Sunday, February 21, 2010


We are sorry to report that our beloved Miah passed away on Saturday February 20th. She seemed to be entirely healthy until this week, when she became listless and seemingly in some distress. A visit to the vet was inconclusive and we took her to Angell Memorial Hospital to see if she might have eaten something that had got caught in her digestive system. A doctor there noticed fluid around her lungs and suspected a heart problem. An echocardiogram revealed dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that is always fatal in cats unless brought on by a deficiency in taurine, an amino acid. As all commercial cat food has taurine, that was not a realistic possibility. We hoped that Miah's condition might improve and that she would be able to come home for at least a short time, but it was not to be. Despite medication and a heated and oxygen enriched cage, her blood pressure stayed very low and she became increasingly sluggish. Further medication might have been tried, but it was clear that that would extend her life by, at most, only a few days. So we decided to save her further distress and to let her go.

This was all a shock to us, especially as Miah was the athlete in the family, always running and jumping and investigating new things. The photo above was taken just last week, as Miah checked out the wrapping paper from Diane's Valentine's Day present.

She did not have a long life--she was about two months short of her third birthday when she died--but we think it was a happy one. She had no pain and no distress until the last few days of her life. She certainly got lots of love. We'll always remember her with a smile.

Now her sister, Sassy, rules the house, although we have pointed out to her that she is going to have to put up with a lot more loving.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One of those amazing stories

Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction. Take the story of Joseph R. Beyrle, who jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne, and wound up fighting with the Soviets less than a year later.

And to top it off, his son is now the US ambassador to Russia.

An exhibit on Beyrle's life has now opened in a museum in St. Petersburg, and will move to Moscow in May. It is called, "Joseph R. Beyrle--a Hero of Two Nations," but his son said that his father maintained that the real heroes were the ones who never came back from the war.

He's a regular Nostradamus

Dick "The War Criminal" Cheney predicted to a group of conservative activists that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.

Didn't he also predict that Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators?

(In fairness to the former VP, Obama is only serving one term. At a time.)

"Th' Supreme Court follows th' illiction returns"

No matter whether th' Constitution follows th' flag or not, th' Supreme Court follows th' illiction returns.

Finley Peter Dunne

Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley said that more than a hundred years ago, and it's been received political wisdom ever since. If Mr. Dooley was, indeed, right, the court is soon to undergo a huge shake-up. Seems that 80 percent of Americans think that the recent decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened up the floodgates of corporate money in political campaigns, was misguided. (TONE thinks it was worse than that.) Almost three-quarters of respondents think Congress should take action to reinstate limits on spending, with a majority feeling strongly about the issue.

In the past--viz. the 1930's--one justice (the "swing" justice) shifted his position. In 1937. it was Owen Roberts. Today, given the hard-right orientation of four of the justices, it would have to be Anthony Kennedy. Or, the retirement of one of those who were in the majority in Citizens United, although that does not seem likely. Still, in the end, justices of the Supreme Court are political persons. They know that the court can only get so far ahead (or behind) the people before it damages itself as an institution; some of us would say that Citizens United, especially following as it does the discredited Bush v. Gore has done so.

Time to follow the electorate.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Barney Frank on health care reform

My Congressman, Barney Frank, sent a lengthy message to those who wrote to him about health care reform. (My email included the phrase PASS THE SENATE BILL three times.) He is not only a Washington insider, but an extremely thoughtful and intelligent man. His words are, I suggest, worth pondering even if you don't necessarily agree with everything he has to say--as I don't, or at least didn't before I read what he has to say. Here are some of his thoughts:

Substantively, I support legislation to provide universal coverage. My own preference would be a single-payer system. I believe that the Medicare system - in which I am now enrolled and have been for several years - works better than the private insurance systems, although it is obviously not perfect and needs some changes. But I also recognize that we are not close to having the support in the country that I wish we had for a single-payer system, and therefore we should do what we can achieve. I believe that the Massachusetts system has worked, on the whole, better than what existed before, and one of the things in favor of the federal bill, in my mind, is that it does somewhat approach the Massachusetts system. I am troubled, I should add, in general, by the notion of a mandate on people to buy healthcare plans, and I would have preferred something that avoided this, but I believe that something of this sort is necessary because a great number of the reforms that are very desirable - and broadly supported - cannot go forward unless we are able to broaden the base of those who are being insured.

