Live-Blogging the Republican Response to the 2015 State of the Union Address

10:36 pm: The Republican Response to the State of the Union Address was surprisingly cautious.  It was mostly deferential aside from yet-another call to repeal the Affordable Care Act and predictable but terse rhetoric about Executive overreach.  The response was surprisingly light on the substance; I think national Republican leaders were very eager to avoid the reputation for partisan hostility they have reinforced over the past generation, to leave plausible space to win the President’s assent on some of their bills, and possibly to stay out of the way of the many, fractious Republican Presidential hopefuls.

10:33 pm: “We’ll also keep fighting to repeal and replace a health care law that has hurt so many American families.”  Hurt them with less-costly and more-comprehensive health care than they’ve ever had in their lives, does it?  I find that increasingly unlikely, not just because President Obama could veto any such proposal over the next 2 years if it somehow survived a filibuster, but because Republicans truly have no plan for what to replace the Affordable Care Act with, and probably never will.

Also, brief boilerplate about fighting President Obama’s Executive orders; court challenges may restrain some parts of certain of these Executive orders, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Congress fails to do anything about them.

10:31 pm: “There’s a lot we can achieve if we work together.”  Free trade with Europe and East Asia; reform of the tax code focusing on eliminating many deductions and credits and lowering overall tax rates.

The President is given credit for supporting these measures in principle and asked to work with the Republican Congress on them.  So far, the speech is giving the President a lot of slack for an opposition response to the State of the Union Address.

10:28 pm: Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), a Senate freshman of the large 2014 Republican cohort, recalls wearing breadbags on her feet in the place of viable footwear.  This approach is a gamble, but a Conservative who comes from poverty probably gets a longer rope with the crowd.

10:27 pm: “Rather than respond to a speech, I’d like to talk about your priorities. I want to talk to you about the new Republican Congress you just elected.”

…OK, interesting approach…

10:26 pm: “Good evening.  I’m Joni Ernst.”

IOWA.

Why shouldn’t I give equal time?  Republicans have a vision, too…and they’re probably pretty ticked right now.

Live-Blogging the 2015 State of the Union Address

10:10 pm: President Obama notes that he wants our children to grow up knowing that “This is not just a collection of Red States and Blue States; it is the United States of America.”  We’ve probably all heard that one before; the mere speaking of it isn’t substantial…but many Democrats rise to their feet in applause while Republicans are largely silent and still.  Do Republicans want to separate?

10:07 pm: “I have no more campaigns left to run–”

(thunderous applause from the Republican side)

“…I know because I won both of them.” (the President laughs)

10:06 pm: Mention of excessive police use of force and protests in Ferguson and New York City.  Oh boy.

Democrats quickly rise to a standing ovation at the mention of reform of the criminal justice system; Republicans applaud and mostly remain seated; some actually rise to their feet.

10:00 pm: “How ironic, the pundits say, that we seem more divided than ever,” 6 years into the supposedly post-partisan Obama Presidency, the President says.  “I still believe that we are 1 people.  I still believe that we can do great things, even when the odds are long.  I believe this because, over and over in my 6 years in this office I have seen Americans at their best.”  Americans are increasingly at their best, he declines to note, in cultural silos.  Are we one people if we increasingly unconsciously cluster with people who share our perceptions and values?  We’ve lived through 6 years in which the 2 parties in Washington, DC have worked together about as little as was possible in order to get whatever they could on those terms.

9:58 pm: I remember President Obama in mid-2013 saying “I welcome this debate” over NSA surveillance methods leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden, who soon thereafter defected to Russia.  It’s worth noting that the President made no effort to have that conversation until an unsurprising but embarrassing leak forced him to.

9:54 pm: The President invokes the universal consensus of the scientific community and many other experts to say that “…climate change poses an immediate threat to our national security,” and that “We should start acting like it.”  He also notes the agreement he struck late last year with China; Democrats stand and applaud all this; Republicans sit with their arms tightly folded.  “National security” was his strongest ask; so, there we have Internet security and global warming as 2 now-partisan issues to which Republicans’ commitment to national security does not extend.

9:52 pm: The President calls for a comprehensive approach to protect commercial and national security assets (and, you know, people) from hackers on the Internet.  Republicans in the Senate filibustered the last attempt at an Internet security bill without giving a reason for it.  I believe based both on what he was saying about the bill at the time and his own national security credentials, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) may be able to explain more…

9:48 pm: The President notes without much elaboration that the trade and diplomatic embargo against Cuba has achieved nothing and that it is time to embrace Cuba as a neighboring country.

9:47 pm: “Mr. Putin’s display of aggression was supposed to be a masterful show of strategy and strength–That’s what I heard from some people.”  There is some mild gloating about Russia’s disastrous diplomatic isolation and unfolding financial collapse.  “This is how America leads: Not by bluster…”  This is an example of our President at his best: No line-drawing, no sloganeering, less talking and more communication.  Many have called for strident gestures against Russia; they would have done no better.  I hope George W. Bush is listening; he can see how unfit he was for this role.

9:45 pm: The President gets fairly broad applause when he affirms his commitment to take actions against Islamist terrorism.  NSA surveillance methods and the use of drones seems to have had its 15 minutes of Luke Skywalker talk.

