The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Washington Grownup Christmas List



You Know . . . Besides “Peace on Earth” and Crap Like That

I have always enjoyed the David Foster song My Grownup Christmas List as a schmaltzy piece of holiday fare. Yet it also agitates me at the same time. It is not the optimistic – some might say naïve – sentiments it professes that embarrass me. It is hard to disparage wishes such as . . .

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal the heart
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end

Rather, it is the song’s premise that bothers me. Namely, that any “grownup” has, by definition, put aside the selfish, materialistic desires of childhood for nobler, more altruistic aspirations. In nearly half a century of observing human behavior, including my own as much as anyone else, I see no reason to believe this is true.

Consider the grownups who inhabit positions of power and influence in Washington D.C. as well as other celebrity figures throughout our nation. Sure, any of them would give lip service of their desire for Peace on Earth and bipartisan goodwill in public. Yet what other, more egocentric wishes hide in the darkest corners of their hearts?

In that spirit of the season, here is a list of newsmakers from this year and the wishes I suspect would reside at the tops of their lists to Santa.

President Obama – It is December 2008 again, instead of December 2009, and the toughest task facing him is what breed of dog to pick for his daughters’ pet.

Healthcare Reform Bills – For someone/anyone/everyone to realize, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree[s]. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – She remains in charge after 2010.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – He remains employed after 2010.

Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut – R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Take care . . . TCB!

Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean – Relevance.

Current RNC Chairman Michael Steele – Relevance.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee – A “do over.”

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee – A “do over.”

Representative Henry Waxman of California – A “comb over.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – Directions.

Former President Bill Clinton – Erections.

Radio Personality Rush Limbaugh – Even more people to listen to him.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts – Anybody that will listen to him.

House Minority Leader John Boehner – A name that does not sound like a sexual innuendo.

Tea Baggers – See Boehner, John.

Golfer Tiger Woods – A preference for dark-haired women of color over Nordic blondes.

Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina – A preference for Nordic blondes over dark-haired women of color. Also, hiking boots.

University of East Anglia – Securer e-mail servers.

Global Warming Advocates – Better/more definitive data supporting their position.

Global Warming Deniers – Any data supporting their position.

The Mayans (posthumous) – To have been smart enough for their civilization to survive to the end of the world they predicted in 2012. Also, that their civilization was smart enough not survive to watch John Cusack in that crappy movie.

Cincinnati Bengals Wide Receiver Chris Henry (posthumous) – More gloves/rosin and a less volatile temper/fiancé.

Taylor Swift – For Kanye West to take a sleigh/pickup truck ride with his good friend, Chris Henry. Also, talent.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin – Actually, she is pretty pleased with who she is, where she is, and what she has at the moment. A fresh tube of lipstick and she is good to go for the New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tail Wagging Blue Dogs



Public Dissatisfaction with Healthcare Reform Bills May Be Democrats’ Own Making

As the Senate continues working long hours to reach a compromise bill, healthcare reform appears to be hanging on by the thinnest and most precipitous of threads. Joe Lieberman did his best to snip at the filaments by announcing his opposition to a plan backed by Majority Leader Harry Reid that would expand Medicare coverage to uninsured aged fifty-five and older. Lieberman insisted such an expansion would be too expensive, despite having personally endorsed this approach to the Connecticut Post in 2006.

A cross-ideological panel of Senators, specially convened by Reid, put forth the Medicare plan as an alternative to a “public option,” a notion wildly unpopular with conservatives yet championed by liberals. Alas, the more Reid struggles to make his bill more palatable, the more unpopular it becomes.

The latest Rasmussen poll shows Americans opposed to the bills currently pending in Congress by a whopping fifty-six percent to forty percent. Gallup calculates the split more modestly, at only forty-nine percent opposed to forty-four percent in favor. However, both polling organizations agree the clear trend is disapproval growing rather than shrinking.

Why such hostility to the plan?

Rasmussen notes that forty-seven percent of their respondents trust the private sector more than government to keep quality of care up, while nearly two-thirds say an increase in free market competition will do more than government regulation to reduce health care costs. “Differences like these help explain the sizable opposition to the health care plan,” Rasmussen concludes.

The conventional wisdom among Republican pundits and legislators is that President Obama has overreached, both with healthcare specifically and his agenda in general. Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the Washington Post that Obama’s election was no national rejection of conservatism for progressive liberalism but rather an anomaly brought about by a public weary of war and frightened by a severe economic downturn. Krauthammer argues that Democratic woes result from Obama attempting to ram through policies that mainstream Americans do not support.

Polling data suggests this may be true where legislation like the stimulus package or bailouts for large financial and auto firms are concerns. Unlike them, however, healthcare reform remains popular in the abstract with most Americans.

Despite disdain for the House and Senate Bills, Rasmussen finds fifty-three percent of respondents believe the current U.S. healthcare system requires major changes and forty-two percent look to the federal government as the prime mover in this effort. Though fearful to many Blue Dog and moderate Democrats in Congress, a majority of American view even a public option in some form as an important component in any solution ultimately adopted.

For its part, Gallup notes a significant number of undecided respondents remain and they lean far more heavily toward Democrats and Independents than Republicans. If these undecided Americans broke toward the Congressional legislation, they would move its support into the majority.

Jonathan Chait, a Senior Editor at the New Republic, has been analyzing poll numbers and emerged with an even more hopeful observation. He posits that disapproval of healthcare legislation incorrectly implies universal hostility to reform because it combines the objections of both the right and far left, which stem from very different places. He found that those who think government involvement is appropriate or does not go far enough in proposed legislation outnumbers those who think it goes too far by about ten points.

Chait concludes the biggest obstacle for Democrats on healthcare reform is not a fundamental lack of public agreement with the bills’ aims but rather “public weariness with the endless legislative grind.”

Sheri and Allan Rivlin, co-editors at CenteredPolitics.com, offer yet another reason for widespread dissatisfaction over Congressional legislation. “The only message the public is receiving is that healthcare reform is bad. Turn on Fox News any given night and the message is this or that healthcare reform bill is bad. Turn on MSNBC any given night and the message is this or that healthcare reform bill is bad. Fox News blames all Democrats and MSNBC blames some Democrats.”

The answer, argues the Rivlins, is “more message discipline. We need more voices of support for the underlying effort at health care reform.” This solution might be laughed off as wishful thinking except that it is often offered, albeit in the form of blame for lack of leadership, by conservatives as well. In today’s Wall Street Journal, James Taranto writes, “Whose job was it to make ObamaCare popular? The politicians who backed ObamaCare, of course. If [a majority] of Americans oppose the Senate bill, it is because the Senators who support it have failed to make their case.”

Taranto goes on to laugh at liberal blogger Nate Silver who recently contended that Democrats would be “courageous” to vote for healthcare reform despite its apparent unpopularity. What is so courageous about defying the will of your constituents, Taranto rhetorically asks?

Yet, as the seeming polling paradox between healthcare reform in the abstract versus concrete suggests, this may be a case of the tail wagging the Blue Dogs. Moderate Democrats are timorous about supporting healthcare reform because it is unpopular with voters but it may well be so unpopular with voters because moderate Democrats are being so timorous about it.

Chait notes a point that I made some time ago. “Vulnerable Congressional Democrats may have individual interests in establishing their moderate bona fides by challenging their Party leadership. But they have a far stronger collective interest in passing a bill . . . 2009 [need not be a debacle] unless Democrats get bluffed into making it one.” The only way this will happen is if Blue Dogs start wagging their tails vigorously, to signal their approval of reform, instead of letting their tails wag them.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Peace or Appeasement?



A Surprising Speech by a U.S. President

The White House has released a text copy of the remarks made by President Obama in Oslo today upon receiving his Nobel Peace Prize. I fear those who criticize him as a foreign policy apologist will find this speech equally unacceptable.

Obama begins with a few general principles that sound decidedly hands off in America’s approach to hostile nations.

“I believe the United States is at its best when adhering to a few clear precepts, governing its conduct in world affairs.

First – No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be an enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice. Second – No nation's security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only in effective cooperation with fellow-nations. Third – Every nation's right to a form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable. Fourth – Any nation's attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible. Fifth – A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.”

Obama next characteristically places blame for the current situation on the Bush Administration and all those with differing views from his own.

“Others held a vastly different vision of the future. In the world of their design, security was to be found, not in mutual trust and mutual aid but in force – huge armies, subversion, rule of neighbor nations. The goal was power superiority at all cost. Security was to be sought by denying it to all others.

The results when this alternative path was chosen have been tragic for the world.”

Obama paints a dire albeit clichéd situation, followed by holding out a chance for the world.

“This has been the way of life forged by years of fear and force. Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace. It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men – is there no other way the world may live?

None of the issues facing us, great or small, is insoluble – given only the will to respect the rights of all nations. The United States is ready to assume its just part. We have already done all within our power to speed conclusion of the war in Iraq, which will free that country from economic exploitation and from occupation by foreign troops. We are ready not only to press forward with the present plans for closer unity with our many allies but also, upon that foundation, to strive to foster a broader global community, conducive to the free movement of persons, of trade, and of ideas.”

To this end, Obama outlines five initiatives around the theme of nuclear disarmament, most of which surrender U.S. hegemony to international agreements and agencies.

