You have to give the Washington Post credit — their editors certainly offer a contrast on their op-ed pages. Today, needless to say, you have a Michael Gerson and Eugene Robinson. The difference is stark, and revealing.
From Gerson you have a measured analysis, which takes into account the series of events that have transformed Obama from a cult-like figure into a struggling and rather radioactive one. He writes:
The most destructive gap for President Obama is not the Republican lead on the generic congressional ballot or even a job disapproval that has surpassed approval — it is the gap between aspiration and reality.
The Manhattan mosque controversy showed the problem in compressed form. First came the Obama of high-toned principle (largely the right principle, in my view). Then a politically motivated recalibration. Then a scrambling staff explanation. Then an embarrassed silence, since it is difficult to clarify the clarification of a clarification. Then the president’s regretful assertion of “no regrets.”
I don’t agree with Gerson’s position on the mosque, but his rendition of the fact is exact and his list of other examples is overwhelmingly persuasive. He explains, “From the firing of Shirley Sherrod to the obsession with Fox News to lashing out at the ‘professional left,’ the Obama administration engages in a daily hypocrisy.” And then he provides still more examples to support his conclusion:
Politicians have been known to say one thing and do another. And high ideals and high rhetoric always create the potential for hypocrisy. But the disappointment with Obama is especially acute. He won office by providing new voters with intoxicating hopes. America was tipsy with idealism — resulting in a particularly difficult hangover. … All politicians fall — but not from such a height.
Then there is Eugene Robinson, who understandably must be at his wit’s end, as the politician in whom he and so many others on the left invested so much effort and so much of their own credibility to promote is now stumbling. His thesis is as bizarre as it is unsupported: “President Obama Is on a Winning Streak,” is the title of his column. Bet you’re confused, since he’s at an all-time low in the polls, his party faces an electoral wipe-out, his predictions of a summer of recovery have proven to be ludicrous, his party is so desperate as to promise to “improve” his “historic” health-care legislation, and he’s incurred the wrath of both supporters and critics of the Ground Zero mosque.
So what is Robinson’s argument based on (other than wishful thinking)? Well, there is Obama’s success in Iraq. Bet you thought that was George W. Bush’s (over the objections of Robinson and Obama), but now all praise is due to Obama because he said he’d bring the troops home. “When he took office, there were about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq on the heels of George W. Bush’s combat surge,” is how Robinson evades the historical record. That would be the surge, which led to an American victory and permitted Obama to bring home troops “on the heels” of a remarkable accomplishment. And he seems unaware of or chooses to ignore criticism from the right that the departure timetable is too abrupt and puts at risk the gains we have made. (“Even his scorched-earth Republican critics, by their silence, are acknowledging that the president has fulfilled his campaign promise to be ‘just as careful getting out of Iraq as we were reckless getting in.'”) One half-truth, built on an evasion, topped off by a misrepresentation.
OK, what else does Robinson have? The GM bailout: “The company was saved, workers kept their jobs, and taxpayers are going to get their money back. That’s nice work.” Yes, but we haven’t gotten our money back. And in typical Keynesian fashion, he forgets that all the money spent on GM wasn’t used someplace else in the economy, perhaps to create more jobs in industries with a brighter future. But I will concede that it turned out better than many expected.
Then there is the BP oil spill. Robinson treats in this way the Democrats’ anger over the administration’s misrepresentation of the extent of the clean-up: “The administration’s claim that three-quarters of the oil was disposed of — by nature or by human intervention — before it could despoil the environment looks overly optimistic to some researchers. … But a few months ago, who imagined that the president and his family would so soon be able to enjoy a day on a gulf beach and a meal of gulf seafood?” And who could have imagined that he would have given a widely panned Oval Office speech, sent his poll numbers skidding, advertised the limits of overarching liberal government, and caught flack for not going to the Gulf on his first vacation? (He had to do a day of make-up later in the summer). Listen, I don’t think there’s a Democrat on the ballot willing to tout the BP oil spill as an Obama “win.”
And then, the cherry on the top of his frothy column is the Ground Zero mosque controversy. Big win for Obama. He must be joking, right? Nope.”Obama saw his duty to uphold the values of our Constitution and make clear that our fight is against the terrorists, not against Islam itself. Instead of doing what was popular, he did what was right.” And reversed himself within twenty-four hours. And incurred the ire of the left. And is giving his own party fits. Well, all that was left out.