9:42 pm: This for me is one of the most-revealing moments of the evening: “Let’s simplify (the tax code) so that a small business owner can file her taxes based upon her bank statement rather than the number of tax lawyers she can hire.”  Almost no Republicans applaud the suggestion; some of them are shaking their heads!  A simplified tax code that would remove unhelpful deductions and credits was supposed to be one of their most-principled causes, and for some reason they can’t make a gesture of approval for it when it’s articulated that way.

9:40 pm: A call for more-convenient and personalized information technology in health care available to patients, so as to lead to more-informed decision-making about lifestyle and treatment courses, gets bipartisan applause.  It isn’t just window-dressing, if it leads to actual implementation.  Better access to comprehensive health care information for either doctors, physicians’ assistants or patients can save lives.

9:38 pm: President Obama spoke-up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a planning collaboration aimed at bringing free trade around the Pacific Rim: Republicans give a standing ovation, Democrats sit down!

9:35 pm: “So, to every CEO in America, let say tonight: If you want to get the job done, and get it done right, hire a veteran.”  From jobs programs to increased counseling and Veterans Affairs spending and scrutiny, President Obama’s long effort to improve the often fragile lives of veterans of the US Armed Forces has gone largely unnoticed.  It’s a small indignity following the outrage of the way so many of our veterans of this generation are living.

9:32 pm: President Obama repeats his plan for free community college for students who maintain a certain GPA and plans to graduate on-time.  He notes that State and local governments are supposed to play (pay) a part in the plan, and that both Republican Tennessee and Democratic Chicago are already doing their part.  This proposal actually gets as much applause from Republicans as it does from Democrats; there might actually be political and budgetary slack to do this in Congress.

9:30 pm: 20 minutes in, the President says, “We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give them more of a voice.”  The fact is that the decline of labor unions has occurred more because of economic changes than because of government discouragement in places like Wisconsin and Michigan.  The decline of labor unions really came first.

9:25 pm: “We set-up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid…We set-up schools…the Internet.   That’s what middle-class economics is: Everyone gets ahead.  Everyone pays their fair share, everyone plays by the same rules…” *applause*

The President rolls into the idea of an expansion of middle-class and working-class tax deductions and credits (paid for through higher taxes on the capital gains of the rich).  Also, “It’s time we stop treating child care like a side issue, or a ‘womens’ issue,’ and treat it like the national economic priority it is for all of us.”  $3,000 per child annual expansion of the child tax credit.

The President notes that the United States is the only developed country on Earth that doesn’t have paid maternity leave or paid sick leave as a requirement of the law.  43 million Americans don’t have paid sick leave.

Mostly silence from the Republicans; how exactly are Republicans going to respond to this?  Are they confident that a message of simplifying the tax code and lowering tax rates (starting at the top) is going to resonate as well?

9:20 pm: President Obama notes that the deficit has shrunk considerably on his watch, the economy has grown, the stock market has grown rampantly, and that millions more Americans have health insurance since 2010.  “That’s good news, people,” the President says to laughter from the Democratic side of the House chamber.  There is icy silence and stillness from the Republicans.  It must be really awkward for them, after 6 straight years of doomsaying, to have accurately called nothing about what would happen in that time.

Republicans in Congress have no accomplishments to point to other than some budget cuts, and have probably said nothing that had any bearing on the course of the past 6 years.  Think about that.

9:17 pm: “It is amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to.  We are a strong, tight-knit family that has been through some very hard times…We are a strong, tight-knit family that has been through some very hard times…”  The President has used the typical SOTU human interest story in a different way; it’s a little disarming, after years of partisanship and even the President’s recent defiance of a Republican Congress on multiple fronts, to see the deeply and narrowly divided American public referred to as a “tight-knit family.”  It sounds so nice until you remember it’s just a speech.

9:15 pm: President Obama has claimed the United States has more freedom to chart its future course than any other country on Earth.

9:12 pm: “Our economy is growing jobs at the fastest pace since 1999…Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was during the financial crisis.”  This is intended to serve as the groundwork for the discussion of wealth inequality, more or less: Corporations and other big employers are literally putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their prognosis of our economic recovery; they just aren’t putting enough of it there.  The tide is coming in without the boats, will be his position.

9:10 pm: “Members of Congress, I have the distinct honor and high privilege of presenting to you the President of the United States.”  I give House Speaker John Boehner credit for his Ohio nice; that introduction had some feeling to it.

9:09 pm: (I’m not going to speculate and prognosticate about the next 2 years without any prompting from anyone whatsoever.)  You have the television news to do that.)

9:06 pm: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!”  We’re running 6 minutes late; happily, I’m not superstitious.

It’s 2015: No hoverboards, no flying cars, no self-drying clothes.  No bipartisan middle ground to be had in Washington, DC.  The President is already committed to come out swinging for income inequality: Increase Federal spending broadly, raise taxes on the rich to cut them on the middle class and the working class.  Is this the start of negotiations or a declaration of war?  All we have in order to determine, or even to find whether Democrats and Republicans in Washington themselves know, is their language and gestures.  Junkies, stay tuned…

Live-Blogging the 2014 State of the Union Address

I know people who insist on the irrelevance of State of the Union Addresses.  As far as I’m concerned, which measures of the Address lead to legislation, and which do not, tell us as much about the state of play in American politics as anything.  Non-action on an issue, or specific themes which the opposition party raises during their rebuttal speech, also raises the pertinent questions.  I for one want to know what the President hopes to achieve during the calendar year.  Even if, as was the case with President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he hopes in part that his agenda will contribute to the alienation of the opposition party, the issues he raises and the frame he uses tells you a lot about what he believes about the disposition of the opposition party, and of the sentiments and perceptions of the country.

