Opinion

The Great Debate

Romney’s second shot at healthcare reform

Americans believe in second chances. The oral arguments before the Supreme Court last week were a rare opportunity to dispassionately re-examine the divisive healthcare debate of two years ago. What happens if, after the smoke clears, we get a second chance at healthcare reform?

We’ve long known that healthcare will be a central theme in the 2012 presidential contest. The High Court’s deliberations and June decision only reinforce that reality for President Obama and Governor Romney.

Unlike with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the constitutionality of Governor Romney’s Massachusetts law has never been seriously questioned. States, not the federal government, have police powers, allowing them to require purchases (car insurance, taxes and licensure) and to pass wide-ranging public health laws and public safety laws. The Bay State law enjoys broad popular support.

In contrast, the case before the Supreme Court was brought by the majority of states. Regardless of what the Court decides, the PPACA will continue to polarize the country.

President Obama may cite Romney’s Massachusetts reform as inspiring his efforts, but there are profound differences in the size, reach and financing of the two laws. Elected just six months after the law’s passage, Romney’s successor, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, has obscured some of those differences by taking a big government approach to implementation.

Mr. 1 Percent versus Mr. 1 Percent

Listening to a newly populist President Obama or to Mitt Romney, who touts his CEO past at every turn, it is tempting to imagine a 2012 election that unfolds as textbooks imagine, with Republicans speaking for business and Democrats standing up for the little guy. Don’t be fooled. A more accurate reading of the contest features two elite candidates who represent different wings of the 1 Percent – a group increasingly divided over economics and the role of government.

Look closely at Obama’s rhetoric and you see that he’s not channeling Occupy Wall Street as much as a pragmatic tax-and-invest liberalism. Obama speaks for highly educated, affluent Americans who want government to do more, not less, on a number of fronts – like education, infrastructure, scientific research and clean energy. These folks don’t envy Europe; they envy China, which is deploying a muscular statism to compete economically and dominate the future.

Yes, Obama has made some strong statements lately about inequality and raising taxes on rich people. But most of this goes over just fine in Malibu or Manhattan. Many of the rich are ready to pay higher taxes – with polls showing, for instance, that a majority of millionaires support the Buffett Tax. And many agree that inequality has gone too far, seeing the growing wealth divide as a threat to America’s economic dynamism and social cohesion. The things that liberal rich people don’t like – unions, protectionism, and regulation, etc. – Obama doesn’t like much either.

The GOP’s hunt for Latino voters

Jon Huntsman suspended more than just his campaign this week. He also put an end to any hope the GOP had of making strides in the Latino community.

And despite the stereotypes, because of the Obama administration’s policies, there really was hope. The administration has increased the number of deportations to nearly 400,000 people a year since taking office, according to ABC News. Likewise, in Secretary Janet Napolitano’s annual report to Congress, she describes the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to be at “record highs.” President Obama’s first term has featured twice the number of deportations as George W. Bush’s by instituting a systematic approach to immigration enforcement not seen since the infamous days of “Operation Wetback,” a program in which President Dwight Eisenhower deported over a million Mexican nationals, among them American citizens.

One might think this would be an opportunity for the GOP to make inroads with the Latino community, but the Republicans seem confident they can sit idly by as Latinos simply run into their arms. The GOP claims economics are Latinos’ most important issue, but with over half of Hispanics within a generation of the immigrant experience, migration is also a profound issue (and one with profound economic consequences). And on that issue, most of the GOP candidates have done little to distinguish themselves.

Santorum and the Tea Party crackup

By Michelle Goldberg

The views expressed are her own.


It’s easy to read too much into Rick Santorum’s stunning finish in the Iowa caucuses after months of dismal poll numbers. In some ways he won by default, emerging as the last conservative candidate standing because no one took him seriously enough to attack him. Nevertheless, by virtually tying with Mitt Romney, he has become the leading conservative alternative in the race. And that should put to rest the exhausted conventional wisdom that the American right is primarily motivated by a desire for small government. Because Rick Santorum sure isn’t.

