Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 December 2007

Vote Your Hearts, Iowa!

(A Message to Iowa’s Democrats)

Responsibility is yours. Vote one way, and you’ll begin a coronation. Vote another, and you’ll make the nation think. All eyes are on you as you caucus.

What do the rest of us ask of you? To parse the charges and countercharges? To unwind the lies and half truths? No, those are jobs for pundits. All we ask is your hearts.

With an eye on the polls, one leading candidate will tell you what she thinks you want to hear. Sometimes she twists herself into knots.

Do you trust her? Do you really believe that failing to reform health care is “experience”? That voting for war with the crowd—twice—is “leadership”?

Does having known Benazir Bhutto make up for not publishing specific plans to catch bin Laden and stop terrorists, as Barack Obama did? Are we picking an international celebrity or someone who can solve our most difficult and dangerous problems? There’s a difference between knowing people and knowing how.

Some of you may remember Richard Nixon’s “secret plan for peace” in Vietnam. To win the 1968 election, he promised he had one. But he never revealed it. We all know how that “plan” ended: in humiliating defeat after Nixon resigned in disgrace.

Do you really want to bet your children’s future on Hillary Clinton’s secret plans, which her “experience” tells her she would be “naïve” to reveal to us voters? Wouldn’t that be really “rolling the dice”?

Hillary Clinton says that talking to leaders of countries like Iran, Syria and North Korea without preconditions would be “naïve.” Barack Obama says, “Not talking doesn’t make us look tough, it makes us look arrogant.” Which view makes more sense?

Another leading candidate promises real change. Both he and Obama will tell you the truth. They’ll even tell you what you don’t want to hear.

But beyond that the two diverge wildly. One sees enemies here at home that we must “fight.” He girds for an internal war. The other seeks unity.

Haven’t we had enough division? We’re in a deep hole—of debt, failing energy, internal discord, foreign wars, and lost honor. We dug that hole ourselves, mostly by fighting among ourselves. We’ve got culture wars, ideological wars, religious discord, political wars, and conflict over war itself.

For seven years we’ve wasted our nation’s vast potential in internal strife. Isn’t it time for unity?

We can dig ourselves out of our hole if all we pull together. If we keep on fighting amongst ourselves, we are lost.

There is only one Democrat who’ll level with you, bring real change, and foster unity. You know who he is.

Some have called Barack Obama “inexperienced” and “naïve.” But hasn’t that been the charge against all great Americans?

George Washington was “inexperienced” in European warfare. Our Royalists thought him “naïve” to lead a ragtag band of citizen-farmers against the mighty British Empire. But he did, and they won.

When Abe Lincoln became president, he had less experience in elective office than Barack Obama does right now. He was “naïve” to think we could end slavery, so deeply embedded in the South’s culture and economy. But he crushed slavery and preserved the Union.

FDR was “naïve” to lead an isolationist country unprepared for war against the world’s most fearsome military machine. But he did. The peace built on his leadership and our nation’s sacrifice thrives in Europe and Asia today.

Ronald Reagan was just a screen actor. He had only eight years in elective office when he became president. (Obama will have twelve.) Reagan was “naïve” to ask Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.” But he did, and the wall came down.

At every turning point in our nation’s history, “naïve” leaders made big dreams come true. “Go along to get along” has never been our credo. We left that sort of “experience” behind in 1776.

Now we have new Royalists. Our dynastic leaders—Bushes and Clintons alike—are beginning to think they were born to rule. They expect us to anoint them without even knowing their plans.

Without taking us into her confidence, Clinton wants us to trust her “experience.” But on issue after issue she won’t tell us what she will do. She thinks a “blind trust” is something voters give a winning candidate.

So the light of our dreams is dimming. We all know it. Our honor abroad is tarnished. Danger mounts with no official plan to face it. Our middle class is sinking.

We need someone who believes in hope and unity and has real plans to fight terrorists. We need someone with enough confidence in his own judgment to share those plans with us before we vote. We need someone “naïve” enough to think we can make the light shine again.

Obama is that person. You know it in your hearts. So vote your hearts, Iowa, and show us all the way.

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26 December 2007

If Barack and Hillary Were White Males


The movie Crash taught us a lot about unconscious biases. Many of us have them.

Conscious racism or sexism shocks most of us. The idea of deliberately suppressing the African-American vote, or of banning women from working as doctors or engineers, appalls us.

Yet many of us harbor unconscious biases. We say things like “Obama should run for vice president; he’ll help the Dems attract the black vote.” Or we say, “I don’t think Senator Clinton could be strong on defense.” Without a second thought, we can “reason” that a candidate with African ancestry ought to appeal only to people who share that ancestry, or that a woman, as a member of “weaker sex,” might fail to promote the national defense.

I use a mental trick to root out my own unconscious bias. In my imagination, I “turn off” the characteristic that might provoke bias, leaving everything else unchanged.

So I imagine that Barack Obama is Barry O’Brien, whose father was Irish, not native Kenyan. For Hillary Clinton, I imagine that she is the husband of our very first female president, who was greatly beloved but whose term in office was marred by sexual scandal and resulting impeachment. To avoid confusion with the real Bill, I don’t call my imaginary male Hillary “Bill.” Instead, I call him “Harriman,” the husband of Beth Clinton, our first female president.

So how would Barry O’Brien stack up against Harriman Clinton, all else being the same? Both are white males of Irish ancestry, so stereotypes can’t help me decide, even subconsciously. Nor can issues of gender. Women’s understandable hunger to see one of their own as national leader, nearly ninety years after first getting the vote, has already been satisfied. So the only thing that matters is who among the two Irish-American males is the better candidate.

The two have comparable political experience. By the time inauguration day 2009 rolls around, Harriman will have served in elective office for eight years, all as junior U.S. senator from New York. Barry will have served in elective office for a total of twelve years, eight as state senator in Illinois, and four as the junior U.S. senator from Illinois.

The quality of their political experience is different. All of Harriman’s eight years in office will be at the national level. Only four of Barry’s twelve years will be. Harriman also experienced eight years as the presidential spouse. Barry’s earlier experience is more direct and personal: he spent time teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and more time organizing some of the toughest parts of Chicago. Harriman watched his wife run the country and participated in government, both in “pillow talk” and in his own valiant but failed effort to create a viable health-care system.

It’s hard for me to compare these different experiences. I sense that Harriman has spent more time on the national stage. But I worry about his ability to solve a real-world crisis, as distinguished from a political one. I don’t believe for a moment that all problems are political and have political solutions, but I sometimes think that Harriman does. As for Barry, I worry about his lack of direct involvement with military affairs and his minimal direct acquaintance with foreign leaders.

The two candidates’ records in the U.S. Senate are similar. Barry served on the Foreign Relations Committee, Harriman on the Armed Services Committee. Both got personal exposure to the key issues of our day: terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither has his name as chief sponsor on any important or noteworthy piece of legislation. That’s not unusual; the U.S. Senate is famously a body in which junior members are seen but not heard. So there’s not much to distinguish Barry from Harriman there.

In the end, I conclude that experience is a wash. Any preference depends on other factors.

