Yippee Ki-Yay Part II: The Reckoning

The Professor of Populism
The Professor of Populism

With Washington D.C. treading water until they can go home for Thanksgiving (aren’t we all?), the news week has been pretty slow. To take a page from my friend Adam Hersh’s book, it’s time for Political Round Up Part II: The Reckoning.

A pretty good litmus test for the relative level of boredom in Washington is to see how much “outrage” there happens to be on any given day. Yesterday, “outrage” was fired at Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen for what is, at best, poor editing, and at worst, blatant racism. This is the offending paragraph (emphasis added):

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

I happen to think, given Richard Cohen’s history of racism and misogyny – which Zach Beauchamp of ThinkProgress details here – Cohen is following his trend of modern racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains exactly what’s going on here: “The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn’t actually racist, but ‘conventional’ or ‘culturally conservative.'” I find two faults with Cohen’s argument. The first is that there’s an inherent contradiction in the first two sentences – one cannot claim the GOP is simultaneously not racist and that it’s okay for the GOP to be repulsed by a mixed-race marriage. The second is that, by refusing to engage with or challenge the “conventional views” Cohen thinks the GOP has – which aren’t as conventional as he thinks – he legitimizes them, by implying that it’s acceptable for people to make crucial political decisions on the basis of race. If Cohen wants the press to stop saying “truly hurtful” things about him and his writing, then he needs to write responsibly about sensitive issues.

Before I get too wrapped up in the outrage myself, I want to shift gears and talk about Obamacare. The reason why I’m writing a roundup this week was because the piece I was planning to write was published late last night by Matt Yglesias. The main GOP blabber over the past week has been about forced cancellations under Obamacare, and I was going to write, as Yglesias did, why that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important to remember how really terrible insurance coverage was before the ACA: companies would sell insurance coverage to healthy people who wanted peace of mind, because healthy people generated profits, but as soon as those people fell ill, companies found any pretext to take the policy away. Policies were also only guaranteed for a year, after which time a customer could be dropped, or have their rates changed or see their doctor’s coverage change. This meant that insurance companies could offer financially unsound policies to the healthy – ones in which, say, the premium was too small to actually justify coverage of serious medical procedures – because you could be dropped at any moment, and if a suitable pretext wasn’t found, then insurance companies only had to eat losses for a year until they dropped you.  The Affordable Care Act allows for customers to lock in their plans long-term, and prevents sudden coverage droppages, so insurance companies have to cancel unstable plans now, or else they’ll be stuck bleeding cash. I encourage you to read Yglesias’ article, because he explains this much better than I do. But the point is that if you’re someone whose insurance coverage was cancelled by your company, chances are it was a scam anyway.

Sarah Kliff builds on this over at WonkBlog by analyzing what would happen if cancellations stopped. The only way to keep cancellations would be to “grandfather in” the policies that are currently being cancelled, which are ones issued to healthy people. This means that there would be two risk pools: one of “grandfathered” health policies which consists of healthy people, and one of Obamacare policies, which are required to take everyone, and thus, will be generally less healthy than the “grandfathered” pool. The sicker pool will probably see premiums rise, because they’re sicker, and more expensive to insure. So, under the ACA, if you want to keep your existing, about-to-be-cancelled plan, you’re going to have to settle for some losses. Wouldn’t a single-payer system just be easier?

It would almost certainly be easier on the budget, though single-payer wasn’t mentioned in today’s Congressional Budget Office report. They list 103 ways in which Congress could reduce the deficit, complete with figures which detail each action’s deficit reduction impact, found here. I personally don’t care: I’d rather us not worry about government spending in a recession. But given that the Republicans are willing to shut down the government over crackpot economics, it’s worth talking about. It’s cool to review all the options that Congress will inevitably not consider, like various programs within the military that could be cut or ways in which revenue could be increased. The plan with the largest budget impact? “Impose a Tax on Emissions of Greenhouse Gases” raises $1.06 trillion.

Last, a word on Elizabeth Warren, because that was also a big thing in the news this week. Noam Scheiber has a fascinating article out on populism within the Democratic party, and how Elizabeth Warren is better suited to take advantage of this in 2016 than Hillary Clinton is, which should scare her. (A brief aside – when we look back on the first Wednesday in November 2016 at how tedious an election cycle it was, I will blame this article for kickstarting the whole process.) I think the biggest takeaway from this isn’t necessarily Warren’s bona fides or any prediction for 2016, but how bad the Democrats have been at representing their own constituency. Jonathan Chait points out  some statistics:

A September New York Times poll finds that Americans disapprove of the 2008 financial bailout by a 24-point margin, and believe that not enough “bankers and employees of financial institutions” were prosecuted by a staggering 70-point margin. Another poll (by a liberal advocacy group) from around the same time asked more directly about financial regulation, and found a 50-point advantage favoring tougher regulation of financial institutions.

The Democrats have clearly missed out on an opportunity to actually act on the issue that their base seems to care about the most. Matthew Zeitlin tells us that Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein is a huge supporter of Hillary Clinton, and Scheiber mentions that Clinton both takes in a ton in donations from the financial sector and, we think, would favor a return to the loose financial regulations and center-left governance of her husband’s administration, setting up an interesting clash between Clinton’s perceived financial and political interests and Warren’s established policies.

There are three interesting things to watch for over the next few years. First, as Chait says, which will Clinton decide is more important: funds from the finance sector or popularity among the populists? This political calculation will make or break her campaign. Second, how neatly will Clinton and Warren clash? Scheiber sets up his piece as “Clinton and Wall Street” versus “Warren and the Populists,” but it may not turn out to be that way. He also pays very little attention to other issues in 2016, mentioning that Warren is looking to gain experience in other policy areas but neglecting to discuss what would happen if they end up sharing an agenda on, say, foreign policy. Third, Scheiber’s piece seems to rest on the assumption that the Democratic populists will decide the 2016 election, but what if it dies out by then? Democratic populism, then, is an important trend that I think explains why so many liberals, myself included, are upset with the Democratic establishment. But applying this analysis to 2016 is just too far-fetched, when we’re still over 1000 days away from Election Day.