In “Obamacare Bashing or Bust” Mr. Blow says regardless of whether you agree with the Democrats or Republicans on health reform, it could have profound implications on the midterm elections. Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Greed and the Wright Brothers” and says in the years that followed that famed first flight, their failure as businessmen offers lessons for today. In “And the Race Is Off” Ms. Collins says Kathleen Sebelius may be saying that she is not going to enter the Kansas race, but she is still adding to this year’s saga of women running for the U.S. Senate. Here’s Mr. Blow:
Thursday, President Obama delivered a compendium of positive news about the Affordable Care Act:
■ Eight million people have signed up for private health insurance.
■ Thirty-five percent of those signing up are under 35 years old.
■ The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that the cost of the law will be $100 billion lower than expected and will significantly shrink the deficit over the next 10 years.
“This thing is working,” the president said. But it rang more as a lamentation than a proclamation. The health care law is a staggering achievement by this president and the Democrats and is likely to be viewed by history as such, but Republican opposition to it has been so vociferous and unrelenting that the president has been hard pressed to find a message that can overcome it.
Republicans repeat the same complaints, regardless of their veracity: Obamacare is bad for the economy and bad for Americans; it’s an unwelcome expansion of government by an overreaching president; it’s failing and will never work.
As Obama said Thursday:
“I find it strange that the Republican position on this law is still stuck in the same place that it has always been. They still can’t bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working. They said nobody would sign up; they were wrong about that. They said it would be unaffordable for the country; they were wrong about that.”
“I know every American isn’t going to agree with this law, but I think we can agree that it’s well past time to move on as a country. …”
But the president knows well that Republicans have no interest whatsoever in moving on. They’ve hitched their wagons to stop-Obama stallions and their plan is to race forward to Election Day.
The president smartly articulated the frustration that much of the opposition to the law in public opinion polls is “attached to general opinions about me or about Democrats and partisanship in the country generally.”
The president’s poll numbers took a hit during the health care rollout and have never fully recovered. The law also caused Democrats in general to lose their advantage in voters’ preference for control of Congress, according to a CNN/ORC poll conducted in December. Furthermore, most Americans disapprove of the health care law.
The Republican plan is simply to hold tight to last year’s disapproval and drag it forward to this year’s election. And that just might work. Democrats have so fumbled the selling of the health care law’s advantages, both moral and economic — faltering and stammering when they should have been steadfast and resolute — that they have acquiesced the debate to Republican opposition.
Rather than fight back with facts, too many Democratic politicians tucked their tails and ran away from the law, or, worse yet, joined the attack.
In addition to the effectiveness of Republican attacks and the anemia of Democratic support for the law, the demographics of midterm voters also bode well for Republicans.
Midterm elections generally skew older and whiter, and Republicans are counting on this skew to give them an electoral advantage. According to a Washington Post/ABC poll released at the end of last month, whites and elderly people are the least likely to support federal changes to the health care system, yet most elderly people are beneficiaries of another, quite successful government health care program: Medicare. And 77 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are white.
Even if Obamacare were not a factor, history suggests that this midterm election would still be a tough one for Democrats. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out in February:
“The party of a re-elected president tends to get walloped in the following midterm election. Since 1912 (that’s when the House expanded to 435 seats), the president’s party has lost an average of 29 House seats in the following midterm election.”
The health care law is working, insuring millions of Americans at far less a cost than what was previously estimated. But this civic victory may well contribute to a political defeat in November, unless Democrats can upend historical precedent and change the profile of the people who vote in off-year elections.
Our elections have been severely altered by a corporatist Supreme Court, maleficent voter ID laws and gerrymandering run amok. In the face of it all, can Democrats gather the gumption to say, “Enough”?
Next up we have Mr. Nocera:
Lawrence Goldstone’s new book, “Birdmen,” is about the origins of the airplane, from the early experiments with gliders in the 1890s, to the famous first powered flight by the Wright brothers in December 1903, to the wild next decade — a decade of daring by the early pilots eager to show off both their airplanes and their skill. A good part of the story Goldstone tells is about the rise of airshow exhibitions that swept America — exhibitions in which flamboyant pilots performed death-defying stunts before tens of thousands of spectators. Although, as the author points out, many of those pilots did not, in the end, defy death. On the contrary, death is a constant theme of the early years of flight.
“Birdmen” has a second narrative as well. It tells the story of three entrepreneurs: Wilbur and Orville Wright, on the one hand, and Glenn Curtiss, who quickly became their fiercest business rival, on the other. The Wright brothers had every advantage. Not only were they first, but their renown allowed them to form a well-capitalized company, with a distinguished board or directors, that aimed to take full advantage of their early patents, while selling airplanes to people we would now call early adopters. Yet as an innovator — indeed, as a businessman — Curtiss ran rings around the Wrights. Well before Orville Wright exited the business in 1915 — his brother had died of typhoid fever three years earlier — Curtiss was producing clearly superior airplanes.
The Wright brothers’ critical insight was the importance of “lateral stability” — that is, wingtip-to-wingtip stability — to flight. And their great innovation was something they called “wing warping,” in which they used a series of pulleys that caused the wingtips on one side of the airplane to go up when the wingtips on the other side were pulled down. That allowed the Wrights’ airplane to make banked turns and to correct itself when it flew into a gust of wind.
But when the Wrights applied for a patent, they didn’t seek one that just covered wing warping; their patent covered any means to achieve lateral stability. There is no question what the Wrights sought: nothing less than a monopoly on the airplane business — every airplane ever manufactured, they believed, owed them a royalty. As Wilbur Wright, who was both the more domineering and the more inventive of the two brothers, put it in a letter: “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us.”