It doesn’t trouble me that the candidates’ resumes are not decisive. The presidency is no ordinary job. It changes people, often dramatically. Who would have guessed that George W. Bush, the “uniter, not divider” and a man unequivocally opposed to “nation building,” would become the most divisive president since Reconstruction and embark on a massive but so far failed attempt to rebuild Iraq? To paraphrase the standard disclaimer for stocks and bonds, presidential candidates’ past performance—let alone their statements as candidates—is no guarantee of future results.

So my choice comes down to personal qualities. “Who are these candidates?” I ask myself. Whom do I respect and trust more?

There’s a significant difference in age. Barry would be 47 upon taking office; Harriman would be 61. So there may be a difference in energy and stamina. But I haven’t noticed the older Harriman flagging in the grueling primary campaign. At least he has none of the signs of the heart disease that required his wife Beth to have a triple bypass after leaving office. So I count Barry’s advantage in youth marginal.

That leaves personality, brains, leadership, judgment and character. Since I know neither candidate personally, I have to judge these vital qualities on their public personae and public acts.

Both candidates have their personal quirks, but I like Harriman’s public persona more. He’s sunny and self-confident. Except when refusing to answer a “hypothetical question”—as he does often—Harriman always seems to have a glib and ready answer. In contrast, Barry is sober and a bit too thoughtful; he sometimes seems at a loss for words. Harriman’s artful dodging of questions troubles me, but I give him the edge in personality. He seems more confident and optimistic.

On brains, Barry has a clear edge. His academic record would be the best of any president’s since Woodrow Wilson nearly a century ago. It would make him a good candidate for professor at any law school in the country. Harriman never led his law school’s student journal, nor was he ever a professor.

Barry is also a brilliant writer and inspirational speaker. His position papers on issues are tightly reasoned and insightful, as are his books. His speech on health care has insights into how our society and economy work that, in sheer brilliance, are off the scale. I can’t recall anything that Harriman has said or written that impressed me as brilliant, as distinguished from politically savvy. Barry’s best book (on the need to restore hope in America’s promise) received universal acclaim. Harriman’s most notable book (on communal raising of children) provoked widespread derision from social conservatives. On intellect, Barry earns greater respect.

Leadership is similar. I can’t think of any issue on which Harriman has led the nation. Harriman himself acknowledges failure in his effort to lead on health care during his wife’s presidency, but he “spins” the failure as valuable “experience.” On the Iraq war, Harriman followed the president and the majority in Congress, to his embarrassment and everyone’s regret. In contrast Barry, not yet in the U.S. Senate, was a lone voice of reason trying to keep us out of Iraq.

Barry’s 2002 anti-war speech, given months before our invasion, described with uncanny accuracy exactly the problems that we now face. His ability to predict real-world consequences of policy choices was breathtaking. We desperately need that ability in our next president.

Barry also showed extraordinary understanding and moral leadership in domestic politics. His 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention turned our attention to the terrible damage that Bush’s divisive leadership had caused us and the need to restore our sense of unity and national purpose. That speech was one of the most memorable convention speeches in a generation. Leaders in both parties praised it. I can’t think of anything that Harriman has said or done that commanded such universal admiration.

Even during a grueling campaign, Barry’s leadership continues today. He has turned the nation’s attention to the serious threat still posed by Al Qaeda Central, now in Pakistan. He proposed a detailed plan to meet the threat. Harriman’s response was to accuse him of “inexperience” for having the temerity to raise the issue in public.

More recently, Barry has proposed a bold, new plan to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. That’s an issue he knows lots about. One of his jobs on the Foreign Relations Committee is to oversee the securing and destruction of Russia’s loose nukes. His plan for the future is brilliant, innovative, daring and fundamentally sound. Harriman has not yet responded, but that’s the point: can a candidate lead by responding to others’ initiatives?

The difference in judgment is striking. Harriman supported the president’s war without even reading the relevant intelligence report. Barry opposed it from the beginning, although he had no access to that report. His own brilliance and insight guided him, and his reasons proved entirely accurate.

Now Barry wants to make going after Al Qaeda Central a matter a national priority and a matter of urgent and open national debate. Harriman wants the issue resolved, in secret, by the executive branch without national discussion. Harriman’s first health-care proposal failed because it neglected two important and obvious constituencies—small business and people who liked their current health plans. His current plan has a similar but less glaring flaw. For a candidate whose supposed advantage is political skill, Harriman has had surprising lapses in judgment.

On character the choice is also clear. Harriman has never acknowledged error regarding anything, let alone the Iraq war. His attempt to “spin” his errors of policy and judgment, like his attempt to “spin” his failed health-care proposal as “good experience,” strikes me as fundamentally dishonest. I’d prefer to see him acknowledge error and move on.

There is also a clear difference in the two candidates’ tolerance for corruption. Harriman likes politics as usual. He has made no apology for the corrupt system of campaign financing that he is vigorously exploiting and that is slowly eroding our democracy. Barry is not perfect in that regard, but his heart’s in the right place. He constantly rails against corruption, refuses to take money from lobbyists, and credibly resists the worst temptations of corrupt politics. His own personal finances are simple, transparent and laudable: his money comes from royalties on his briskly selling books. Harriman’s and his wife’s personal finances are far more complex and suspect.

The candidates also differ in openness and transparency. Harriman seems to enjoy the security of the Washington elite. He is comfortable with executive secrecy, as in the case of general plans to crush Al Qaeda. (Specific tactics and strategies of course have to stay secret.) He seems far too ready to sweep real problems under the rug with superficial “spin,” or to deal with them secretly, out of public view. He doesn’t seem to like subjecting his actions to public scrutiny or robust debate. That attitude reminds me too much of Bush and Cheney for me ever to be fully comfortable with Harriman as president.

Finally, there is a recent troubling phenomenon: Harriman’s refusal to engage in normal pre-debate social interaction with his chief rivals, including shaking hands. While that might seem a minor matter, it troubles me. It betrays personal arrogance or insecurity that could be dangerous in a president.

In contrast, I can’t think of anything about Barry that makes me doubt his fitness for office. He’s nearly unique in his honesty and openness. In speech after speech and proposal after proposal, he has stressed honesty and transparency as the best ways to suppress corruption, restore our national prestige, regain our unity, and resurrect our democracy. He’s never done or said anything to make me doubt his faith in those principles or his determination to follow them.

So as I look at Barry and Harriman, my choice is clear. Their experience is comparable. Harriman has the edge in years on the national stage, media gloss and public personality. But Barry wins on what I want most in a president: brains, leadership, judgment, openness and character.

Since both Barry and Harriman are white males of Irish descent, my preference for Barry has nothing to do with bias or stereotypes. Nor is it based on a misguided desire to correct bias or stereotypes by electing our first female or African-American president for that reason alone.

My choice reflects only the two candidates’ personal qualities, public pronouncements, and public records and my personal judgment based on them. If Barack and Hillary were both white males like my imaginary Barry and Harriman, the Dems’ choice would be easy.


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23 December 2007

A Mini Marshall Plan for Shiite Iraq


As I’ve noted in two recent posts (1 and 2), developments in Shiite Iraq augur a sea change for the better. We now have the chance—if only we seize it adroitly—of realizing our most important goals in Iraq and the region.

