Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Sure, he may have had a lot of help in doing so. After all, it was, ahem, awfully fortunate to have Russia meddle on his behalf. Also, there was that whole suspiciously-timed letter by James Comey to Congress about reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private E-mail server.
And WikiLeaks had that whole DNC E-mail dump. Oh, and Trump lost the popular vote, but because of our crazy, mixed-up Electoral College, he still won (and subsequently gets to promote conspiracy theories about electoral fraud on the part of Democrats from his bully pulpit). Plus, income and wealth inequality, low turnout, racism, sexism, strategic mismanagement from the Clinton campaign and the Democrats in general, and other factors played a probable role in the final outcome.
But yes, strictly speaking, Trump won in 2016. Do I think he deserves some great degree of credit for this, however? No, I don’t, and my question to you is this: for what do you think he merits praise exactly?
From the very beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump ran on a platform of divisiveness that would be laughable today if A) it weren’t so reprehensible and B) he didn’t actually win. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. By now, this is one set of remarks in a long line of boorish, ignorant rhetoric on Trump’s part. At the time, though, it was stunning to have someone with presidential aspirations utter these words with a straight face. This didn’t come from some character on HBO’s Veep. This was a real person really saying these things. But give the Devil his due, right?
In spite of the expert predictions, Trump didn’t sink his chances right then and there. Instead, he flourished, all the while going after his political rivals on both the left and the right, going out of his way to criticize those who dared to challenge him. Megyn Kelly was only asking him tough questions because she was on her period. John McCain was less of a man because he got captured while serving in the Vietnam War (never mind that Trump himself never served because his father used an allegedly fabricated diagnosis of bone spurs to get him off the hook). Carly Fiorina was ugly. Marco Rubio became “Little Marco.” And was “Lyin'” Ted Cruz even eligible to run for president because of the whole being-born-in-Canada thing? With every jab at a fellow Republican, Trump revealed a new ugly dimension to his character. And his supporters reveled in it.
Truth be told, they still are. Long before potential Democratic challengers were lining up to be the one to take a shot at making him a one-and-done president in 2020, the man was holding the same type of rallies he held in advance of 2016. Eschewing teleprompters, he continued to rage against the changing face of America and to harp on Hillary’s conduct despite having won, all the while taking potshots at the likes of Maxine Waters and suggesting that, as a black woman, she was fundamentally less intelligent than him. LOCK HER UP! IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GET THE F**K OUT! To you or I, this might feel like Hell on Earth. But to these attendees, it was a party. And for once, they felt like they were winning. Whoever they were anyway.
In Trump, they saw a figure who made them proud to be Americans, who they felt understood how they were being ignored, replaced, talked down to. He tells it like it is. He’s not a politician. He’s the epitome of success. Hey, at least with him it won’t be boring. For whatever reason or mix of reasons, they celebrated his political ascendancy. So what if he allegedly cheated on his wife with an adult entertainer and paid her not to talk about it? So what if he claims to be a religious man but won’t (or can’t) name a particular chapter or verse of the Holy Bible he finds illuminating? So what if he said he would be too busy during his tenure to play golf but has already outpaced Barack Obama in time spent away from the White House with clubs in hand? We’re making America great again. Even if we have to drag you kicking and screaming into that new America which looks a lot like the old America.
Regarding the voters who opted for Trump, then, while we might not absolve them completely for their questionable decision-making and should press them on why they continue to support the president if they still do, we can keep in mind that they are not political experts. They are flesh and blood, not necessarily guided by reason, prone to failings as we all are. It is Trump, meanwhile, who primarily deserves admonishment herein. Purporting himself to be a man with all the answers who alone can fix America’s ills. A man of the people, one lacking polish but one who connects with everyday voters. He’s not politically correct. He’s not a Washington, D.C. insider. He gets it. TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP! Promises made, promises kept.
Except he hasn’t. Where is the wall that Mexico is going to pay for? Where is that big replacement for the Affordable Care Act that is supposed to be loads better than Obama’s signature achievement? Where is the infrastructure investment he promised? What about his vow that we’d make no cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security? Or the improved Iran deal we’d be negotiating? Or the notion we’d eliminate the federal debt in eight years? Or that he’d willingly release his tax returns? I’m not saying Pres. Trump has broken all of his campaign promises, mind you. Disappointing as actions like taking America out of the Paris climate agreement and keeping the prison at Guantanamo Bay open are, Trump said he’d do them and he did.
Given how much he boasted he would do, however, to brag now about “promises made, promises kept” is to engage in disingenuousness. Judging by PolitiFact’s scorecard, more than half of Trump’s promises have either been broken, have stalled, or have been subject to some sort of compromise. If you include initiatives in the works which have yet to come to fruition, the percentage of promises kept grows yet smaller. This is especially notable for Trump’s most chant-worthy agenda items. BUILD THE WALL? We’re not even close on the steel slat barrier Trump and Co. have envisioned. LOCK HER UP? Last time I checked, Hillary Clinton isn’t behind bars. DRAIN THE SWAMP? Lo, but the president has done nothing but feed its alligators, populating his administration with appointees with ties to Goldman Sachs.
To put it another way, for all Trump has pledged to do, how often has he followed through, and along these lines, how beneficial have these policies actually been for the average American? Probably the biggest “achievement” Trump and his party can claim during his presidency is passing tax legislation that primarily benefits corporations and the wealthiest among us. There’s also Trump’s liability for getting involved in trade wars that see the cost of goods and materials passed on to consumers and put American jobs in danger. Even the relatively strong economy Trump has enjoyed as POTUS was inherited from his predecessor. Though come to think of it, it is rather on-brand for Trump to get a favorable situation handed to him and try to take credit for it afterwards.
When it boils down to it, the only thing for which we possibly could be giving credit to Donald Trump is being a fraud—and that’s not something most of us would agree deserves applause. He connived his way to the White House like his father connived his way out of the draft on his behalf, and later in life, he sold Americans a bill of goods they were only too willing to pay for. As president, he has continued his faux populist charade, all the while making everyone not like him—a rich white Christian male who shares his worldview—either a mark for the con or a target for abuse.
Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote about this “skill” of Trump’s amid his penchant for cruelty back in October 2018:
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
This is the United States in the age of Trump, and that he seems to have taken so much of the Republican Party with him is startling. The GOP as a whole merits scorn for their wholesale failure to adequately condemn him and/or their utter abandonment of their stated conservative principles, as well as their identities as ostensibly decent human beings.
Lindsey Graham? He has turned from a sometimes-critic of Trump to his sycophantic defender. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins? They’re “troubled” by Trump’s actions to the point when they actually have to stand for something—and then they end up toeing the party line when it comes time to vote. Mitch McConnell? He got Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court by refusing to do his job, has obliged the president on the use of the “nuclear option” to confirm his awful nominations for key government posts, and has reflexively stonewalled legislation advanced by a Democrat-controlled House as a matter of partisan gamesmanship. And this is what deserves applause?
I’ve heard it said that whereas Democratic supporters feel they need to fall in love with candidates, Republican supporters fall in line and that’s why they keep winning. Based on their control of the White House, the Senate, and numerous state houses and governorships, this may be true in part. Again, though, do I hold this “strategic” approach in any high esteem? No, I don’t. Not when Trump and the rest of his party are pandering to the lowest common denominator, lying, cheating, and stealing their way to victory.
Do the rest of us bear at least some responsibility for allowing ourselves to be manipulated in this way? Hell yes. Our disorganization, shortsightedness, and silence help fuel their misdeeds. But do I propose that the GOP get credit for playing one big shell game and reaping the benefits? Hell no.