“First – The limitation, by absolute numbers or by an agreed international ratio, of the sizes of the military and security forces of all nations. Second – A commitment by all nations to set an agreed limit upon that proportion of total production of certain strategic materials to be devoted to military purposes. Third – International control of nuclear energy to promote its use for peaceful purposes only and to insure the prohibition of all nuclear weapons. Fourth – A limitation or prohibition of other categories of weapons of mass destruction. Fifth – The enforcement of all these agreed limitations and prohibitions by adequate safeguards, including a practical system of inspection under the United Nations and other international agencies.”

In typical fashion, Obama is a little vague on the specifics of how to accomplish all this but concludes with an eloquent benediction of hope and change.

“The details of such disarmament programs are manifestly critical and complex. Neither the United States nor any other nation can properly claim to possess a perfect, immutable formula. But the formula matters less than the faith – the good faith without which no formula can work justly and effectively.

The peace we seek is founded upon decent trust and cooperative effort among nations. We are prepared to reaffirm, with the most concrete evidence, our readiness to help build a world in which all peoples can be productive and prosperous. The monuments to this peace would be roads and schools, hospitals and homes, food and health.

We are ready, in short, to dedicate our strength to serving the needs, rather than the fears, of the world. I know of nothing I can add to make plainer the sincere purposes of the United States. They conform to our firm faith that God intended humanity to enjoy, not destroy, the fruits of the Earth and of their own toil. They aspire to this – the lifting, from the backs and from the hearts of all people, of their burden of arms and of fears, so that they may find before them a golden age of freedom and of peace.”

Does Obama hit the ball out of the park with this speech or does he cross a forbidden line? Is this the logical global extension of modern U.S. liberalism, expressed by its foremost exponent, or the selling out of America by a brilliant but callow man unqualified to lead? How could any President of the United States stand before a public audience, with the entire world listening, and say such things?

As some history students among you already know, the excerpts above do not come from Obama’s Oslo acceptance speech. They are the words of a U.S. President but a Republican one – Dwight D. Eisenhower. I changed “Korea” to “Iraq” in what I presented above to maintain the illusion that the words were those of Obama. However, I quote the vast majority of the text, including the five precepts and five initiatives, almost verbatim.

Eisenhower’s speech was entitled “The Chance for Peace” and given on April 16, 1953 – a mere twelve weeks into his new Presidency. Eisenhower delivered it before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. However, the true intended audience for Eisenhower’s remarks was the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin had recently died and Eisenhower hoped the Kremlin’s new leadership would welcome an opportunity for a less hostile relationship with the United States.

In the speech, Eisenhower painted the Cold War and its accompanying arms race not merely as a moral outrage but an unsustainable economic burden to both countries. I first discovered this speech several years ago and was struck by its eloquence and persuasiveness. I tended to rank Eisenhower as a competent but somewhat stolid writer and speaker.

I also could not help but wonder if he had given it today, whether his fellow Republicans would have labeled Eisenhower a RINO?

To be sure, Eisenhower was not promoting dialogue merely for its own sake. At one point in the speech, he admonishes, “We care nothing for mere rhetoric. We care only for sincerity of peaceful purpose attested by deeds.”

Yet the fact remains that he proactively reached out, with no preconditions, to America’s fiercest enemy at that time – an enemy easily just as dangerous to our national security as the current threat of terrorism. He offered to respect their form of government and way of life in exchange for a cessation of hostility. He proposed mutual disarmament and placed great emphasis on multilateral international cooperation.

We know in hindsight that the Soviets rebuffed Eisenhower’s gallant offer. If they had not, the Cold War would have been a far less dangerous and stressful time for a generation of Americans. On the other hand, the Soviet Union might still be in existence today had the U.S. chosen Eisenhower’s vision of peaceful coexistence instead of competitive pressure.

Did Eisenhower later regret that the goals he outlined never saw fruition or did he regret he had ever made such an offer in the first place? Was his speech the product of a new President’s energy and optimism or an example of his naivety and inexperience in office? Was it a chance for peace or merely a chance for appeasement?

Whatever your evaluation, it seems Barack Obama is not the first U.S. President to have advocated such policies or found himself judged by them.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hot Solutions, Cool Reasoning



Exposing the Questionable Evidence Behind Global Warming Doesn’t Disprove Its Premise

Fans of Sherlock Holmes know that when matters of discovery, deduction, and exposure did not preoccupy his formidable mind, the famous detective was prone to injecting himself with morphine or a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine. When admonished by his companion, Doctor Watson, for this practice, Holmes conceded that while it was probably physically detrimental, “I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.”

Thus, for all his brilliance as a criminologist, Holmes was no neural biologist with any understanding of the true impact of narcotics on his brain and nervous system. He does have sufficient insight to admit to Watson that his mind “abhors the dull routine of existence.” So perhaps, at some level, Holmes understood his drug habit was actually a means to escape reality rather than a tool to see it more clearly.

In today’s New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman passes over “seven percent solutions” in favor of the “one percent doctrine.” First coined by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and expanded upon in a book by Ron Suskind, the doctrine holds the United States must respond aggressively to “low-probability, high-impact events.”

For example, if there is even a one percent chance that terrorists may have acquired nuclear weapon(s), the U.S. government needs to “treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

Friedman then notes that Cheney and many other conservatives deny the concept of global warming or, at least, human contributed global warming. Yet University of Chicago legal scholar Cass Sunstein points out that the “one percent doctrine” endorses the same “precautionary principle” that motivates many radical environmentalists.

Per Sunstein, “According to the precautionary principle, it is appropriate to respond aggressively to low-probability, high-impact events such as climate change. Indeed, another Vice-President, Al Gore, can be understood to be arguing for a precautionary principle for climate change (though he believes that the chance of disaster is well over one percent).”

Conservatives believe they have lately found a fatal flaw in that comparison – Climategate.

On November 17, an unknown computer hacker obtained access to emails and data files belonging to the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, one of the leading climate science centers in the world, and posted them on the Internet. The leaked information showed a disturbing pattern in which climate scientists destroyed or manipulated data in order to support their hypothesis of global warming and conspired to silence any lack of consensus among themselves.

Suddenly, conservatives want to apply the “one percent doctrine” in reverse. If there is even a one percent chance that global warming is false or at least not due to human contributed carbon emissions, the U.S. should regard all science on the matter as politicized and untrustworthy. Such risk is now acceptable because the impact is nonexistent.

Sarah Palin uses an op/ed piece in today’s Washington Post to make exactly this argument.

“While we recognize the occurrence of natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes. We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.”

This sounds reasonable enough at first glance but, unfortunately, scientific empiricism holds us to greater rigor. Rather than supporting each other, Palin’s first sentence is at odds with her second. Palin correctly identifies the costs of climate change as uncertain. How then, in light of this uncertainty, can she state with sureness that increased energy costs outweigh environmental precaution? Simply put, she cannot.

Climategate should outrage anyone with a commitment to finding the Truth through empirical mean. However, much as conservatives might like to consider the matter settled and forgotten, its abuses only throw question on the certain impact of human contributed global warming; it does nothing to disprove the basic validity of its premise.

Cheaters caught in the act flunk their tests but not because they necessarily must have the wrong answers. The sin of cheating lies in using cheap and lazy means to find the correct answers and this is exactly what the climate scientists involved in Climategate are guilty. It is what Palin does as well, albeit ingenuously, by jumping to conclusions in her cost/benefit analysis.

In fairness, the defense offered to date by global warming proponents in light of Climategate’s shocking revelations have been no more rigorous. Interviewed today in Slate magazine by John Dickerson, former Vice-President Al Gore seems to believe that indignation is an equivalent substitution for evidence. “The basic facts are incontrovertible,” he sputters. “When we see all these things happening on the Earth itself, what in the hell do they think is causing it?”

The presumption is human beings but the certainty of this is exactly what Climategate has called into question. Further research is sadly now required in an area where time may already have run out to make any substantial difference.

This brings us back around to the conservative “one percent doctrine.” What scientists once presented as incontrovertible evidence has become highly circumstantial. Yet that circumstantial evidence strongly points to a lit and hissing fuse. The question is whether humans lit the fuse with a match or some natural means, such as lightning was the catalyst. Perhaps more germane, does this fuse lead to a thermonuclear warhead or a loud but innocuous firecracker?

Another fact we know is that the cost of energy supplied by fossil-based fuels is bound to increase over time due to finite supplies. Ignoring future costs in order to save money in the present is quite consistent with conservatism as practiced in recent years. But this only bring us back to Holmes and his “seven percent solution,” in which keen insight and clear thinking are mistaken as the byproducts of induced deliriums to escape the dull routine of existence.

The science of climate change has been held up to scrutiny and found wanting. Yet no matter how much its premise may bore us, we leave the path of wisdom if we think humans can forever ignore the evidence, both supportive and contrary, without peril. Hot solutions tend to be volatile, whatever their exact percentage of active ingredient. Cool reasoning is still our best hope.

Friday, December 4, 2009

¡Muerta Honduras!



Think of It as the Chiquita Corporation with an Army

Now that the Honduran Congress has overwhelmingly voted against reinstating former President Manuel Zelaya, even for a token two months prior to the inauguration of President-elect Porfirio Lobo, I think everyone in this country can now heave a collective sigh of national relief. Isn’t it nice not to have to pretend anymore that tiny, scrappy Honduras is a democracy?