The key to understanding how much things have changed became public Sunday. David Satterfield, our State-Department coordinator for Iraq, thinks that Iran has reduced deadly IED attacks on our troops using shaped charges, which only Iran can make. That’s why our own casualties in Iraq are down so dramatically. Satterfield believes that orders to reduce the violence came from the highest levels of Iran’s government.

The Satterfield announcement solves a riddle that our recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran posed. The NIE reported that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003 and never resumed its program. By releasing that report, our intelligence agencies undermined the Bush Administration’s diplomatic push for sanctions on Iran, making Dubya and Cheney look like the fools that they are. Why?

The answer is now clear. Apparently our diplomats and intelligence professionals agree that something has changed dramatically in Iran’s attitude. Their consensus must have been unusually strong to justify a “palace revolt” so damaging to the Bush Administration’s credibility.

What happened was a coup by our professionals—the people who really know what is going on—against the neocons’ ideological blindness. The neocons’ rout is now complete. Cooler heads appear to have prevailed in both Tehran and Washington.

As Satterfield admitted, we cannot know the real motives for Iran’s change of heart. Dubya’s saber rattling and tries for sanctions may have had some effect. As the NIE suggested, Iran’s leaders are not the crazies that Cheney has tried to portray. They are not immune to cost-benefit analysis.

But there is also another possible explanation. A request, perhaps a demand, for Iran to stop fomenting violence may have come from Shiite Iraq itself. Satterfield noted the counterproductive effects of Iran’s support for the firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr: a deadly shootout between rival Shiite militias in one of Shiite Iraq’s holiest shrines. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who apparently believes in peace and moderation above all else, could hardly have approved of such internecine warfare.

Iran made a strategic blunder by fostering violence (including attacks on our troops) when Iraqi Shiites wanted peace. Its blunder was much like our own blunder of excessive force. Remember how badly things were going for us when our troops attacked with devastating force from the relative safety of tanks and aircraft, rather than showing their faces in the streets? Now that General Petraeus has corrected that blunder, we are one-for-one with Iran on strategic blunders in Iraq.

Yet Iran’s blunder is more recent. Augmented by longstanding enmity between Iraq and Iran, it gives us an chance to seal our alliance with Shiite Iraq and spread our values there by example.

Whatever Iran’s motives may be, the struggle between the U.S. and Iran for the hearts and minds of Iraqi Shiites has now moved from the battlefield to the blueprint. The center is Najaf, which may become the capital city of a Shiite Iraqi mini-state. Iran is helping to build a new airport and an electricity generating plant there. We have refurbished a local hospital to international standards.

We must do more, much more. Reconstruction is a battle we can win, and win decisively. No one can build better, quicker and cheaper than we Americans.

If we want to democratize Iran, the best way to do so is to finish democratizing and rebuilding Shiite Iraq. Even today, a million Shiite pilgrims per year visit Najaf’s and Karbala’s Shiite shrines. The Iraqis want to increase that number to three to four million. Most of those pilgrims are Iranians.

Imagine what might happen in Iran if—year upon year—pilgrims returned with glowing reports of Iraq’s beautiful shrines, solid infrastructure, upscale accommodations, religious and political freedom, and lucrative commercial ties with the West. We have a golden opportunity to change Iran’s regime, gradually and peacefully, by osmosis. All we need is patience and a little cash.

But if we are to have a mini-Marshall plan for Shiite Iraq, we must do it right this time. No more venal American contractors skimming the cream, doing shoddy work, and taking flight at the first signs of violence. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who know the people and the culture, should pick the projects and oversee their completion. The Army Corps of Engineers should create the designs, using local materials and resources, and supervise construction. Local Iraqis should provide the labor. They can earn decent wages for something besides mayhem, and they can receive valuable training in the process.

I know, I know. There’s only so much money, and we have crying needs here at home. But we need not foot the entire bill. We can pass the hat internationally. Surely our NATO allies, many of whom balked at supporting the war, will help finance reconstruction for peace. We can always remind them of the original Marshall Plan, which rebuilt them from rubble after World War II.

In our Iraqi Marshall Plan, we should not forget Sunni Iraq. But the Sunnis should require only one-third the resources, as their population is only one-third the Shiites’. Iraq’s Sunni neighbors—especially Saudi Arabia, with all its oil wealth—should bear the lion’s share of that cost.

Whatever the motives and reasons, we now have a lull in violence. Long-term strategy has shifted the competition between us and Iran from the battlefield to politics and civil engineering. We can win that competition if we put our minds to it. In the process, me might even regain the world’s respect.

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21 December 2007

More on Iraq’s Future


My last post set out an optimistic projection of Iraq’s future, based on an encouraging report in last week’s New York Times. Just a few days after that story appeared, the Washington Post published a darker report on roughly the same developments.

The Post’s story differed from the Times’ in three respects. Rather than focusing on the new sense of freedom and pride among Iraqi Shiites, the Post stressed deficits in civil infrastructure. For example, it mentioned an open sewer near the Imam Ali Shrine, ignoring the Shrine’s surpassing beauty or the pride local residents take in it. The Post also reported Shiites’ increasing disillusionment with rule by Imam—including some fake imams having no real religious education. Finally, it implied that the public’s loss of faith in such towering religious-political figures as al-Hakim and al-Sistani threaten instability, perhaps even a renewal of intra-Shiite civil war.

We can dismiss the Post’s distaste at the open sewer as the nasal sensibility of a Western reporter, perhaps a rookie. Open sewers are ubiquitous in third-world and many second-world countries. The reporter never bothered to enquire whether this particular sewer was a fixture of that part of town or a product of the devastation of war. The more serious content of the Post’s story reflects important opportunities as well as dangers.

Shiites’ increasing distrust of religious leaders is a good sign, not a bad one. Solving real problems of secular society requires different skills than interpreting religious scriptures—whether from the Bible or the Koran. It is healthy and inevitable that political leadership would shift to people who have secular political skill.

Religious leaders in Shiite Iraq took the reins of civil leadership by default. For three decades Saddam ruthlessly suppressed, if not terminated, any Shiite civil leader with the temerity to challenge his tyranny. Only religious figures could maintain the freedom of action, education, public visibility and wide circle of contacts needed to foster social cohesion and continuity. The mosque was the only place to hide.

Now, with the dawn of real political freedom for Iraq’s Shiites, non-religious leaders can emerge. Their emergence is natural, healthy, and inevitable. It just takes time.

This evolution is especially important in Shiite Iraq. Real religious leaders there never wanted to take the political reins. They reluctantly filled a vacuum left when Saddam was deposed and the Shiites broke free.

Iraq’s brand of Shiite Islam stresses this point. It recognizes a religious doctrine called “quietism,” which holds that imams should influence politics only indirectly, through moral and spiritual leadership. Iraqi Shiites’ greatest living religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, propounds this doctrine. I have suggested that, under the right conditions, his quietism might evolve into an Islamic doctrine of separation of mosque and state, ultimately producing the sort of liberal democracy and free scientific inquiry that characterized early Protestant Europe.