What is missing in Robinson’s take — the economy, the poll news, the complete Mosque debacle — makes Gerson’s point. The gap between aspirations and results is now so wide that the only way to bridge it is to fudge the facts and leave out much of what has transpired over the last year. Robinson and Gerson come from opposing political perspectives. But the most noticeable difference is the degree to which they attend to the facts and are able to draw therefrom persuasive conclusions. In that department, there is no comparison.
Gerson vs. Robinson
Must-Reads from Magazine
Is Iran becoming a Chinese proxy?
More than two years after Secretary of State John Kerry and his European Union counterpart Federica Mogherini acquiesced to the last Iranian demands and signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has the threat from Iran actually diminished?
Iran’s ballistic missile program continues to expand rapidly. Yesterday, Iran inaugurated its new launch facility by sending a rocket into low earth orbit. The same technology could be used to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.
For those living in the Middle East, the idea that the Iranian threat has diminished is laughable. Tehran continues to eviscerate Lebanon from the inside out through its proxy, Hezbollah. More than 1,000 Iranians have died fighting in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran has stepped up its efforts to undermine both Yemen and Bahrain.
Rather than show any indication that it seeks rapprochement with the West, Iran increasingly appears to be using its relationship with China and Russia to stymie the West. Consider the following from the Iranian press: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ special airborne unit is training in China with Chinese special forces, who are drilling the Iranians on artillery as well as parachuting and jumping from Chinese Z8KA helicopters.
Given the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in projecting Iranian power, as well as training proxy forces and terrorist groups, it’s not a leap to believe that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps might take the lessons learned in China and transmit them to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Kerry myopically viewed diplomacy as a compromise to resolve conflict. He never understood—and his aides were too ambitious to warn him—that countries like Iran, China, and Russia often use diplomacy insincerely as an asymmetric strategy to advance their own power while hamstringing the United States. That does not mean that diplomacy is not valuable; it remains a tool of statecraft. But to enter into it naively severely undercuts the security of the United States and its allies.
Tweeting his way into obscurity.
Exactly two years ago yesterday, I published a blog post on this site called Trump: The Case for Despairing—About America. I wrote: “The issue with Trump is that his approach can only be called ‘the politics of unseriousness.’ He engages with no issue, merely offers a hostile and pithy soundbite bromide about it. He yammers. He describes how wonderful things will be when he acts against something or other without explaining how he will act, what he will do, or how it will work.”
Reader, we married him. He is our president. And his unseriousness just played a key role in the disastrous fate of the Republican effort to save the country from ObamaCare.
Remember that it was Trump, in the weeks before his inauguration, who went on “60 Minutes” and insisted that repealing ObamaCare and replacing it simply had to happen at the same moment. That announcement—made with little or no preparation or forethought, it won’t surprise you to recall—instantly made the job of coming up with a political strategy to secure victories on health care vastly more difficult.
It was also a mark of that unseriousness. Here’s what I mean: Say a President Trump who was a different sort of person had convened meetings during the transition period to devise a long-term strategy for the passage of health-care reform legislation. In those meetings, all kinds of obvious scenarios could have been gamed out, including the nature of the attacks against reform. With those scenarios in mind, arguments could have been devised to counter the attacks.
For example, on the question of “lost” coverage, Republicans could have commissioned studies to demonstrate (as Avik Roy detailed last week) that the vast majority of those who would “lose” coverage would be people who chose to do so as adults in a free marketplace. With such studies in hand even before the possible legislation had been proposed, studies showing 6 million rather than 24 million would be thrown out of the marketplace, strategies to provide them with stopgap coverage could then have been devised and announced before the attacks came.
This is what a serious effort to enact health-care reform would have entailed—both a substantive approach to answer weaknesses in the GOP effort and a communications approach to go on the offensive to explain why this would be better than the status quo.
There was nothing. Trump wandered around the White House eating two scoops of ice cream and watching TV and tweeting. He left the communicating to Republicans on Capitol Hill, who proved uniquely incapable of making any kind of case for anything. But cut them some slack—with no administration involvement whatever, they were both shaping bills and trying to keep Republicans on board and figuring out tricky ways to pass legislation without triggering the need for 60 Senate votes. For them also to be in charge of selling the bill when selling isn’t really part of either Paul Ryan’s or Mitch McConnell’s skill set was jawdroppingly negligent.
There is only one possible salesman for a major national shift in policy, and that is the president of the United States. And Trump is a salesman. The problem is he knows only how to sell himself. He has no clue how to sell anything else.