It is in the context of us-versus-them, Democrat-versus-Republican, winning-versus-losing binary paradigms that Rep. Justin Amash’s breaking of ranks with his GOP brethren to indicate Pres. Trump has “engaged in impeachable conduct” after reading the unredacted Mueller report is so intriguing. That he would make his conclusions known publicly, jeopardizing his standing within the party and, perhaps more significantly, his financial backing suggests some level of courage more tepid challengers such as Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney lack.
Of course, we the American public may cheer Amash’s going out on a proverbial limb without necessarily subscribing to all his political views. Awash in a cultural tide of black-and-white depictions of public figures and “canceling” anyone who utters something out of turn, we can appreciate Amash’s candor on this issue while still acknowledging the need to hold him accountable on less agreeable positions. This is a conversation about impeachment, not an ideological purity test.
Amash’s defection, if you will, is made doubly noteworthy by House Democrats’ reluctance to push for impeachment as steered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It certainly eats away at the narrative put forth heretofore that Trump “isn’t worth impeachment.” Here’s a Republican—a Republican!—saying that the contents of the Mueller report are grounds for impeachment.
Elie Mystal, contributor to The Nation, takes it one step further by declaring that Amash “is putting the Democrats to shame.” As Mystal sees it, the Dems should’ve been making the case for impeachment since taking back the House in November but they’re too scared, “as if merely uttering ‘the I word’ will bring a curse upon their house.” He writes:
The Democratic Party strategy has been to wait for somebody else to make the argument that Trump should be impeached, then glom onto it. They’ve been waiting for somebody else to do the hard work of convincing people for them. The New York Times reports that some Democratic leaders are now privately more insistent on starting impeachment proceedings, if only to counter the hardball tactics being employed by the White House. It would seem sheer embarrassment is pushing the House towards the option they should have been advocating for all along.
The Democrats were hoping for Robert Mueller to take care of things on his own, but that didn’t pan out. Or maybe a different Republican “with honor and decency” might have come forward, the expectation of which Mystal characterizes as a “disease” Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden appear to get when winning an election. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn has reportedly defied a congressional subpoena, so he’s out too. Now, against the odds, a “Tea Party joker” who “has positions [Mystal] could easily spend the rest of [his] life opposing” has taken the initiative to assent to impeachment. The Democrats’ cover has effectively been blown.
Mystal ends his piece with this stinging criticism of the Democratic Party:
[Amash] is out there looking like he’s got actual convictions, even as Republicans gear up to primary the hell out of him. He’s not waiting for Democrats or Republicans to make the argument that Trump should be impeached. He’s making it himself. He’s taking it directly to his voters. He’s trying to convince them that he is right. It’s dangerous. He might lose his seat. But as they’d say in the neighborhood: he ain’t no punk.
The Democrats look like the punks. They’re standing on top of a diving board, scared and shivering, hoping somebody would just push them in already and save them from their embarrassment.
Bringing the conversation back to the central issue of who deserves credit, Justin Amash earns some on the subject of impeachment, putting his views above the public stance of party leadership and risking a backlash from party organizers and voters alike. But that’s as far as it goes.
Along these lines, the Democrats get some credit for generally adopting more progressive policy positions than the Republicans. That, however, isn’t that onerous a task given how far off the deep end the Republican Party has apparently gone, and what’s more, the Dems (with a few exceptions) have blown a good chunk of that goodwill in not pushing for impeachment and therefore not communicating they care to hold President Trump accountable. Forget what the Senate will (or won’t) do. Forget how Trump will take it (um, guessing he won’t like it). At a point, you have to stand for something.
As the saying goes, give credit where it is due. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reason to give credit in Washington these days, least of all not to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers.
The way President Donald Trump operates, it’s not like many of the remarks he made during his recent interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes were particularly surprising or groundbreaking. Many of his comments were riffs on the same songs he has sung before.
Even if they weren’t very earth-shattering or shocking, meanwhile, Trump’s comments were nonetheless disappointing to hear/read as an American who doesn’t share the same set of values. Stahl’s questions ranged across a fairly wide set of topics, but here are some of Trump’s most noteworthy insights:
Trump “doesn’t know” that humans have a role in climate change.
Pres. Trump seemed to walk back one-time comments he made that climate change is a “hoax.” In the same breath, however, he expressed doubt that it’s manmade, and when Stahl pressed him on the overwhelming evidence that it does exist and that we’re contributing to it, he suggested that this climate change could simply reverse somehow and that the scientists advancing the consensus theory have a “very big political agenda.”
That Trump would feign concern for the effects a shift away from fossil fuels might have on American jobs is commendable, at least by his standards. Trying to effectively deny our hand in climate change as part of a political agenda when the scientific consensus is such a strong one, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thinking we don’t need at this stage in the game when more urgent action was needed yesterday.
Trump suggested there could be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if found they were behind the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but didn’t provide specifics.
Trump admitted it was possible the Saudi government was behind the murder of Khashoggi, and indicated the vehement denial on the part of the Saudis. He then hinted that weapons deals could be at stake, but as he did with concerns about climate change, he pivoted to worrying about jobs at companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. So, while he acknowledged the possibility of sanctions, Trump doesn’t seem all that committed to endangering business ties with Saudi Arabia because of it. Astonishment of astonishments there.
At this writing, reportedly, the Saudis are preparing to admit Khashoggi died during a botched interrogation. Obviously, the interview was taped prior to these reports. What was worst about this segment, though, was that Trump said the matter was especially troubling because Khashoggi was a journalist, even making an aside about how strange it must be to hear him say that. Yeah, it is, and it comes off as more than a little disingenuous after regularly railing at members of the press and calling them the “enemy of the American people.” Pardon us if we’re not especially enthralled by your promises that you’ll get to the bottom of his disappearance.
Trump claimed that Barack Obama put us on a path to war with North Korea, and qualified his “love” for Kim Jong-un.
Evidently, under President Obama, we were going to war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but now—BOOM!—no more war and Kim is talking about nuclearization. You’re welcome, America. Get that Nobel Peace Prize nice and shiny for “the Donald.”
Within Trump’s logic, it’s his trust for Kim that has been such an essential diplomatic asset. This despite the possibility raised by Stahl that North Korea hasn’t gotten rid of any weapons and may actually be building more. Trump, attempting to further distance himself from Obama, intimated there are no plans to ease sanctions, but Stahl persisted on the topic of Trump’s stated “love” for North Korea’s despotic leader. Trump tried to minimize the language he used as a figure of speech, but Stahl belabored North Korea’s horrid human rights record under Kim and his father.
Trump’s admiration for dictators is nothing new, but hearing him downplay talk of gulags and starvation is yet bothersome. More on this to come.
Trump still has no idea how tariffs work, nor does he apparently have high regard for his supposed allies.
President Trump insisted China is close to negotiating on tariffs and other matters of trade. In the meantime, though, President Xi Jinping (another leader with dictatorial aspirations overseeing a country with questionable regard for human rights) and China are content to retaliate with tariffs, and Stahl questioned how long we will be content to try to strong-arm China into negotiation when it’s American consumers who are bearing the brunt of these tariffs. Is the point to use the people of each country as bargaining chips in an escalating trade war?
Trump argued with Stahl for a while about whether or not he called it a trade war, a skirmish, or a battle, but this is semantics (and he totally f**king did call it a trade war, according to Stahl). Alongside likely overstating our trade deficit with China, Trump once more communicated his faulty understanding re tariffs. What’s more, he seemed ambivalent as to the continued integrity of diplomatic relations with Europe as a function of NATO membership, and grew combative with Stahl on the point of levying tariffs on our allies and inviting disunion. As long as Trump and his advisers hold to the narrative that the United States is being taken advantage of by the rest of the world when it comes to defense spending and trade, the average consumer is the one who will be caught in the middle.