In this country, right-wing hawks cried, “¡Viva Honduras! ” under the presumption they were courageously part of “a win for all people who yearn for liberty” by supporting the legal position of an usurping Honduran interim government and opposing the legal position of nearly every other government on the planet. Now we may change that cry to a more appropriate “¡Muerta Honduras! ” Yes, democracy is dead in Honduras – which means everything there is back to normal.

Honduras can return to being controlled by the elite affluent who own and run its few agriculture and textile industries. Foreign powers once controlled these plantations and factories. A few smart Hondurans saw the benefits of living like their former colonial oppressors and seized control after the country gained its independence.

The elite were also smart enough to realize that, living in the Western Hemisphere, the United States represented the big tub of Oleo from which to butter their bread. Hence, the image they tired to present the world was that of a constitutional democracy.

It was not always an easy row to hoe – the army overthrew Presidents in 1956, 1963 and 1972, prior to this year’s court ordered coup. The one thing that remained constant in Honduras, however, was control by a few rich and powerful families over the military, Supreme Court, Congress and the President.

Unfortunately, Manuel Zelaya, himself a product of the land-owning class, got idealistic after the elite placed him in office. Then he made the fatal and admittedly stupid mistake of allying himself with left-wing Venezuelan despot Hugo Chávez.

His subsequent demonization and removal from power represented “a last ditch effort by Honduras’ entrenched economic and political interests to stave off the advance of the new left governments that have taken hold in Latin America over the past decade,” according to Roger Burbach, Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas. Burbach goes on to describe those interests as “a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite.”

It did not help his case that Zelaya, whatever his intentions, is such an obvious political absurdity. With his white cowboy hat, boots, big moustache, and frequent histrionic pronouncements, he comes across like the abandoned love child of Emiliano Zapata and Eva Perón.

Indeed, Zelaya is such a joke that I refuse to believe the Honduran elite ever considered him a threat personally. Even if they had, we now know the army was only too happy to deport him or possibly even put a bullet in his brain, if ordered to do so. Instead, what the elite probably feared was the constitutional convention Zelaya was promoting – the one thing that could have swept away the established status quo in a fit of populist fervor.

Conventional wisdom maintains Zelaya wanted to re-write the constitution so that he could serve more than one term as President. I suspect this is probably true but the method he chose to do so was a public referendum to convene a convention. Those opposed to this idea chose to shoot at his home and deport him. Which side sounds most inconsistent with a free democratic society and the rule of law?

Yet some U.S. pundits stubbornly continue to insist the truth is just the opposite, with Zelaya the powerful, dangerous tyrant and the Honduran elite simple but courageous freedom fighters attempting to defend their constitution. Leading the pack in this effort is Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal. After months of pouting and huffing over how mean the Obama Administration was being toward Honduras, O’Grady’s column following Lobo’s election was a rhetorical orgasm spewed upon the page.

Some point to Obama’s decision to recognize Honduran elections – a decision not joined by many other governments – as realization he was wrong to oppose Zelaya’s ouster. I would argue he is following the same consistent policy that led him to recognize elections in Iran and Afghanistan earlier this year. It is one thing to oppose election fraud in which illegal activity has caused a different outcome than the people’s will. It is another matter when the election itself is a sham and the outcome predetermined.

Despite the pretense of elections, everyone knows a small group of Islamic theocrats holds the real power in Iran. In Afghanistan, power flows through a series of warlords. In Honduras, hereditary business owners are in control. Honduras is capitalistic but their markets are not free nor their government democratic. Think of it as something like the Chiquita Corporation with an army.

The election of Lobo was a sure thing. No more trusting Liberal Party candidates – even if, despite its name, that organization is right-center moderate with few policy differences from the Conservative Party. The elites decreed one of their most trusted own would be holding the reins close for some time to come.

The exact turnout figures are disputed but Honduran election workers reported that voting was lightest in the poorer neighborhoods Zelaya once championed and heaviest in affluent neighborhoods. The prevailing mood in the country leading up to Election Day was not jubilation but resignation and a desire by everyone – from the affluent, to small business owners, to common factory and field workers – to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. They went to the polls and voted the way they knew their bosses wanted them to vote.

While desire by the elites to maintain control forced the Honduran government to thumb its nose at international pressure, their resistance was not without cost. Withholding of non-humanitarian aid and other funds by the OAS and various foreign powers eroded an already stagnant Honduran economy almost to the breaking point.

For those worried that the United States has abandoned the freedom-loving people of Honduras, the gravy train will undoubtedly start rolling again. Honduras sends more than sixty percent of its exports to America, the U.S. may re-start more than $40 million a year in direct aid, and over one million Hondurans living and working in the United States send money to their families back home. Okay, maybe think of Honduras as more like AIG with an army.

In many ways, we are better off acknowledging Honduras as a sham. Although the second most populous Central American country after Guatemala, Honduras is one of Latin America’s poorest, thanks to its entrenched social and economic partitions. Seventy percent of its 7.7 million inhabitants live at or below the poverty level. One and half million subsist on $1 per day. Honduras suffers high levels of violence from youth street gangs and drug traffickers.

Let’s face it; they would have been one big embarrassment in the democracy column.

Of course, they will still be an ally. To paraphrase David Broder in today’s Washington Post, “Corrupt and inefficient as they may be, they are less of a threat than [a proxy Chávez government] would be. And so we must prop them up.” Broder was actually talking about Hamid Karzai versus the Taliban in Afghanistan but the principle remains constant for Honduras.

And – admit it – isn’t it kind of a relief to finally admit that even though they represent strategic interests for us in their respective regions, the governments in charge of these two countries are not especially like us and don’t especially like us? So goodbye, pretense of Honduran democracy – you were . . . cute . . . while you lasted.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Run, Dick, Run



Perhaps the GOP’s Future Lies with Its Past

Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, made a veiled suggestion about her father running for President in 2012 on a recent FOX News Sunday. The reaction was “good natured laughter,” seemingly the way political analysts universally regard a Cheney candidacy. Ordinary viewers reacted more enthusiastically, with people calling in to ask, “Where do I sign up?”

Last Friday, they got a place to do so. Christopher Barron, a Washington-based campaign consultant and lawyer, who served as the national political director for the Log Cabin Republicans, filed papers in Washington to form a committee to draft Cheney in 2012. Barron called Cheney the only member of the GOP “with the experience, political courage and unwavering commitment to the values that made our party strong.”

“The 2012 race for the Republican nomination for President will be about much more then who will be the Party's standard-bearer against Barack Obama,” continued Barron. “The race is about the heart and soul of the GOP.”

In the current issue of Newsweek, editor and historian Jon Meacham earnestly endorses the idea of Republicans nominating Cheney, calling him “a man of conviction, [who] has a record on which he can be judged.” Meacham is actually not the first pundit to float the idea of a Cheney candidacy – Peter Roff, a Contributing Editor at U.S. News & World Report and senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, and Roger Simon, chief political columnist at POLITICO, all engaged in semi-serious musings over a Cheney run earlier this year.

One argument in support of Cheney maintains that he may well be the only Republican politician who never turned against former President Bush. John McCain based his campaign on the promise he was nothing like Bush and accused Bush of making numerous extremist mistakes. Cheney, on the other hand, seems to think Bush’s only mistakes were in not going far enough.

Douthat writes, “As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless.” Simon observes, “The Republicans need a person who knows how to attack [Obama]. John McCain never seemed comfortable in that role.”

A strong and unapologetic Republican candidate would provide a clear dichotomy for voters to choose between in 2012, assuming Obama seeks re-election. “There could be no ambiguity about the will of the people,” Meacham contends. A Cheney victory would mean that America preferred a vigorous unilateralism to President Obama's unapologetic multilateralism.” If nothing else, “a Cheney-Obama contest would have clarified conservatism’s present political predicament,” muses Douthat.

Cheney’s vocal defense of Bush Administration policies against Obama Administration criticisms as well as his own criticisms of Obama caused some Republicans to cringe, especially earlier in the year when Obama’s popularity was still riding high. Even so, it was a guilty pleasure for conservatives and they have now long forgotten their previous chagrin with Obama’s approval ratings below fifty percent.

Still, does it translate into anything politically viable for Cheney? John Fund of the Wall Street Journal points out the only reason Cheney “is able to be forthcoming is because he is not running for office.” Would Cheney have to muzzle himself as the official GOP nominee in order to be successful and, if so, could he do it?

A CNN/ Opinion Research Corporation poll from May showed that while fifty-five percent still had an unfavorable view of Cheney, this represented an eight point improvement since he left office in January. On the other hand, George W. Bush improved his popularity six points during the same period by saying absolutely nothing, suggesting fading voter memories were the biggest contributor to both men’s gains.

Yet, in some ways, this might be the best news possible for Cheney. It suggests Bush will be a lighter to non-existent millstone around the neck of whoever the 2012 Republican nominee turns out to be, even someone as close to Bush as Cheney.

The current top GOP contenders among Republican voters are Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin, with others, such as Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, waiting in the wings. A second argument for Cheney insists that for all his unpopularity, he brings strengths and escapes weaknesses that none of these other Republican candidates can match.

