Mr. Bruni is off today. The Pasty Little Putz thinks he knows enough to tell us about “The Price of Health Care.” He babbles that for President Obama, the consequences of focusing early on health care may still prove disastrous. But Republicans have big problems of their own on the issue. MoDo is in Galway, Ireland. In “The Wearing of the Green” she tells us about something unthinkable, unimaginable and, for Irish dead-enders, unspeakable. The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Taking One for the Country,” says the leadership of Chief Justice Roberts could teach us all a lesson or two. Mr. Kristof is in Maseru, Lesotho. In “Africa on the Rise” he says this year’s win-a-trip voyage with a Rice University student begins in Lesotho, a nation symbolic of a continent’s promise. Here’s The Putz:
“It is not our job,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote in Thursday’s health care ruling, “to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” He might just as easily have written, “to protect politicians from the consequences of their political choices.” And now, with the Supreme Court parenthesis out of the way, we can get back to finding out exactly what those consequences will be.
For President Obama, the consequences of health care may still be fatal to his re-election hopes. The choice to go all-in on reform was the most important call of the Obama presidency, and from a purely political perspective it has proved the most disastrous one. Thursday’s decision won’t change this reality: Victory at the Supreme Court was obviously preferable to defeat, but the chief justice’s grudging imprimatur is unlikely to make a deeply unpopular piece of legislation suddenly popular instead.
Liberals have persuaded themselves that this unpopularity is largely the product of conservative misinformation and voter ignorance. But it’s really a result of the gulf that opened in 2009 between the public’s priorities and the president’s agenda. By turning from economic crisis management to sweeping social legislation before the crisis had actually abated, Obama made himself look more ideological than practical and more liberal than pragmatic. By continuing to push for the largest possible bill even after the public backlash had elected a Republican senator in Massachusetts, he made himself look wildly out of touch as well.
This was not a mistake the icons of the liberal past made. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent two years defining himself as a Depression-fighter before he set out to establish Social Security; Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Great Society amid an economic boom.
Had Obama followed Roosevelt’s first-term example, the initial stimulus bill might have been broken up into smaller (and perhaps more popular) components, financial reform and perhaps tax reform would have preceded health care reform, and the kinds of jobs bills the White House demanded of a recalcitrant Republican Congress in 2011 might have been sought from a Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010 instead. Even if this policy approach didn’t dramatically accelerate the recovery, it would have given independent voters more confidence that the president had their economic interests rather than his history-making ambitions uppermost in mind.
But the Obama White House was convinced that it could fight the recession and rewrite the social compact all at once. And when the administration’s economic policies didn’t deliver as promised, it was almost inevitable that the focus on health care would cost Obama approval ratings, cost his party House seats — and perhaps help cost him a second term as well.
Obama is not the only politician whose health care choices have been potentially damaging to his cause, however. Among Congressional Republicans, the decision was made early not only to oppose the White House’s health care push, but to offer almost nothing in the way of policy alternatives. There was no meaningful Republican plan for reform during the heat of the original debate, and for all the notional talk about repealing and replacing, much the same void exists today. Individual conservative politicians and policy wonks have plans, but the party leadership has deemed it too risky to counter the Democratic legislation with anything save boilerplate. Paul Ryan has personally proposed a health care alternative, but his House budgets have conspicuously lacked one.
This “just say no” approach made a certain amount of political sense, for many of the same reasons the White House’s “all in” approach turned out to be so politically risky. But it left the Republicans with no leverage on policy: they had nothing to offer wavering Congressional Democrats (from Ben Nelson to Bart Stupak) who had problems with the legislation but wanted to vote for some kind of reform, and they had nothing substantial to put forward when Scott Brown’s victory seemed as if it might force the White House back to the negotiating table.
As a result, now that the bill has been passed and the Supreme Court has declined to do their work for them, the Republicans are left to thread a very narrow needle. First they need to take the Senate as well as the White House, and then they need to find a way to pass a party-line repeal bill while lacking any clear consensus on a replacement. Otherwise they will have combined a political victory with a once-in-a-generation policy defeat.
Neither the victory nor the defeat is inevitable: there’s still time for Mitt Romney to lead his party to some kind of consensus on a health care alternative, just as there’s still time for President Obama to pull out his re-election bid.