Ryan and McConnell had to focus on bringing together people with wildly varying constituencies and purposes, and basically ended up throwing crap against the walls to see what would stick. The final humiliation of the process on Thursday—in which the Senate basically agreed to debate a bill that night that had only come into existence at lunchtime—was the necessary end result of seven months in which the president of the United States ate up all the oxygen in Washington with his ugly, petty, seething, resentful rages and foolishnesses as expressed in 140 illiterate characters.
There is plenty of blame to go around, of course. But this failure was in the cards the minute Trump both limited his party’s freedom of action by blathering ignorantly on national television and decided to conduct his presidency as though he were Judge Judy.
A bell that can't be un-rung.
Let me get this straight. Last night, Republicans in the Senate were virtually paralyzed with the fear that the bill on which they were voting “aye” might actually become law. They were so terrified, in fact, that some key senators would only vote for the measure with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s assurances that his chamber would never pass “skinny repeal” outright. Only by the slimmest of margins did the bill that no one wanted to see become law fail when Senator John McCain surprisingly voted “no.” And now everyone is mad at McCain for killing a bill that they all hated anyway.
This confused and humiliating debacle puts a period on the GOP’s first attempt to repeal ObamaCare by applying the political capital they’ve accumulated from six years of promising to repeal it. The word “first” is key. Many assume that the GOP now has a choice; maybe they rethink the reformation of the Affordable Care Act (or try another attempt at repeal), or maybe they move on to other items on the agenda. The reality is that health care is never going to go away for either party.
Republicans are now obliged to administer ObamaCare. A Republican-led White House oversees subsidies to insurers to defer the cost of low-income ObamaCare enrollees. Donald Trump has on more than one occasion threatened to close off the spigot and allow ObamaCare to wither on the vine. The GOP in Congress, too, will have to own the Affordable Care Act. Every time they pass a budget or a continuing resolution, they will be ratifying the Affordable Care Act’s taxes and passing that on to the president to sign.
Even absent Republican meddling, ObamaCare is not stable. Despite an infusion of $2.4 billion in tax dollars, 20 of 24 ObamaCare non-profit health insurance cooperatives have collapsed. The National Alliance of State Health Cooperatives, which represented those cooperative efforts to compete with private sector insurers, has closed its doors.
Insurers continue to flee the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges. When Trump took the oath of office, there were 1,000 counties served by only a single insurance provider (with a handful of counties utterly bereft of participating insurers). That trend has only accelerated. Amid an exodus, Iowa’s last major Affordable Care Act insurer threatened to pull out of the exchanges—leaving the state without ACA-linked insurance in 2018. In May, Aetna abandoned Virginia. Humana pulled out of Tennessee in February. Blue Cross Blue Shield has picked up the slack in some places but, in Alabama, for example, it spends $1.20 for every $1 it collects in premiums. This is not a sustainable status quo.
Democrats appear genuinely convinced that the 1,000 seats their party lost over the course of the Obama years were the result of mass hysteria from which the nation has finally awoken. They seem to think that the fever has broken, and the public is now convinced that this onerous law is popular in its own right and not just when compared to Republican alternatives. The system is broken, and someone has to repair it. Even if it becomes the Union siege of Fredericksburg, in which wave after wave was mowed down by dug-in defenders, Republicans are obliged to keep making runs at Obamacare. The Democrats, too, will have to “fix” the law, as so many insist they must. By 2016, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were resigned to the fact that legislation to relieve the stress on insurers was an imperative. But what the Democratic Congress wants isn’t what the party’s liberal activist base wants.
Republicans performed a politically savvy maneuver on Thursday evening (yes, just one) by compelling their Democratic counterparts to vote on a “Medicare-for-all” single-payer national health plan. The bait drew precisely zero votes in favor, with 43 Democrats opting only to vote “present.” Centrist Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Jo Donnelly and Independent Sen. Angus King contributed to a total of 57 “no” votes. Congressional Democrats’ trouble getting to yes on single payer isn’t all about tactics. A June effort to pass a single-payer system in the state of California failed because, as Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon wrote, it failed to address major hurdles including delivery of care, cost controls, and, most important, financing. The program was estimated to cost $400 billion per year—more than twice the state budget in 2017. At a national scale, a single payer program would be a struggle to finance. Democratic lawmakers may soon find themselves as shackled to the unrealistic hopes of their base voters as are Republicans today.
Republicans surely would like to move on to reforming the tax code for the first time since 1986, but that won’t be a simple task. All the while, the taxes in the Affordable Care Act and the revenue dedicated to it will hinder their efforts. Democrats, too, would love to be able to move on from the Affordable Care Act, but they are similarly doomed forever to tinker with “fixes”—at least until their liberal base voters cobble together a party in which nationalized health care is the consensus. Even if lawmakers wanted to move on from health care, they can’t.