Having voted my approval of the concept of the general healthcare bill, I also want to express my differences with some aspects of what both houses passed, but particularly with the Senate bill. I disagree with the notion of taxing healthcare plans as taxable benefits. In an ideal world starting from scratch, that might make sense. In the world in which we live, where people have traded off higher wages for healthcare benefits and there are economic interests built in, I think it would be a mistake. I preferred the House proposal of raising revenues that were needed by increasing taxes on incomes above a certain level - I thought above $350,000 was appropriate, although in the end the House was only able to get support for a figure of $1 million.

I also prefer the House position of having a national exchange rather than a number of individualized exchanges, because I think the more that you broaden things here, the better off we all are. I was therefore hoping that there would be a conference between the House and the Senate to merge the bills and particularly retain those parts of the House bill where I prefer it to the Senate bill.

Until the election of Senator Brown, it seemed clear that the best way to proceed, in my judgment, was to negotiate a compromise between the bills and have it pass both the House and the Senate, with the Senate, of course, requiring the 60 votes that the filibuster rule, unfortunately but for now firmly, required. Then came the election of Senator Brown and the procedural questions that I referred to arose. I was troubled, to be honest, to hear some of my colleagues suggest that there might be some procedural shortcuts that would allow us to proceed after the election of Senator Brown, as if his election had not occurred. I do not believe that there was ever any realistic proposal to delay seating him solely for the purpose of allowing a compromise bill to be rammed through, but because it had been raised, I did speak out very harshly against it. I must say that I think it was more being forwarded by extreme conservative media than any realistic plan, but nonetheless I did want to repudiate it. I also spoke out against what I thought were some ideas about bending the Senate rules on the arcane procedure of reconciliation, so as to be able to do more with only 51 votes than is currently possible with 60. I want to be clear that I think the filibuster rule is a grave error, and I was for changing it back when the Democrats were in the minority and were using it as long as it was changed, not just for judicial nominations, but for all issues. But I do not think you should force changes in a particular procedure solely for one issue, and that is why on the Tuesday night of Senator Brown's election, I spoke out against what I thought were some proposals by some Democrats to manipulate the rules to get the bill through.

Several people who share my support for the substance of the bill have been critical of my objecting to certain procedures that they felt would work to pass the bill. My response is two-fold. First of all, it was clear by the day of Brown's election that if he were elected, there would be no way they'd simply get the House to accept the Senate bill. Some Members of the House were opposed to it because it did not sufficiently ban abortion. Of course, I was on the other side of that, but that did not mean that their votes would change. Beyond that, there were serious principal objections, which I shared, to several of the corkscrew provisions of the Senate bill, which were bad policy and bad procedure. Given this, I believe it would have been a great mistake to have tried to force things, because it would not have resulted in a bill being passed, and it would have added to the sense that we didn't feel that things are being done fairly. Increased anger and alienation from the government, and frankly from those of us now in the majority, are not in my judgment in the interest of either the country as a whole or trying to get a healthcare bill.

That leads us to the present situation. I have told the House leadership that I support an effort to pass as much of the healthcare bill as we can - and I refer here to the substantive bill without some of the Senate's obnoxious deals in it. Many have argued that it would be relatively easy to take those provisions reforming insurance - protecting people with pre-existing conditions, opposing any lifetime cap on reimbursements etc. - and passing them into law. But they would require either a sharply higher degree of regulation of insurance companies for which the support does not now exist, or an expansion of the pool of the insured, or a sharp increase in premiums. None of the three seem to me acceptable and so the question is, how can we find a way to continue with our efforts to expand the pool of those getting insurance so that we can get these other benefits. We can do some things with regard to the anti-trust exemptions that the insurance industry enjoys, and as I compose this letter, we are planning next week in the House to pass legislation that would take away the anti-trust exemptions. I think those are clearly in the interest of controlling healthcare costs and providing better choices for consumers.

Finally, I should add that I am not the best source of what exactly the current state of the negotiations is. As Chair of the Financial Services Committee, my main job for the last year and a half has been to put tough new financial reform regulations in place. I am now awaiting the Senate action, and I am concerned that some of what is going on in the Senate may weaken the bill in ways that are unwise. I did stand with President Obama and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker two weeks ago to support the proposals Mr. Volcker had made, and in fact as he acknowledged, elements of the bill that passed the House under my chairmanship set the groundwork for those. But because I have been as focused on these, I have not been a participant in the healthcare discussions. I have made it clear to the Speaker that my vote will be there to adopt the most elements that we can of a comprehensive bill and of course the problem will be figuring out what can be done in the Senate. There is a legitimate role for the reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes - 50 Senators and the Vice President if necessary - but the problem here is that only some subjects are allowed to be considered under this procedure and not others.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Time to fold the big tent?