Two things might impede this healthy evolution. First, if Shiite Iraq’s current religious leaders retain the reins of civil leadership too long, political power might seduce them. Second, the longer the vacuum of non-religious political leadership continues, the more charlatans with little religious training will disguise themselves as imams to achieve political power. The firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr is an example of that trend, and the Post’s article cites others. These trends could end up corrupting of both religion and politics—the very disaster that separation of mosque and state seeks to prevent.

How can we avoid that disaster? The answer is simple: we must encourage Iraqi Shiites to elect their own secular leaders in a free and open political process as quickly as possible. That is why I see only two “benchmarks” that really matter in Iraq: (1) reducing our own casualties and (2) holding local, provincial elections. We seem to be achieving the first benchmark; now it’s time to think about the second.

It’s ironic, but Dubya’s blundering strategies might have stumbled upon a practical way to realize one of his grand objectives: bringing real democracy to the Islamic Middle East. Conditions in Shiite Iraq today are absolutely unique. The most respected Shiite religious leaders have a nascent doctrine separating mosque and state. Iraqi Shiites’ sudden release from decades of tyranny and a millennium of Sunni oppression create fertile ground for democracy. Our own role in that release gives us a residuum of gratitude and goodwill. If we use the remnants of that credibility—as well as our military power—judiciously and intelligently, we have a chance to establish the type of model society of which we have been dreaming.

In order to reach that goal, we must do two things. First, we must get over our irrational fear of Shiite Islam. It is a peaceful faith. The virulent strains of Islam that promote terrorism and threaten world stability—Wahhabism, Sufism, and Al Qaeda’s new (takfiri) form of warrior’s Islam—all come from the Sunni side. In contrast to violent jihadism, Iraqi Shiites offer quietism and the possibility of real separation between mosque and state. Iraqi Shiism is much like black Baptism in our own country, a peaceful religion that sustained oppressed people during their harshest trials.

Second, we have to get over the notion that Shiite Iraq’s destiny is to become a vassal state of Iran. That will happen only if we let our fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Iran’s Shiism is rapidly becoming a religion of the lower classes, which demagogues like Ahmadinejad can (and do) manipulate for political purposes, including jingoism. Iran is using terrorists and their twisted religion for political purposes, in order to achieve regional hegemony. In contrast, terrorists like Al Qaeda are Iraqi Shiites’ enemies, and Iraq’s Shiites know it. Iraq’s Shiism is still a genuine and universal religion, now only tenuously connected to politics, which sustained an oppressed people and gave them hope. It has the potential to permit secular politics to arise or, as Jesus said, to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

So if we really want to foster liberal, secular democracy in the Islamic Middle East, there is no better place to do so than in Shiite Iraq. And there is no better time than right now, while al-Sistani still lives.

The stakes are enormous. Muslims constitute nearly one-quarter of humanity. Religious conflict involving Islam has made the Middle East a tinderbox that could ignite war at any time. As nuclear technology proliferates, the risk of nuclear conflagration increases, with one-quarter of humanity taking sides. The only prophylaxis is less militant religion, more pragmatic government, more democracy, and better separation of mosque and state.

Najaf holds the key. We should forget about our grand pipe dream of a unified, “kumbaya” Iraq, which millennial grudges make unrealistic. Instead, we should focus our diplomatic efforts, our military influence, and our remaining political credibility on the healthy and rapid development of Shiite Iraq. What better counterweight to Iran’s hegemony and pseudo-religious demagoguery than a thriving, democratic, peaceful and freely religious Islamic state right on Iran’s border?


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20 December 2007

Iraq’s Future


Every once in a while, a single news report provides a glimpse into the future. Sunday’s New York Times article on Najaf is one such report. Everyone who cares about the future of Iraq—and of our troops there—should read it.

The report describes Shiite Iraqis’ plans to make Najaf the capital of a Shiite semiautonomous region, much like Iraqi Kurdistan today. That region, the article suggests, has everything it needs to survive and thrive as an independent entity, a state within a state.

Security is the most important thing any government can provide. Apparently Najafis are now providing it. Disciplined local troops now control entry to the Najaf region. They stop and search every entering vehicle bearing a non-Najaf license plate. Najafis also appear to have resolved disputes between the al-Hakim and al-Sadr factions; the Sadrist forces have redeployed to Baghdad and the countryside. So for the moment, there is peace.

If peace holds, the region’s economic future is bright. Not only does it have the oil in the vicinity of Basra. It also has trade and donations brought annually by a million Shiite pilgrims to the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. Many consider that shrine the third holiest shrine in all of Islam, exceeded only by Mecca and Medina. City fathers have plans to increase the pilgrim traffic to three to four million in coming years.

Culturally the Najaf region has much to offer. The Shrine to Ali has surpassing beauty, especially in the setting sun. Edifices of nearly equal grandeur appear in neighboring Karbala, also a holy city. Residents of the area are justly proud of their ancient culture and its re-emergence into the light of freedom after Saddam’s brutal suppression.

The Najaf region even has its own foreign policy. Iran is providing money for a local airport and electrical plant and will provide a large share of future pilgrims to Shiite shrines. At the same time, Iraq’s Shiites are conscious of their ongoing debt to the United States, both for overthrowing Saddam and for continuing protection against inimical Iraqi and foreign forces, including Al Qaeda. American money and expertise have made a local hospital one of the best in Iraq.

It now looks as if the Shiites in power, including al-Hakim and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, are beginning a balancing act. They are trying to stay as neutral as possible while they exploit help from all sides (and the present calm) to reconstruct and develop. If this balancing act continues, Shiite Iraq may end up becoming the Thailand of the Middle East.

What is most encouraging is the sense of pride now emerging from the rubble of war. That pride—in religion, in culture, in self-sufficiency—could motivate all the things that have been missing in Iraq so far: little things like honesty in government, selfless public service, care for and mercy to citizens, and troops that protect, not avenge.

All this speaks volumes on the wisdom of Joe Biden’s call for soft partition in Iraq. I have written two posts on the subject, one in 2006 and one earlier this year. Now partition is really happening: the Iraqis themselves are doing it. The first results are enormously encouraging, as Iraqi Kurdistan and Shiite Iraq begin to form viable, potentially thriving mini-states.

Two things could disturb this pretty picture. The first is our own failure to get with the program and follow the Iraqis’ lead. Dubya has a lot of ego invested in his pipe dream of a fully unified, Switzerland-like Iraq. If we are to realize a much simpler dream, of an Iraq in peace that works, we have to let that pipe dream go.

The second problem may be more difficult: the Sunnis. Many no doubt still wish to regain their status as undisputed masters of Iraq. We have to disabuse them of that notion, not just with troops but with powerful incentives. We must make sure that Sunnis continue to receive a fair share of Iraq’s oil revenue. We must direct a fair share of international reconstruction aid—including our own—their way.

But most of all, we must begin a full-court diplomatic press to engage the neighbors, especially the Sunni neighbors. If the truth be told, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are partially responsible for Saddam’s despotism: they tolerated it as a counterweight to Iran’s influence. So did Syria.

