Blow, Cohen and Krugman

In “G.O.P. and the Apocalypse” Mr. Blow says the Republican candidates are sending such a negative message that it may backfire in the general election.  In “Iran Opens for Business” Mr. Cohen says Netanyahu and Rubio are wrong, and that toughness is no more than empty aggression when it will not admit to misjudgment.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Health Reform Realities:”  Should progressives re-litigate Obamacare? He says there are many reasons to think that it just wouldn’t work.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week I suffered through another dust-dry Republican debate in which a slimmed-down roster of seven candidates leveled many of the same attacks and regurgitated many of the same staid pitches.

There were a few flashes of life that caught my attention or made me chuckle:

Ted Cruz debuting some entertaining lines of attack to rebuff the questions the real estate developer keeps raising about whether Cruz is indeed a “natural born citizen” and able to become president. The real estate developer managed a surprisingly maudlin moment when he rebuked, quite successfully, Cruz for his outrageous us-against-them comments about “New York values.” Jeb Bush calling the perpetual squabbling between Marco Rubio and Cruz a “back and forth between two senators — backbench senators.”

But what struck me most about the debate was just how unremittingly bleak the tone of it was.

These Republican candidates have countered Obama’s “ Hope” and “Change” message from 2008 and “Forward” message from 2012 with “War” and “Ruin” and “Backwards.”

There seemed to be a competition to see who could describe the state of the country.

Understandably, a candidate has to identify a problem that they plan to fix. That’s simply the nature of politics. If there is no problem to fix, there is no need of a fixer.

Democrats are identifying problems as well.

Bernie Sanders has identified Wall Street greed, the “casino capitalist process” and income inequality as the enemy, and himself as the only one in the race with the credibility and philosophical track record to bring them to heel.

Hillary Clinton has identified Republicans and the prospects of their dismantling the progress made under the Obama presidency as her enemy, and she has positioned herself as the only logical heir to the current president, to protect his legacy and build on it.

But even as the Democratic candidates point to very real concerns, they seem to my mind also able to offer a vision of hopefulness and idealism.

Republicans are missing the second shoe. They are describing a coming apocalypse from which we must be saved, not a future that is full of light. Indeed, it is as if they must inflate some mythical beast so that they will appear more valiant in their quest to slay it. Everything is about arms and war and the Islamic State, guns and taxes and joblessness. It is about taking the country back to a different posture, a different period.

I can’t imagine that this will work in the end. While fear and anger can be effective electoral motivators, presidents are often elected on messages that carry a positive vision.

That positive vision is achingly absent from the Republican field. At least Ben Carson, with his meandering, absent-minded answer, came across as positive — not by his policies so much as by his soft-spoken, easy to laugh, slow to attack demeanor. But even that, during the most recent debate, didn’t work. Carson came off as more jester than that cogent candidate. When asked a question early in the debate, Carson responded with awkward self-deprecation: “Well, I’m very happy to get a question this early on. I was going to ask you to wake me up when that time came.” Oh Ben, they always look like they are waking you.

Most of the rest of the evening was consumed by the negative.

The real estate developer: “Our country’s a mess.” Later: “I’m angry because our country is a mess.”

Bush: “We have the mess in Washington, D.C.” Later, on Hillary Clinton: “She wants to continue down the path of Iran, Benghazi, the Russian reset, Dodd-Frank, all the things that have — that have gone wrong in this country. She would be a national security mess.”

Chris Christie: “There’s a number of things that the next president is going to have to do to clean up this mess.”

But, mess wasn’t always a strong enough word, so they sometimes amped it up.

Rubio: “She wouldn’t just be a disaster. Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States.”

The real estate developer: “Our military is a disaster.”

Bush: “Hillary Clinton would be a national security disaster.” Later: “Everybody’s record’s going to be scrutinized, and at the end of the day we need to unite behind the winner so we can defeat Hillary Clinton, because she is a disaster.”