Trump believes that Vladimir Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings.
But only probably. Continuing the earlier conversation about Pres. Trump and his love of autocrats, the man would not commit to saying that he believed Putin was behind attacks on critics and political opponents, professing that he “relies on” Russia and that it’s their country, so it’s essentially their business. I’d be eager to know what precisely he means when he says he relies on them, and it’s possible his drift is a more innocent one, but when so much seems to hint at Trump being compromised by Russian ties, it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This sentiment only grows when considering his hedging on Russian interference in the election and his evasiveness on the Mueller investigation. When prompted by Stahl on meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Trump was quick to rebut by claiming China meddled as well. Even if that were true, however—experts say there is evidence of a pro-Chinese influence campaign at work, but no concrete evidence of Chinese electoral meddling—it’s a deflection. Stahl called him out on this tactic, only to be argued with in the spirit of whataboutism.
Additionally, Trump refused to pledge that he won’t shut down the Mueller investigation. In other words, um, yeah, you should still be worried about Mueller’s fate as special counsel. Particularly if the midterms go poorly for the Republican Party.
That whole family separation thing was all Obama’s fault.
When asked what his biggest regret so far has been, the first thing that jumped to Trump’s mind was not terminating the NAFTA deal sooner. Not the whole taking children away from their parents thing, as Stahl interjected. It’s not exactly mind-bending to witness Trump fail to recognize a policy bent on unmitigated cruelty as his worst mistake, but it still stings like salt in the proverbial wound if you fashion yourself a halfway decent human being.
To make matters worse, Trump defended the policy under the premise that people would illegally enter the United States in droves otherwise. Furthermore, he blamed Barack Obama for enforcing a policy that was on the books. To be fair, Obama’s record on immigration is not unassailable, as his administration was responsible for its share of deportations. But separating families is a new twist on trying to enact “border security,” and it ignores the perils immigrants face upon return to their native land, perils we have helped exacerbate. Try as he might to escape it, Donald Trump and his presidency will be inexorably tied to this heartless policy directive.
The country is divided, but that’s the stupid Democrats’ fault.
According to Trump, the country was very polarized under Obama, but now on the strength of the economy, he can see it coming together. You’re welcome, America. Stahl questioned him on this criticism of Obama and the Democrats’ contributions to political rancor when he and his Republican cronies just won on the Kavanaugh confirmation and he proceeded to immediately lambast the Dems. Trump predictably deflected by saying it’s the Democrats who don’t want the country to heal. They started it! They were so mean to Brett Kavanaugh! What a bunch of stupid babies!
In case you had any doubts, Trump doesn’t give two shits about Christine Blasey Ford.
Continuing with theme of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Lesley Stahl addressed Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford’s testimony before Congress, asking why he felt he had to make fun of her. Trump says she was treated with great respect. Stahl was, like, really? Trump was, like, anyway, who cares? We won.
That’s right, ladies and germs—the ends justify the means. It’s all about the W. You heard him.
The White House is definitely not in chaos. Definitelynot.
The on-air portion of the 60 Minutes interview ended with Stahl asking the president about the media reports of a White House in turmoil. Three guesses as to his reply. If you said “fake news,” you’d be correct. (If you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?) Trump also didn’t seem fazed about the high turnover within his administration. Hey, sometimes it just doesn’t work out! Along these lines, Trump wouldn’t commit to James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, nor would he give a ringing endorsement to Jeff “I’m Only a Racist on Days That End in ‘Y'” Sessions. Not that I have any great love for either of those men, but it’s still messed up when a man like Trump expects unflinching loyalty and yet stands by his appointees only when it’s convenient.
Trump also opined on his feelings of distrust of White House officials, consummate with his assessment of Washington, D.C. as a “vicious, vicious place.” Good news, though, fellow Americans: he now feels very comfortable as POTUS. Many of us might be continuously on edge, but he’s right as rain. Well, at least there’s that.
To some, Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview with Donald Trump was disappointing in that it didn’t break new ground. Sure, it further revealed that he is ignorant of how basic economic and scientific principles work, that he possesses a predilection for strongmen, that he will blame Barack Obama for pretty much anything, that he holds absolutely no regard for survivors of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence, and that he has the temperament (and possibly the intellect) of a grade-school child. But we already knew all this. As noted earlier, it’s more salt in the wound for members of the so-called Resistance, but short of potentially alienating our allies with his public comments—which is not to be undersold or encouraged, mind you—but comparatively, his words are sticks and stones.
It’s where Trump’s actions and those of his administration have effect that should truly frighten us, meanwhile. As he so often does, Matt Taibbi provides excellent insight into the area of biggest concern: the U.S. economy. Stahl noted in voiceovers during the interview that Trump loves to talk about America’s economic success. After all, it makes him look good. Never mind that he may have a limited role in that success and that he inherited favorable conditions from his predecessor, but he wouldn’t be the first president to take advantage of others’ successes.
Trump was notably silent, conversely, when the Dow recently fell 1,377 points over two days amid a stock market sell-off. As Taibbi writes, this event is but a prelude to a larger economic disaster, and it stands at the confluence of three irreconcilable problems. The first is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as a means of trying to rein in the excess of large companies taking advantage of quantitative easing and zero-interest-rate policy.
This might not be such a problem except for the second factor: the Trump/GOP tax cuts. As economic experts warned prior to their passage, the cuts were based on overly enthusiastic projections of economic growth. When the inevitable tax shortfall occurred, we would need to start borrowing more, as is already underway. Higher interest rates on increased borrowing means more of an economic burden.
All of this comes to a head when we consider the third problem: tariffs. To try to make up for the issues raised by higher borrowing rates and a revenue shortfall, the government this week debuted new Treasury bills in the hopes of generating immediate cash. The potential conflict arises when considering China is the primary buyer of U.S. T-bills and holds over a trillion dollars in American debt.
The assumption is that Chinese demand for Treasury notes will remain unchanged despite the tariffs. However, as Matt Taibbi and Lesley Stahl and others are right to wonder, what happens if the trade war’s tariffs hurt the Chinese economy to the point that China no longer can or is willing to subsidize our skyrocketing debt? It’s a purely theoretical question at this point, and a rhetorical one at that, but the fallout from the intersection of these trends could be devastating. Taibbi puts a cap on the gravity of the situation thusly:
As we’ve seen in recent decades, even smart people are fully capable of driving the American economy off a cliff. What happens when the dumbest administration in history gets a turn at the wheel? Maybe last week wasn’t the time to start panicking. But that moment can’t be far.
Ominous, but perhaps not hyperbole. Noting what happened last time when the economy nearly collapsed, when the next disaster strikes, it will undoubtedly be we, the other 99%, that pays most dearly. Especially as Mitch McConnell and his Republican partners would have it, now clearly eying cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
President Trump may enjoy schmoozing with Lesley Stahl and giving bad answers his base will eat up now. In the short to long term, though, the terrible choices of his administration and his party could prove costly to the American economy, and by association, the global economy. Though he undoubtedly won’t meet with our same burden, he should at least take more of the blame when it does.
After a Democratic Party primary season which saw nine debates and 13 candidate forums held, and a Republican Party campaign season which saw 12 debates and nine forums held, many Americans may be justifiably and understandably “debated out.” Half-truths and outright lies. Pandering to prospective voters along demographic lines. Constant interruptions. The rambling attempts to answer questions from the person of Dr. Ben Carson. For these reasons and more, it is no wonder people may not only become disengaged from political discourse in the weeks and months following any presidential election and into the inauguration, but may actively distance themselves from anything of a political nature. Especially if you find yourself on the liberal end of the political spectrum, the executive actions taken by President Trump and the partisan rancor which has marked the confirmation process for a number of his Cabinet nominees has made tuning in to the news these days almost somewhat of an act of masochism. Either that or you want to take out your frustrations on the nearest object. In the latter case, make sure the consistency of said object is closer to that of a pillow than, say, a brick wall.