At a time when many voters are expressing everything from apprehension to downright hostility about President Obama’s expansion of federal government, Cheney has views and a record standing in stark contrast. Domestically, he promotes cutting taxes aggressively. Internationally, he promotes American hegemony around the globe just as aggressively. In all other matters, he wants the federal government out of people’s lives. The only exception is national security, where he defends all intrusions (at least so far) as necessary and proper.

Douthat notes that Cheney “kept his distance from the Bush Administration’s attempts at domestic reform and had little time for the idealistic, religiously infused side of his boss’s policy agenda.” Roff agrees, arguing that precisely because Cheney “was never considered a part of the so-called Christian Right, he would unify and perhaps re-energize the Reagan coalition in ways that few if any of the potential GOP candidates could.”

The point above would resonate with particular strength among Independent voters. Along those same lines, Meacham contends that, win or lose, “it seems much more likely that Cheney would pull Obama to the right than Obama would pull Cheney to the left. I think it is safe to say that neither a Huckabee nor a Palin bid would have the same effect.”

Finally, Simon observes, “[Cheney] is very, very good on TV. People who don’t like what he says overlook how good he is at saying it. He is calm, articulate and often courageous.”

A Cheney candidacy remains highly unlikely if only because Cheney himself adamantly refuses to consider a future in politics and has done so since first elected Vice-President. A remark by Kay Bailey Hutchison during a Republican rally in Texas got some in the crowd pleading with Cheney to run. “Not a chance,” Cheney responded.

Many would argue that other candidates, particularly Palin, have youth and vitality to bring the GOP success that Cheney lacks. There is also his health to consider – especially his multiple heart attacks.

Yet with his many years in corporate business and experience in government – both Legislative and Executive – Cheney provides a known gravitas that many fear Palin lacks and possibly cannot learn. Moreover, he lacks extremism on some social views that had made Palin and Huckabee so religious-right scary to many Independents last time.

Perhaps Palin’s greatest weakness is not that she is the anti-Obama in her conservatism but that she seems too similar to him, albeit in the opposite direction. Like Obama, she is highly charismatic but with many unknowns and doubts about her qualifications.

Independents suffering buyer’s remorse over the “trust me, hope and change” progressive package Obama sold them in 2008 may easily balk at a similar sales pitch from Palin in 2012. Even a desired direction change may seem unpalatable if it once again involves too large/fast a swing. Cheney is far more the immovable object in opposition to Obama’s irresistible force.

Is Cheney as resistant to holding further political office as he claims? Many suspect Palin resigned the Alaska Governor’s office to devote time to making the political talk circuits and writing a book in preparation to a 2012 run. Interestingly, Cheney is doing exactly the same thing.

Even assuming Cheney’s retirement was as sincere as he insists, might not his dismay and outrage over Democrat’s left-leaning (think “socialist”) agenda and plans to undo/weaken much of the Bush Administration’s goals/accomplishments, propel him back into the fray? As I would not question Obama’s basic patriotism, so I will not doubt the same in Cheney.

Perhaps a Cheney candidacy is nothing but an intriguing mental exercise for bored pundits at a nadir in the four year Presidential political cycle. Or perhaps the GOP’s future lies with a piece of its too quickly discarded past. See Dick run? Run, Dick, run!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Colored Perceptions



An Intriguing Study May Suggest Extremist Political Partisanship Is the New Racism

Psychologists demonstrated long ago that from the moment we first glimpse a stranger, human beings start drawing conclusions about that person. New research suggests those conclusions affect the picture we come to draw of that person in our minds, even down to details supposedly as factual as skin tone.

Eugene Caruso, a social psychologist and researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has completed analyzing the results of several experiments soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Caruso has a lifelong interest in how people’s perspectives affect they way they view “indisputable” hard data. In his first experiment, Caruso showed graduate students one of two photographs of a biracial candidate for a hypothetical position in local government. Caruso digitally lightened the candidate’s skin tone in one photo and darkened it in the other. He also quizzed students about their views on a variety of topical issues.

Caruso told every student the candidate agreed with him or her on about half the issues and disagreed with him or her on the other half. He then asked students if they would support the candidate for the position. Caruso found, with all things equal on the issues, that students shown the photo with darkened skin were significantly less likely to endorse the candidate than students shown the photo with lightened skin.

The study confirms previous findings by scientists, according to Keith Maddox, a psychology researcher at Tufts University. He says American society contains long-held cultural prejudices whereby we view light/white things as being positive and dark/black things as being negative.

Caruso was interested whether the association worked in the opposite direction, so he turned his first experiment on its head. This time, he used the most well known actual biracial politician in America – President Obama.

A few weeks before the 2008 election, he asked approximately two hundred students to identify their political/ideological affiliations as well as whether they intended to vote for Obama. Then he showed each of them three photographs and asked which one was “most representative” of Obama to them. One photograph left Obama’s skin tone its natural shade. The other two photos digitally lightened and darkened Obama’s skin tone respectively.

Caruso found liberals were twice as likely as conservatives to opt for the light skin photo, while conservatives were significantly more likely than liberals to choose the dark skin photo. Even when he controlled for racial attitudes by using standard tests designed to measure prejudice, the preferences persisted.

Caruso notes the partisan influence only works for biracial candidates. Students shown similar doctored photographs of John McCain provided no correlation between preferences for lighter/darker skin tones based on political or ideological affiliation. Some ambiguity in racial identify is necessary before the subconscious consistently overrides what the eyes are actually seeing or the conscious mind actually knows.

Still, “Our beliefs . . . in this case our political beliefs, can really have pretty profound effects on how we see the world,” concludes Caruso.

Some who have previewed Caruso’s research in advance have hailed it as groundbreaking. “This is the first study to show how the impact of political allegiances can extend down to our literal perception of the physical world and the people in it,” lauds David Dunning, a social psychologist at Cornell University.

Yet others have raised valid criticisms. Most notably, only about ten percent of the students surveyed were non-white. Caruso acknowledges this sample is too small but insists their results “trended” in the same directions as those of white respondents.

The counterargument runs that people are likely to see those they agree with on important issues as more like themselves and those they disagree with as less like themselves. This would explain the preference for the lighter Obama photo by like-minded whites and so forth. Given a large enough sample, African Americans with lighter skin might prefer the digitally lighter Obama, while those with darker skin would opt for the digitally darker Obama.

Even if true, however, this only casts aspersion on the study’s assumption of “light = good, dark = bad” as an all-encompassing cultural norm. It would not change the underlying finding that political preferences can influence how we perceive skin color.

Diana Owen, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University, criticizes the study for insufficient controls over photos already manipulated by researchers. For example, the Obama photo with darkened skin shows him in a business suit while the photo with lightened skin shows in casual attire. How do we know respondents were not influenced by clothing preferences, queries Owen?

While Caruso’s initial research needs confirmation and further study, he raises some intriguing possible insights concerning the bitter charges of racism and reverse racism raised by those on both sides of the political spectrum following the election of a man billed as the first post-racial President.

Liberals maintain lingering racial prejudice, rather than fears of socialism, drive the fierce Republican opposition in Congress to Obama’s key legislative issues as well as supposedly grass roots demonstrations, such as “tea parties.” Conservatives scoff at these claims. They point to statements by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Attorney General Eric Holder as well as Barack and Michelle Obama that they say reflects a persistent anti-white bias.

Yet what if blaming racism on political partisanship is actually putting the cart before the horse? Caruso’s research suggests that rather than racism, either consciously or subconsciously, causing some politicians and voters to view Obama with over-hostility, as former President Jimmy Carter contentiously suggested several months ago, it may be intense politically disagreement subconsciously causing a racial element to be re-injected into the debate. The same would be true for the opposite side, with liberal white guilt as a catalyst.

We continue becoming so polarized that it is increasingly common to hear statements like, “All Democrats believe . . .” or “All conservatives like . . .” just as we would once have heard ignorant statements along the lines “All whites believe . . .” or “All blacks like . . .”. We continue to pigeonhole individuals and our reactions to them increasingly on the sole basis of their political Party or for whom they voted in the last election, as we would have once classified them by race or skin tone.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Hate, like any energy, cannot be created or destroyed so much as it just changes form. Racism, while it still exists, does not have the same impact on American culture and politics that it once did. The election of a biracial President twelve months ago stands in stark defiance to its enduring sway. Sadly, however, Caruso’s research suggest that extremist political partisanship, which raises its ugly head far too often on both sides of the ideological spectrum, is itself the new racism in a so-called post racial America.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pulling Down the Monsters



America Needs to De-Mythologize Terrorists at Guantanamo

It is now over eight years since the devastating attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Many argue that, despite the passage of time, our country needs to remain vigilant against terrorism; they point to the recent shootings at Fort Hood as proof that further terror attacks by Muslims on U.S. soil are very possible. They maintain we must mount a credible defense by dealing with terrorists in a realistic, pragmatic, and knowledgeable manner.

I could not agree more with this assessment. Perhaps the most important first step for America, in my opinion, is a need to de-mythologize the degree of threat and fear we consciously and subconsciously have woven around terrorists, particularly Islamic extremists. Unfortunately, reactions to recent government decisions/announcements suggest we have made little progress in this area.