For what it’s worth, I sincerely thought Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers would have more to say, whether attacking President Obama’s proposals (some of which she had plenty of time to anticipate) or offering an alternative agenda, which is what a Republican Governor would have had no trouble doing.  This was a shallow, disappointing Republican Response.  The punditry is largely harping on the same point: To a surprising extent, McMorris Rodgers simply failed to propose real policy goals.

10:38 pm: McMorris Rodgers gives us an anecdote about a Washington constituent whose health insurance premiums rose $700–an extreme case.  Interestingly, she doesn’t mention whether less-expensive health insurance was available to the woman she invoked through the Washington State health insurance exchange!  Republicans continue to be intellectually paralyzed by health care issues since passage of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit in 2003.

10:35 pm: McMorris Rodgers mentions her son who was diagnosed in the womb with down syndrome.  She says that she and her husband saw potential, that they appreciate the value of each and every human life.  That’s some interesting dog-whistle politics for invoking the “pro-life” movement during a response to a State of the Union Address that was entirely focused on bread-and-butter issues.

10:34 pm: Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers says the Republican goal is “A Washington that plays by the same rules that you do!”  So, that’s why the Republicans are trying to starve the Federal Government of cash and telling everyone to be afraid of the future.

10:31 pm: Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), a Conservative footsoldier in the House of Representatives, delivers the Republican Response to the State of the Union Address:
“SOMETHING ABOUT AMERICA.”

10:20 pm: The President refrains on our well-trodden differences, but notes that these differences haven’t stopped us from fighting tyranny abroad and ending injustices at home.  The speech closes, coming in at 55 minutes.  I wonder if insisting that our differences haven’t gotten the better of our moral sense is the right way to close.  It would raise some grim thoughts in future readings if there is no action on these policy priorities again.

10:18 pm: Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) gives the wounded veteran a thumbs-up during his extended applause.  Just a small reminder that he might in fact want to run for President.

10:14 pm: It’s an interesting tradition of State of the Union Address that the President picks out ordinary citizens who have done something extraordinary in order to compose a narrative of where America stands.  Presidential candidates will point to people who need help, or who are indignant; a President will find examples of strength, people who the national audience will want to see succeed and whose account sometimes challenges one’s perspective.  Tonight he mentioned a Midwestern small businessman who raised his workers’ pay to $10 an hour on his own motion, and a severely-wounded recent war veteran whose rehabilitation progresses steadily.

10:09 pm: A plea to Congress to allow talks with Iran to end its independent uranium-enrichment program.  Critics of President Obama’s position that talks should be allowed to proceed seem to forget that President W. Bush’s paralysis over Iran in his 2nd term–an outgrowth of his realization that he was unwilling to bear the heavy cost of going to war with Iran–was pathetic to behold.  Talks with Iran were the only policy to proceed with under these circumstances, and they were unprecedented in over 30 years of icy tension with the World’s first Islamist revolutionary state.

10:06 pm: President Obama insists on his faith in the international community’s capacity to achieve a lasting peace, both for the people of war-torn Syria and in the Israel-Palestine dispute.  Those are the right conflicts to mention and decry in such a speech, but the Palestinian Territories have been under IDF occupation for about 47 years now; the best that can be said for our non-involvement in Syria’s civil war and all the harm it has enabled is that it has left the door open for international action to dispose of Syria’s large chemical weapons stockpile, and to provide emergency food and medical assistance to some of the Syrian populations that have been dispossessed and wounded by their near-3-year-old civil war.

10:03 pm: We’re into the part of the speech where the President defends his policies on drone attacks on terrorists and NSA surveillance methods.

As an addendum to the last point, the President defended the Affordable Care Act on very general terms just now.  He had no reason not to, and I’m convinced that he’s speaking from the heart in defending his best-known law.  (That would be “Obamacare,” for those who have never heard it called any other name.)  I’m convinced that continuing opposition to the Affordable Care Act, now that new health insurance policies conforming to the law are in place, and now that most health insurance exchanges are working well, and with the Act’s expansion of Medicaid being hugely popular, will be politically harmful to the Republicans.

9:55 pm: “We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”  The President notes the attendance of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, a popular Democratic Governor of a very Red State.  “I did not get my highest vote totals in Kentucky,” the President says in a massive euphemism.  Governor Beshear very eagerly embraced both a Commonwealth-based health insurance exchange and the Medicaid expansion offered through the Affordable Care Act.

9:51 pm: “Let’s give America a raise.”  Raising the minimum wage is very popular with the public.  We may have called the President’s efforts to create an “everyone versus House Republicans” frame in national politics unsuccessful prematurely.  The issues he’s emphasizing this year are a little less recognizably partisan and more-popular with the public than last year.

9:50 pm: President Obama notes that, adjusted for inflation, the value of the Federal minimum wage is more than 20% yes than it was when Ronald Reagan was President.