It isn’t completely clear to me the relationship between the candidates’ rhetoric and the prevailing views of Republican voters: Are the candidates merely a reflection of the disaffected base, are the candidates helping to create the disaffection, or do they all exist in a national echo chamber amplifying each other?

But whatever the origins or the source of the expansion, this strikes me as a losing strategy. At some point, someone among the Republican candidates will have to offer a positive message to reach the middle of the voter spectrum and the crossover voters that one needs to win the presidency. If not, this field is destined to be remembered as a group of hyperbolic doomsayers rather than as successful presidential politicians.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Some people cannot stand good news. It troubles their fixed view of the world. These would include Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who were cast into a huff by the confirmed reversal of Iran’s nuclear program and its release of several Americans, including Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post.

Try a smile, guys. Toughness is no more than empty aggression when it will not admit to misjudgment. Diplomacy delivers.

Rezaian is coming home after a year and a half of groundless imprisonment. An American pastor and a former Marine will be reunited with their families. Iran had more than 19,000 first-generation centrifuges installed; that number is now 6,104. Its advanced centrifuges have been slashed from over 1,000 to zero. Its low-enriched uranium stockpile has been cut to 660 pounds from over 19,000.

The plutonium route to a bomb has been cut off. Iran is subject to what President Obama called “the most comprehensive, intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program.” The country’s “break-out” time — the period needed to rush for a bomb — has been extended to a year from two to three months.

The trauma-induced Iranian-American psychosis, ongoing since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, has been overcome. Two tireless diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and the University of Denver-educated Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speak when needed. American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters are released within 24 hours. A financial dispute outstanding since 1981 is resolved. The world’s 18th-largest economy is about to rejoin the world at a time when the sinking global economy sure could use a jolt. The nuclear deal, even in these early days, is not hermetic. It opens doors.

To all of which Rubio responds that Obama has put “a price on the head of every American abroad” when he should have used “crippling sanctions” (oh, please, not that crippled phrase again). Netanyahu actually claims that if it were not for Israel “leading the way” on sanctions, “Iran would have had a nuclear weapon long ago.” Iran, he baritones, “has not relinquished its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons.”

That may be — or not. We can all go guessing in the Iranian bazaar. Nothing comes cheaper than an Iran pontificator.

What is clear is that Iran is much further from a nuclear weapon because of the courageous diplomacy of Obama and Kerry and Zarif and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who all confronted hostile constituencies at home to get the deal done.

For Iran, the arrival of “implementation day” means the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions and access to about $100 billion in frozen assets. A big nation is open for business again, back in the global financial system and world oil market.

Netanyahu, Rubio and their ilk believe Iran will use the windfall to do its worst. That cannot be discounted. The United States and Iran remain hostile on most fronts, from Syria to Israel. Revolutionary Guard hard-liners have not drunk the Kool-Aid at the Rouhani-Zarif school of diplomacy. Obama’s imposition of mild new sanctions for banned missile tests was a reminder of differences.

But if the developments of recent days demonstrate one thing, it is that Iran, 37 years from its revolution, is delicately poised between hard-liners and reformers, neither of whom can dictate the country’s course, each of whom need the other for now. Imminent parliamentary elections may indicate which camp is ascendant. Whatever happens, it is hard to argue that greater contact with the world will be bad for the large, modernizing, highly educated younger generation. Iran is a pro-American country with a tired anti-American refrain. It has a successful diaspora community ready to help revive the country — if allowed to do so.

The breakthrough with Iran is Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement, one that may have a transformative effect on the region. The next decade will show to what degree. That potential is what has American allies from Saudi Arabia to Israel so perturbed. They preferred the status quo.

Of course it could all unravel. Predicting Doomsday is easy. But with hard work, I believe the chances are greater that American-Iranian diplomatic relations will be restored within five years.

