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Daily Howler: Once again, the analysts howled as they read the Times op-ed columns
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A LADY’S SURPRISE! Once again, the analysts howled as they read the Times op-ed columns: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2009

Mouse 2—Pitiful Uninsured Giant: A few weeks ago, TCM aired The Mouse That Roared—with Jean Seberg as the love interest! (Who knew?) Frankly, we wondered if this might be a sign. You see, we’d already been scripting a sequel to this famous film. Working title: Mouse That Roared 2: Pitiful Uninsured Giant.

Before we describe the new film’s plot, let’s examine a few of the levers, pulleys, buttons and nobs found in our current health system.

Truly, this “system” must be human history’s biggest Rube Goldberg Machine. Just consider three reports in this morning’s New York Times—reports which describe the numbing complexity found in our current, hodgepodge-heavy arrangements.

In this report, David Herszenhorn describes the complexities in our Medicaid system. Who gets covered under Medicaid? Here’s a taste of this piece:

HERSZENHORN (9/14/09): Currently, states must offer Medicaid to pregnant women and to children under age 6 from families with income under 133 percent of the poverty level. States must also offer coverage to children age 6 to 18 from families with income below the poverty line.

And though many states have set higher thresholds for children, typically at more than 200 percent of poverty, many parents of these children do not have coverage. Only 11 states cover parents earning more than 133 percent of poverty.

Experts estimate that roughly one-third of Americans who currently lack insurance earn less than 133 percent of the poverty limit—a group of 10 million people who might join Medicare under the proposed new rules.

Is that reference to “Medicare” a typo? Like ninety percent of Congress, we have no earthly idea. But the bewilderments of our current system are also reflected in this report by Stephanie Strom. Non-profits are upset by reform plans, Strom says. For reasons which go unexplained, they aren’t being treated like small businesses in current reform proposals:

STROM (9/14/09): The main bill in the House would award a tax credit to small businesses that provide their employees with health insurance—but nonprofits do not pay income taxes and thus would not benefit.

''Why should employees of nonprofits be treated worse than employees of for-profit businesses?'' said Jonathan A. Small, government affairs consultant at the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York.

Nonprofit groups were hoping that the president would include them in his speech to Congress on Wednesday, but instead he mentioned only ''families, businesses and government.”

Small asks a good question. But then, for the most striking of today’s gong-shows, just consider this front-page report about the rules which govern kidney transplants under Medicare. Kevin Sack does the honors:

SACK (9/14/09): Melissa J. Whitaker has one very compelling reason to keep up with the health care legislation being written in Washington: her second transplanted kidney.

The story of Ms. Whitaker's two organ donations—the first from her mother and the second from her boyfriend—sheds light on a Medicare policy that is widely regarded as pound-foolish. Although the government regularly pays $100,000 or more for kidney transplants, it stops paying for anti-rejection drugs after only 36 months.

Whitaker has now had two six-figure transplants under Medicare. Her first transplant failed because she had to start skipping her anti-rejection drugs. (“By late 2003, her transplanted kidney had failed, and she returned to dialysis, covered by the government at $9,300 a month, more than three times the cost of the pills.”)

This is quite an array of complexities—and it’s all in today’s newspaper. But let’s face it: Given this nation’s twin burdens (big corporate power/big “liberal” columnists), we’ll never fix this Goldberg Machine. This brings us to the plot of Mouse That Roared 2: Pitiful Uninsured Giant.

In this film, a frustrated second-term Democratic president hatches an unusual plan to achieve national coverage. (This president bears an intriguing resemblance to President Obama. Example: In his recent, successful re-election campaign, his unfortunate middle name—Ahmadinejad—has cost him support—again!)

At a sober cabinet meeting, the president unveils his newest health reform plan. He plans to declare war on Finland—and lose! As he surrenders to the Finns, he will insist that they annex the United States—and extend health coverage to all citizens. He knows this plan will be affordable, even if the Finns don’t make us pitch in:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
United States: $7290
Finland: $2840

Plainly, it’s time to act. And sure enough! Finnish soldiers soon overrun Manhattan. At the formal surrender meeting, the president makes his non-negotiable demand. He thus goes into the history books as the president who finally found a way to give us national health care!

But wait a minute, you may be saying. How does the United States army manage to lose a war to Finland? A cabinet member asks the same question—and gets a sagacious reply. “When military operations start,” the president says, “I’ll by putting Don Rumsfeld in charge.” And there’s more! “I’ve always said this could be a bipartisan effort,” the handsome president impishly says, right at the end of the film.

Laura Ingraham provides the love interest—with an unnamed adviser, of course.

Tomorrow, unless we change our mind—Mouse That Roared 3: In a third film, a Republican president finds a no-nonsense way to provide “Canadian-style” health care.

Special report: Two days in the life!

PART 1—A LADY’S SURPRISE: On many weekends, we find ourselves flummoxed by the New York Times op-ed page. It’s stunning to think that such pitiful work is compiled at the top of our press corps.

