November Nothing

Even those of us who aren’t sports fans know that early November is a bad time for sports fans. Baseball is over, long forgotten now, college basketball is just starting and March Madness is a long way off, and professional and college football are just past the middle of their seasons. Some college football team will come out on top, in January, and some professional football team will come out on top, in February – so nothing much matters now. Everything in early November is jockeying for position, hoping for the best, or hoping to stave off disaster, week after week, and that’s not terribly compelling. It’s the same with hockey, but hockey is also an acquired taste – the fan-base is small – as is the fan-base for NASCAR these days, surprisingly. There’s a bit of off-season golf – Tiger Woods in Turkey and such – and off-season tennis too, this time of year also comes from the oddest of places and counting for nothing – but those were never edge-of-your-seat sports, and few Americans follow soccer at any level. Their kids play it. That’s about it, so ESPN has been getting desperate. They’re telling their audience that the must-see big event this week is the World Series of Poker. A reasonable alternative is watching paint dry.

This came to a head this week, or hit rock bottom, on Monday Night Football. The winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the mediocre Miami Dolphins, who had lost as many games as they had won and were now missing two key players. It was that bullying scandal, involving two massive defensive linemen. One had gone home to sulk, and file a lawsuit, and the other was suspended, indefinitely, for being a total jerk. The whole team was in disarray, with the coach and his staff giving interviews saying they were shocked, shocked, but everything was fine and everything would be fine. That wasn’t true, and this game, put on the schedule long ago, when it seemed like a good match-up that would draw a large national audience, was unwatchable. No one wants to watch a game where everything rides on which of the two hapless teams manages to suck just a little less than the other team, which totally sucks. Tampa Bay won, by the way, as if it matters. Four people probably watched the whole thing, by mistake.

It’s the same in politics. November is a bad time for political junkies. House Speaker John Boehner says there will be no deal on immigration reform this year – in fact, there are so few days left this year when the House is actually in session, he’s been joking that maybe they should all go home now, and he may not be joking. The current continuing resolution, that authorizes all government spending, such as it is, expires in early January, and without another one of those, or maybe an actual budget, which we haven’t seen since 2009, the government shuts down again. We reach the debt limit in early February too, so the default issue is still a worry – but it all can wait. It’s November – nothing to see here, folks – move along, move along – and remember, Obamacare sucks.

All this is like watching the Buccaneers play the Dolphins, because the rollout of Obamacare is a mess, and Congress is a mess too. Which team – Team Obama or the Republicans – manages to suck just a little less than the other team, which totally sucks? That’s a toss-up. After the Republicans shut down the government for sixteen days, costing us twenty-four billion dollars and a few points in future growth, to force Obama to scuttle the Affordable Care Act, and after bringing us close to default, which would assure quick economic collapse, worldwide, Republican approval ratings are lower now than every polling firm has ever seen in all the time they’ve been asking the question – and the Republicans gave in too. Nothing was scuttled. It was all for nothing, but now Obama’s approval ratings just hit rock bottom – for obvious reasons. “If you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan” – that was what Obama had kept saying, and gosh, it wasn’t quite true – so he apologized, and no one was buying it, and the Obamacare website still sucks too. So what we have here is something every sports fan faces now and then. Both teams suck, and the game is unwatchable. It happens, but this is what was on the schedule.

Games do ebb and flow, however, which is moderately interesting, and, at the moment, Team Obama has lost its momentum:

Just over 106,000 people picked health plans in the first month of open enrollment through the state and federal insurance marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health secretary said Wednesday, a fraction of the administration’s initial estimate for enrollment during that period.

Only about a fourth of the new enrollees – 26,794 – signed up through, the problem-plagued federal exchange, according to figures released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A much larger number, 76,319, signed up through the 14 state-run marketplaces.

The long-awaited figures, released by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, became instant fodder for the political battle over Mr. Obama’s signature legislative initiative. As nervous Democrats on Capitol Hill threatened to introduce legislation altering the law, Republicans called the new numbers dismal and embarrassing, citing them as further proof that the program was a “train wreck.”

Yeah, Team Obama is backed up deep in its own territory and may have to punt, or something, although that doesn’t mean the game is over:

In explaining the relatively low figures, administration officials cite problems with the federal website that have prevented people from signing up. But they also say experience shows people wait until the last minute.

When Massachusetts expanded health coverage in 2007, only 123 of the 36,167 people who ultimately signed up did so during the first month of enrollment. But more than 7,000 signed up in the final month.