What was Curtiss doing in the meantime? In addition to coming up with the idea of adding wheels for easier takeoffs and landings, he invented an entirely different system for dealing with lateral stability, a system of flaps that went up and down and controlled the wings. (Airplane manufacturers today still use that basic insight.) The Wrights responded by filing a lawsuit, claiming that Curtiss was violating their patents. The litigation would consume them literally until the day Wilbur Wright died.
Indeed, so caught up in the litigation did Wilbur Wright become that he simply stopped innovating. The board of his company made it clear that it wanted him to get back to the business of making better airplanes. But he just couldn’t. Meanwhile, the Wright Company had trouble holding onto professional managers because the Wrights — Wilbur especially — treated them so poorly. They woefully underpaid the pilots who flew for them in exhibitions, hoarding most of the money for themselves. Quite simply, the Wright brothers were greedy. And it ultimately hurt both them and America’s new airplane industry.
As it turns out, the Wright brothers won their lawsuit against Curtiss. But instead of accepting that judgment, Curtiss kept innovating, forcing Orville Wright back into court to stop him. What finally ended the patent wars was World War I; the government insisted that airplane manufacturers cross-license their patents so that the industry could move forward without the impediment of litigation. Yet, Goldstone adds, “the battle between the Wrights and Curtiss had taken a toll”: no American airplane was viewed as good enough to go into combat.
“By attempting to neuter Curtiss,” Goldstone writes, “the Wrights stifled the development of American aviation.”
He adds: “That is, of course, the irony of the patent system. Without patent protection, a competitor can simply replicate an invention and undercut the inventor’s price — which necessarily includes all the time and expense of research and development — so the incentive to experiment and create is severely inhibited. But if innovators such as Glenn Curtiss cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the privilege, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited.”
Thus, in the story of the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, is a lesson for our age as well.
And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:
Maybe Kathleen Sebelius should reconsider that Senate thing.
The woman who gave us the Obamacare rollout says she is not going to go home to Kansas and take on Senator Pat Roberts. Even though Roberts is a former friend who threw her under the bus because he’s afraid of a challenge from a loopy Tea Party radiologist.
Actually, she didn’t say all that. What she said, through a spokeswoman, was: “Secretary Sebelius is continuing her important work at H.H.S. and is not considering a run for the Senate.”
Some Democrats had told The Times’s Jeremy Peters that they wanted to see her give the race a try. At first, the idea seemed a little otherworldly, what with the way the health care website opened with a crash and all.
Still, we live in an age of hope. Fox says it has a new variation on “The Bachelor” in which 12 American women believe they are competing for the hand of England’s Prince Harry. If you can swallow that, you can certainly have faith that any secretary of health and human services can grow up to be the United States senator from Kansas.
The Democrats have found it difficult to recruit a high-profile candidate to run in Kansas. The state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since George McGill, who filled the seat after Charles Curtis resigned to become vice president under Herbert Hoover. Curtis, by the way, was the first member of Congress descended from American Indians. He led the floor fight for women’s suffrage and brought the Equal Rights Amendment up before the Senate for the first time. Also, he was a former jockey. I think I speak for us all when I say that Charles Curtis deserves more attention.
But about Kathleen Sebelius. Running a hopeless race for the Senate would be better than, say, spending the next year working on a memoir entitled “It Wasn’t Really My Fault.” And we have to keep stressing that, despite its awful start, the Affordable Care Act is working out fine. You could argue that Sebelius is a competent public servant who just ran into a really bad patch. Like Charles Curtis and the Herbert Hoover era.
Plus, she would have been an interesting addition to this year’s saga of women running for the U.S. Senate. Which is already turning into a thrill a minute. Just consider New Hampshire, where the incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, is being challenged by Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator whose entire political career has involved running for the Senate against Democratic women. To qualify for this race, Brown moved into his New Hampshire vacation home. If he loses, I am thinking his next stop will be a California trailer park and Barbara Boxer.
The Kansas race wouldn’t have been in that fun-filled category. But you could understand the Democrats feeling as if there might be a little window of opportunity. The incumbent, Pat Roberts, is facing any establishment Republican’s worst nightmare: a Tea Party primary challenger, plus the lack of a home in his home state.
Earlier this year, Roberts acknowledged to The Times’s Jonathan Martin that the place in Dodge City that he claims as his voting address is actually a house on a country club golf course that belongs to two longtime supporters. “I have full access to the recliner,” he joked. The part about this that’s really troubling is that Roberts picked a pretend address at a country club. If a politician is going to make believe he lives somewhere, shouldn’t he go for a cottage in the country or a midpriced condo near the shopping center?
Roberts was also stressed by a Tea Party challenge from Milton Wolf, a radiologist who, strangely enough, is a very distant cousin of President Obama. Wolf has compared the Affordable Care Act to “Stalin’s iron-fisted gulags.” Roberts, racing to the right in terror, demanded Sebelius’s resignation for “gross incompetence.” Obamacare haranguing is certainly standard fare under these circumstances, but you can see why Sebelius took it badly. Roberts, after all, was an old family friend who had bragged about their “special relationship” after she was nominated for secretary.
And it wasn’t even necessary. A Kansas reporter discovered that Wolf had a habit of posting X-rays of his patients on his Facebook page, and making fun of their injuries. So far, the radiologist’s most compelling excuse appears to be that he was trying “to educate people about what happens.” This is the kind of threat from the right that a Republican incumbent should be able to survive without turning a sweat, let alone turning on an old pal.
“It isn’t personal,” said Roberts after he’d called for Sebelius’s resignation. Well, sort of.
So there you are. If Kathleen Sebelius had traded the cabinet for the campaign trail, she very probably would have been defeated. But it still might have been fun to spend the summer discussing that recliner at the country club.