While the nature of politics today and President Trump’s victory have helped alienate scores of Americans, others have taken recent events as a call to action and a reason to stay informed and involved. Though the workings of Congress may remain arcane to many of us, a notion buttressed by the crushing boredom of House and Senate proceedings, through News Feeds and trending topics on social media, as well as dedicated accounts whereby average citizens can interact with their elected representatives, political figures have never been more accessible than they are today. Why, I interact every day with President Trump via Twitter! OK, so maybe it’s a bit one-sided, and it consists of me Tweeting to his preferred account each time that he lost the popular vote, according to the most recent count, by 2,868,519 votes—but hey, I get to speak to him directly! (He seems very concerned with the results of the popular vote, so I figured he should be apprised of the status of the count, you know, just in case anything were to change.) It’s an exciting time in American history to be so close to those with our best interests in mind!
It is with this dichotomy that I offer the news, in the event you were unaware, that CNN aired a televised debate on the subject of health care recently, with periodic updates on social media featuring snippets of the proceedings. Wait—you’re saying—this is February 2017. We just had an election, and the 2018 mid-terms aren’t until November of next year. Why are we having a debate at this very early point in the campaign? Well, for starters, both of the participants are, in fact, running for re-election in 2018, and as a matter of fact, made it pretty darn far in the presidential race before conceding to the eventual party nominees. Besides this possible means to an end, though, the topic of conversation is an important one for Americans across income level, age level and other identifying characteristics. The subject of health care in the United States is a pressing one for individuals and businesses alike, and yet more so in the wake of the GOP’s announced plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Based on what our leaders and policymakers decide in the near future, large swaths of the population stand to be impacted one way or another, and noting the costs involved, generations to come may likewise be affected by the actions of the present. So, yeah, while we’re a way’s away from November 2018, it makes sense to have a debate now when so much is at stake.
Have I sufficiently set the scene? Even if I haven’t, let us press onward, for we have much to discuss, grasshopper.
UNITED STATES OF JOE RECAPS THE CNN HEALTH CARE DEBATE
For a weeknight debate in the campaign off-season, CNN and the powers-that-be for each “side” of the affair could have trotted out your run-of-the-mill, rank-and-file members of Congress. As it turned out, though, this debate brought the heat in the form of two heavyweight contenders in the political scene. Your, ahem, “fighters” in this bout:
In the red corner, the U.S. Senator everyone loves to hate, the Tea Partier from Texas, the Canadian-born, half-Cuban aficionado of the government shutdown, ladies and gentlemen—give it up for Rafael “The Zodiac Killer” Cruz!
Annnnnd in the blue corner, he’s an independent senator but he caucuses with the Democrats, he lives in Vermont but he’s Brooklyn through and through, he’s a fan of democratic socialism and he’s not afraid to show it—”let me be clear” who I am talking about: the one, the only, Bernard “It’s Not about Me, It’s About Our Revolution” Sanders!
Round One: The Opening Statements
Bernie Sanders was first to go in the opening segment, and per the boxing metaphor, he came out swinging. According to Sanders, the Republicans’ intended repeal of the Affordable Care Act would mean 20 million Americans finally able to have health insurance would lose it, the 10 million seniors struggling to pay for prescription drugs would see their costs go up by an average of $2,000, and people with serious diseases/illnesses could be refused insurance for having pre-existing conditions. In making these arguments, Bernie acknowledged the ACA isn’t perfect, but indicated a majority of Americans want better than a repeal without an improved replacement. Then, he dusted off his old line from the campaign trail: that the United States is the only major country on Earth not to offer health care as a fundamental right. It doesn’t make it any less true, of course, but ahem, we’ve heard this before.
Ted Cruz, when he was on for his two minutes, talked about how his colleague in the Senate and the Democrats want government to control health care, and therefore want to wrest control away from you and your family. Cruz then proceeded to engage in the GOP’s new favorite tradition—dragging the legacy of Barack Obama—specifically by alleging Obama made promises about Americans being able to keep their own plans and that families’ premiums wouldn’t rise, and didn’t keep them, and capped these arguments off by saying the election was a referendum on ObamaCare. Actually, it seemed like the election was a referendum on establishment politics in general and/or Barack Obama and “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, but sure, go nuts with that story, Ted.
Round Two: So When Exactly Do We Repeal, Again?
To start off the actual debate portion of the debate, Jake “Please Don’t Put Me on with Kellyanne Conway Again” Tapper, co-moderator of CNN’s prime-time event alongside Dana “Admit It, You’re Glad I’m Not Don Lemon, Aren’t You?” Bash, engaged Ted Cruz about a timeline for a repeal of ObamaCare. After all, Paul Ryan had said a full repeal would get done by the end of 2017, but President Trump recently suggested a repeal and replacement might not come to pass until 2018. So, wouldn’t anything less than a substantive change by the end of this year be tantamount to a broken promise? Cruz was quick to reject this assertion, though, returning to his line about recent elections between a referendum on ObamaCare, saying “the people” wanted lower deductibles and premiums and more choices, not less, when it comes to their health care providers. Don’t we all, Ted. Don’t we all. Cruz closed his thoughts on this particular question by saying we need “common-sense” reform on health care and health insurance in America (“common-sense Republican reform”—bit of an oxymoron, no?), and attacked Democrats for resisting all changes to the Affordable Care Act. It’s not necessarily true, mind you, but it plays well in sound bites and video clips.
Given the opportunity to respond, Bernie Sanders replied by saying the Republicans don’t have a credible substitute for the ACA, and accordingly, are in a state of “panic.” He was all, like, oh, you want a choice under the GOP’s plan? How about if you have cancer, then you either have affordable health care, or if you are refused coverage because you have a “pre-existing condition,” you—wait for it—die? What kind of a choice is that? OK, so he didn’t say it exactly like that per se, but he may as well have. As Sanders views things, it is the nature of private insurance that drives these no-win situations for the consumer, and in a rebuttal to the notion ObamaCare has driven up premiums, remarked that it was under the Bush administration that rates really began to soar. So chew on that for a while, you whipper-snapper!
In a rebuttal to the rebuttal, Ted Cruz pointed out that insurance companies’ profits increased during Obama’s tenure, which doesn’t really prove anything, but the correlation is there. Bernie made a counter-offer that we should just bypass the insurance companies altogether and institute a Medicare-for-all system. Cruz then pivoted to a verbal assault on Big Pharma and the cost of prescription drugs, which Sanders admittedly got baited into joining because he loves him some Big Pharma bashing. Sheesh—one question in, and this thing was already threatening to go off the rails.
Round Three: Ponder This
Round Three marked the introduction of audience member questions into the fray. The first of these came from a woman named Neosho Ponder, someone diagnosed with breast cancer and currently undergoing treatment because of ObamaCare. She wanted to know of Ted Cruz: if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, what guarantee will I have that I’ll be able to afford health insurance given my “pre-existing condition” of cancer? To which Cruz essentially was all, like, um, well, we can pray for you? Bernie Sanders first asked for Jake Tapper to “cut him a switch.” Then he proceeded to lambaste his political rival for wanting to repeal every word of the ACA without maintaining the ability to protect those with pre-existing conditions from the machinations of the insurance industry. Cruz responded by saying what about the 6 million people who lost their coverage as a result of ObamaCare? (By the way, not really close to being accurate.) Dana Bash interceded to ask him when, exactly, he planned on answering Ponder’s question. And Ted Cruz was all, like, I already did a bunch of times. And Bash was all, like, seriously, though, what about those pre-existing conditions? And Cruz then offered to do everyone in attendance a magic trick to lighten the mood. No—you’re right—he didn’t, but it would’ve been just about as effective. Because he and the Republicans can’t promise Americans like Neosho Ponder will be able to find coverage, and in the spirit of illusions, would only excel at making affordable health insurance disappear.