Sports analogies are inherently lazy, but sometimes they’ll do. It’s only the first quarter. Punting might work now, although the wonk of all wonks, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, seems to think this isn’t football:

1. – The Affordable Care Act’s political position has deteriorated dramatically over the last week. President Bill Clinton’s statement that the law should be reopened to ensure everyone who likes their health plans can keep them was a signal event. It gives congressional Democrats cover to begin breaking with the Obama administration.

2. – The most serious manifestation of that break is Sen. Mary Landrieu’s “Keeping the Affordable Care Act Promise Act.” It’s co-sponsored not just by the usual moderate Democrats – Landrieu and Dianne Feinstein and Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan – but also by Oregon liberal Jeff Merkley. It’s worth noting that Merkley is up for reelection in 2014.

3. – The argument Landrieu is making on behalf of the bill will appeal to many Senate Democrats. “When we passed the Affordable Care Act, we did so with the intention that if you liked your health plan, you could keep it,” she said on the Senate floor. “A promise was made and this legislation will ensure that this promise is kept.” It’s an underplayed dynamic of the current political storm that many congressional Democrats feel Obama broke a promise he made to them, as well.

4. – The bill Landrieu is offering could really harm the law. It would mean millions of people who would’ve left the individual insurance market and gone to the exchanges will stay right where they are. Assuming those people skew younger, healthier, and richer – and they do – Obamacare’s premiums will rise. Meanwhile, many people who could’ve gotten better insurance on the exchanges will stay in bad plans that will leave them bankrupt when they get sick.

Those are the first four of his twelve good points. Punting isn’t an option:

Put simply, the Landrieu bill solves one of Obamacare’s political problems at the cost of worsening its most serious policy problem: Adverse selection. Right now, the difficulty of signing up is deterring all but the most grimly determined enrollees. The most determined enrollees are, by and large, sicker and older. So the Web site’s problems are leading to a sicker, older risk pool. Landrieu’s bill will lead to a sicker, older risk pool. Obamacare has provisions meant to stop an out-of-control death spiral, but higher premiums are a real danger.

And that’s not the half of it:

The biggest problem for the Obama administration in protecting the law is that they’re losing credibility with congressional Democrats – and, frankly, everyone else. They passed the law based in part on promises they couldn’t keep. They botched the implementation terribly. And now it looks like they may not have fixed by the deadline they set for themselves. Congressional Democrats feel burned by them – but even worse than that, they don’t feel able to trust them.

Team Obama turned into the Miami Dolphins – no one on the team now trusts anyone else on the team. The Republicans may have made fools of themselves, losing big on their stupid Hail Mary pass to force Obama to give in, and they may be despised by most of the public now, but now Team Obama has managed to suck just a bit more. That’s how Tampa Bay won that game Monday night, after all, and Josh Marshall, at his well-respected Talking Points Memo, borrows a sports term and says it’s time for a gut-check:

It’s not just a hobbled website. Several things came together in October to seriously challenge and perhaps truly damage the roll out and perhaps even the future of Obamacare. The hobbled website created a backdrop of dysfunction and incompetence. The mass cancellations (which in many cases weren’t cancellations at all) provided a class of aggrieved victims. The President’s promise – which never really made sense given the nature of the program – tied it to the chief executive, with a moral, broken promise edge. Republicans have been trying to dismantle Obamacare for literally years. And they’re doing everything they can to fan the flames. But over the last few days Democrats (and not just Democrats from Red States) have been coming forward to support ‘fixes’ which would either seriously complicate the launch the Affordable Care Act or even kill it in its infancy. For Democrats and especially the President (who can kill any fix with his pen), it’s time for the big gut check, one that’s not only about 2014 but stretches back into the 1940s and has implications probably decades into the future.

There is a simple reality behind the current crisis (and I think it’s fair to call it a political crisis for Obamacare): getting people out of junk or non-coverage policies and into real coverage is a feature, not a bug. Because of its intimate connection to life and death, quality of life, and the simple fact that as a society we’re not willing to simply let people die of their ailments if they can’t afford care, private health insurance has always been a playground of market failure. It’s only become worse as medical technology and costs have grown.

If so, don’t punt. Go for it on fourth down:

The simple fact is that you can’t ever have a workable system as long as the young and healthy are opted out and the sick and old are in the system. Everybody has to pay in at some relatively comparable level if everyone is going to be able to get permanent insurance at some sort of reasonable rate. That’s why some people are being ‘forced’ to upgrade to ACA compliant policies.