9:49 pm: The President notes he asked Congress to raise the minimum wage a year ago, and that 5 States have raised their own minimum wage.  He also tells us that he will pass an Executive order to raise the minimum wage for Federal Government contractors to $10 an hour.  He is harping on the need to go around Congress, or at least House Republicans.

9:47 pm: “It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.”  Income inequality between the sexes, embarrassingly, continues at a wider than 5:4 ratio for the same work.  Republicans applaud, perfunctorily.

9:44 pm: The President notes that Federal Government collaboration with Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon will bring broadband Internet access to 20 million more American students.  A friend watching the debate with me noted that it is currently easier to get corporations to move on infrastructure development (which they are notoriously reticent to invest in) than the Federal Government.

9:40 pm: The President calls on Congress (that is, Congressional Republicans) to do more to give the long-term unemployed “a fair chance.”  Our high rate of long-term unemployment, of course, is the reason the maintenance of what is technically a temporary extension of Federally-funded long-term unemployment insurance is a salient issue.  Extended unemployment insurance was a component of the Stimulus–and like many individual parts of both the Stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, it is very popular with the public.  Much like their apparently about-face on immigration reform, the apparent Republican collapse on resisting the extension of unemployment insurance suggests that Republicans perceive how vulnerable they are in continuing to resist the President.

9:35 pm: “Let’s get immigration reform done this year.  Let’s get it done; it’s time.”  No more needs to be said in this speech.  That’s in part because former President George W. Bush eagerly talked-up similar immigration policy liberalization during the 2004 Presidential Election, and made an honest push to achieve it in his 2nd term that ultimately went nowhere.  President Obama’s sponsorship of the DREAM Act during the 111th Congress was 1 of just 2 policy failures from his first 2 years.  The Senate passed its own immigration reform bill by about 2-to-1 last year, but the House refused to work on it.  Now the far more-Conservative House is working on its own immigration reform proposal, and it is much closer to the Senate bill than anyone had expected; President Obama probably doesn’t want to jinx this positive development by involving himself in a discussion of the particular measures too deeply.

9:33 pm: In a discussion of industrial pollution and global warming, President Obama notes that the United States has done more in recent years than any other country to control its carbon emissions.  This in part is probably an effect of the many investments in energy efficiency and cleaner power sources made by the woefully under-appreciated 2009 Stimulus.

9:31 pm: The President promises to use Federal funds to protect more wilderness lands.  I was a little surprised to hear that one; President Clinton had made big strides in preserving Federal lands, and while George W. Bush did not, he didn’t fight those National Forest, Park or Monument dedications.  In a time of prolonged economic stagnation, land preservation by the Federal Government has taken a back seat, including to other environmental priorities.

9:29 pm: “Remember, China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines; neither should we.”  This smart transition links the President’s discussions of trade integration and Federal funding for science and technological research.  He notes that Google and smart phones were made possible because of generous Federal research funding.  These Federal research grants have been squeezed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and subsequent sequestration budget cuts.

9:26 pm: President Obama proposes closing tax loopholes for corporations that outsource jobs, and to create tax incentives for businesses that create jobs inside the United States.  Again, he raised this issue back during the 2004 Democratic National Convention: Depressing.  Congressional Republicans have thus far resisted the elimination of any corporate tax deductions.

9:24 pm: President Obama talks-up college access for those of limited means.  It may encourage more if he talks about the efforts of his administration to publicize rankings of the job prospects of the graduates of various colleges and universities, and to gear university programs towards professional skills.

9:21 pm: “Too many Americans are working harder just to get by, not just to get ahead.”  If you consider that then-Senator Obama’s Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention contained similar themes, you might feel depressed.

9:18 pm: The President notes that many investment analysts no longer rank China as the best country to invest in.  That’s partly because debt-financed capital spending in China has gone on too long; not only are current municipal deficits in China not sustainable over the long-term, but capital spending has become more and more-infamously dominated by make-work projects not always rationally scaled to growth.  It is also true that US competitiveness is improving, but there is a warning sign in the minor keys now being struck in China’s development jingle.

9:16 pm: “Today in America, a teacher spent more time with a student who needed it…An entrepreneur flicked the lights on at her tech startup…An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best-made cars in the world…A rural doctor gave a child the first prescription for asthma that his mother could afford…”  That’s right, in case you haven’t heard: The theme of President Obama’s speech is going to be income inequality.

9:10 pm: Wow, not in much of a hurry tonight, are they?

Conservative Groups and Money–Both Mind and Body–Undermine the Republican Party

It took just a few months for us to be able to call the Republican Party’s latest effort at re-branding a failure.  If anyone thinks that’s a bit much, why are the House Republican leadership unable to pass the bills they have previously called crucial to this effort?  To date the 113th Congress has actually been far less-productive than the 112th to this point in 2011.  This includes Republican filibustering of background checks for unlicensed gun sales, House Republicans’ refusal to support a catastrophic-risk insurance pool favored by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as a partial alternative to the Affordable Care Act, failure to reach agreement in the Senate to prevent a doubling of student loan interest rates, House Republicans’ oddly-timid refusal to negotiate a budget with Senate Democrats (after demanding Senate Democrats pass a budget plan for years) and the failure of a farm bill that was supported by a majority of House Republicans but opposed by a majority of the House.