Round Four: The, Er, Abnormal Pap Smear Round
No one involved in the actual debate had an abnormal pap smear, whether we’re talking about the participants or the moderators. That is, that we know of. I mean, Ted Cruz could secretly be a hermaphrodite or something. Not that I’m alleging he is one, by the way. Just saying you never know. No, that revelation came from audience member Melissa Borkowski, a nurse practitioner from Florida with a husband, four kids, and, oh, just a tiny little insignificant $13,000 deductible. Bernie Sanders was asked, um, what gives, old man? Sen. Sanders replied by saying, well, Pam, we shouldn’t be paying that much, and if this were France, Germany, Scandinavia or the U.K., you wouldn’t. She-He Cruz, meanwhile, contended we pay more because we get better and more frequent care. What happens when the government controls health care is that it rations that care. So there, Bernie. Then he stuck his tongue out and made antlers with his hands to his head.
Piggybacking off Borkowski’s question and her, well, candid medical information, Jake Tapper directed a follow-up at Bernie, asking him about a state like Florida that now has less insurance choices to offer through ObamaCare and through the public exchange. How do we manage affordability for the consumer while still offering a fair number of choices? First, responding to Melissa’s question and Ted Cruz’s comments, because he’ll answer your question when he’s good and ready, Mr. Tapper!, Bernie Sanders noted that when people can’t afford health insurance and proper health care, that is effectively a form of rationing as well. The solution, as Sanders sees it, is to, as an extension of a Medicare-for-all single-payer program, provide a public option in all 50 states and offer the kind of competition needed against the private sector. Ted Cruz, in his reply, brought a visual aid in the form of a map of this insurance coverage—or lack thereof—and criticized the public option as the government controlling your health care, also known as—gasp!—socialism. Besides, as much as Sen. Sanders might extol the public option, what about all those Canadians and Scandinavians who come to the United States for superior health care?
Quick to jump back in, Bernie refuted the notion that the government option was the government telling people what to do. After all, it’s an option, not a mandate. Regardless, you don’t see leaders of these countries that offer the public option, even the conservative ones, choosing to get rid of this avenue for insurance. Mr. Zodiac Killer, in response, threw out some horror stories about rationing and waiting periods for patients as a justification for why there shouldn’t be a public option or even a Medicare-for-all program. Bernie, however, wasn’t having any of it, and threw out not his own horror stories, but rather an estimate that tens of thousands of Americans die each year because they don’t seek medical treatment, or as Big Pharma would refer to it within the context of possible side effects for prescription drugs, there are tens of thousands of “fatal events.” Ooh—Bernie Sanders with the haymaker, right before the commercial break!
Round Five: Help Me, LaRonda!
Actually, it was LaRonda who needs the help, although, unfortunately for her, she probably was never going to a satisfactory answer from either debater. The question, first directed at Sen. Sanders, was posed by LaRonda Hunter, an owner of five Fantastic Sams hair salons who would like to expand and hire more employees, but this would put her over the 50-employee threshold, and under ObamaCare, she would need to start providing health insurance to her employees. So, how could she meet this regulatory requirement and grow her business without raising prices or lowering wages? (Side note: I have never heard of Fantastic Sams, but evidently, they have locations all over the damn place. They also evidently don’t like using apostrophes. I mean, it should be “Fantastic Sam’s,” right? Unless the founder has the last name Sams? Either way, their distinction of being “fantastic” seems suspect.) And Bernie was all, like, well, Ronda. And Ms. Hunter replied, it’s LaRonda. And Sanders was all, like, dammit, you people have to stop changing your names on me! As to your question, though, um, you don’t? That is, if you have that many employees, they should be getting health insurance. Sen. Ted Cruz, given the floor, took the opportunity to portray ObamaCare as the nemesis of small business, and identified two piteous classes of people created by the Affordable Care Act. The first is the 29ers, those forced to work part-time jobs because ObamaCare kicks in at 30 hours a week. The other is the 49ers, who suffer the plight of being a terrible football franchise. Kidding—sort of! The 49ers, in Cruz’s context, are people like LaRonda Hunter that stop short of hiring 50 employees or else be subject to needing to meet the insurance requirement under the ACA. So, thanks, Democrats, thanks, Barack Obama—this is the Hell you’ve wrought in the United States of America.
Bernie Sanders, of course, was not about to take this line of thinking from Sen. Cruz lying down. On the contrary, he made a few key points. First, he acknowledged that premiums are way too high, but again, they’ve been on the incline since the days of Dubya. Second, Sanders explained that there are actually fewer part-time workers now than there were before the passage of the ACA. Third, and reiterating his point from earlier, from the campaign trail, and from much of his adult life, the U.S. should enact a Medicare-for-all program—that is, unless Ted Cruz and the Republicans don’t kill it off first. Ooh—a body blow from the people’s champ! Cruz hadn’t lost his fighting spirit either, however. He asked his competitor, you know, Bernie, President Obama said premiums would go down. Wasn’t he a liar-liar-pants-on-fire? Ouch—a right hook from the challenger of his own!
The older fighter, though, proved he can still take a punch. Bernie conceded it turned out that Obama’s promise turned out not to be true, though he probably thought it was true at the time. (Second side note: if we’re calling Barack Obama a liar on this front, what does that make Donald Trump, who has already unrepentantly broken scores of campaign promises in less than a month on the job? Oh, that’s right—that would make Trump a “fraud.”) At any rate, the only way a scenario like LaRonda Hunter’s would work, he reasoned, is if we cut through the administration and bureaucracy and guarantee health care for all. Cruz, perhaps surprisingly, agreed. There’s too much paperwork. It’s all the government’s fault. Sanders replied, wait a second, Mr. Looks Like the Lead Singer of Stryper—government is part of the reason, but so are insurance companies. Sen. Cruz, once more, agreed, saying they should agree on some sort of alternative. Sen. Sanders, putting his hand to his face and shaking his head back and forth, was all, like, I’ve already said it, like, five times—Medicare-for-all, single-payer. What, do you not believe health care is a right? And Ted Cruz was all, like, I like rights. Religious freedom, that’s a good one. The Second Amendment—I enjoy that one as well. Bernie Sanders was, at this point, growing tired of his rival’s rope-a-dope. The ensuing dialog went a little something like this, and I’m paraphrasing, obviously:
BERNIE: Do you believe health care is a right?
TED CRUZ: I believe access to health care is a right.
BERNIE: WHAT THE HELL GOOD IS “ACCESS” IF YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT? THERE’D BE 20 MILLION MORE PEOPLE WITHOUT INSURANCE IF NOT FOR OBAMACARE! AM I SPEAKING ANOTHER LANGUAGE HERE?
Damn, Bernie! Don’t hurt him! Ted Cruz, in this round, may just have been saved by the bell, er, commercial break.
Round Six: The “Congratulations on Your MS” Round
The next audience question from the debate came from the person of Carol Hardaway, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Because her state did not expand Medicaid coverage under the ACA (and what state is that? Hint: it rhymes with “Shmexas”!), she was forced to move to one that did in Maryland. So, if the Affordable Care Act is to be repealed, can she still have her coverage or a replacement that is at least on par with it? Ted Cruz, in his response, first said this—and I wish I was making this up:
Well, Carol, thank you for sharing your story. And congratulations on dealing with MS. It’s a terrible disease. And congratulations on your struggles dealing with it.