Democrats have suffered from the problems of a coalition party, especially when faced with a united opposition. Republican party discipline, coupled with the rules of the Senate, empowered each member of the Democratic/Independent majority: on issues such as health care, each Democrat and Independent had a veto over the bill. Which led to spectacles like the deals made to get the votes of Ben Nelson (D.NB) and Mary Landrieu (D.LA) and the demise of even a weak public option at the hands of the infamous Joe Lieberman (I.CT).

The cost of trying to govern this way has been scorn and derision, not merely from the Republican attack machine, but from those who have fueled the Tea Party movement, liberals and even some pundits who are not known for ideological purity. The 24-hour news cycle, combined with the usual myopia of day-to-day analysis did not help, either.

Another cost--and, I suggest, a greater one--is a loss of message: What do Democrats stand for?

So, should Democrats narrow their big tent and read out some who may seem all but indistinguishable from Republicans? Without Evan Bayh (who has taken himself out of the picture with spectacular bad timing), Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln (D.AR), the party would have a lot more intellectual coherence and heft. And if we sent Joe Lieberman to Senatorial Siberia, we'd feel a lot better about ourselves.

While it would be satisfying to have a more coherent party, the genius of American politics was, for many decades, the absence of ideological purity. The broad-based parties of 1950-1980 allowed a huge amount of important legislation to pass; Republican support was crucial to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Can we recapture that? Not with Republicans intent on being the Party of No, but would narrowing the range of the Democrats contribute to opening the other party to a more flexible stance? Hard to see how it could.

Still, the most potent forces for changing the present political dynamic are likely to be public pressure--will Republicans be forced to contribute to the nation's governance?--and the self-interest of individual GOP lawmakers; the latter depends on the ability of Democrats to present those across the aisle with opportunities they cannot dismiss and challenges they cannot refuse.

Rather than narrowing the Democratic Party, we need to refine what we are about. We need to do a better job of declaring what it means to be a Democrat (hostility to huge Wall Street banks would be one part). Will that mean that some now members of the party leave? Perhaps, but not necessarily. (What is Olympia Snowe doing in the same party with Jim DeMint and Mitch McConnell?)

Democrats, being a party that makes a virtue of openness and tolerance for differing views, should naturally have a broader membership than Republicans. The challenge is to keep from being so wide-open that we lose all meaning except to win elections, which is a formula for losing them.


I saw a little of the women's and men's biathlon over the weekend. For those who are not familiar, this sport is a combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting, and was clearly derived from the need for such skills among ski troops; indeed, according to Wikipedia, the event at the 1924 Winter Olympics dubbed military patrol was the direct ancestor of today's biathlon.

The US has done better at the biathlon in the last few Olympics, but we hardly dominate; indeed, I believe we have never won a medal, although an American man was leading the World Cup standings in biathlon this season. I want to know why Americans aren't the leading power in this sport. In particular, with our passion for guns and shooting, why doesn't the US rule the medal field? Where is the NRA when we need it? Why aren't the solons of that organization encouraging American youth to go skimming over the snowfields, rifles on their backs, taking time off to whale away at tiny targets? Great preparation for the day the black helicopters descend.

(Seriously, great respect is due to biathletes; their event may be the most demanding of all winter sports. To race over the snow, then stop and get your heart rate down enough to hit a target is terribly hard. And they labor in obscurity.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Olympic spirit

I don't know about you, but I miss Eddie the Eagle, the nearsighted British ski jumper who endeared himself to fans who admired his enthusiasm, if not his skill at launching himself into the air at high speed in an attempt to see how far he could fall. His free-spiritedness seems to me to embody what I take to be the true Olympic spirit.

That, however, was not the view of the mandarins of the Olympic establishment, which tightened the rules for ski jumpers so that no one like Eddie can qualify today.