The first example is the possibility of transferring about one hundred of the detainees currently located at Guantanamo Bay to an almost unused maximum security prison, located in the small town of Thompson Illinois.

Republican Representatives Mark Kirk, Don Manzullo, Judy Biggert and Peter Roskam of Illinois held a news conference in Chicago on Monday, where they characterized the prospect as “too risky.” One month earlier, Kirk was among Republicans lawmakers voting to allow Guantanamo detainees to come to U.S. soil for trial after reading a risk assessment. Yet two days ago, he warned that housing them in northwestern Illinois would cause Chicago to become “ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots.”

Folks in Thompson do not buy that argument, saying Chicago is already a target just by virtue of being a major city. “They're always in jeopardy anyway for attacks,” scoffed a local resident, hanging out with his friends at a bait shop near the prison.

Manzullo, whose district includes the Thomson prison, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I adamantly oppose this plan to bring the terrorists to northwestern Illinois, where they could one day be released into our communities.”

“Instead of keeping suspected terrorists off domestic soil, the President . . . [is] poised to bring to Illinois those with the ability to operate beyond the walls of any prison,” bemoaned Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft.

Thompson locals refuse to panic over these trepidations either. “I've got plenty of weapons and ammunition at my house,” boasted Dave Lawton, a sixty-two year old retiree.

The second ruckus is over Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other accused masterminds of the September 11 attacks in civilian courts, especially at the New York City federal courthouse, located a mere thousand yards from Ground Zero.

Former New York Mayor Rudy “Did I Mention 9/11?” Giuliani told FOX News Sunday, “This seems to be an over concern with the rights of terrorists and a lack of concern for the rights of the public.”

More serious, and certainly more moving, were concerns expressed by the family members of New Yorkers who died in the attacks. The city's wounds are simply still too raw, explained Lee Ielpi, whose son was a firefighter. “Ripping that scab open will create a tremendous hardship.”

Debra Burlingame, sister to one of the pilots from the hijacked airliners, objected not merely to the venue but also the prospect of civilian trials, calling them a “travesty.” She predicted Mohammed would ridicule the judge as well as his own lawyers and rally other Islamic extremists to his cause. She said “the prospect of these barbarians being turned into victims by their attorneys” sickened her.

Many of these same fears surfaced several years ago when the U.S. tried Zacarias Moussaoui in civilian court. Edward MacMahon, one of Moussaoui’s lawyers, downplays such an outcome, saying, “Federal judges deal all the time with defendants who try to disrupt cases.” That was certainly the case with District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who kept an iron control over the proceedings. “I've reached the conclusion that the system does work,” she said in 2008.

Interestingly, so has Moussaoui. “I had thought that I would be sentenced to death based on the emotions and anger toward me . . . but after reviewing the jury verdict and reading how the jurors set aside their emotions and disgust for me and focused on the law and the evidence . . . I now see that it was possible that I could receive a fair trial.”

A “fair outcome” may be exactly what those opposed to civilian trials fear most. They have already tried and convicted the Guantanamo detainees in their own minds and fear the prisoners will be able to escape rightful punishment on legal technicalities, such as disallowing confessions and/or other evidence because it was obtained under torture.

Even now, fifteen federal judges in the Washington D.C. district courthouse are hearing cases brought by the government against Guantanamo detainees. So far, the judges have rejected pleas for release from eight detainees but concluded the government did not have enough evidence to keep thirty others behind bars. Testimony obtained during interrogations that included torture was far from the only reason that judges found the government’s cases wanting.

“Much of the factual material contained in [the] exhibits is hotly contested for a host of different reasons ranging from the fact that it contains second- and third-hand hearsay . . . to the fact that no statement purports to be a verbatim account of what was said,” ruled District Judge Gladys Kessler in one case. “The evidentiary record is surprisingly bare,” wrote District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in another.

However, judges are balancing circumspection against lack of evidence when individual situations warrant it, such as the case of Adham Mohammed Ali Awad, to whom the court denied release. “The case against Awad is gossamer thin, consisting of raw intelligence, multiple levels of hearsay and documents whose authenticity cannot be proven, ruled District Judge James Robertson. “In the end, however, it appears more likely than not that Awad was, for some period of time, part of al-Qaida.”

The problem here goes beyond lack of trust in our own systems and institutions and comes back to rest on the concept of terrorists as somehow too powerful, too dangerous, too evil to be contained and properly tried on U.S. soil. If these terrorists are so invincible, how did they manage to fall into U.S. custody in the first place?

To be sure, some of them have directly committed heinous acts. Mohammed, for example, has claimed he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Richard Pearl. For the most part, however, they are the leaders, financiers, and arms merchants who send out others, usually younger martyrs, into battle. They not only have a callous hatred for innocent non-Muslim lives but show equal disregard for their so-called brothers.

They are thugs and cowards – certainly no better than, say, mafia dons but not demonstrably more awful, albeit they kill for ideology or religion rather than money, for prophets rather than profits.

The definition of “de-mythologize” says “to make less mysterious or apocryphal so as to give a more human character.” The point of humanization here is not to make terrorists more sympathetic but to place their formidability, while still very real, within the proper context. It is both smart and reasonable to fear these individuals and the organizations they represent but fearing them beyond all reason is simply foolish, leading to foolish policies and actions against them on our parts.

The bottom line is that we have already held and are currently holding civilian trials and hearings for terrorist on U.S. soil without suffering constant reprisal attacks or the proceeding turning into a three-ring circus or tour de force for the ACLU. Likewise, federal prison already house two hundred and sixteen known international terrorists and one hundred and thirty-nine domestic terrorists. Thirty-five such terrorists are located in Illinois, the site of the potential Guantanamo replacement. None has ever escaped.

In the end, terrorists are horrible men – but still men – who dare aspire to what is unimaginable evil for most people. This and this alone is their greatest source of power against us. On September 11, eight years ago, those aspirations reached high enough to pull down two of our country’s tallest buildings. Today, it is time for us to pull down the monsters from the platforms where we have raised them in a combination of fear and loathing. Only then will we be able to deal with them in a realistic, pragmatic, and knowledgeable manner.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Non-Survivors



Reality Television Isn’t Real But Far Too Often Deadly and Devastating

Ryan Jenkins, 32, hung himself from a coat rack in a Canadian hotel room after murdering his swimsuit model wife, Jasmine Fiore, in a jealous rage, mutilating her body, stuffing it in a suitcase, and tossing it in a Buena Park California dumpster.

Paula Goodspeed, 30, intentionally overdosed on a prescription drug while sitting in her car in front of the Los Angeles home of her Hollywood idol.

Kelli McGee, 30s, a native of Texas, “went all to pieces” and took a fatal overdose of pills and alcohol when her sister, Deleese Williams, learned Kelli had made unkind comments about her appearance – Williams suffers from a deformed jaw, droopy eyelids and crooked teeth – at the coaxing of others. McGee left behind two small children that her sister is now raising.

James Terrill, 37, a single father from Georgetown Kentucky, apparently unable to handle financial and parenting issues, called local police from a cemetery, threatening to shoot himself. After authorities spent an hour attempting to talk him out of it, Terrill made good on his threat.

Simon Foster, 40, of England started his downward slide when his wife, Jane, left him for her lesbian lover, taking the couple’s two young children with her. She subsequently divorced him. Foster then lost his job and ended up homeless. Police found him dead in a Brighton hotel room, having consumed excessive quantities of methadone and alcohol.

Sinisa Savija, 34, of Sweden threw himself under a train after an embarrassing experience left him “deeply depressed and agonized.” His widow, Nermina, said Savija felt he could not go on living as he had been too thoroughly “degraded as a person.”

Tania Saha, 21, of India swallowed poison after an acutely devastating rejection. She apparently brought a bottle of poison with her so as not to waste any time if the response was as negative as it turned out to be.

Tom Sparks, 33, a recent graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, complained of knee pain and shortness of breath after some moderate exertion. He was taken to a local hospital, where doctors eventually diagnosed he had suffered a stroke and was still bleeding within his brain. After transfer to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, surgeons operated on him several times but ultimately decided there was too much brain damage to save him. Sparks married two months earlier and had just returned from a European honeymoon.

All of the cases above are tragic in their own ways but one of them is different from the rest – can you guess which?

The obvious answer may seem to be the last one, as Sparks was the only person not to die by his own hand. The correct answer is actually the first case, although the fact that Jenkins is the only known murderer in the group is not the reason. While Jenkins, like all of the other people mentioned, was once a contestant on a reality television show, his death was the only one not likely a direct cause from his appearance on television or the immediate aftermath of it.

Goodspeed, a huge fan of Paula Abdul, failed to make it onto American Idol after a disastrous audition. McGee’s sister, scheduled to appear on Extreme Makeover, found herself cut at the last minute when her recovery time did not mesh well with the show’s schedule. Terrill appeared on the show Supernanny, which highlighted his inability to manage his out-of-control children.

Foster became a national laughingstock after appearing on the British version of Wife Swap. Savija was a contestant on Expedition, the forerunner of Survivor, where he was the first person voted off the island. Saha experienced rejection as a contestant for Fatafati, the Indian version of American Idol. Sparks was running an obstacle course on the show Wipeout when he first became ill.