But for now, our leaders’ health care moves seem as if they could easily produce the following endgame: The Democratic president is vanquished at the polls, but his Republican opponents are ultimately defeated on the policy.
Maybe Sarah Palin was right.
In the HBO movie “Game Change,” about the 2008 campaign, John McCain’s strategist Steve Schmidt was appalled when he realized that their vice presidential pick thought Queen Elizabeth, rather than the prime minister, was actually running the show in Britain.
But with David Cameron growing smaller and the queen growing larger, Palin seems prescient.
In leading a reconciliation with Ireland, reaching a white-gloved hand across the bloodstained tide, the queen has restored a luster dimmed by her 1992 “annus horribilis” and her insensitivity after the death of Princess Diana.
Her elevation to Ireland’s Prodigal Mother began last year when Liz, as The Irish Daily Star calls her, arrived for a four-day visit to the Irish Republic — the first by a British monarch in a century — wearing an emerald green suit, surrounded by ladies-in-waiting not reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” but wearing 40 shades of green.
The Irish immediately understood that the queen meant business. In this island of myth, superstition and symbol, where the past is always present, she urged both sides “to bow to the past but not be bound by it.”
The mood was tentative at first, but the ice broke when the monarch bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance, the sacred ground for Irish patriots who died battling for independence, spoke some Irish, and visited Croke Park, the site of the 1920 Bloody Sunday, when 14 Irish civilians died after British forces opened fire on them.
By the end of that visit, some Irish were waving Union Jacks and fondly calling her Betty on Twitter.
The skunk at the emotional garden party was Sinn Fein, which misread the national mood and maintained a sullen distance from the queen. (Sinn Fein lived up to its name, which translates as “We ourselves.”) Gerry Adams, the party president, and Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister for Northern Ireland — both former capos in the I.R.A. — soon realized they had missed an opportunity to milk an opportunity.
After all, as one top Irish journalist told me, “These are guys who would take the eye out of your head and say you’d look better without it.”
They were also eager to exploit the economic recession, which has helped their poll numbers spike in the Irish Republic, and realized they had misplayed the queen’s visit and needed to assuage their new, more moderate supporters.
So when the queen, the commander in chief of the British armed forces, visited Northern Ireland this past week as part of her Jubilee celebration, McGuinness, the former I.R.A. commander, was ready to embrace this woman he had spent his life fighting, first violently and then politically.
It certainly took courage for McGuinness and the queen to confront the “rough beasts” who would cry treason in both their camps. But it also suited them to disguise pragmatism as principle.
So their historic — and hopeful — handshake on Wednesday at a charity art exhibition at a Belfast theater had to be elaborately choreographed and minutely negotiated.
The queen had to move past the 1979 murder by the I.R.A. of her cousin Lord Mountbatten and his 14-year-old grandson, who died when the boat they were on off County Sligo was blown up. McGuinness, who was a leader of the I.R.A. in nearby Derry for some of the ’70s, had to move past the 1972 Bloody Sunday horror there, when British forces gunned down 14 innocent civilians. (The British government official report on the massacre alleged that McGuinness “was probably armed with a Thompson submachine gun.”)
The queen took another symbolic step past the Troubles by making her first visit to a Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland.
A mesmerized country watched with a sense, as one TV commentator put it, of “My goodness, me.” There was a cascade of the words unthinkable, unimaginable and — for dead-enders — unspeakable. The queen, gracious once more in a green suit and hat the color of bright spring shoots, offered a gloved hand and warm smile to the former guerrilla.
McGuinness spoke Irish to the queen, a Gaelic blessing translated as “Goodbye and Godspeed.” Afterward, getting into his car, he assured reporters, “I’m still a Republican” but added that the visit had been “very nice.”
In a speech in Westminster on Thursday, he said the moment could help define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves.” And “Martin and Lizzie’s love-in,” as the Dublin satirical magazine The Phoenix called it, was hailed by Adams as “a very, very good thing indeed.”
“Will it be significant beyond the novelty or beyond the symbolism?” he asked. “That’s up to us.”