As I often do with these debates, I follow people’s comments on Twitter as they air live, and after this line from Cruz, the immediate response from most of the users was, “Wait—did this guy just f**king congratulate her on having MS?” Yes, he f**king did. This is the problem Ted Cruz faces when he has to express an actual human emotion: it often comes across as extremely awkward. When he was done applauding Ms. Hardaway for having a debilitating illness, Sen. Cruz then basically said, gee, I’m glad Medicaid is working for you, but it’s a terrible program and should be replaced with private insurance. Bernie Sanders, in rebuttal, once more conceded Medicaid, like the ACA, is not perfect, but for those governors who have refused federal funds on principle, he hopes they can sleep at night knowing some of their constituents probably died as a result of refusing the Medicaid expansion. Cruz fired back by saying Medicaid is rationed care. Sanders replied by saying that slashing funding for Medicaid is only making things worse, and what’s more, this fabled access to quality health care that the Republicans and others tout is lacking in urban and rural areas, begging the expansion of programs like the National Health Service Corps to help meet the needs of the primary care crisis.
Throughout all of this, meanwhile, Carol Hardaway’s question remained unanswered, such that Jake Tapper actually cut in to let her speak again when he noticed her shaking her head because Ted Cruz did not adequately address her concerns. Given the chance to respond, Sen. Cruz professed that there is “widespread agreement” on replacement plans, and cited three hallmarks of something that would theoretically fill the void of ObamaCare if it were repealed: 1) allowing Americans to purchase plans across state lines, 2) expanding health savings accounts (HSAs), and 3) making health insurance portable so it travels with you from job to job. He also cited his home state’s passage of tort reform laws to address lawsuit abuse and medical malpractice suits. Some notes on these “widely agreeable” solutions:
Across-state plans sound good in theory, but the primary obstacle, as this New York Times piece written by Margot Sanger-Katz details, is not regulatory, but financial and of insurer network difficulties. Insurers don’t like them, by and large, and besides, the states like to regulate these matters themselves. Not to mention it takes time to establish relationships between insurance companies and health care providers. In other words, it’s not that simple, Ted.
HSAs offer possible advantages in that plans with lower premiums but higher deductibles may cause people to be more cognizant of what they’re spending. However, a potential drawback is that consumers may not be willing to seek out more expensive procedures—even when they really need them. It’s a disturbing thought, but a reality of these types of accounts.
Portable health insurance is, in theory, a great idea. In practice, though, logistical difficulties often loom herein related to an inability to find comparable plans when changing insurers, or otherwise failure by the insured to adequately suss out whether a plan is truly beneficial to them. At any rate, the big picture issue would seem to be keeping insurance costs low regardless of insurer, and this seems to be at odds with how many health insurance giants operate. As quick as Sen. Cruz and others are to point to “big government,” the insurance industry bears as much, if not more, responsibility.
Ted Cruz touts his state’s commitment to tort reform as a success, but studies suggest that health care costs did not decrease as a result of Prop 12, which passed in Texas in 2003 and was advocated for by Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP members within the state. Often, malpractice suits and the costs of litigation are blamed for the rising cost of medical care, but it is the economics of the health care industry and errors which primarily drive the upward trend. Moreover, capping the possible damages for victims of malpractice risks denying them the monies they need, or otherwise shifting the burden to programs like Medicare and Medicaid. You know, the same programs Republicans are trying to gut. But, go ahead, Senator Cruz—pat yourself on the back.
The “round” concluded with Sanders pointing out that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents by far—and in the process, casually dropping the notion his state, Vermont, has the second-lowest rate of insured in the nation—and Cruz defending the Lone Star State as a job producer and drastically more diverse than Vermont. Then Sanders said Cruz was ugly. Then Cruz said Sanders’ accent is stupid. If Jake Tapper didn’t intercede, the two senators might literally have gotten into a slap fight—forget my boxing analogy. Oh, it was so on now!
Round Seven: Womanhood—The Pre-existing Condition
On the debate pressed. Next to pose a query was Maria Shahid Rowe, a nursing student at the Medical University of North Carolina, pregnant with her second child, who wanted to know of Ted Cruz what any plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act would mean for pregnant women, who were at risk of being dropped before ObamaCare passed due to being considered to have a pre-existing condition, or for women in general for that matter, in that they could be charged higher premiums than men. Cruz went on for a while, eventually settling on the issue of mandated coverage for ObamaCare, such as the example of a 101-year-old being forced to have maternity coverage. Sanders was more succinct in his reply, and translating for his colleague in the Senate, explained the Republican Party could make no such guarantees. Cruz, in his follow-up, threw out a lot of stats about how young people, in particular, have been hurt by ObamaCare. They could be true. Then again, they could be misleading or just made up. Suffice it to say, though, that despite the myth-making of Republicans about the ACA, many millennials have actually been able to better afford health insurance as a result of subsidies, or have been protected against unexpected events such as getting laid off by virtue of the provision that allows them to stay on their parents’ plans until the age of 26. If nothing else, this muddies the proverbial waters on Ted Cruz’s “facts.” Man, does that guy love “facts.”
Dana Bash stepped in at this point to redirect the conversation a bit. First, she circled back to the notion of women over the age of 60, and asked Bernie Sanders whether or not he believed they should be paying for maternity coverage. Sanders acknowledged it was a problem, but something that could be looked at going forward, before stressing the idea that pregnancy should not be considered a pre-existing condition. Bash then turned to Ted Cruz, and inquired whether or not a replacement for the Affordable Care Act would maintain the provision that women do not have to pay out-of-pocket for birth control. Uh-oh, Ted—it’s a question with religious undertones! Sen. Cruz stuck to his playbook, assailing government mandates, and making some weird analogy about driving a Lamborghini. Sen. Sanders, in his answer, while questioning the merits of the fancy car metaphor (“I think it’s a bit disingenuous to talk about driving a fancy car with getting access to healthcare when you’re sick”) raised perhaps the most significant point: that the GOP has incentive to repeal the ACA to give the top 2% sizable tax breaks, much as they would abolish the estate tax. Then Cruz started talking about a flat tax, and once more, the debate threatened to go off the rails. Jake Tapper really couldn’t have called for a commercial break any sooner than he did.
Round Eight: Possible Side Effects of Listening to Ted Cruz Include Nausea and Suicidal Thoughts
With the final audience question of the night, Colorado resident Cole Gelrod, whose daughter was diagnosed with a heart defect and who can’t pay for her prescription drugs with his employer-provided insurance, but can do so under the auspices of ObamaCare and his state’s Medicaid expansion, asked Ted Cruz what the plan was to address the rising cost of prescription drugs and how to deal with insurance plans in which companies can choose not to cover life-saving drugs. Sen. Cruz basically said it’s the FDA’s fault, because these drugs are getting approved in other countries. Ted Cruz should just make his motto, “When in doubt, blame the government.” Bernie Sanders, while he agreed with his colleague to the extent that FDA-approved drugs should be affordable and available to Americans to re-import at cheaper rates, and vowed to re-introduce legislation to facilitate this function, also said we as a nation should be negotiating lower prices through Medicare. Cruz once again—wait for it—blamed the government. Sanders—wait for it—blamed pharmaceutical companies and corporate greed, and professed the belief that these corporations and exorbitant executive pay should be reined in. Sen. Cruz was all, like, well, I don’t think the government should dictating who gets paid what. This is America, not some socialist nation. Sen. Sanders was all, like, you know, places like Denmark, Finland and Sweden aren’t that bad. Even if they do put pickled herring in mustard sauce.