Now these nations can expiate their guilt. They can support Sunni Iraq with development aid and trade. That should be a pleasant task for Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are ruled by Sunnis also.

At the same time, all three nations can establish new counterweights to Iran’s influence. Not only can they insure that Sunni Iraq is militarily and economically viable. They also can help Shiite Iraq stay independent of Iran, both by restraining hot-heading Sunnis and by developing trade and diplomatic relations.

The notion that Shiite Iraq would become an Iranian vassal state has always been impossibly simplistic. But it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Sunni and Alewite neighbors ostracize Iraqi Shiites. Intensive diplomacy must make sure that never happens.

Things may finally be resolving in Iraq. It is therefore a time for great intelligence and sensitivity. It is not a time for brute force or grand visions of national unity and reconciliation. If we work carefully with all of our various Iraqi allies and their neighbors, we may end up with much of what we have fought for: stability, peace, economic development, and decisive rejection of terrorism. Those results will be no less an achievement if they appear separately in three separate mini-states.

UPDATE:

For an update to this post, see “More on Iraq’s Future.”

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14 December 2007

Clintonian Heresy


Readers of this Blog know I promise heresy. Polite heresy, but heresy nevertheless. Here’s some Democratic heresy.

Like many Democrats, I love Bill Clinton. I love to hear his Southern drawl taking doctrinaire ideological visions apart. I love to hear him skewer Dubya’s propensity for deciding things before ever hearing the evidence. I love to watch him satirize Dubya’s ignorance of foreign affairs, science, and just about everything else that educated people are supposed to know.

Bill’s a brilliant speaker. He’s funny, light and tragic by turns. He can make you laugh and cry inside of two minutes, just by describing real events in our nation’s political life. From a presidential Rhodes Scholar, you would expect no less.

But as much as I love Bill and his outsized intellect, I don’t want him in the White House again, with or without Hillary. Here’s why.

We all have a tendency to glorify the past. We do so in our personal lives. We remember our first kiss, but we forget our grand crush who turned us down for the senior prom.

So it is with politics. It happens in both parties. Republicans love Reagan for spending recklessly on defense, driving the Soviet Union into bankruptcy as it strove vainly to keep up with our military-industrial complex. They remember him telling Gorbachev to “tear down that wall!” Then they recall how dramatically that wish came true. They forget that Reagan used thinly veiled race baiting to get elected, fell asleep at Cabinet meetings and presided over the Iran-Contra scandal—a sordid mess that would have done a third world despot proud. They forget our economic conditions during most of Reagan’s presidency because those conditions were nothing worth remembering.

So it is also with Clinton and us Democrats. We all remember his grand first term, when he stole the Republicans’ thunder. He got welfare reform passed, balanced the budget, reduced crime by putting more cops on the streets, talked up racial harmony, presided over a robust economy, and made us all feel pretty good about ourselves. We remember those days fondly.

We particularly remember how Clinton tweaked emerging Republican leadership. Remember Newt Gingrich, Phil Gramm, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay? All but Armey are gone from public office now, thank God.

I used to call them the “piglets.” That’s what they reminded me of, with their fat faces and beady eyes. They always seemed to be talking about money and not much else. Whenever one of them finished a speech without a concluding “oink,” I felt cheated, as if he had somehow managed to hide his true character once again. I loved Bill Clinton for keeping them all in what seemed like a perpetual state of helpless agitation.

But then came their 1994 victory and Bill’s second term. I’ll never understand what made Bill pick a White House intern for his fling, or lie so convincingly about it both in public and in court. A political genius who could read public sentiment like a book, he must have known what was coming. And sure enough, it did.

Most of Bill’s second term was about Monica Lewinsky and saving Bill from removal from office. The genocide in Rwanda slid by without a blink. Bill did intervene in Bosnia, but too late to stop the massacre in Sarajevo. Al Qaeda’s bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania got only a desultory cruise-missile strike in retaliation, part of which hit an innocent pharmaceutical plant. And before his term in office ended, Bill had missed a chance to kill bin Laden because someone feared collateral damage. (Missing another chance for the same reason happened on Dubya’s watch.)

If you’re not blinded by love of Bill and his entrancing Southern drawl, you have to admit that his second term was no success, notwithstanding his near miss at getting Begin and Arafat together, at the very end of his presidency. His brains and Southern charm kept the love of us Democrats. More objective folk, like independents, began to turn away.

I know, I know. The piglets had it in for him. Ken Starr spent more on impeaching him and trying to remove him from office than many small countries’ budgets. Cultural war and political Armageddon were in their air, where they persist to this day.

And yet the fact remains that Bill Clinton’s second term fell short. It makes you wonder whether someone less successful at taunting and tweaking the opposition might have gotten more done.

Anyway, foreign policy was never Bill’s forte. He started a good process in Northern Ireland, and he got Israel and Palestine to sit down without result. Yet his response to unanticipated events abroad was adequate at best. There is no evidence that, had the Constitution and electorate allowed him a third term, he would have done any better at thwarting 9/11 than Dubya and his sorry team did.

Bill was a good-to-great president during his first term because it was all about balancing the budget and domestic politics. He was only a fair-to-poor president during his second term because he lost focus and because the nation’s needs had shifted to foreign affairs, in which he had less interest.

So I can’t see how having Bill back in the White House would be much use today. More than half of our problems involve foreign affairs: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and the perpetual muddle of Israel and Palestine. Other major problems involve global warming, which Bill left to Al, and energy independence, which Bill probably realized was a problem at the time but declined to spend any political capital to solve. And then there are Bill’s heart problems, which might impair his mental functioning or cause a national medical crisis at any time.

If you look at Bill the leader, unblinded by love for Bill the brilliant speaker and motivator, neither the track record nor the future outlook is impressive. Except for balancing the budget—which we need now, more than ever—his record and his skills are not well suited for our needs today.

More important, as Bill’s and Dubya’s records both show, the presidency is the world’s most exhausting and frustrating job. Bill would be universally admired, and rightly so, if he’d had only one term. Even Dubya might have avoided his eventual lot as the nation’s worst-ever president. After one term, Dubya would have left office with Saddam captured and his armies defeated, before the insurgency got serious. If Dubya’s successor had had the good sense to get rid of That Idiot Rumsfeld immediately, as John McCain recommended, we might have been where we are today by mid-2005. Then Dubya’s legacy would be different.

Until we have a way (like England’s “no confidence” vote) to dismiss a nonperforming president in mid-term, without all the trappings of a criminal trial, it might make sense to reduce the run to one four-year term only. But that’s another heresy. Whatever the merits of that idea, it makes no sense whatsoever to give a leader who is exhausted physically, politically, and ideologically—let alone one with heart trouble—a third bite at the apple.

Now if, deep down, we balk at having Bill back, what about Hillary? Except vicariously, she’s got no executive experience, not even as governor of Arkansas. (Obama at least ran an organizing operation in Chicago for a few years.) She’s a walking symbol of the Boomer generation and the Bill-piglet fights, liable to rekindle all the old animosities. And as her debating style shows, she can dodge and simulate a commanding mien, but she can’t unify or heal. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and she often reminds even me of Bill telling us what the meaning of “is” is.