Niall O’Dowd, the editor of New York’s Irish Voice and Irish Central Web site, was here and was struck by the utterly changed world.
“This will end Irish and British what-abouting,” he told me. “What about my suffering? Who suffered the most in this conflict? We must just say one death was too many and all are responsible. There’s no moral high ground here.
Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:
In my mind, there are two lessons from the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision to support President Obama’s health care plan: 1) how starved the country is for leadership that puts the nation’s interest before partisan politics, which is exactly what Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. did; and 2) the virtue of audacity in politics and thinking big. Let’s look at both.
It was not surprising to hear liberals extolling the legal creativity and courage of Chief Justice Roberts in finding a way to greenlight Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But there is something deeper reflected in that praise, and it even touched some conservatives. It’s the feeling that it has been so long since a national leader “surprised” us. It’s the feeling that it has been so long since a national leader ripped up the polls and not only acted out of political character but did so truly for the good of the country — as Chief Justice Roberts seemingly did.
I know that this was a complex legal decision. But I think it was inspired by a simple noble leadership impulse at a critical juncture in our history — to preserve the legitimacy and integrity of the Supreme Court as being above politics. We can’t always describe this kind of leadership, but we know it when we see it and so many Americans appreciate it.
This is still a moderate, center-left/center-right country, and all you have to do is get out of Washington to discover how many people hunger for leaders who will take a risk, put the country’s interests before party and come together for rational compromises. Why do we all jump up and applaud at N.B.A. or N.F.L. games when they introduce wounded Iraq or Afghan war veterans in the stands? It’s because the U.S. military embodies everything we find missing today in our hyperpartisan public life. The military has become, as the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel once put it, “the last repository of civic idealism and sacrifice for the sake of the common good.”
Indeed, I found myself applauding for Chief Justice Roberts the same way I did for Al Gore when he gracefully bowed to the will of the Supreme Court in the 2000 election and the same way I do for those wounded warriors — and for the same reason: They each, in their own way, took one for the country.
To put it another way, Roberts undertook an act of statesmanship for the national good by being willing to anger his own “constituency” on a very big question. But he also did what judges should do: leave the big political questions to the politicians. The equivalent act of statesmanship on the part of our politicians now would be doing what Roberts deferred to them as their responsibility: decide the big, hard questions, with compromises, for the national good. Otherwise, we’re doomed to a tug of war on the deck of the Titanic, no matter what health care plan we have.
I see no sign of Mitt Romney being ready for such a “Roberts moment.” I still have hope for Obama. He’s entitled to a victory lap for daring to go big — ignoring his advisers — to bring health care to the whole country. It’s a huge achievement.
But he needs to go just as big on the economy if he wants the Affordable Care Act to be something we can actually afford. That requires economic growth. Yet Obama’s campaign has been all small-ball wedge issues, trying to satisfy enough micro-constituencies to get 50.1 percent of the vote.
Listen to the broad reaction to Roberts. Look at the powerful wave he has unleashed for big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership. That all tells me that people are also hungry for a big plan from the president to fix the economy, one that will bite and challenge both parties at the scale we need, fairly share the burdens and won’t just be about “balancing the budget,” but about making America great again.
The opportunity for such a plan is hiding in plain sight. America today is poised for a great renewal.
Our newfound natural gas bounty can give us long-term access to cheap, cleaner energy and, combined with advances in robotics and software, is already bringing blue-collar manufacturing back to America. Web-enabled cellphones and tablets are creating vast new possibilities to bring high-quality, low-cost education to every community college and public school so people can afford to acquire the skills to learn 21st-century jobs. Cloud computing is giving anyone with a creative spark cheap, powerful tools to start a company with very little money. And dramatically low interest rates mean we can borrow to build new infrastructure — and make money.
“We are at a transformational moment in terms of our potential as a country, and we have two candidates playing rope-a-dope,” said David Rothkopf, author of “Power, Inc.”
If we can just get a few big things right today — a Simpson-Bowles-like grand bargain on spending and tax reform that unleashes entrepreneurship, a deal on immigration that allows the most energetic and smartest immigrants to enrich our country and a plan on energy that allows us to tap all these new sources in environmentally safe ways — no one could touch us as a country. Connect the dots for people, Mr. President — be the guy taking the risk to offer that big plan for American renewal, and Romney will never be able to touch you.