The above represent extreme examples but the majority of reality television show appearances are negative, as the online Hollywood news site TheWrap documents in a series of articles beginning in May and running through August 2009. Mental-health workers have discovered that reality television competitors, including those who win, frequently suffer severe and often long-lasting psychological trauma as a result.

The first source of trauma is the often sweatshop-like conditions during filming. An investigative piece by the New York Times reveals that, sans union representation, contestants have no workplace rules governing meal breaks, long workdays, or minimum time off between shoots. Producers commonly sequester contestants, encourage them to drink large amounts of alcohol, deprive them of sleep, and push them past the point of exhaustion.

“The bread and butter of reality television is to get people into a state where they are tired, stressed and emotionally vulnerable,” explains Mark Andrejevic, author and Associate Professor of Communications Studies at the University of Iowa. “That helps make them more amenable to the goals of the producers and more easily manipulated.”

Whatever (stressed) human nature misses, producers are experts at filling in the chinks, carefully scrutinizing contestants in early episode to spot positive and negative archetypes. After that, simple editing out objectionable and sympathetic moments respectively is often the only thing needed to turn complex human beings into one-dimensional heroes and villains.

The second source of trauma is a feeling of abandonment once filming completes.

“Reality shows open wounds which no one can suture, so after your appearance you’re left to bleed to death,” says Miami psychologist Doctor Jamie Huysman. “The producers don’t care about the players, they care about the sponsors, who want confrontations and meltdowns – they love it when people cry or are browbeaten. That’s why the highest-rated shows are the ones where people get crushed emotionally.”

“[Contestants] underestimate how much stress they can deal with, agrees Doctor Michelle Callahan. That stress is not limited to fellow contestants or game playing on the show. Contestants must deal with millions of strangers commenting on how much their portrayal on television annoyed, angered, or disgusted them. Overweight contestants have proven especially subject to pillorying as “fat” by viewers.

The popularity of reality television among television producers is obvious. The shows are extremely popular with audiences tired of over-formulaic sitcoms and action dramas yet are cheap to make, requiring virtually no scripts and usually fewer other creative inputs. So why do audiences flock to this type of programming?

Some theorize that increased distrust in government, media, Wall Street and other institutions over recent decades have caused ordinary people to seek out heroes within their midst. However, it seems more likely to me that the popularity of such shows is a combination of vicarious sharing in the instant wealth/fame achieved by a few winners and primarily guilty pleasure in watching the failures of the vast majority of contestants.

A study conducted several years ago by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz of Ohio State University and published in the journal Media Psychology asked television viewers what shows they watched the most as well as rating themselves on each of sixteen basic motives. Their method, based on evidence, assumes that people prefer television shows that stimulate the feelings they intrinsically value the most.

Reiss and Wiltz found the two hundred and thirty-nine viewers surveyed who identified themselves as heavy reality television watchers were significantly more likely to feel self-important and, to a lesser extent, more likely to feel vindicated, friendly, free of morality, secure, and romantic as compared with television watchers in general.

Other studies have found no consistent demographic similarities among reality television fans with the exception of age group. Such shows are most popular with eighteen to twenty-four years olds, then begin losing popularity at a steady rate until they garner only one-eight the number of viewers among seventy-five years old and up.

The lion’s share of responsibility for understanding and dealing with the likely consequences from appearing on a reality television show rests with individuals choosing to compete on them. However, the systemic nature of the problem also argues for better screening among networks and producers.

Doctor Geoffrey White, who works as a therapist and consultant within the industry, argues against placing too much reliance on forms and interviews, where it is usually easy for most people to make a good impression. He believes placing potential contestants in two or three mock situations with other people and observing their behaviors to detect unstable personalities is a superior approach.

Reality television is not nearly as “real” as most viewers assume it to be. However, far too many contestants are finding its fun and games with a chance for fabulous cash and prizes to be an all-too-deadly undertaking. The popularity of these shows continues to mystify me personally. Yet even if there is no accounting for taste, common decency demands protecting participants from the worst and most dangerous of the exploitations currently forced upon them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Crazy for Allah



The Fort Hood Shooter Was a Psychotic, Then a Jihadist; Why Can’t He Be Both?

Veteran’s Day is always a solemn occasion but the sense of loss it entails was particularly keen for this year’s observance, given the recent events at Fort Hood. Major Nidal Hasan, an American of Arab/Islamic descent, killed thirteen people there and wounded over thirty more in a shooting spree. Who Hasan was has almost overshadowed the horror of what he did, particularly following revelations about what the government knew/suspected about him.

At first, officials downplayed Hasan’s background, characterizing the shootings as an assault by an unstable individual, acting alone, rather than an act of terrorism. Hasan’s shipment to Afghanistan for a tour of duty was imminent and authorities presumed this triggered a violent response. The term most often applied to the shootings in the early hours of reporting was “outburst.”

Then other disturbing aspects about Hasan started coming to light.

Prior to his deployment at Fort Hood, Hasan once gave a controversial briefing to his fellow doctors, in which he concluded, “It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims” and recommended Muslim soldiers be given the option of being released from the military as conscientious objectors.

Hasan regularly attended the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, a mosque in Falls Church Virginia once led by radical Islamic cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. Investigators supposedly found emails to al-Qaida on Hasan’s confiscated computer, although it was unclear if the terrorist group ever contacted him back. In any case, investigators say Hasan first came to their attention at least six months ago because of Internet postings believed attributable to him that discussed suicide bombings and other threats.

Several witness claimed they heard Hasan shout out, “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great,” a traditional Islamic blessing during the shooting spree.

All this has left some characterizing the shootings as the largest single terrorist attack in America since September 11. These proponents fume that a misplaced desire for political correctness purposely caused the Army to disregard a dangerous Islamic jihadist and the mainstream media initially to downplay his Arab/Muslim background.

Walid Phares, a Senior Fellow at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, maintains in an op/ed piece for the FOXNews website, “What happened at Fort Hood is about the radicalization of individuals by an extremist ideology – jihadism – which fuels acts of terror. The main question we should be asking is when did Hasan become radicalized and who indoctrinated him?”

Personally, I fail to see the need to dichotomize Hasan in this manner. Why must he be either a psychotic or a jihadist? Why can’t he be both?

Hasan was born in this country by parents of Palestinian descent, who immigrated to the United States from a city in the West Bank, where his grandfather still lives. After high school, he joined the U.S. military. This was against the wishes of his parents, according to some sources. Whether this caused estrangement between Hasan and his family or whether they eventually reconciled is not clear. However, friends and acquaintances note he became demonstrably more religious after his parents died a decade ago.

While in the Army, Hasan earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech. He went on to medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, from which he earned his M.D. degree. Hasan then served a residency in psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, including a fellowship in Disaster and Preventive Psychiatry at the Center for Traumatic Stress.

Hasan spent years at Walter Reed counseling soldiers who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, now suffering from debilitating physical wounds as well as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other severe mental problems. The Army promoted Hasan from Captain to Major in May 2009. Yet before his transfer to Fort Hood in July, Hasan received a poor performance evaluation for reasons that remain confidential. He received received counseling and extra supervision while an intern.

According to his cousin, Hasan’s army colleagues sometimes harassed him because of his Middle Eastern ethnicity. In his short time at Fort Hood, somebody vandalized Hasan’s car with a key for about $1000 in damage. Police eventually charged another soldier, known to disapprove of Hasan’s religion, for the incident.

None of this even remotely suggests that Hasan is somehow an innocent victim, driven to violence by the prejudice of his fellow soldiers. However, he is arch-typical of the sort of person that Islamic extremists seek out as prime recruits – a middle-class, well-educated young adult, the child or grandchild of immigrants, living in a Western country. The offspring of two cultures, Hasan felt neither accepted by nor fully part of either. Did Hasan undergo radicalization by some terrorist cell, as Phares and others suggest, or did his psychosis lead him to radicalize himself?

Exactly why Hasan felt some call back to his Arab/Islamic roots is unclear but he certainly gave ample warning signs of his growing inability to reconcile his Muslim heritage with his role as a U.S. soldier. If any part of the federal government knew about these warning signs and failed to act upon them, heads deserve to roll.

The military’s sudden transfer of Hasan to Fort Hood seems strange. It is hard to escape the feeling that an officer, exhibiting disturbing signs of mental instability, instead of being properly treated and perhaps even removed from duty, was quickly shuffled off to become someone else’s problem. Dozens at Fort Hood may have paid a high price, and some the ultimate price, because the military was unwilling to admit a young Muslim American of great promise had turned out to be a poor soldier or were simply unwilling to deal with the administrative nightmare of firing a doctor.

Perhaps Hasan joined the military as a covert means to act against America and strike a blow at it from within. More consistent with the facts, however, is the idea that he joined the Army in a burst of patriotic fervor for his family’s adopted country. The nature of his job within the military and the stress it entailed, as well as his own lack of an internal support system and coping mechanisms, may have slowly but surely caused him to turn to Islamic conservatism and finally extremism.

Hasan was a complicated person. His Islamic heritage certainly came to play a central role in his psychosis but was not necessarily the seed of it. The current imam at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center said he met with Hasan, apparently a lifelong bachelor, several times last year in an unsuccessful attempt to help him find a Muslim wife. In contrast, Hasan visited a strip club not far from Fort Hood at least three times within the last month, staying for more than six hours each visit, according to the club’s manager.