It’s generally understood that people who simply don’t carry any insurance, if they have the financial means to buy it, are basically free-riders on the rest of the system, on everyone else. A central premise behind Romneycare and Obamacare is that people who have junk policies with little or no actual coverage are basically doing the same thing. The simple fact is that you can’t ever have a workable system as long as the young and healthy are opted out and the sick and old are in the system. Everybody has to pay in at some relatively comparable level if everyone is going to be able to get permanent insurance at some sort of reasonable rate. That’s why some people are being “forced” to upgrade to ACA compliant policies.

Don’t apologize for that, but rather, run with it:

Allowing to the people with little or no care to stay out of the system makes about as much sense as two people in a canoe on rough water deciding that maybe it will get better if you both stand up. Market failure in the transition to a new system like this can come really hard and fast if you pull the legs out of under it. It took almost twenty years to revisit Health Care after the 1994 debacle. You can only imagine how long it would be if Dems run for the hills now.

So take some hits and let this work its way through – or run for the hills and maybe discredit any plan to ensure coverage for all for decades to come. I suspect that the number of people in the victim category is being blown wildly out of proportion and inflated by a policy challenged press. And if the exchange mechanism can be improved soon, I doubt the political repercussions will be great – actually, the reverse. This is mainly a crisis of confidence. But it can spill over into a genuine policy crisis. So Democrats need to make a choice. And the President does too. It may not be an easy one if they can’t get the exchanges in motion rapidly and get the “plus” sides in motion and visible. But this is the moment when we’re going to see what the decision is. And I suspect some stiffening of spines will have to come from the president.

Marshall does sound like a bit of a football coach here, and that’s intentional. Sports analogies may be inherently lazy, but sometime they’re useful, and sometimes it’s also useful to assess your opponent, realistically. They may not be as big and scary as they seem, or full of new trick plays that will befuddle you. Don’t beat yourself. You may be facing the same-old stuff.

That’s the contention in this new piece by Rick Perlstein in The Nation:

A Democratic president begins a new term in the White House. Two years later, America votes a cadre of aggressive conservatives into Congress, loaded for bear. At first the Republican establishment, thrilled to have the Democrats on the run, puts its wariness about the fire-breathers aside. Within a few years, though, the new guys throw out all the old rules of consensus and compromise, and the establishment shows signs of buyer’s remorse. One of the new conservatives, a bulky, take-no-prisoners senator who sees socialist quislings everywhere, takes control of the agenda and threatens to drive the GOP into the ground.

But this is not 2008 or 2013. It’s the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the senator is not Ted Cruz but Joseph McCarthy.

There’s this too:

A new sort of conservative has taken over the Republican Party from the ground up – and they don’t give a goddamn about anything the US Chamber of Commerce says. They want a total divorce between capitalism and the government, and whoever disagrees can go straight to hell. Business people, above all else pragmatists, are alarmed at the prospect of losing control of “the party of business” and hatch schemes to take it back. The Democratic president, for his part, declares a White House open-door policy for business leaders and makes maintaining a climate favorable to business a keynote of his administration. Suddenly, the direction of the Republican Party itself seems to be at stake.

But this is not 2013. It is 1964. The business-friendly president is Lyndon Johnson, and the Republican insurgents are followers of Barry Goldwater.

And there’s this:

Moderate Republicans are on the run. The most powerful establishment Republican in Washington is by most measures a conservative. He argues in his speeches that the nation’s economic problems “bear a label: Made in Washington, DC.” He proclaims “a crossroads in our history”: whether America will continue on the path of “bigger government” and “higher taxes” or take a new direction to “halt the momentous growth of government.” But that’s not enough for the leader of the grassroots conservatives, who proclaims the establishment leader a sellout. But even more rabid conservatives distrust the conservative leader and call him a sellout as well. They hatch an insurgency against the insurgency.

But the establishment leader is not John Boehner. It is Gerald Ford. The conservative leader is not a Tea Partier but Ronald Reagan. And the insurgents – led by Jesse Helms, fresh from an effort to start a conservative third party – insist that Reagan’s campaign strategy isn’t conservative enough. So they effect a boarding party and attempt to turn the Republican platform into a full-on extrusion of right-wing ideological rage – “a reminder,” a columnist then opined, “that Helms belongs to that rabid band of committed conservatives who stop just short of conceding that they are willing to kill the party if they can’t control it.” Sound familiar?