Because of its chronic inability to follow-through on any broadly-accepted agenda outside of obsessive opposition to President Obama’s policies, the Republican Party is actually much weaker than its current electoral strength should suggest.  Two sources of this weakness were until recently believed to be strengths of the New Right–its intelligentsia which insist on ideological purity, and the free flow of money to and from special-interest groups that can organize votes more-easily than local constituencies of interest.  Some people have called these groups a cancer in American democracy, but strictly-speaking they are actually a cancer in the Republican Party.  National Journal has had some excellent reporting of House Republicans’ undeniable and unprofitable dysfunction of late, and these remarkable words of protest from the House Agriculture Committee Chairman in a recent article on the next step for the farm bill bring to mind the closing words from Lord of War: “Never go to war–especially with yourself”:

“Last week the relentlessness of the conservative campaign became apparent when House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., was back in his district. On July 1, the Tulsa World reported that conservative activists, some of whom do not live in Lucas’s 3rd District, had shown up that day at a town-hall meeting in Skiatook, Okla. ‘If you want the conservative Republican vote, you need to come forward with a conservative Republican bill,’ said Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, a conservative activist from Broken Arrow, which is in the 1st District, where tea-party groups in 2012 ousted Republican Rep. John Sullivan in favor of now-Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who voted against the farm bill.

“Lucas, who has also been the target of Heritage Action radio ads threatening to recruit a ‘real conservative’ to run against him, fought back. ‘I’m under attack by those people,’ Lucas said. ‘They’re coming after me. They are all special interest groups that exist to sell subscriptions, to collect seminar fees, and to perpetuate their goals.’

“Lucas continued, ‘You’ve got to understand: They don’t necessarily want a Republican president or a Republican Congress,’ he continued. ‘…They made more money when [Democrat] Nancy [Pelosi] was speaker.… It’s a business.’

“Vuillemont-Smith replied: ‘That’s a perverted way to look at it.’

“‘I’m sorry. I have to deal in the real world,’ Lucas said, adding that by opposing the bill, conservatives were turning their back on the bill’s $40 billion in savings over 10 years, including a $20 billion cut in food stamps.”

Syria: This Time, Fools Fear to Tread Where Angels Rush In

A good, blunt article just appeared in Slate pegging President Obama as seeing all war as politics by other means–even where that heuristic may be naive in practice.  For all his Liberalism in the divisive domestic policy questions of today, in matters of foreign policy President Obama is no humanitarian but a Realist. I prefer for foreign policy to be conducted through the prism of power rather than principle, but I make an exception in major cases of preventable violence. I consider establishing criteria and protocols for humanitarian intervention to prevent or halt genocide and (where possible) civil war violence to be among the most-important foreign policy business we can address. For that reason I applauded President Obama’s decision to support a coalition that toppled Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, and I support his decision–very late–to support the uprising against the Assad Family Regime in Syria.

But there are risks associated with this intervention, and I don’t mean Russian arms, the Hizballah militant faction, the prospect of a wider sectarian conflict in the region or even Syria’s large arsenal of chemical agents, forbidden by widely-accepted treaty. That risk is the prism through which President Obama probably views this intervention in the 1st place: Rather than see this civil war as both the Assad Family Regime and the Russians do–that is, as a zero-sum game over a strategic unit of Middle Eastern real estate–President Obama seems to view his decision to intervene in a transactional sense, as a gesture to demonstrate that President-for-life Bashar al-Assad and his Russian benefactors will have to accept a settlement with the Rebels in order to end the war.

I think that ship has sailed. Unlike when Sunni-sponsored terrorism begat Shi’a-led mass killing during the Iraq War (which Syria’s civil war may soon surpass in bloodiness in 1/5 the time), no external power is prepared to police the streets of Syria. It may be time to subdivide the lot.

After the Assad Family Regime’s brutal treatment of initially peaceful protests, the rump state seems literally at war with 1/2 of the country. In order to maintain the rump state, the Regime has decided to define the uprising in sectarian terms, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Syria’s religious minorities have no future other than under Regime protection. Trying to arrange a military stalemate to force all parties to come to the table to talk-out their differences could actually prolong the war, or even escalate it. If provisions of arms and other material assistance could bring moderates among the Rebels to the fore, and grant them victory, that would be best. If that is not possible and the uprising is now essentially sectarian and ethnic, then we could still do some good in intervening, as we did in Bosnia and Kosovo. But *partition* was the end result of those conflicts, and while it was far from an ideal situation, it *did* sustain the halt to slaughter, both times. Atrocities on a truly nationwide scale were replaced with more-localized injustices. We already assumed that this was not in Slobodan Milosevic’s interest in any way–nor in Russia’s. We didn’t negotiate to terms with either of them; we essentially destroyed Milosevic’s regime through repeated uses of military force and undermined Russian interests in the Balkan region. This incurred their outrage, but they could not regain what they had lost because it was built on the support of an autocracy that was overthrown in a state that was now fragmented.

We have to be prepared to truly take sides again. Equivocating between factions in a civil war could make things worse. This is a good case in politics (which is always about power wielded in the shadow of expectations) where motivations actually count.