“It is common to mass shooters who have a sexual-romantic incompetence to redirect their masculinity through spectacular acts of destruction,” according to Doctor Michael Welner, chairman of The Forensic Panel in New York.

While political correctness, to the extent it interfered with identifying Hasan as troubled, is wrong and must be avoided in the future, so a witch hunt directed against all Muslim soldiers as ticking time bombs is equally mistaken.

Dan Ross, an elderly Christian man from Lehigh Acres Florida, attracted the attention of the FBI after he attempted to send a dozen yellow roses to Hasan. “It is the Christian commandment to love your enemies and to do good to them. I did that,” explained Ross. Interestingly, the florist who received the order, also a Christian, refused to fill it, arguing such an act went beyond compassion and suggested admiration.

It only goes to show that two Christians can have very different views on religious dogma and its application to “real life.” Likewise, Hasan was a soldier and a Muslim who descended into madness and committed an act of mass terror. Nonetheless, this does not mean we can presuppose his possibly insane actions as typical to all Muslim soldiers serving in the U.S. military. It would be unfortunate if this tragic incident caused the Army to lose completely the disciplined restraint it has exercised in this area since September 11.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thriving Fear and Sick Hyperbole



They Represent Republicans’ Two Weapons Against Healthcare Reform Legislation

Yesterday, conservatives gathered in the thousands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for a Tea Party-style protest against the healthcare reform bill currently moving through the House of Representatives. “This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen,” House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio warned the crowd. Boehner then collapsed and was rushed to a local DC hospital, where he received treatment for what doctors there described as one of the worst cases of hyperbole they had ever seen.

Okay, I made that last part up.

As Boehner exhorted on the protestors, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff took on a criticism of healthcare reform posited by many conservative activists. Namely, that reform is completely unnecessary because healthcare in the U.S., in its current state, is just fine. Proponents often take their assertions a notch higher. Not only is U.S. healthcare better than that in foreign nations featuring socialized medicine, it is paramount.

Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, sneezing out a strain of calumny nearly as virulent as that of Boehner’s, has said that Obamacare amounts to “the first step in destroying the best healthcare system the world has ever known.”

However, Kristoff demonstrates that U.S. health statistics do not stack up so well against those of other industrialized nations, including the ones with socialized medicine. The only U.S. demographic group consistently getting healthcare equal to or better than their international peers are those over sixty-five years of age – the ones on Medicare, a government-run universal coverage healthcare program.

It is true, Kristoff concedes, that the wait to see some specialists or have certain operations performed is shorter in the U.S. than some foreign countries. Then again, one valid reason for this may be that foreign doctors do not face pressure from private insurance companies to push patients out of hospitals as quickly as possible. Is it better to get the fastest cure possible or the best cure possible? The answer, of course, is that getting both is best. The point remains that what we have today is, at best, a tradeoff and not a triumph over the rest of the planet.

I am not trying to make an argument here that U.S. healthcare system is horrible. In fact, it is effective on many levels. On the other hand, its clear superiority to the rest of the world, much as jingoistic national pride might wish to believe in such, simply does not exist. Even if what we have is good, better is demonstrably possible.

The reason this particular falsehood maintains so much traction, beyond our patriotic bias, must surely derive from poll after poll finding a majority of Americans with health insurance declare themselves satisfied with it and the level/quality of care they receive. Even so, at some level, we realize the need for improvement because the same polls also find a strong if seemingly contradictory desire by Americans for reform.

Why, then, do so many of us insist we are happy with what we already have and regard so skeptically any legislation currently being proposed? A recent Rasmussen survey found that fifty-five percent believe passage of healthcare reform legislation would increase the cost of healthcare and fifty-two percent believe it will reduce quality of care.

I believe the answer lies in the finding that a whopping seventy-two percent of those polled believe it likely companies will drop insurance coverage for employees in reform’s wake.

For many years, American workers in all but the smallest companies received health insurance coverage at their employers’ expense. It was a “benefit” for being a productive citizen of the most powerful nation on Earth at a time of economic largesse. The insurance provided was probably imperfect but with medical costs generally within the means of most middle class families, protection against catastrophic loss from a severe long-term illness was the only worry and this was, or at least appeared, covered.

The only people who did not have health insurance were those who were unemployed or held the lowest-skilled jobs and our culture often viewed either condition as an indictment against the effected individuals for being uneducated and/or unmotivated.

Then, as medical costs began to rise, companies began playing hardball with employee, including those in unions, over healthcare benefits. Either employees must begin contributing part of the expense for their coverage or the company would cut jobs. Loss of a job was a potential threat because few affordable alternatives to employer-based health insurance were rare. However, despite rising healthcare costs, the economy was growing at an unprecedented clip and unemployment was low, thereby allowing a kind of uneasy equilibrium to prevail.

In recent years, as the economy soured and jobs began vanishing overseas as a result of globalization and other factors, the threat of job loss became long-term and the loss of health insurance with it. Simultaneously, medical costs continued growing to the point that even relatively routine care became ruinous for middle class and even some affluent families.

Employer-based health insurance was more imperfect than ever yet Americans felt pressured to stick with it more than ever because the alternative was almost certain devastation and poverty. Workers also became resistant to any insurance changes, fearing switches by employers to new insurance providers to get better deals. A new provider could mean switching doctors or hospitals and/or introduced the possibility of denials for “pre-existing conditions.”

Even worse, as unemployment soared and the cost of health insurance made it prohibitive in any form to more families, nothing changed in our underlying beliefs regarding them. Being unemployed and uninsured is still something more to be ashamed than outraged over, more a reflection on individual inadequacies than problems or unfairness in the system. In such a situation, it does not take much stoking by those opposed to reform, for various reasons of their own, to generate fear and panic among Americans about potential changes.

If genuine satisfaction on the part of most with the insurance they have today truly were the primary driver behind opposition to healthcare reform legislation, then I would have to agree that President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders are suffering from mixed-up priorities or worse. However, I believe many Americans are inclined to rate their current coverage as “satisfactory” based not on its merits but due to vague but potent fears regarding its loss.

Part of the reasoning behind universal coverage and a public option is to reduce some of the shortcomings of the current employer-based system. Yet terror of the traditional “no man’s land” that has existed beyond employer coverage for health insurance may well be a major driver behind public opposition to this solution. Boehner can talk all he wants about “threats to freedom” but the current system, intentionally or otherwise, has been all about limiting choices for years.

In light of this, Congressional Democrats more than ever need to place doing the right thing over doing what is popular. Fortunately, for Republicans, fear of losing popularity is a potent weapon against politicians facing re-election bids in 2010. It is certainly more potent than what is apparently their only other weapon in this fight – hyperbole.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winning in 2009



Republicans Got the Rejection of Democratic Progressivism They Wanted But Not Necessarily a Corresponding Embrace of Conservatism

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” is a famous sports cliché attributed to Red Sanders, UCLA head football coach in days of yore. Politicians love sports metaphors, so we can be sure that Republicans will argue the only races that mattered last night were the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, while Democrats will counter the key contest was the Congressional race in New York’s 23rd District.

At a national level, any impartial analysis must view last night’s election as a major victory for Republicans, if only because the momentum Democrats had been building for the past three years in key races was finally broken. Despite personally campaigning for the Democratic candidates, Republicans gained impressive wins in two states that President Obama carried only a year ago. Always an important and sought-after demographic, Independent voters supported the GOP by nearly two-to-one margins in both states this time around.

None of this was especially surprising, albeit disheartening, for Democrats. One need only have glanced at polls over the past six months to see Obama’s popularity greatly reduced since his election and the Republican candidate well out in front in Virginia. New Jersey was more uncertain but signs of impending doom still hung over it.

However, I must point out another aggrandizement for which Red Sanders is famous. Referring to his Bruins’ legendary rivalry with USC, Sanders once avowed that beating the Trojans was “not a matter of life or death; it's more important than that.” Republicans need to avoid their natural desire to read more into these victories than is actually there.

If they cannot avoid this temptation, then what are they to gather from the New York Congressional race, where Democrat Bill Owens neatly won a seat held by Republicans since the 1890s? And this victory came even after the far-right branch of the Party interjected a die-hard conservative (i.e. the only “real” kind of Republican) into the fray, and bestowed blessing upon him from its highest national figures, when the local GOP decided to run what they saw as an insipid moderate.

The answer is that while 2009 represented every bit the rejection of Obama and Democratic progressive radicalism that Republicans desired, it did not necessarily embrace the return to traditional conservative values by voters that many assumed would automatically flow from this.

Republicans never questioned the basic conservatism of Chris Christie or Bob McDonnell but that is exactly what allowed them to avoid the kind of litmus tests within their own Party that helped doom John McCain last year. Instead, both were able to campaign primarily on positive, pragmatic ideas to control their respective states’ budgets, create jobs, and generally stimulate their local economies.

The result was very different in New York, where right-wingers placed a great deal of emphasis on Doug Hoffman’s social conservatism. What is more, many local political observers agree the rapid inroads made by Hoffman had little to do with conservative credentials and more with his outsider status and push for spending restraint.

The bottom line is that voters, especially Independents, remain extremely distrustful of both Parties and anything that smacks of extremism in ideology or policy. It was a bad year for incumbents, both individual candidates and Parties, that should send a warning shot across the bow for any sitting politicians up for re-election in 2010 or 2012.