But let us celebrate Robel Teklemariam, a Nordic skier who is the one and only member of Ethiopia's Winter Olympic team. Indeed, to compete, Teklemariam not only had to do well in his sport, he had to create a ski association and a Winter Olympic Committee. Oh, and he trains by roller-blading on the streets of Addis Ababa. And he's a serious competitor, at Turin he finished ahead of 15 other competitors.

Now THAT's the Olympic spirit, or what it should be!

That didn't take long

Former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford has been making noises about challenging Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D.NY). Now Gawker reports that Ford has not paid income tax in New York, but has continued to file in the Volunteer State (the volunteering in question being for the Confederacy), which does not tax income.

New Yorkers have a history of electing senators with tenuous ties to the state (Bobby Kennedy, Hillary Clinton), but especially in these parlous times, one suspects that voters in the Empire State would cavil at someone who has not been willing to pay the state's taxes.

What do you think?

Is Danny Boy the most beautiful song in the English lanaguage?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A gift, cont'd

A couple of days ago, I posted about Anthem Health's outrageous rise in premiums for non-group subscribers. Robert Reich weighed in on the issue on TPM Cafe. Here's part of what he has to say:
Anthem's argument[that it was forced to raise premiums because so many people dropped coverage due to the recession] is even more questionable when you consider that Anthem has been among the most aggressive opponents of the health-care bills passed by the House and Senate. If Anthem were sincere about why it's raising its rates, it would be embracing the legislation. The Senate and House bills would add tens of millions of Americans to insurance pools - thereby spreading the costs over more people and avoiding the very problem Anthem says is now forcing it to raise its rates so much.

When we drag insurers, kicking and screaming, to accept reform, I predict they'll find that they were wrong--that, in fact, their bottom lines are fatter with more subscribers. But it's not the number of policyholders that concerns them--it's the threat of limits to their ability to gouge those whose interests they are supposed to serve.

Reich goes on: "Obama says he's open to any new ideas from Republicans for how to control health care costs and expand coverage. The problem is Republicans don't want to play this game. They don't care about controlling costs or expanding coverage. They care only about taking back the House and/or the Senate next November. And they believe a means toward attaining this goal is to prevent Obama from achieving a victory on health care." He then argues for passing the Senate bill in the House and using the reconciliation process to make the resulting enactment better.

I think Obama knows full well what the GOPhers are up to. As for passing the Senate bill in the House, there is tremendous resistance to that on a lot of fronts. Maybe the path Reich (and others) have suggested will ultimately work, maybe not. What we hope for--and must demand of our representatives--from the February 25th health-care summit is some breaking of the logjam.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reaching out

Many liberal media outlets and public figures have spent the last six or nine months deriding and ridiculing the Tea Party movement. That is a mistake, one that may be extremely costly to President Obama and his Democratic allies.

Democrats and their allies should be reaching out to Tea Party voters. We should be asking for their votes and contesting any allegiance that they may feel for the GOP. Failing to do so is not only bad politics; it bespeaks an unwarranted arrogance toward a substantial segment of our fellow Americans.

True, many of the Tea Party's most vocal supporters are irredeemable extremists, racists and anarchists of the Right. But it is wrong to view the entire movement--if it can be called that--in that fashion.

From all that I have seen and read, it seems clear to me that a great many Tea Party supporters are motivated mainly by anger. That may not be much fun for us Democrats, coming so soon after we finally regained the White House and a solid congressional majority, but we should acknowledge that their anger is real and justified.

People are hurting. They have lost jobs, homes and farms. They saw a President who campaigned on a promise of change, but whose treasury secretary was at the heart of the big-bank bailout. They saw that those banks did not even get their wrists slapped, and were soon back to paying immense bonuses, while foreclosures continue and good people lose long-term jobs. They did not hear of real reform.

Of course, much of the Tea Party lexicon comes out of the Republican playbook of fear and ignorance. The obstructionism of the GOP plays well with the anger and negativity that suffuses the Tea Party movment. But that is not a reason for Democrats to ignore those angry Americans; instead, it should be a reason to go out to them, to make our case.

At bottom, it is about respect. Those who simply write off all Tea Partiers as unreconstructed racists and fools--and many Democrats and their allies do essentially that--are arrogantly dismissing a subtial number of our fellow citizens. Instead, we should be speaking to them, finding out about their freas and motivations, and showing why Democrats, not Republicans, will best represent them.