Of course it does. There’s nothing new under the sun, and Kevin Drum sums it up:

Conservative insurgencies have been part of the Republican firmament since at least the 1950s, and every one of them has roughly the same goals, roughly the same motivations, and roughly the same apocalyptic view of politics.

That’s how they play the game. Deal with it, or wait for their nonsense to pass. The trick is in knowing how to play the game, given the nature of the opponent you face, and Heather Parton (Digby) has a few things to say about that:

I have to say that one of the more astonishing aspects of liberalism is its starry-eyed confidence that the Republicans are always on the verge of being rejected by the mainstream because… well, how could they not be? They’re just terrible.

And yet, at least since Goldwater, the right wing has been relentlessly moving ahead sometimes incrementally and other times with grand victories. But the one thing that never happens is that they never, ever give up. It turns out they really believe what they believe. (And yes, there have been liberal advances as well, especially culturally – but the great “liberal consensus” the Democrats think is just around the corner, never seems to arrive.)

I’ve been writing about this for a long time, questioning the assumption that there is some moment of national Kumbaya just around the corner in which the conservatives will come to their senses and we’ll all live happily ever after. I guess it’s a natural inclination of both sides. But the liberals seem to be the ones who always take their victory laps before the race is won and end up feeling disillusioned and looking particularly foolish in the process. (I’m thinking especially about the recent delirious celebration after the government shutdown ended in which their alleged annihilation of the right lasted no more than a week.)

This fight goes all the way back to the beginning and has been present in our culture and politics ever since. It’s never going away. Circumstances change its contours, one side may be ascendant while the other licks its wounds, but it’s always present. This battle defines us.

Consider that, in sports terms, a scouting report. If you know how your opponent generally runs his offense – the likely plays – and what defensive schemes he always runs – you just might win:

If liberals would understand that this is the way American politics are structured we might actually find that it’s possible to fashion long-term strategies that don’t depend on dynamic leaders and instant success to sustain them.

Digby is coaching here too, designing a better strategy for the team, or suggesting that there ought to be a better strategy, given the way the other guys play. It is time for a new game-plan.

Maybe it is, but the odd thing here is that all of these political writers are suddenly using sports analogies – but that’s understandable. There’s nothing worth watching on ESPN these days. November is like that.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to November Nothing

  1. Rick says:

    Josh Marshall is right. Protecting the public from junk policies is a feature of healthcare reform, not a bug.

    Once again, Bill Clinton, the guy who did such a great job of explaining things at the convention, has opened his mouth when he shouldn’t have. He had his own chance of reforming healthcare when he was in office, but he blew it. This is one of those times when he should be following the lead of George W Bush: Ex-presidents should mostly just stay out of it, especially if they’re going to screw things up for the sitting president.

    One of the central features of Obamacare is that it fixes the excesses of the insurance companies that we had before the bill passed, one of which being that they could sell people an inadequate policy that left them essentially uncovered, creating a mess that the rest of us have to try to clean up the same way we’ve been cleaning it up for years — through higher medical costs and higher insurance rates — but maybe worse, will leave them sick, destitute, and bankrupt.

    So no, we should not pass a law saying people can keep their crappy policies. Obamacare is, after all, a program that is supposed to reform healthcare.

    Yes, Obama should never have promised folks they could keep their plans if they like them, because they can’t. If we let them — even on the admirable but misguided belief that we should always keep our promises, no matter what — the plan starts to unravel, and we shouldn’t allow that to happen.

    If Landrieu and the others think that they, too, were promised something in Obamacare before they voted for it, maybe this will teach them that, next time, they should make sure they read, and understand, the bill they’re voting for.

    And Digby?:

    “And yet, at least since Goldwater, the right wing has been relentlessly moving ahead sometimes incrementally and other times with grand victories. But the one thing that never happens is that they never, ever give up.”

    But the other thing that never happens is that they never seem to win!

    Okay, maybe they have some order of success in the respect that they are able to thwart the progress of our side, to a certain extent (and also to then blame it on the Democrats), but they always seem to trip on their you-know-whats before they get to the finish line.

    In fact, it’s our side that, over time, seems to have racked up all the incremental victories — getting the vote for all American (white men), not just the propertied (white men); abolishing slavery, and doing it without breaking up the country; enacting labor laws that make life better for everyone; busting trusts; getting women the vote; abolishing racial segregation; and now, fairness for gays. So while it may be true that the right-wing never gives up, it needs to be noted that neither does the left.

    Sometimes pessimism isn’t the answer, and, to quote something I’ve heard sports people say, “You gotta have faith!”


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