Last but not least, Mr. Kristof:
Generations of Americans have learned to pity Africa. It’s mainly seen as a quagmire of famine and genocide, a destination only for a sybaritic safari or a masochistic aid mission.
So here’s another way to think of Africa: an economic dynamo. Is it time to prepare for the African tiger economy? Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies between 2001 and 2010 were in Africa, according to The Economist. The International Monetary Fund says that between 2011 and 2015, African countries will account for 7 of the top 10 spots.
Africa isn’t just a place for safaris or humanitarian aid. It’s also a place to make money. Global companies are expanding in Africa; vast deposits of oil, gas and minerals are being discovered; and Goldman Sachs recently issued a report, “Africa’s Turn,” comparing business opportunities in Africa with those in China in the early 1990s.
I’m writing this column in Lesotho, a mountainous kingdom (it was snowing the day I arrived!) in southern Africa, on my annual win-a-trip journey. The winner this year, Jordan Schermerhorn, an engineering student at Rice University, and I visited garment factories that make clothing for American stores. This country is Africa’s biggest apparel exporter to America.
One set of factories we visited, belonging to the Nien Hsing Textile Company, a giant Taiwanese corporation, employs 10,000 people in Lesotho, making this its biggest operation in the world. Workers turn out bluejeans for Levi’s and other American companies, and Alan Han, a senior company official, said quality is comparable to that of factories in Asia.
While America may largely misperceive Africa as a disaster zone, China does get the promise on the continent. Everywhere you turn in Africa these days there are Chinese businesspeople seeking to invest in raw materials and agriculture. But American businesses seem to be only beginning to wake up to the economic potential here.
Why does that matter? Because trade often benefits a country more than aid. I’m a strong supporter of foreign aid, but economic growth and jobs are ultimately the most sustainable way to raise living standards.
The American Congress has badly bungled the picture this year by delaying renewal of a provision of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA. This promotes trade by providing duty-free access to the American market. It’s one of the best aid programs you’ve never heard of — except that it isn’t an aid program but an initiative to help Africa lift itself up and create jobs through exports.
Some 300,000 jobs in Africa have been created because of AGOA, according to the Brookings Institution, but, in the last few months, countless Africans have been laid off because of the delay in renewal. American importers don’t want to place orders unless they are sure that the provision will be renewed and the clothing can enter duty-free. In Lesotho alone, about 5,000 garment workers have lost their jobs because of this maddening Congressional delay.
Granted, African countries themselves have botched trade because of corruption, onerous rules and uncompetitive minimum wages. The minimum wage for garment workers is about $37 per month in Bangladesh, compared with about $120 in Lesotho.
Or consider infuriating red tape. In Swaziland, it takes 12 procedures and 56 days to start a company, according to the World Bank’s superb “Doing Business” report for 2012. In Niger, it takes 326 days to build a warehouse. In Senegal, it takes 43 procedures and more than two years to enforce a legal claim.
Some of the otherwise most impressive countries in Africa, like Rwanda, also undermine themselves with their political repression. Ethiopia’s dictator, Meles Zenawi, is doing an excellent job of raising health and living standards, but he also presides over a security service that kills and rapes with impunity — and imprisons journalists who report on abuses. Last week, a sham trial in Ethiopia found one such brave journalist, Eskinder Nega, guilty of terrorism.
All in all, though, Africa is becoming more democratic, more technocratic and more market-friendly. Yet Americans are largely oblivious to the idea of Africa as a success story.
One of the problems with journalism is that we focus on disasters. We cover planes that crash, not those that take off. In Africa, that means we cover famine in Somalia and genocide in Sudan, terrorism in Nigeria and warlords in Congo. Those are important stories — deserving more attention, not less — but they can also leave a casual reader convinced that all of Africa is lurching between genocide and famine.
So that’s why I decided to start this win-a-trip journey in a delightful country like Lesotho that just had a democratic change of power. Its streets are safe, and it is working on becoming one of the first countries in the world with an electric grid 100 percent reliant on renewable energy.
It’s a symbol of an Africa that is rising.