The fact is that many of those who are most afraid of health care reform can benefit from it. We can dismiss them as fools who can't see the truth, or ask why we have not made the case that convinces them. The fact is that many of those who rail about using government funds to stimulate the economy have and will benefit from the economic stimulus. We can write them off as right-wing ideologues too ignorant to see their own interests, or try to show them why they--and the nation--are being well served by the stimulus package. The fact is that Tea Partiers who rail against huge banks and big business forget--if they ever knew--that Republicans are the traditional allies of those whom the Partiers excoriate. We can scratch our heads over this confusion and ignorance, or we can push the Democratic congress to enact real financial reform to make the case that we, not the GOPhers deserve support from the disaffected.

Can Democrats win over most Tea Partiers? Probably not. Can I prove that forty percent, or even a third of them will even consider the Democratic argument? No, although I suspect that a lot more of them would prove receptive than is generally believed. But on some level, it does not matter. For the greatest benefit of reaching out to Tea Party voters may well be that it will involve Democrats with more Americans, and force us to listen to our fellow citizens, even those with whom we seem to have little in common. That should be a basic premise for any party that calls itself Democratic. Unfortunately, we seem to be backsliding toward the bad old days when we were, all too often, liberal elitists.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A gift

Think the folks at Anthem Blue Cross of California want health care reform to pass this year? They're acting like it. Anthem announced that rates for non-group subscribers will rise by almost 40 percent this year. The NYT profiles a policyholder whose monthly premiums have risen from $151 per month to $1,192, about eight times as much, since 1998.

And this story could hardly have been better-timed to help reform, with the President's health care summit only a couple of weeks away.

The question, and the challenge, is whether Democrats will make effective use of this development. Will enough Americans be convinced that this is the future of health care for all of us if reform is not enacted to force Republicans to back down from obstructing all meaningful change? The early signs are good, with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking the company to justify its new charges. But Democrats have a history of failing to keep the pressure on. Now is the time to learn from the past: Keep pushing this story; make sure that all Americans understand what is going on. Tell them to write to their Senators and Congressmen.

And this story is not just PR. Anthem explains its rates by pointing out that the recession has caused many policyholders to drop coverage, leaving the burden on the sicker group that has remained with the company. That is exactly what economists have predicted if coverage is not mandated. So Anthem is a textbook example of what we are headed for without meaningful reform.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

How come?

How come Republicans never acknowledge that the lion's share of stimulus funds, not to mention virtually all public works projects, goes to private businesses? How come Republicans, the apostles of private enterprise and government subsidies for same, pay no mind to the contracts given to such companies to carry out public projects?

And how come Democrats don't point this out?

(TONE is not wholly in favor of this approach. We believe that the WPA should be re-established, with the original name: Works Progress Administration, and the same goals. But that's not very likely.)

Better late than never

After spending a lot of time on the sidelines in his first year in office, President Obama has finally emerged as the leader we hoped he would be. In the latest episode of the National Smackdown Tour, Mr. Obama has invited Republican leaders to a televised discussion of health care on February 25th.

This being the kind of offer you can't refuse, Republicans have accepted.

Will this be as entertaining as the President's evisceration of Republican House members? I hope so, but now that they know what they're up against, the GOPhers will perhaps be able to throw up obfuscation and sloganeering, not to mention a fog of disinformation. Still, it doesn't pay to bet against the tall guy from Illinois.

While the President's performances have been heartening these past couple of weeks, we have to worry that he is still having to do all the heavy lifting. Where are the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate? Well-nigh invisible. Mr. Obama may, indeed, be Superman, but he needs some support.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The freedom of impending retirement

Chris Dodd (D.Ct.) announces that he will introduce a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

I guess the freedom of knowing that you're not going to have to raise campaign funds any more can work wonders.

This is something that Democrats should get behind, strongly. Make the GOPhers stand up for corporate giving! The difference between Republican office-holders and the tea partiers over this could be instructive; it could be a powerful wedge issue for Democrats. Of course, to use it, many Dems would have to get over their addiction to support from corporate interests.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Amazing what a little leadership will do

Since the State of the Union, President Obama has been on a tear, showing the leadership that Democrats (and sensible people all over) have been hoping for. Unlike his Congressional colleagues, but that's a story for another posting.

And it's paying off already. You can see a new attitude in the press, typified by this piece in Time, by Joe Klein.

If Democrats can keep this up--and the President can't do it alone--the falsities and fatuousness of Republican obstructionism will at last be widely known.