Since the Tea Party burst onto the political scene in 2009, we have heard over and over again that the revolt against president Obama was driven by anxiety about government expansion. Because conservatives told pollsters they were most concerned about fiscal issues, conventional wisdom hyped the belief that the culture wars were passé. In Politico, for example, Ben Smith wrote that the Tea Party had “banished the social issues that are the focus of many evangelical Christians to the background.”

Certainly, Tea Party voters wanted to shrink government spending and lower taxes. That’s perfectly in line with the ideology of the religious right, which holds that families and churches should provide the social safety net. According to Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s main legislative goals in 1994 and 1995 were tax cuts for middle-class families with children and balancing the budget. And fifteen years later, polls showed that the Tea Party was largely the old Christian right in a new guise. A September Public Religion Research Institute survey found that three quarters of Tea Partiers describe themselves as Christian conservatives, while only a quarter identify as libertarians. The Tea Party-inspired House prioritized anti-abortion legislation even when it meant raising taxes, championing a bill that would have ended current tax breaks for individuals and small businesses buying health care plans that cover abortion, as the vast majority of plans now do. Nevertheless, the notion of the Tea Party as a libertarian force endured.

Michele Bachmann’s glass house

By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.

Of all the candidates who rose and fell during the prolonged Republican primary campaign going into Iowa, Michele Bachmann took the wildest ride. Bachmann won the 2011 Ames Straw Poll in August, taking 28 percent of the vote, mainly due to conservative evangelicals who supported her strong anti-abortion views and her ease in speaking Christianese. But a mere five months later, after a disastrous showing in Iowa where she only took 5 percent of the vote, Bachmann is dropping out of the race.

The campaign has blamed sexism for her precipitous fall. It’s an accusation that hasn’t done her any favors with defensive voters, but this may be one of those rare occasions when the Bachmann camp has correctly assessed reality. As a conservative female politician with an evangelical base, Bachmann was forced to hang her ambitions on voters who believe in traditional gender roles. It’s a strategy—a woman who rejects feminism who also wants to use feminism to gain serious power–that causes cognitive dissonance for voters, like fruit-flavored beer. The novelty will generate some sales, but at the end of the day, people will return to the half-dozen other beer-flavored beers available.

The sustained culture war that has created modern conservatism has many aspects to it: homophobia, racialized resentments, hostility to immigration. But anger about feminist gains surely rises to the top, with a special anger reserved for reproductive rights that free women from the kitchen and allow them to compete with men in the workplace. Bachmann herself gloated frequently about her love of traditional male power, noting publicly that she submits to her husband and strictly forbids her daughters to take the lead with boys, forcing them to adopt a strictly passive role in dating. Unsurprisingly, her belief that women should not control when they give birth has been a major platform for her, one she routinely describes as her number one priority.

A caucus-goer’s community

We think of caucus-goers as unduly politically active. But the data suggests they care far more about something closer to home.

By Eitan D. Hersh

The views expressed are his own.


With its endless primetime debates, strange delegate rules, and state-by-state sequential elections, the Presidential nomination season stimulates both intrigue and dismay at the peculiarities of the U.S. election system. And for those of us who reside in states where casting a primary ballot is procedurally identical to casting a general-election ballot, the caucus system used in about a quarter of the states seems particularly odd. What kind of person, we primary-voters might ask, is willing to spend several hours on a winter night voting in a public setting and listening to neighbors bicker about politics?

Pundits (and supporters of candidates who lose caucuses) answer this question in a familiar refrain: extreme political activists dominate the caucuses, which makes them unfair, unrepresentative, and even undemocratic institutions.

Gingrich’s anger management

By Michael A. Cohen

The views expressed are his own.

WINDHAM, N.H.—Newt Gingrich is flying high these days – on top of national Republican polls and currently leading in three of the first four Republican primary and caucus states. He hasn’t been this relevant in American politics since Bill Clinton sat in the White House and Titanic was the biggest movie in America. But while the new Newt is clearly enjoying himself, seeing him on the campaign trail brings back familiar glimpses of the old Newt, defined far more by his acid tongue than he was by his policy acumen.