The Economist had a good summary of why Iran’s reintegration is so important and consequential. It noted that “the prospects in a post-deal Iran are vast.” The country is not “an oil-soaked rentier state,” like some of its neighbors, but a “regional power with an industrial economy” — if a grossly mismanaged one. Its population of 80 million is well-educated, its oil and gas reserves enormous. The country’s pent-up need for foreign investment may amount to $1 trillion. Iran, it concluded, is “preparing for takeoff.”

Try saying the word Iran without saying the word “nuclear.” It’s time. In fact, it’s past time, even if good news is too much for some.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Health reform is the signature achievement of the Obama presidency. It was the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare was established in the 1960s. It more or less achieves a goal — access to health insurance for all Americans — that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations. And it is already producing dramatic results, with the percentage of uninsured Americans falling to record lows.

Obamacare is, however, what engineers would call a kludge: a somewhat awkward, clumsy device with lots of moving parts. This makes it more expensive than it should be, and will probably always cause a significant number of people to fall through the cracks.

The question for progressives — a question that is now central to the Democratic primary — is whether these failings mean that they should re-litigate their own biggest political success in almost half a century, and try for something better.

My answer, as you might guess, is that they shouldn’t, that they should seek incremental change on health care (Bring back the public option!) and focus their main efforts on other issues — that is, that Bernie Sanders is wrong about this and Hillary Clinton is right. But the main point is that we should think clearly about why health reform looks the way it does.

If we could start from scratch, many, perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer, a Medicare-type program covering everyone. But single-payer wasn’t a politically feasible goal in America, for three big reasons that aren’t going away.

First, like it or not, incumbent players have a lot of power. Private insurers played a major part in killing health reform in the early 1990s, so this time around reformers went for a system that preserved their role and gave them plenty of new business.

Second, single-payer would require a lot of additional tax revenue — and we would be talking about taxes on the middle class, not just the wealthy. It’s true that higher taxes would be offset by a sharp reduction or even elimination of private insurance premiums, but it would be difficult to make that case to the broad public, especially given the chorus of misinformation you know would dominate the airwaves.

Finally, and I suspect most important, switching to single-payer would impose a lot of disruption on tens of millions of families who currently have good coverage through their employers. You might say that they would end up just as well off, and it might well be true for most people — although not those with especially good policies. But getting voters to believe that would be a very steep climb.

What this means, as the health policy expert Harold Pollack points out, is that a simple, straightforward single-payer system just isn’t going to happen. Even if you imagine a political earthquake that eliminated the power of the insurance industry and objections to higher taxes, you’d still have to protect the interests of workers with better-than-average coverage, so that in practice single-payer, American style, would be almost as kludgy as Obamacare.

Which brings me to the Affordable Care Act, which was designed to bypass these obstacles. It was careful to preserve and even enlarge the role of private insurers. Its measures to cover the uninsured rely on a combination of regulation and subsidies, rather than simply on an expansion of government programs, so that the on-budget cost is limited — and can, in fact, be covered without raising middle-class taxes. Perhaps most crucially, it leaves employer-based insurance intact, so that the great majority of Americans have experienced no disruption, in fact no change in their health-care experience.

Even so, achieving this reform was a close-run thing: Democrats barely got it through during the brief period when they controlled Congress. Is there any realistic prospect that a drastic overhaul could be enacted any time soon — say, in the next eight years? No.

You might say that it’s still worth trying. But politics, like life, involves trade-offs.

There are many items on the progressive agenda, ranging from an effective climate change policy, to making college affordable for all, to restoring some of the lost bargaining power of workers. Making progress on any of these items is going to be a hard slog, even if Democrats hold the White House and, less likely, retake the Senate. Indeed, room for maneuver will be limited even if a post-Trump Republican Party moves away from the scorched-earth opposition it offered President Obama.

So progressives must set some priorities. And it’s really hard to see, given this picture, why it makes any sense to spend political capital on a quixotic attempt at a do-over, not of a political failure, but of health reform — their biggest victory in many years.

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