Dana Bash then broke out an air horn and pressed it loudly for several seconds before redirecting the two debaters to the subject of taxes, whereupon she asked Bernie, if he is opposed to taxes going up on the middle class, why should those individuals and families who go without some form of health insurance be subject to a tax penalty? Bernie was all, like, well, they shouldn’t. The rich should be paying more, but in the meantime, we have to try to get needed revenue for benefits somehow. Ted Cruz was then all, like, well, if you don’t like the tax penalty, why did you help write ObamaCare? Your health care plan is going to cost us trillions of dollars. And Bernie Sanders was all, like, yeah, well, your tax plan gives the top 1% most of the benefits, as does doing away with the estate tax. Now, if we were to enact the Sanders plan—
And that’s when CNN cut to commercial to fulfill its obligation to its corporate overlords. Buy more cars! And more prescription drugs! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!?
Round Nine: Closing Statements
I’m going to breeze through this final section, because I’m sure by now you know where each of the debaters are headed. Sen. Bernie Sanders sees major problems in Congress being beholden to the wants of the insurance, medical equipment, and pharmaceutical industries, and the United States being the wealthiest nation in the world and lagging behind other developed nations with respect to health care. Sen. Ted Cruz sees ObamaCare as a failure as evidenced by high premiums and deductibles, canceled insurance policies, and lies, lies, lies! from Barack Obama, and wonders why we would give yet more power to government to mediate health care. That’s basically all you need to know from this exercise. Oh, and DON’T F**KING CONGRATULATE SOMEONE WITH MS! I’M TALKING TO YOU, TED CRUZ!
And the winner was? CNN? Listen—who you think “won” the debate probably depends on whose point of view most closely resembles your own. To that end, I’m not all that interested. I personally think Bernie Sanders made the more compelling arguments, but as a self-identifying progressive, I naturally would. Others watching or reading the transcript might believe Ted Cruz mopped the floor with the senator from Vermont, and furthermore, that Democrats are bringing down this country. Seemingly more and more these days, Americans, buoyed by the news they absorb through cable news channels and social media echo chambers, hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. Still, that so many people are engaged on these issues and others even after the election signals to me that Americans are understanding the importance of continued involvement with political news, if not the merits of volunteering in campaigns or running for public office themselves. Accordingly, I hope events of this sort are scheduled in the future. Maybe a debate on commercial banking regulation between Elizabeth Warren and Steve Mnuchin, or, say, a debate on education practices between Betsy DeVos, and—I don’t know—a freaking fifth-grader. Average Americans should have a way to be exposed to the major parties’ stances on a variety of issues in a highly accessible, comprehensible way.
It’s the dawning of a new age in U.S. politics. More power to the people, I say! And more debates! You know, provided they don’t involve Don Lemon.
There are any number of highly-publicized programs at the federal or national level which, owing to the magnitude of the government’s struggle in these areas and the perceived battle involved of good vs. evil, they are framed in terms of a “war.” The war on drugs and the war on terror are two salient examples. These “wars,” because they involve so many complex factors—not the least of which is the human factor—tend to be quite nebulous in the way they are fought, especially in terms of cost overruns and pushing the envelope on abrogation of civil liberties and international law, if not blowing up a whole stack of envelopes on the latter count. As with any conflict, too, there tends to be a lot of collateral damage incurred in the fighting. Less publicized, but potentially tragically very real and injurious, is another war facing the nation: that of the war the Republican Party is waging against entitlement programs. In this case, the collateral damage is the welfare of the American people, and its imperilment should have us all paying attention.
Donald Trump, as part of his maneuvering to get into the White House, vowed not to make cuts in programs like Medicare and Social Security. Apparently, though, the Republicans in the House of Representatives didn’t get the message, though to be fair, they and Trump have been far from the unified front. Recently, Republican Rep. Sam Johnson out of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security unveiled a plan that would drastically reduce benefits for the majority of earners, including significantly raising the retirement age and reducing cost-of-living adjustments. While the poorest earners would stand to see gains in their benefit rates as long as they show a history of covered employment (i.e. can’t be one of those lousy freeloaders bringing down the country), provisions like the elimination of income taxes on Social Security would end up costing the program, not working to its benefit.
The obvious caveat in the railing against the GOP’s cost-saving methods is the notion that due to shortfalls in the Social Security trust fund, benefits are not guaranteed indefinitely. In fact, should spending not be significantly reduced or revenues prove insufficient to meet the fund’s needs by 2034, significant spending cuts are scheduled to automatically take place. So, Johnson’s “common-sense” plan is a good thing, right? Not so fast. Not only is slashing benefits as the main solution to the Social Security problem not the only alternative, but critics of the Republicans’ plan suggest it will only exacerbate the situation. According to Linda Benesch, spokeswoman for the progressive-minded organization Social Security Works, under Sam Johnson’s plan, cuts would be more severe than those which would go into effect automatically less than 20 years down the line. Moreover, despite the seeming merit of Johnson’s approach, according to Benesch, the uptick in benefits for the lowest wage earners would pale in comparison to the tax benefits to be realized by the wealthiest Americans. Once more, the Republican Party wants to make things even easier for the rich—when they arguably should be paying more, and even though it may negatively affect millions of Americans and for generations to come.
Social Security benefits are not the only benefits about which Republicans and Democrats are likely to rumble in the near future. As John Wildermuth of the San Francisco Chronicle reports, prominent Democrats and the likes of Bernie Sanders are gearing up with relish to go to battle with the GOP on the subject of Medicare, a program with a decades-long legacy of helping seniors meet healthcare costs in the United States. Speaking of Social Security Works, the organization sponsored a press conference some days ago, with figures like Nancy Pelosi, the aforementioned Mr. Sanders, and Chuck Schumer on hand to assert the position of the Democratic Party and liberal-minded people across America that Medicare benefits are off-limits, and to once more remind President-Elect Trump he pledged he would not slash benefits—if only to troll him by doing so.
For the non-Trumpian politicians representing the Republican Party, namely House Speaker Paul Ryan and recent Department of Health and Human Services appointee Tom Price, they have indicated Medicare is a priority, though they have apparently tabled that discussion for the new year. If past conversations on the matter are any indication, though, the GOP agenda on Medicare seems to be a shift toward private plans as opposed to government-paid insurance plans. Though somewhat dated, a 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study cited by the Wildermuth article which looked at a previous plan proposed by Speaker Ryan found that his approach would force someone retiring at the age of 65 in 2022 to meet twice the out-of-pocket medical expenses as the one enacted under the traditional Medicare program. Noting this history of Republican efforts to make seniors’ benefits disappear, Democrats and millions of concerned Americans are right to be afraid. Very, very afraid.
The attempts by Republicans to gut entitlement programs broadly speaks to two pages out of the GOP playbook when it comes to federal funding and addressing the United States’ bad deficit spending habit. The first, as exemplified by Sam Johnson’s awful Social Security plan, is the refusal to raise taxes on the wealthiest earners, under the premise those companies and individuals at the top will be so overjoyed by their tax-based savings they will in some meaningful way re-invest in the American economy. Maybe they’ll, you know, buy a yacht, or rent a second apartment for their cat to live in exclusively. (If these ideas sound stupid, it’s because they are. Rich people seem to stumble for exotic and pointless ways to throw money at things.)
