Ukraine story that Trump is being impeached over remains a simple one—that Trump held back Ukraine’s military aid in return for two “favors”: that they announce an investigation into Biden, and exonerate Russia from the 2016 election attack—Republicans under the glare of scrutiny have twisted this way and that, scrambled to find one excuse after another, watched their excuses crumble, and scrambled to find new ones, even though they might contradict the old ones.

None of it matters, because the idea is to confuse and obfuscate: a lights-and-sounds show that will distract from the basic fact that Trump has no good defenses left. All of these excuses have been debunked by experts and some actually contradict each other.

Continue reading “Excuses, excuses!”

A masterclass in how right-wing propaganda is manufactured

This NYT interview with two Ukrainian oligarchs gives an inside view into how right-wing dirt peddled by the likes of John Solomon and Sean Hannity is manufactured

(Featured image credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Source: NYT.)

NYT published an astonishing article this morning about Rudy Giuliani’s interactions with two Ukrainian oligarchs, in that it gives an inside view into how right-wing dirt is manufactured by such luminaries as John Solomon (formerly at the Hill) and Sean Hannity.

Background

Rudy Giuliani had been attempting to get Ukraine leaders to announce an investigation into Biden for almost a year. He was on the verge of getting the last Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to do so, when Poroshenko lost the election to newbie politician Volodomyr Zelensky on 21st April 2019.

This story picks up when Rudy, with his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman (now under indictment at SDNY) scramble to influence new President Zelensky to continue the sham investigation of Biden.

Continue reading “A masterclass in how right-wing propaganda is manufactured”

No, Mr. Zuckerberg, it’s not about free speech. It’s about your propaganda machine.

Facebook’s touting of free speech is deceptive. They want you to forget how their platform works.

In a recent speech, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, claimed that their promotion of known lies in political ads is “something we have to live with” because of Facebook’s devotion to the principle of free speech. He cast this decision in the same light as the civil rights struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Lives Matter.

A couple weeks later, he informed Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a hearing that the reason they do not fact-check political ads is that they “want people to see that the politician has lied”—thus, once again touting free expression as the animating principle behind their policy.

Nice.

That’s one way to explain away Facebook’s bumbling, incoherent, opaque, and self-serving rules about content moderation on their platform.

Continue reading “No, Mr. Zuckerberg, it’s not about free speech. It’s about your propaganda machine.”

Whistleblower, blow thy whistle

A cinematic treatment of the Whistleblower’s Complaint.

The Scene: Morning of July 25, situation room

Picture this, if you will: It is the morning of July 25. The US President is in the Situation Room speaking on the phone to the new leader of an allied nation. All is routine: a dozen staffers listen in. Transcripts will automatically be produced. That conversation will be treated as “policy” and distributed to the Cabinet and others. None of them suspect anything amiss. The conversation begins with pleasantries.

The allied nation is Ukraine. Volodomyr Zelenskyy has become President a scant two months prior. He used to be a comedian who played a President on TV. He got elected because he promised to drain the swamp of corruption.

Volodomyr Zelenskyy (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The US President often speaks like a mob boss. He used to be a reality show star who played a successful CEO on TV. He hit upon the slogan “drain the swamp” by accident and milked it to become the President of the United States.

Continue reading “Whistleblower, blow thy whistle”

Twelve Angry Trump Voters

A black-and-white film from 1957 has a strange resonance with contemporary Trumpist America

The 1957 Sidney Lumet classic Twelve Angry Men is a fable about how control of a small tribe shifts from one faction to another.

The “tribe” is actually a jury of twelve men, assembled to rule on the question of guilt of a teenager. But quite apart from the arguments, one can see how one faction (the “Not Guilty” one) starts off powerless, and through moral suasion, ends up snatching the majority from the “Guilty” faction. At the end of the film, the “Guilty” faction ends up where the “Not Guilty” faction had begun: composed of just one man, eyes of the crowd on him, asking him to explain himself.

Now I may be obsessive and I may be a fool—after all, this film was made in 1957—but in it I saw an allegory for contemporary Trumpist America. I saw how xenophobic and authoritarian viewpoints can score early victories and appear invincible. I saw how the smallest crack in that facade can permit moral arguments through. I saw how opening of that smallest crack can find adherents and grow into a movement.

Continue reading “Twelve Angry Trump Voters”