On Monday night, Gingrich took his frontrunner status on the road to New Hampshire, where he spoke at a packed town hall in Windham to crowds that were as ecstatic for him as they would have been for Leo and Kate. More than a thousand Republican partisans were there to greet him. What they got was the sort of grandiose ideas and red-meat political attacks against liberals – and in particular President Obama – that have been the hallmark of Gingrich’s political career, the key to his recent political rise, and perhaps his best hope for winning the Republican nomination. In a year in which Republican voters are angry with Obama and angry with Washington, all the GOP wannabes are cultivating conservative ire – but no one quite does it as effectively and as gleefully as Newt.

For Gingrich then, New Hampshire is a win-win state. The state is generally seen as Mitt Romney’s fail-safe; the place where he must—and should be able to—win in order to keep his election hopes alive. Moreover, the state GOP tends to be less socially conservative than their Iowa brethren; more attuned, it seems, to a Romney rather than Newt candidacy. Nonetheless, Gingrich’s numbers in New Hampshire are beginning to tick up, becoming Romney’s top rival and within shouting distance of first place. If he loses, the world won’t come to an end – and if he wins it could be the killer blow to Romney’s campaign. All the more reason, it seems, for Gingrich to play up his frontrunner credentials and critique Romney.

Obama’s Ted talk

The president’s new populism comes from Teddy Roosevelt’s new nationalism.

By Michael A. Cohen

The views expressed are his own.


Has there ever been an American President more regularly compared to his predecessors than Barack Obama? Since arriving on the national stage Obama has been weighed against Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Kennedy, Truman, Carter and even George W. Bush. But after his remarkably full-throated populist speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas we have to add another one to the list – Theodore Roosevelt.

The choice of Osawatomie for a speech that basically establishes the outlines of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was hardly accidental. It was the sight of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “New Nationalism” speech, a set of remarks that laid the foundation for his 1912 run to recapture the White House and signaled his own ideological break with the conservative wing of his own Republican Party.

In evoking Roosevelt’s century-old rhetoric, his attacks on concentrated wealth, and his call for a more active and engaged federal government, Obama yesterday embraced a grand tradition in American politics — that of the anti-business populist standing with the ordinary American. In doing so, Obama has framed the 2012 election in terms that have been the focus of presidential campaigns since Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1912: what is the proper role of government in the lives of the American people?

A new party won’t necessarily be more pure than our existing two

By David Callahan

All views expressed are his own.

One irritating thing about rich people nowadays is their boundless faith that they can solve society’s most daunting problems – whether it’s underperforming schools or the AIDS epidemic. Yet just because someone made a bundle trading stocks or developing software doesn’t mean they’re equally brilliant in other areas.

The latest example is Americans Elect, an ambitious effort by wealthy individuals to circumvent the two-party political system in order to give voters a “centrist” choice in next year’s presidential election. Never mind that we already have a centrist candidate –President Obama, who has repeatedly sold out progressives to cut deals with the GOP. The real problem with Americans Elect is that it exacerbates the biggest flaw in our political system: the dominance of money.

Americans Elect aims to get a nonpartisan candidate on the ballot in all 50 states and has already secured ballot access in 24 states, including Florida and Ohio, by gathering over 2 million signatures.

George W. Bush: The GOP’s forgotten man

The former president has only been mentioned by GOP candidates 19 times in 10 debates. Why?

By Michael Cohen
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are a lot of words you can expect to hear at tonight’s Republican debate in Washington, D.C. – “apologist,” “exceptionalism,” maybe “Uz-beki-beki-stan.” But here are two words you are almost certainly not going to hear – “George Bush.”  Two years and ten months ago a two-term Republican President departed office. Today those seeking his former job are loath to mention him.

I reviewed the transcripts of the first 10 Republican presidential debates and could find only 19 references by a candidate to Bush – four offered tepid applause, five were downright negative and the rest were offered in passing or referenced Bush’s tenure as Governor of Texas and his positions as a candidate in 2000.  Criticisms ran the gamut, from Bush’s support for government bailouts; his hiring of Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve; and his lack of ardor in isolating Iran.

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