The other quirk in these three key races was the presence/absence of a third person upon the results. In New York, the original third-party spoiler candidate was Hoffman, although the formal Republican candidate, Dierdre Scozzafava, eventually took on this role. She endorsed Owens and given that her views were often closer to her Democratic rival, it seems likely that much of the six percent she polled might actually have gone to him, rather than Hoffman, in her absence.

Likewise, although Independent challenger Chris Daggett picked up only five percent of the vote in New Jersey, an Associated Press exit poll found that two-thirds of Daggett voters approved of Obama, suggesting they were more likely to lean Democratic. This might have been enough to make a difference in a race decided by a four point spread.

The third man in Virginia may be less obvious to most but I would argue it was outgoing Governor Tim Kaine. By far the most popular and strongest Democratic challenger in Virginia, term limits barred Kaine from running. That put all the pressure on second-stringer Creigh Deeds, who quickly proved he was not ready for the varsity.

Deed’s greatest mistake was that he simply never ran for Governor, preferring to run instead against the specter of a social conservative gaining office. That technique worked poorly for Democrats in 2004 and just as poorly for Republicans warning about the dangers of unchecked liberalism, later socialism, in 2006 and 2008. Voters are tired of negative campaigning. Neither Party is likely to prevail just by demonizing the other next year.

For Democrats, I believe voter dissatisfaction stems not so much from the direction they are attempting to go as it does an ability to achieve any discernible (by them) progress/results. Legislative victories are the only answer to this dissatisfaction. Healthcare reform may well provide some approval, especially if the disasters predicted upon its passage do not immediately materialize. However, Democrats must pair healthcare with job creation and some budget slashing that will be distasteful to liberals.

Republicans, on the other hand, have every reason to be jubilant over what they achieved last night. Yet they also must keep it in perspective. Much like Democrats, they need to offer solid, practical alternative solutions. Their attempt at creating their own version of a healthcare reform bill is a good first step in this direction.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board observes this morning, “None of this is to say that Mr. Obama or the Democrats are about to be swept out to sea.” In spite of this, I understand the conservative pundits who are convinced this morning that last night’s elections represent the prelude to an inevitable GOP win-back of Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012. They are simply calling ’em the way they see ’em. I just don’t think they are seeing all that clearly at the moment.

What I see is that when Republicans pair a well-chosen, smart conservative candidate against a weak and unpopular Democratic incumbent, they can achieve positive results. When no Democratic incumbent is present and Republicans pair a well-chosen, smart conservative candidate against a weak and ineffectual Democratic challenger, they can achieve very impressive results indeed.

However, sans an incumbent, when Republicans pair a smart but nationally inserted, ideologically-chosen conservative candidate against a well-chosen, smart Democratic challenger, the results are not always to their liking. What is more, if Obama has lost trust and influence among voters, conservative heavy hitters seem no more persuasive. Sarah Palin may be able to see Russia from Alaska but her perspective of what upstate New York voters really want proved occluded.

Winning in 2009 is the only thing for Republicans. It remains, however, slightly less significant than life or death.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Wrong Tree



Blue Dogs and Other Moderate Democrats Are Barking Up One Regarding a “Public Option”

In the past two weeks, Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have issued their respective versions of a healthcare reform bill. Surprisingly, both bills ended up including a “public option.” In the House, this consists of a new government-regulated insurance “exchange,” where private companies would sell policies in competition with the government. The Senate bill contains a much weaker public option, with states allowed to exempt themselves if desired.

I say “surprisingly” because two competing camps have been squeezing the bills’ authors from opposite directions for a long time on this issue. Democratic liberals are adamant that an aggressive public option is essential to achieving universal coverage and controlling costs. Democrats that are more conservative insist voting for any public option would cost them re-election, with constituents punishing them over profligate government spending and promoting socialized medicine.

In the House, the main objectors are Southern Blue Dog Democrats. In the Senate, it is a group of twenty or so moderates.

Until recently, conventional wisdom assumed the concerns of moderates would hold sway. The argument ran that liberals were desperate to pass some form – any form – of healthcare reform whereas moderates would be only too happy to walk away from anything that struck them as politically toxic.

Informal vote counting suggests that, particularly in the Senate, healthcare reform proponents still lack the necessary votes to pass any bill with a public option. Does this mean Democrats are doomed to drop it before the two chambers bring their respective bills to a floor vote, let alone then attempt reconciling them in joint committee?

I do not think it necessarily does. However, the argument Democratic leaders need to apply to recalcitrant moderates is not cajoling over Party loyalty or impassioned moral pleas. The factor motivating moderates on this topic is fear. The key is to create doubt in their minds about what they ought to fear most.

The prevailing notion is that any House Blue Dog or Senate moderate will be crucified by Republican opponents over their “yes” vote on healthcare reform in 2010 or thereafter.

For House Blue Dogs in particular, the assumption that a public option is a deal-breaker may be a non sequitur. The main objection by Blue Dogs serving on the House committees writing healthcare legislation back in the summer was that bills contained insufficient reforms to control healthcare system costs. They also wanted a broader exemption for small businesses that did not have to pay penalties for failing to offer healthcare coverage to employees and fixing what they see as inequities in the current system for reimbursing rural doctors and hospitals.

In September, Democratic Representative Stephanie Sandlin of South Dakota, the leader of the Blue Dogs, said she still believed that a majority of the group would ultimately support healthcare reform “if it was reasonable and represented a consensus Democratic view.” When Speaker Pelosi released her bill, Blue Dog did not damn the public option but rather withheld support waiting to see if the Congressional Budget Office rated it as budget neutral or better.

It is true that President Obama campaigned on the promise of healthcare reform but then so did his Republican rival. So did his challengers in the Democratic primary. So did virtually every Democratic candidate in 2008. After the election, voters understood healthcare reform was not only a top priority for the Obama Administration but for the new Democratic majority session of Congress as well.

At the same time, Congressional Republicans decided to make opposition to any form of healthcare reform favored by Obama and liberal Democrats as the cornerstone of their ideological stance as well as their platform for 2010. Many Democrats hoped that Obama’s popularity would overcome voter objections. Although the Administration has effectively countered some of the harshest criticisms levied by Republicans, the President has been unable to shift public opinion on this topic.

This makes sense to me and I believe Democratic reliance on Obama to carry the day is not only overestimated but also essentially misplaced.

Much has been made of a recent Washington Post poll that shows public support for a government-funded entity offering health insurance at fifty-seven percent. Another Post poll, this time in combination with ABC News, places support as high as sixty-two percent. However, these same surveys show that if a public option caused employers to drop their current offerings and/or forced private insurance companies out of business, support for a government-funded entity plunges to thirty-seven percent.

The most recent Rasmussen poll shows that only forty-five percent of those surveyed support the current healthcare reform bills as written – or, more precisely, as best understood – and forty-nine percent would rather see no healthcare reform passed this year than the current bills become law. In spite of this, the same survey found fifty-four percent said the current healthcare system needs some major changes and sixty-one percent think it is important for Congress to pass some reforms.

Similarly, a new USA Today/Gallup poll finds that despite concerns about its high costs and the implications for the country, fifty-six percent favor passage of a healthcare reform bill.

Rasmussen looks at all these conflicting results and concludes, “Voters do not have firm opinions” on the public option or healthcare reform in general. I think it suggests that voters are every bit as much of two minds on this topic as are Democratic lawmakers. They support the idea in the abstract but easily give in to hesitation over specific proposals for reasons ranging from legitimate concerns to wild rumors to deliberate fear mongering.

Moderate Democrats are correct to believe that Republican opponents and some voters may hold a “yes” vote that turns healthcare reform into law against them. However, they are naïve in the extreme if they think a “no” vote that prevents healthcare reform’s passage will cause this issue to go away by next November. They are outright delusional if they think Republicans will not attempt to use healthcare reform as weapon against them next year.

It seems to me that voters are less likely to hold Democratic incumbents responsible for passage of legislation they favored in the abstract but retain concerns about in the concrete, especially when they will not yet have felt the impact of healthcare reform’s passage in 2010. The alternative for Democratic incumbents will be to face Republican charges that their Party first created bad legislation and then failed to solve any significant problems. This is exactly the condemnation that Democrats used to win against Republican in moderate to conservative districts in recent elections.

It is also notable that while trust for either Party remains at all-time lows among voters, most incumbents are traditionally exempted from these general suspicions by their own constituents. Voters nervous over healthcare reform and government takeovers are much more likely to be reassured by the fact that their local Representative or Senator – “one of us” – believed in it enough to vote for it than by the fact the President Obama wanted/supported it.

By voting for healthcare reform, Democratic incumbents make the race about them and their actions. Voting against it makes the election into a referendum over the Democratic Party and its ideological direction. I suspect Republicans will find the later much easier to demonize.

I suppose the correct metaphor for almost any Democratic lawmaker regarding healthcare reform is to say they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. However, House Blue Dogs and Senate moderates who find themselves so squeezed may want to consider the problem began for these particular dogs when they began barking up the wrong tree. Embracing the public option carries its share of risks but also holds potential rewards. Rejecting it is simply an admission that their Party of choice does not know how to govern – there is nothing to be gained in that for any Democrat.