This election presents a simple proposition. Unified and sensitively led, there is nothing the American people cannot do. Divided and obsessed by ideological purity, there seems to be little that we can do. Dubya has shown us how awful divisive government can be. With her mandates and her false sense of command, Hillary would do the same, even if she could win the general election, which I doubt. Do we really want to walk that same downward path again, at this critical time in our own and world history?

The only one who ever had a third term was FDR, and the fourth killed him. What we need now is not dynasties, but new leaders with fresh ideas, fresh talent and fresh energy. We can still admire Bill for his first term, and Hillary for courageously saving the family. But not in the White House, please.


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07 December 2007

Krugman Redux

      NOTE: For an update on Krugman’s column of February 4, 2008, see this post.
Today New York Times columnist Paul Krugman published another column praising Hillary Clinton’s proposed health-care mandates. Since my post criticizing his views got more hits than anything I’ve ever published on this Blog, I think I should respond. I’ll be brief.

I have no way of knowing whether Krugman read my post, but he didn’t respond to one of its two most powerful arguments against mandates. Mandates impose a regressive health-care tax because they force young, healthy workers—mostly blue collar, poor and near poor—to pay a higher proportion of their income for insurance so that more highly paid workers can pay less.

A system like that differs radically from the government-financed health-care systems in the rest of the industrialized world. General tax revenues support those systems, and they are progressive because the tax systems that support them are progressive. Mostly the taxes are consumption taxes (sales or value-added taxes), with generous tax exemptions for food and necessities. So they tax the wealthy, who mostly spend more, more than the poor, who spend less. These systems are progressive in the sense that the wealthy pay more than the poor in both absolute dollars and a percentage of income. Those few systems that use income taxation are progressive in the same sense (as is our own income tax).

Krugman never explains why a lifelong progressive should support a progressive system for taxation but not health care. The only possible explanation is that—for some inexplicable reason—Krugman wants to make Clinton look good.

Krugman insists that insurance prices and health-care costs won’t balance unless everyone is forced to participate. But the simple truth is that no one knows. There are too many variables to consider. Most of the studies have been done for political candidates; they are all incomplete, and most have an agenda to pursue.

The devil is in the details. By offering young, healthy workers cheap policies with high deductibles (so-called “catastrophic” health insurance), Obama’s system might get them to participate voluntarily. If Clinton wants to be fair and progressive—i.e., to allow people to satisfy her mandates at reasonable cost—her system will have to offer the same thing. If she forces everyone buy “Cadillac” comprehensive policies, her system will be massively regressive and will encounter massive political resistance. Even if it doesn’t, the very word “mandates” will give opponents a powerful (and unnecessary) tool to demagogue her plan to death once more.

Any system will take some tinkering to get right. The really important goals are five things that Krugman doesn’t even mention. First and foremost, we have to get all the people who want insurance and can’t find or afford it insured. Second, we must make sure that everyone’s insurance is “portable” and employer-independent. Third, we need to get rid of “pre-existing condition” exclusions so that everyone can buy insurance, whatever their current medical condition (this will, of course, require some adjustment in cost). Fourth, we have to put in place uniform national rules preventing private insurers from gaming the system through misleading sales practices or “cherry-picking” customers from limited insurance pools. Finally, we must make sure that all medical insurance covers all medically indicated care (within the dollar limits of the policies), so that doctors, not insurers, regain control of the practice of medicine.

These are the problems that trouble the vast majority of American families. Most of them don’t give a damn whether young, single healthy workers are gambling with self-insurance or not paying their fair share. That’s why Obama’s plan is far smarter politically than Clinton’s.

Obama’s plan will solve these problems more quickly and easily than Clinton’s because he’s given some thought to how to sell his plan to the nation. He eliminates mandates because he knows that they killed Clinton’s 1993 plan and are a red flag to conservatives and even some independents.

Unlike Bush and Clinton, Obama sees both sides of issues. In so doing, he preserves political capital for all the fights ahead, including energy independence, global warming, infrastructure repair, education overhaul, and, yes, social security reform.

In the end, Krugman’s and Clinton’s approach is the same, old tired “which side are you on?” politics that got Reagan and the Bushes elected and made the Democrats a minority party. Obama’s “what problem can we solve?” politics will make the Democrats a majority for at least a generation, if only we have the good sense to nominate him.

UPDATE

It is satisfying to have events confirm your analysis. On April 19, 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported [subscription required] that John McCain already had started pounding Hillary for her health-care mandates, although the general-election campaign had not even begun.

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06 December 2007

Clintonian Heresy


Readers of this Blog know I promise heresy. Polite heresy, but heresy nevertheless. Here’s some Democratic heresy.

Like many Democrats, I love Bill Clinton. I love to hear his Southern drawl taking doctrinaire ideological visions apart. I love to hear him skewer Dubya’s propensity for deciding things before ever hearing the evidence. I love to watch him satirize Dubya’s ignorance of foreign affairs, science, and just about everything else that educated people are supposed to know.

Bill’s a brilliant speaker. He’s funny, light and tragic by turns. He can make you laugh and cry inside of two minutes, just by describing real events in our nation’s political life. From a presidential Rhodes Scholar, you would expect no less.

But as much as I love Bill and his outsized intellect, I don’t want him in the White House again, with or without Hillary. Here’s why.

We all have a tendency to glorify the past. We do so in our personal lives. We remember our first kiss, but we forget our grand crush who turned us down for the senior prom.

So it is with politics. It happens in both parties. Republicans love Reagan for spending recklessly on defense, driving the Soviet Union into bankruptcy as it strove vainly to keep up with our military-industrial complex. They remember him telling Gorbachev to “tear down that wall!” Then they recall how dramatically that wish came true. They forget that Reagan used thinly veiled race baiting to get elected, fell asleep at Cabinet meetings and presided over the Iran-Contra scandal—a sordid mess that would have done a third world despot proud. They forget our economic conditions during most of Reagan’s presidency because those conditions were nothing worth remembering.

So it is also with Clinton and us Democrats. We all remember his grand first term, when he stole the Republicans’ thunder. He got welfare reform passed, balanced the budget, reduced crime by putting more cops on the streets, talked up racial harmony, presided over a robust economy, and made us all feel pretty good about ourselves. We remember those days fondly.

We particularly remember how Clinton tweaked emerging Republican leadership. Remember Newt Gingrich, Phil Gramm, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay? All but Armey are gone from public office now, thank God.

I used to call them the “piglets.” That’s what they reminded me of, with their fat faces and beady eyes. They always seemed to be talking about money and not much else. Whenever one of them finished a speech without a concluding “oink,” I felt cheated, as if he had somehow managed to hide his true character once again. I loved Bill Clinton for keeping them all in what seemed like a perpetual state of helpless agitation.

But then came their 1994 victory and Bill’s second term. I’ll never understand what made Bill pick a White House intern for his fling, or lie so convincingly about it both in public and in court. A political genius who could read public sentiment like a book, he must have known what was coming. And sure enough, it did.