This weekend was no exception. Very early on Saturday morning, the analysts howled and tore at their hair. They’d just been exposed, for the ten millionth time, to a Standard Gail Collins Open:

COLLINS (9/12/09): Let’s take a moment to rejoice in our country’s infinite capacity to surprise.

I’d have been willing to bet that we had a national consensus on the undesirability of a congressman yelling out “You lie!” during an address by the president of the United States. But no. It turns out there are quite a few people who think this is a good idea.

Lady Collins is constantly caught by surprise by her nation’s politics. This isn’t a moral failing, of course—but we’d have to call it a puzzling trait in a major political columnist. If you’re surprised to see that three strikes make an out, you might not make it as a sports columnist. But at the Times, incomprehension about our politics seems to fuel a scribe’s rise.

Collins is constantly tongue-in-cheek, of course. When the rise in sea level wipes away Florida, she will help us see the humor in bodies washing ashore near Atlanta. By way of contrast, Frank Rich typically thunders it straight. As he did in this passage from Sunday’s column—a column in which he lamented “Obama’s Squandered Summer:”

RICH (9/13/09): The droop in Obama's job approval numbers isn't remotely as large or precipitous as the Beltway's incessant doomsday drumbeat suggests. But support for his signature program declined, not least because he gave others carte blanche to define it for him. Perhaps the most revealing of all the poll findings came in an end-of-August Washington Post query asking voters what “single word” first came to mind to describe their ''feelings'' about Obama and his health care proposals. For Obama, the No. 1 feeling was “good.” For the policy package he’d been ostensibly selling all summer, the No. 1 feeling was “none.”

It’s not, as those on the right would have us believe, that Obama’s ideas are so “liberal” that the American public recoiled. It’s that much of the public didn’t know what his ideas were.

Rich sleeps with his thumbs on scales. From that passage, a reader might think that this “most revealing of all the poll findings” suggested ambivalence or incomprehension, rather than disapproval, when it comes to Obama’s proposed reform. For better or worse, that notion is rather hard to sustain—if you review Rich’s source. If you click the link Rich provides, you come to this report about that end-of-August query. The report was written by the Post’s Jennifer Agiesta. This was her first paragraph:

AGIESTA (9/8/09): Nearly eight months into Barack Obama's presidency, Americans' perceptions of him are mostly positive, but the administration's efforts at health reform inspire a more critical reaction, with more describing their feelings about the proposed changes with a negative word (43 percent) than a positive one (31 percent) according to a new Washington Post poll.

That was his link’s first paragraph! Frankly, we thought this was Rich!

According to the poll, 21 percent of respondents said they didn’t have a one-word reaction to the Post’s question about health reform. They answered “none,” or said they had no opinion. (The question: “What single word best describes your feelings about the proposed changes to the health care system being developed by Congress and the Obama administration?”)

But 80 percent of respondents did voice a reaction—and the Post said their responses tilted against the reform proposals, by a 12-point margin. (Six percent offered a “neutral” word, in the Post’s assessment.) Frankly, that’s not an encouraging finding—and it isn’t a sign of overall neutrality/incomprehension. But that’s the type of thing you don’t have to learn if you read Rich’s columns. You also don’t have to know that Obama has adjusted his rhetoric concerning the number of uninsured. This is the relevant passage from Obama’s speech:

OBAMA (9/9/09): We are the only advanced democracy on Earth—the only wealthy nation—that allows such hardships for millions of its people. There are now more than thirty million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.

Obama has adjusted his number. Not Rich! In his column, he keeps blustering about “the 46-million plus Americans who have no health insurance”—while linking to a Times report which in fact says something different. (It refers to 46.3 million “American residents.” Rich may not have understood the distinction.) To learn why Obama may have switched to that number, see this report from the Washington Post. In this morning’s New York Times, David Herzenhorn is also working from the revised 30-million figure (see quoted passage above). Not Rich. He maintains bluster.

How many Americans are uninsured? A precise number is hard to nail down. Rich’s failure to adjust isn’t nearly as important as his persistent failure to comprehend. Pandering and fawning as he always does (except when he’s attacking/reviling), Rich opened with a predictable pander about “Obama’s latest brilliant speech.” He did this before moving on to please us libs with his statement about that “pogrom.”

Did Obama give a brilliant speech? (His latest brilliant speech?) We’d have to say he didn’t. He did some things Democrats rarely do, but he also offered a pop-gun solution to a gigantic problem—the problem which continues to drive his rhetoric about the need for reform. Your country spends more than twice as much on health care as any other nation, he said. (That’s factually false, but largely on-point.) And then, he offered a less than brilliant solution to our truly remarkable problem. If we slow the growth in spending by one-tenth of one percent per year, we will reap great rewards, he rather weirdly said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/09).

That just isn’t a brilliant speech—unless you live in La-La Land East. But that’s where Collins and Rich spend their time, along with occasional colleagues. You see, the pair are High Manhattan Liberals—another way of saying that they don’t have a progressive bone in their bodies. Frankly, Collins will clown, and Rich will fawn. (Or revile.) And your country will stay largely clueless.

Coming: Dowd does race—and Kristof on Reid’s new book.