Sleepwalking toward a revolution.
The most important news of the week was buried underneath an avalanche of dispatches involving palace intrigue in the White House and the Republican Party’s effort to deconstruct the Affordable Care Act. A team of scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University had, according to the MIT Technology Review, used a relatively new gene-editing technique to alter the DNA of a single-cell human embryo.
“Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans,” the report read. This represents the first known (emphasis on known) effort to genetically modify a human embryo, and it won’t be the last.
The speed with which this scientific milestone was reached has outpaced society’s ability to process it. Already, the outlines of a conflict over the nature of this practice—its ethicality, its utility, and its displacing effects on the American workforce—are visible, but no one seems prepared to talk about them. What was once science fiction is perfectly thinkable today. It’s time to do some thinking.
First, it is incumbent upon Americans of all political stripes—not just conservatives or the faithful—to consider the moral implications of embryonic genetic engineering. In April of 2015, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a statement pledging that “NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos,” but this prohibition does not apply to private endeavors. Public ethos guides private industry, but what is public philosophy regarding the interference with genetic destiny?
Are we obliged to eradicate genetic disorders? Is it unethical not to intervene in the development of an embryo if we have the capacity to alleviate future suffering and hardship? Is it morally questionable to select for various cosmetic traits that prospective parents might find desirable? Do we engage in this process of upending the natural order without knowing the long-term effects of genetic manipulation? Is a modified population a form of eugenics?
This leads us to ponder the public-policy implications of a world in which genetic modification is a fact of life. NIH guidelines will constrain some in the United States from overreaching, but every nation will have its own standards, and genetic medical tourism is undoubtedly the industry of the future. Should Congress seek to limit or even prohibit the practice of elective embryonic genetic engineering? Is such a notion constitutional, to say nothing of economically and socially advantageous?
The American right is guaranteed to be suspicious of an activity that intervenes in the spheres of natural life previously exclusive to the divine. “I don’t trust ‘the scientists’ to regulate themselves,” wrote National Review’s Wesley Smith. “Mr. President: We need a presidential bioethics/biotechnology commission now!” A commission is fine, but one with an eye toward restricting technological advance is swimming against the tide. Scientific achievement cannot be prevented—Pandora’s Box cannot be un-opened, and it is far better that the person doing the opening is someone subject to laws and mores than someone beyond those constraints. Smith’s fear is, however, valid. It’s reminiscent of the way in which automation crashed over the American economy like a tsunami.
Simple robots have been stealing away from Americans the ability to be paid for the completion of rote tasks for over a generation, but it was the onset of artificial intelligence that truly upended the economy. Only in the last few years were occupations previously thought immune to the effects of technology imperiled; office administration, sales and service jobs, and transportation may all headed for the chopping block. In February of 2016, Citibank in coordination with the University of Oxford predicted that automation will threaten 47 percent of existing U.S. jobs.
The effect of this radically disruptive technological revolution on American politics is only just beginning to be felt. What seemed like science fiction only a few years ago—for example, increasingly ubiquitous self-piloted commercial and military vehicles and self-service kiosks at food and retail outlets—are a reality today. And they will create an army of otherwise unemployable low-skilled workers who demand some legislative remedy for their condition. Is the prospect of a stratified, dystopian society envisioned in films like “Gattaca” so hard to envision? If not, how can it be prevented before those class structures become intractable? Is genetic modification at birth a privilege reserved for the nation’s wealthiest, or should all Americans have access to a potentially life-saving therapy?
These all seem like far-fetched questions today, but they might be standard in only five or ten years. Society’s capacity to cope with technological advance is not infrequently outpaced by the speed of those advances, and genetic modification will surely not buck that trend. It is, however, incumbent upon us to think about the consequences of that civilization-shaping breakthrough; what could go wrong, how it will benefit mankind, and how best to guide its development. The American right has as many modern Ned Ludds as do their progressive counterparts. There will be those who rage against technological advance as though it could be stopped, but it cannot. Therefore, it’s time to ask a number of uncomfortable questions. They’ll be answered one way or another, with us or without.
Podcast: Is it a purge or a plan? Or both!
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I get into it with Noah Rothman on whether the president’s behavior toward his attorney general and the new White House communications director’s conduct toward the White House chief of staff constitute a “plan” of action or whether we are just living through nihilistic chaos. Where does Abe Greenwald come out? You’ll have to give a listen.
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