Affordable Care Act Implementation Among the States, Part 2: Medicaid Expansion

The Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on June 28 of last year, but it also sent the Obama Administration a serious curve ball: In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that Medicaid expansion would have to occur by agreement between the Federal Government and each of the States.  Medicaid was created in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson and a Democratic Congress as Title XIX of the Social Security Act.  Essentially, it was created to assist States in providing health care to poor families and individuals who could not obtain health insurance.  Along with Medicare, the Federally-managed health care program for senior citizens also created in 1965, Medicaid was the Johnson Administration’s consolation prize for its failure to implement single-payer health insurance in the face of determined opposition from the American Medical Association and health insurance companies.  Because Medicaid was created as an entitlement for those unable to afford to buy private health insurance in a series of State health insurance markets, its exact spending and benefit levels are set by agreement between the Federal Government and each of the States.

1 State’s Medicaid program (New York’s, for instance) may be fairly progressive; another State’s Medicaid program (take Missouri’s) may be risible, leaving hundreds of thousands of the poor without any health care at all.  Not only does the list of those entitled to Medicaid depend on the State, but the percentage of Medicaid costs covered by the Federal Government (as opposed to the State) varies from State to State.  Only the character of benefits provided through what is still effectively a Federal entitlement program is the same from State to State, as a condition for the Federal Government to provide matching funds to each State’s Medicaid program.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandated that Medicaid eligibility be expanded to all State resident citizens earning up to 138% of the State’s poverty level, starting in 2014.  The Federal Government would pay 100% of the cost of the expansion of Medicaid from 2014 to 2016, then its contribution would slowly reduce to 90% of the cost of the expansion from 2017 to 2019, remaining at a mandatory 90% thereafter.  Originally, under the Affordable Care Act States had to accept this expansion of Medicaid or they would lose their existing Federal matching funds for the program; in its 7-2 decision on that provision of the law, the Supreme Court ruled that it violated Federalism and States’ rightful prerogative to force them to accept the Medicaid expansion.  The expansion became a standing invitation rather than an imposition.  This was consistent with the Court’s more-controversial decision on the Affordable Care Act, that the individual mandate requiring citizens to buy health insurance could not be justified under the Commerce Clause’s provision for the Federal Government to regulate interstate commerce, but could be justified in its financial penalty to those who fail to buy health insurance, through the Federal Government’s power to tax.  It also meant that State governments had the power to extend or deny health care to a combined millions of poor and working-class Americans.

Some Republican Governors, particularly in the South, said they would refuse to expand Medicaid almost immediately.  In particular, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Rick Scott of Florida, Phil Bryant of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Rick Perry of Texas came out against the Medicaid expansion within 2 weeks of the National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius decision.  This list of those formally declared for or against the Medicaid expansion changed little in the 4 months leading up to the 2012 Presidential Election; Medicaid would be expanded through State budgets, and since the expansion would start in 2014 it wouldn’t be necessary for State governments to declare for or against the expansion until the following spring, as they discussed and passed their new budgets.  This meant that only Governors studiously shoring-up their Conservative bona fides and failing to perceive other political pressures would have an incentive to “stand firm” against the Federal Government’s program to help the poor with their medical expenses.  President Obama’s re-election meant that, not only would the law stand, but it would not be repealed.  Free Federal money was sitting on the table.  (“The money isn’t free,” Conservatives rejoined.  “We’re paying for the Medicaid expansion and the rest of the Affordable Care Act through taxes.”  Actually, the rich payed for much of the expansion through higher capital gains taxes and fees on luxury medical procedures, but the point is a valid one.  Still, this arguably makes the argument for States expanding Medicaid stronger; a State that declined to expand its Medicaid program would effectively see its Federal tax dollars going to States that did decide to expand the program.)

And wouldn’t you know it?  After what doubtless was some serious intellectual rigors and soul-searching among them–most Republican Governors declined to expand their Medicaid programs in the end.  In the past several months, 8 out of 30 Republican Governors did decide to embrace the expansion of Medicaid; all were significant.  Brian Sandoval of Nevada (announcement made December 11), Susanna Martinez of New Mexico (January 9), Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota (January 12), Jan Brewer of Arizona (January 14), John Kasich of Ohio (February 4), Rick Snyder of Michigan (February 6), Rick Scott of Florida (February 20), and Chris Christie of New Jersey (February 26) all embraced available Federal funding to provide health care for the poor in their respective States.  Governors Sandoval, Martinez and Christie all work with Democratic State legislatures which were happy to embrace the Medicaid expansion.  North Dakota, with a small and homogeneous population and flush with cash from a growing oil and natural gas industry, saw legislative passage of the Medicaid expansion by a wide margin.  Arizona continues to debate implementation of the Medicaid expansion; the biggest sticking point there, apparently, is whether expanded Medicaid services would result in Federal funding for abortions.  (It couldn’t be used for that; an Executive Order by President Obama in March 2010 specifically prohibited the use of Federal funds under the Affordable Care Act to cover abortions.)  Still, most advocates of the Medicaid expansion in the Arizona legislature expect it to ultimately pass, if perhaps the vote will be close.  Finally, there are 3 States–Ohio, Michigan, and Florida–where a Republican Governor elected with Tea Party support made a lot of news by accepting the Medicaid expansion, only to see the proposal rejected by both chambers of a Republican State legislature.  Very few Republican State legislatures have been coaxed into accepting the expansion of Medicaid, though many organizations have endorsed it and many rallies have been held to support the expansion in State capitals.  Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida all have Governors who declared they would support the Medicaid expansion and fully-Republican State legislatures; all but Arizona’s, North Dakota’s and Arkansas’ have blocked the expansion–though in Montana’s and Florida’s case there remains some hope that the State legislature will support a very limited expansion.  Kentucky and New Hampshire both have Governors who support the Medicaid expansion and split partisan majorities in their State legislatures; both States have Conservative-Republican Senates that seem opposed to the Medicaid expansion, though there is some possibility of at least 1 Republican State Senator in New Hampshire crossing party lines and allowing the Medicaid expansion to move forward.