For all intents and purposes, this is indicative of trickle-down economics, a theory with which most of us should be familiar, even if nominally. The fat cats at the top spend money, thereby creating jobs and magically increasing the wealth of lower-level earners, and in turn, these lower-level earners, because they apparently now have money to blow, contribute to the economy by spending as well. It’s a nice idea—everyone gets richer—even if it blatantly justifies the belief that people at the top of the food chain are there because they are inherently smarter, or harder-working, or what-have-you, and not that they have had any number of advantages including being born into wealth. The only problem is that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Instead of the benefits of the rich extending to the poor, the wealth amassed by the wealthy tends to stagnate in their hands, especially when stashed in any number of tax shelters and havens domestically or in places like the Cayman Islands that have gained notoriety for their complicity with this financial strategy. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Those within the middle class get pushed to either extreme. Trickle-down economics, eh? More like the rich pissing on the poor.
The other page of the proverbial GOP playbook embodied by the partisan fight over Medicare and other healthcare programs is the knee-jerk push to privatize everything. Private healthcare plans. Private schools. Private prisons. Private eyes. Private parts. Everything private! The presumption is that the private sector, unfettered by the ravages of excessive, suffocating government regulation, and in line with the individual’s desire for choice as opposed to a public sector mandate or hand-me-down, is inherently a superior option. The reality, however, is that this may not necessarily be the case. Even in the days of the Reagan administration and into the tenure of George Bush the Elder, criticism of a burgeoning trend toward privatization of government assets and services was present. In 1991, John B. Goodman, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, and Gary W. Loveman, CEO of Harrah’s Entertainment, Las Vegas, co-authored an article for the Harvard Business Reviewexploring whether or not privatization really serves the public interest. Though there’s a lot to consider within the piece, Goodman and Loveman—or as I would have it, Team GoodLove—aim to shift focus of the debate away from a simple black-and-white discussion of private vs. public, and to consider the role good management should play regardless of ownership. From the article:
Refocusing the discussion to analyze the impact of privatization on managerial control moves the debate away from the ideological ground of private versus public to the more pragmatic ground of managerial behavior and accountability. Viewed in that context, the pros and cons of privatization can be measured against the standards of good management—regardless of ownership. What emerges are three conclusions:
1. Neither public nor private managers will always act in the best interests of their shareholders. Privatization will be effective only if private managers have incentives to act in the public interest, which includes, but is not limited to, efficiency.
2. Profits and the public interest overlap best when the privatized service or asset is in a competitive market. It takes competition from other companies to discipline managerial behavior.
3. When these conditions are not met, continued governmental involvement will likely be necessary. The simple transfer of ownership from public to private hands will not necessarily reduce the cost or enhance the quality of services.
The implications herein, I feel, are important ones. For one, there is no given better alternative between the public or private domain. The more important dimension, it would seem, is whether the goals and incentives of managers and their agents are aligned with the wants and needs of the general public/shareholders. Furthermore, when competition within the marketplace is discouraged or company incentives encourage reckless or otherwise counterproductive/inefficient use of resources, governmental involvement in the form of regulation is warranted. Of course, this regulatory interceding must be kept in check and in balance. Too much heavy-handed, burdensome regulation can stifle productivity and growth, as has been the refrain from conservative Republicans and even small businesses. However, too little intervention on the government’s part has its own perils. Just look at the conditions which led to the Great Recession, or even more recently with giants like Wells Fargo abusing the public trust by creating a high-pressure sales model that encouraged mid-level managers to defraud customers. And to think Wells Fargo’s new CEO, Tim Sloan, wants the U.S. government to roll back regulations! Talk about a disconnect from the public interest!
So, what will Donald Trump’s likely role be in the Medicare and Social Security debate as President of these United States? As is the usual with Trump, no one knows for sure—even with the aforementioned campaign pledges of his to keep his small, child-like hands off these entitlement programs. The concern with President-Elect Trump is that, in light of the notion he lacks substantive policy positions, he will defer to Paul Ryan and his ilk, thereby allowing Republicans to slash and dash their way to a reduced budget. As much of a blockhead as Trump is, though, one would think even he would see that a strategy which puts his adopted party at odds with older Americans—a group that helped him get elected, mind you—seems almost suicidal. You want to keep out foreigners? Nice! We didn’t want to have to learn Spanish anyway! You’re tired of political correctness holding us back? Shit yeah! You’re coming for our hard-earned benefits and money that helps us pay for drugs and other expenses? Uh, wait, back the trolley up there, mister!
See, it’s all fun and games until you go after people’s benefits, especially those which are designed to get them through retirement. And it’s not just current baby boomers and older who have a stake in this. For millennials like myself and younger, the viability of programs like Social Security and Medicare seems like even less of a sure thing, and while some of you may be thinking we’re too busy taking selfies to contemplate such matters, it’s not necessarily true. Though I can’t claim to speak on behalf of the average member of my generation, I personally, by mere virtue of watching sports and absorbing the myriad commercials that air during stoppages of play, see constant reminders about the need to plan for retirement, and need look no further than my favorite team, the New Jersey Devils. They play in Prudential Center in Newark, and viewing their games on TV, I have seen so many commercials with Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor and social psychologist, that I feel like I know him personally. We young folk, you know, want a future, too, and with Republicans threatening entitlement programs and, among other things, denying that climate change is real, we’re understandably not thrilled that we may have to take a ferry to get to work as a Wal-Mart greeter when the seas rise significantly above present levels. I’ve heard more than one of my cohorts lament that our generation is royally screwed, and admittedly, it’s hard not to feel like that sometimes.
As noted earlier, and as alluded to in John Wildermuth’s article, Democrats are apparently preparing “with relish” to entrench themselves in an arduous long-term battle with GOP lawmakers about protecting programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. The implicit notion herein is that there is substantial political capital to be gained by standing with average Americans who don’t wish to see their benefits torn asunder by the Republican Party. However, the Democratic Party, as recent electoral events have shown, haven’t really been able to capitalize on the weaknesses of their rival. Many considered Hillary Clinton’s winning the election over Donald Trump a slam-dunk in light of the hateful rhetoric and apocalyptic visions hurled around indiscriminately by Trump and his followers, and maybe they were as out-of-touch as those in whom they believed. But Hillary was a flawed candidate, and the Dems, loyal to a fault and somewhat naïve in the belief “love trumps hate,” stuck by her, only to have the Republican Party nominee take the election despite losing the popular vote, and to have the Republicans retain control of the House and Senate.
They lost, in large part, due to what can only be termed as an abandonment of the working class, not to mention a refusal to embrace more progressive policy elements, such as a $15 minimum wage. The fight over Social Security and similar programs is thus a way for Democrats to re-build a bridge to the America below the upper-middle class and top 1% thresholds, but I would argue their commitment has to be stronger. Having talking heads like Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer addressing the issue is great, but all those carrying the blue flag have to be active and vocal in affirming their party’s and their own personal commitment to participating in that fight now—not just when they’re running for re-election. Especially as the minority in Congress right now, that voice needs to be amplified by a singularity of focus from the people with the most immediate opportunity to affect positive change.
On your and my end, meanwhile, I believe the most important contributions we can make are in terms of awareness and involvement. Concerning the former, at any attempts by politicians like Sam Johnson to craft plans which would significantly dilute the power of benefits programs, we should share this knowledge, and increasingly so when a vote is scheduled either in the House/Senate or even when we are asked to cast out ballots on referenda related to this subject. Concerning the latter, regardless of our own party affiliation of that of our elected representatives, we must hold them to their desire to stand with us on ensuring the safety of our hard-earned benefits for generations to come with calls, E-mails, letters and petitions. I may be pulling a bit of a DJ Khaled in referring to an amorphous “they,” but they don’t want to you know what they’re doing to entitlement programs. They don’t want you involved in the political process. That’s how they win. With specific respect to Republicans, and in one more nod to Khaled, in this era of social media and widespread connectedness, they may have just played themselves.
There’s a war going on over programs like Medicare and Social Security. Which side are you on?