Most of Bill’s second term was about Monica Lewinsky and saving Bill from removal from office. The genocide in Rwanda slid by without a blink. Bill did intervene in Bosnia, but too late to stop the massacre in Sarajevo. Al Qaeda’s bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania got only a desultory cruise-missile strike in retaliation, part of which hit an innocent pharmaceutical plant. And before his term in office ended, Bill had missed a chance to kill bin Laden because someone feared collateral damage. (Missing another chance for the same reason happened on Dubya’s watch.)

If you’re not blinded by love of Bill and his entrancing Southern drawl, you have to admit that his second term was no success, notwithstanding his near miss at getting Begin and Arafat together, at the very end of his presidency. His brains and Southern charm kept the love of us Democrats. More objective folk, like independents, began to turn away.

I know, I know. The piglets had it in for him. Ken Starr spent more on impeaching him and trying to remove him from office than many small countries’ budgets. Cultural war and political Armageddon were in their air, where they persist to this day.

And yet the fact remains that Bill Clinton’s second term fell short. It makes you wonder whether someone less successful at taunting and tweaking the opposition might have gotten more done.

Anyway, foreign policy was never Bill’s forte. He started a good process in Northern Ireland, and he got Israel and Palestine to sit down without result. Yet his response to unanticipated events abroad was adequate at best. There is no evidence that, had the Constitution and electorate allowed him a third term, he would have done any better at thwarting 9/11 than Dubya and his sorry team did.

Bill was a good-to-great president during his first term because it was all about balancing the budget and domestic politics. He was only a fair-to-poor president during his second term because he lost focus and because the nation’s needs had shifted to foreign affairs, in which he had less interest.

So I can’t see how having Bill back in the White House would be much use today. More than half of our problems involve foreign affairs: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and the perpetual muddle of Israel and Palestine. Other major problems involve global warming, which Bill left to Al, and energy independence, which Bill probably realized was a problem at the time but declined to spend any political capital to solve. And then there are Bill’s heart problems, which might impair his mental functioning or cause a national medical crisis at any time.

So if you look at Bill the leader, unblinded by love for Bill the brilliant speaker and motivator, neither the track record nor the future outlook is impressive. Except for balancing the budget—which we need now, more than ever—his record and his skills are not well suited for our needs today.

More important, as Bill’s and Dubya’s records both show, the presidency is the world’s most exhausting and frustrating job. Bill would be universally admired, and rightly so, if he’d had only one term. Even Dubya might have avoided his eventual lot as the nation’s worst-ever president. After one term, Dubya would have left office with Saddam captured and his armies defeated, before the insurgency got serious. If Dubya’s successor had had the good sense to get rid of That Idiot Rumsfeld immediately, as John McCain recommended, we might have been where we are today by mid-2005. Then Dubya’s legacy would be different.

Until we have a way (like England’s “no confidence” vote) to dismiss a nonperforming president in mid-term, without all the trappings of a criminal trial, it might make sense to reduce the run to one four-year term only. But that’s another heresy. Whatever the merits of that idea, it makes no sense whatsoever to give a leader who is exhausted physically, politically, and ideologically—let alone one with heart trouble—a third bite at the apple.

Now if, deep down, we balk at having Bill back, what about Hillary? Except vicariously, she’s got no executive experience, not even as governor of Arkansas. (Obama at least ran an organizing operation in Chicago for a few years.) She’s a walking symbol of the Boomer generation and the Bill-piglet fights, liable to rekindle all the old animosities. And as her debating style shows, she can dodge and simulate a commanding mien, but she can’t unify or heal. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and she often reminds even me of Bill telling us what the meaning of “is” is.

This election presents a simple proposition. Unified and sensitively led, there is nothing the American people cannot do. Divided and obsessed by ideological purity, there seems to be little that we can do. Dubya has shown us how awful divisive government can be. With her mandates and her false sense of command, Hillary would do the same, even if she could win the general election, which I doubt. Do we really want to walk that same downward path again, at this critical time in our own and world history?

The only one who ever had a third term was FDR, and the fourth killed him. What we need now is not dynasties, but new leaders with fresh ideas, fresh talent and fresh energy. We can still admire Bill for his first term, and Hillary for courageously saving the family. But not in the White House, please.


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Arrogance and Humility


I’m not usually one for fawning over newspapers columnists’ work. But Roger Cohen’s column today is worth fawning over. It’s insightful, profound, and timely. Everyone who cares about our country and loves democracy should read it.

Called “Democracy in the Americas,” it contrasts Hugo Chávez’ reluctant acquiescence in Venezuela’s close rejection of his “socialist revolution” with recent and not-so-recent events in our own country. I won’t do Cohen the disservice of trying to summarize or paraphrase his brilliant column. But I do want to expand on one of its several themes: arrogance and humility.

Arrogance is an earmark of tyrants. They always have all the answers, sometimes even before a question is asked. Lenin and Stalin “knew” that Communism had created a “new” economics which would sweep the world and secure human utopia. So did Mao. Hitler “knew” that German racial purity, efficiency and science would improve the human race. We all now know what that sort of arrogance produced: a sea of blood and misery.

The greater promise of this century flows from a notable decrease in that sort of arrogance. Somehow, human society is in the slow and difficult process of purging itself of collective arrogance and the cults of personality that once won the blind allegiance of millions.

Vladimir Putin has done wonders for Russia’s standard of living. He is one of the smartest leaders of that or any other country. He wants to retain his influence in Russia. Yet he professes to be bound by the Russian Constitution, and he seems sincere. At heart a caudillo, of far humbler talents, Chávez bows (at least for now) to the popular will. Under foreign and domestic pressure, Musharraf takes off his uniform and agrees to cut his “state of emergency” short. Even Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic visions are held in check by Iran’s popular will and by a Supreme Leader who, although a cleric, seems more pragmatic than he. With the demise of Saddam (one of the few good things that our invasion of Iraq produced) there are only two real despots left: Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe.

Today’s Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran don’t look much like Jeffersonian democracies. But they’re a whole lot better than were Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Mao’s China in their times. So some hidden transformation is going on, worldwide. At times it seems subtle and jerky. But it is also powerful and profound.

There is one great irony. Amidst this gradual global rejection of tyranny, our own nation is backsliding.

George W. Bush is by far the most arrogant and stubborn U.S. leader of my lifetime. Elected as a “nice guy” to serve out a caretaker presidency, he became a monster after 9/11. He put on the arrogant face of a superpower with 10,000 nuclear weapons, prepared to tell the rest of the world what to do and how to do it, or else. He marginalized Congress, arrogated unprecedented power to himself, and ignored historical restraints until slapped down by the Supreme Court.

I don’t mean to heap all the blame on Bush. Our executive branch has been growing outsized since the end of World War II. Each president and his advisors have, at times, partaken of the age-old political game: “how can we give ourselves more power?” That’s why Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their lawyers had the theory of the “unitary executive” (a euphemism for dictatorial rule with a few constitutional restraints) so ready in their briefcases. While the rest of the world has been lurching unsteadily toward the light, we have been falling backward toward the darkness of one-man rule.