With the exception of North Dakota and Arkansas, and at least prospectively of Arizona, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Kentucky, this map of the progress of State expansion of the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act is a pretty good indicator of Democratic control of both chambers of a State legislature.  The Republican Governors of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana, however, have proposed serious non-Medicaid alternatives for establishing universal health care using other components of the Affordable Care Act.  They are currently in different stages of obtaining Federal approval for these alternatives.  Map credit: Sarah Kliff, The Washington Post.

With the exception of North Dakota and Arkansas, and at least prospectively of Arizona, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Kentucky, this map of the progress of State expansion of the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act is a pretty good indicator of Democratic control of both chambers of a State legislature. The Republican Governors of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana, however, have proposed serious non-Medicaid alternatives for establishing universal health care using other components of the Affordable Care Act. They are currently in different stages of obtaining Federal approval for these alternatives. Map credit: Sarah Kliff, The Washington Post.

That makes just 3 1/2 Republican State legislatures working with supportive Governors to expand Medicaid thus far.  Several States are working on plans to provide full or partial health care coverage without a conventional Medicaid expansion, however.  Some of these proposals (notably Wisconsin’s) have good prospects of passing; some, like 1 coming out of the Missouri legislature, have little chance of winning either the Democratic Governor’s or the Obama Administration’s support, and may even be a gimmick.  Arkansas’s passage of Medicaid expansion was a major breakthrough–not just because its was only the 2nd Republican State legislature to vote for expansion, but because budget authorization required 3/4 of both legislative chambers to vote in favor.  Governor Mike Beebe, a very popular Democrat in his 2nd term, made passage of the Medicaid expansion a central policy priority.  (For some reason, however, Jay Nixon, the popular Governor of neighboring Missouri, was not able to cajole or pressure his State’s Republican legislature into supporting Medicaid expansion.)

NPR recently reported that States that do not expand Medicaid will create unintended and politically-awkward situations in which some groups of people are arbitrarily insured while others are not.  According to the report, businesses with 50 or more employees will have to pay a fine if even 1 of their employees obtains health insurance through a Federally-subsidized exchange rather than through their employer; if the employees make no more than 138% of the State poverty level, thus qualifying them for Medicaid, however, the employer doesn’t have to pay a fine for leaving them to Medicaid.  Thus, declining the Medicaid expansion, 100% of which is initially Federally-funded and 90% of which is permanently Federally-funded, exposes many businesses to new fines if any employees make between 100% and 138% of a poverty-level income and do not receive health insurance from their employer.  Then there is the health care coverage for immigrants, which isn’t affected by States declining the Medicaid expansion: Since non-naturalized immigrants don’t qualify for Medicaid in the 1st place, the Affordable Care Act covered them through Federal subsidies to purchase private health insurance only.  Since the Supreme Court ruled the Medicaid expansion an option for the States because it requires them to spend money, this means States can choose to leave low-income citizens without health care while legal non-naturalized immigrants will be taken care of.  Finally, Federal subsidies to buy private health insurance through your local health insurance exchange can extend down to those making just above a poverty-level income; below that income it is assumed any citizens without insurance would be covered through Medicaid.  So, if your State leaders choose not to expand Medicaid and you make, say, 102% of a poverty-level income, your health insurance will be purchased for you by the Federal Government; if you make 98% of a poverty-level income, you get no health care.  The Affordable Care Act goes into full implementation in 2014.  In that year, the elected leaders of a lot of Republican-led State governments will have to explain these rather obvious inequities in health care coverage while Democrats will be able to tell those people the incumbent simply chose not to insure them; later that year, most Governors and State legislatures will face an election.

Affordable Care Act Implementation Among the States, Part 1: Health Insurance Exchanges

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was enacted by Congress, it contained basic provisions that would impact the situation of public health in certain States differently.  Primarily, it would be left up to the determination of each State to decide whether to establish its own health insurance exchange, to run its health insurance exchange in a complimentary partnership with the Federal Government, or to leave the task of instituting such an exchange up to the Feds completely.  The health insurance exchange is a regulated marketplace, accessible online, which provides item-by-item comparisons of various private insurance plans.  Federal guidelines indicate what information has to be provided by insurers to the general public, just as new regulations instituted through the Affordable Care Act mandates certain minimum responsibilities for health insurers.  (For example, health insurance companies had to insure children of their policyholders through age 26, could not deny their policyholders’ claims on the grounds of possessing “preexisting conditions,” and could not cancel their insurance policies in advance of claims for treatment after making them pay premiums.  These sorts of measures–as well as declining to provide apples-to-apples comparisons between one’s own health insurance policies and another insurer’s–were all legal before the Affordable Care Act was passed, just so you understand the measures Congressional and State Republicans have so doggedly fought.) By my count (based on a critical reading of information provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation), 18 States (including the District of Columbia among them) have instituted State-based insurance exchanges, 7 States are planning partnership exchanges in conjunction with the Federal Government, and 26 States have declined to institute their own exchanges, instead opting to let the Federal Government establish and run the exchanges for them. Every State with both a Democratic Governor and a unitary Democratic State legislature–there are 16, counting nominally–has opted to create either a full State-based or partnership exchange.  Of the 25 States with both a Republican Governor and a majority-Republican State legislature–counting Virginia with its nuclear partisan control and excluding Nebraska with its non-partisan State Senate–only 3 have instituted State or partnership exchanges, 1 of which (Utah’s) was pre-existing.  Ohio has a State-Federal partnership exchange in all but name, based on an existing State regulatory agency which reserves the right to oversee health insurance companies listed on its Federally-operated health insurance exchange.  Of the 10 States (counting Nebraska) that have split-control governments, 6 have State or partnership health insurance exchanges.  3 in this latter category were proposed by Democratic Governors (though 1 Governor, Kentucky’s Steve Beshear, had to implement it through executive order to bypass the Conservative-Republican State Senate) and 2 by Republican Governors who work with Democratic legislatures; 1 (Iowa’s) was already in place shortly before passage of the Affordable Care Act and was fashioned into the State component of a partnership exchange.  Rick Snyder, the moderate Republican Governor of Michigan, failed to persuade his Republican State legislature to institute either his desired partnership health insurance exchange or the expansion of Medicaid.State Health Insurance Exchanges as of April 1, 2013

So, we can group States on implementation by several types.

States that already had State-based or partnership exchanges: Massachusetts, Utah, Ohio, Iowa

States that produced health insurance exchanges in response to ACA enabling legislation and grants: Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Illinois, Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, Washington DC, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire

States in which health insurance exchanges were proposed by a Governor but rejected by a legislature or by referendum: Montana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina

State in which a State Insurance Commissioner proposed a State health insurance exchange which was not sustained by either the Governor or the Department of Health and Human Services: Mississippi

States which rejected creation of a State or partnership exchange without controversy: Alaska, Wyoming, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maine

A few political realities can be inferred from this outcome:

1.) Democratic Governors and State legislatures were eager to embrace the Affordable Care Act, period:  Every Democratic Governor except the relatively-Conservative John Lynch of New Hampshire at least attempted to institute a health insurance exchange.  2 of these Governors were thwarted by Republicans–the now-retired Brian Schweitzer in the Legislature in Montana and Jay Nixon by a failed referendum in Missouri.  Governor Beshear in Kentucky was able to act on his own through executive order; on that note…

2.) Where institutional agency resides matters.

3.) The health insurance exchanges were the earlier State-based component of the Affordable Care Act to be implemented, and it brought fewer obvious benefits from the Federal Government than the Medicaid expansion; consequently, few Republican Governors felt compelled to join even if they were relatively pragmatic: Only 6 out of 30 States with Republican Governors–20%–have either State-run (Utah, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico) or State-Federal partnership (Iowa, Ohio) exchanges.  Utah, Iowa and Ohio instituted exchanges or health insurance plan management agencies through pre-existing State offices, while the other 3 States created new exchanges.  It’s worth noting that in 2010 Idaho Governor C. L. Otter faced charges from his Democratic opponent that he was too ideological, while Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susanna Martinez of New Mexico are both Hispanic Governors of States with large minority (particularly large Hispanic) populations and majority-Democratic State legislatures.  So, Republican gubernatorial buy-in to the health insurance exchanges was largely a function of a path of least resistance or greater political pressure to compromise.

4.) On health insurance exchange implementation, Governors were about as willing to play politics as State legislatures.  As I mentioned before, every Democratic Governor save 1 at least attempted to establish a State-based or partnership insurance exchange; in the case of Governor Maggie Hassan, elected in 2012 to replace New Hampshire’s retiring Governor Lynch, she used her election and her party’s massive victory in the State House elections that year to reverse her Conservative-Democratic predecessor’s decision to forego both a heallth insurance exchange and the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.  The rump Republican majority in the State Senate, coming off an election that was even more disastrous for its party locally than it was nationally, has assured Governor Hassan of its cooperation.

5.) Barring implementation trouble with the new health insurance exchanges, which could just as plausibly be used as talking points against the Affordable Care Act, the picture of State and Federal health insurance exchanges depicted above is unlikely to change.  Unlike States which reject the expansion of Medicaid, which will clearly deny health care in aggregate to millions of the poor, a State’s failure to create its own health insurance exchange won’t necessarily have repercussions for its residents.  While a State-run health insurance exchange is likely to be more-convenient to use and will probably be governed differently, the handling of its functions by the Federal Government won’t necessarily lead to perceptibly-different service or the failure of the exchange itself.  (To an extent, this reality may depend on House Republicans’ efforts to deny funding to health insurance exchange implementation, but it may prove difficult either procedurally or politically to deny funding to implementation.)  As such the picture you see above of mapped variation in the creation of health insurance exchanges above is likely to stay with us.