That’s why humility is so important in our next president. As we approach the 2008 elections, our candidates mostly play a game of “hide the ball.” They obscure their real intentions in generalities and double talk. Or they cover up an absence of concrete proposals with demagoguery—on religion, on terrorism, or on immigration. So it’s almost impossible to determine with any confidence what any candidate would do on any particular issue once in office.

But we can assess our candidates’ character. We can gauge their arrogance and humility.

It not hard to tell when a candidate has a “know it all” attitude. Nor is it hard to recognize a candidate who really thinks, “I don’t care about the issues, as long as I get elected.” Neither of those attitudes is healthy. In contrast, a great leader thinks, “I know what my core values and goals are. I have some ideas how to get there, but I’m open to methods and means. I'm willing to listen and learn.” That’s the kind of humility that makes great leadership possible.

Roger Cohen’s fine column recognized as much. Buried in its middle is the following paragraph:
    “The United States needs a new beginning. It cannot lie in the Tudor-Stuart-like alternation of the Bush-Clinton dynasties, nor in the macho militarism of Republicans who see war without end. It has to involve a fresh face that will reconcile the country with itself and the world, get over divisions — internal and external — and speak with honesty about American glory and shame.”

Cohen couldn’t name names because the New York Times’ policy forbids columnists from endorsing candidates. But we all know about whom he was writing. There’s only one candidate who fits that description. Now we just have to elect him and take the lead, once again, of the slow and jerky social revolution that is transforming the world.


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01 December 2007

Obama’s and Clinton’s Health-Care Plans

      NOTE: For an update on Krugman’s column of February 4, 2008, see this post.
Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist whose work I usually respect, seems to have an Obama bee in his bonnet. In two recent columns, he has harshly criticized Obama’s views on health care and social security. Both columns bear the stamp of Clinton partisanship, so much so that Krugman appears to have violated the Times’ rule against endorsing candidates.

Today the Clinton campaign took up Krugman’s cudgel. In a widely reported move, it criticized Obama for claiming that his health-care plan would cover everyone.

Unfortunately, Krugman is not as smart as Obama. Krugman and the Clinton campaign are missing the point. It’s true that Obama’s plan won’t cover people who don’t want health insurance. But that’s precisely why it’s politically wiser and economically fairer than Clinton’s plan.

The main difference between the two plans is what’s called a “mandate.” Clinton’s plan has one. It would cover everyone by forcing everyone to buy health insurance, whether wanted or not.

Obama’s plan has no mandate and forces no one to buy insurance. So Obama’s plan wouldn’t cover everyone. It would leave uncovered two groups of people: (1) those who don’t think they can afford insurance and (2) those who don’t think they need it. Obama would induce those in group (1) to buy insurance by making it affordable, mostly by repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and putting the money into health-insurance subsidies.

Clinton’s plan would try to cover both groups by forcing them to buy insurance. For those who don’t think they can afford insurance, it has to address the very same problem as Obama’s: making insurance affordable. But Clinton waffles on the best way of doing so, namely, repealing Bush’s unfair tax cuts. Clinton still wants to have it both ways; she wants to be perceived as a woman of the people and a tax cutter. As for people who think they’ll stay healthy and don’t want insurance, forcing them to buy it will just create political opposition to the plan and allow opponents to demagogue it to death once again.

Krugman and Clinton castigate the Obama plan for failing to “cover everyone.” The goal they say, is qualifying for that magic label “universal.”

But that’s not the goal at all. The goal is getting affordable health care for all those who want it, after several decades of trying. For ideological reasons, that simple, common-sense goal always encounters determined political opposition. Already Hillary has failed to reach that goal once—at a time when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress.

Hillary Clinton’s 1993 proposal failed because she failed Politics 101. Her proposal neglected two important constituencies. It imposed a mandate for health insurance on small businesses, increasing their costs without providing means to pay them. It also ignored people who liked their current insurance and didn’t want to change it. For someone supposed above all to be a good politician—these were gross errors of judgment.

Now she’s made similar errors of judgment again. Her current proposal solves the second problem by letting people keep insurance they like. But it doesn’t solve the first. Instead of imposing a mandate on small business, it imposes a mandate on every employee and every citizen. You can bet that conservatives and lobbyists for the insurance and drug industries will make that mandate a rallying cry for opposition. Forcing people who don’t want insurance to buy it will make it harder politically to get it for those who do.

Rather than imposing mandates on people who don’t want insurance, Obama decided to tackle the pressing problem of millions of people who want it but can’t get it. That’s a reasonable political tradeoff. It makes Obama’s proposal much more palatable and resistant to demagoguery. Given our long history of entrenched political opposition to any effort to improve health care, Obama’s approach is more sensible and more likely to succeed.

Krugman also insists that Clinton’s plan makes more economic sense. He says that forcing young, healthy workers to buy insurance they don’t think they need will subsidize insurance for others, making “universal coverage” affordable.

But that analysis is hopelessly simplistic. Who are those young, healthy workers likely to be? White-collar and other highly paid workers won’t refuse to buy insurance; its cost amounts to a small portion of their pay. Nor will older workers and workers with families, who need insurance more and know it. So the people most likely to “self-insure” are young, single blue-collar workers (including the poor and near-poor), for whom the cost of insurance is a substantial part of their earnings.

Forcing these people to buy insurance they don’t want will have two adverse effects. Politically, it will drive young, single, healthy workers away from the Democratic party. It will put the so-called “Reagan Democrats” back in the arms of the Republicans, precisely when Democrats need them to consolidate their status as a majority party. For someone supposedly astute at politics, that’s a downright stupid thing to do.

Economically, Clinton’s mandate will turn the health-care system into a regressive tax. Imposing extra costs on young, single, healthy, low-paid workers in order to finance others’ health care will put part of the burden on those who can least afford it. That’s exactly the opposite of what European systems do. They are financed by progressive taxes on consumption (with exemptions for food and other necessities).

Obama’s plan is therefore smarter politically and fairer economically. It avoids political opposition from people who don’t want government telling them what to do. And it avoids the regressiveness of having healthy blue-collar workers pay for the care of sick people who are more highly paid.

Obama’s plan addresses the crying need of the moment: getting health care for people who want it but can’t get it or can’t afford it. Eventually, we should bring others into the system, too. We all pay for it when young people think they’ll be healthy but miscalculate and have no insurance. But we can handle that politically sensitive and much less pressing problem when—and if—we solve the pressing problem of insuring everyone who wants insurance.

Putting first things first may seem like common sense, but Clinton’s plan doesn’t do that. Obama’s ability to understand both politics and economics at this level is one of many reasons why his candidacy is more appealing that Clinton’s. His practical and politically sensitive approach will get things done while Clinton’s blind “triangulation” will fail, as it has in the past.

In health care as in so much else, Obama is smarter than both Clinton and Krugman. Brains matter, and that’s why Obama will win. The public wants good and workable policy, not clever campaign ads, more political misjudgments, and more Bush-style propaganda.

UPDATES

It is satisfying to have events confirm your analysis. On April 19, 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported [subscription required] that John McCain already had started pounding Hillary for her health-care mandates, although the general-election campaign had not even begun. For an earlier update to this post, discussing Krugman’s column of Friday, December 7, see “Krugman Redux.”

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