Political Animal

The Two Questions Warren’s Medicare for All Plan Will Have to Address

Over the last few months, debate moderators have demonstrated their willingness to dumb down our politics and parrot Republican talking points by continually asking Elizabeth Warren if her support of Medicare for All would mean that taxes go up for people in the middle class. Her response has been to talk about the cost of health care, regardless of whether it is paid in premiums, deductibles, and co-pays or taxes. That hasn’t satisfied the moderators, who seem to think that it is important to differentiate who Americans pay for their health care rather than how much they pay.

The relentless pursuit of that question in the debates does, however, seem to be hurting Warren. Perhaps that is because she has been backing the Medicare for All plan put forward by Bernie Sanders, who has been clear on this question.

“At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health-care bills,” Sanders said at last week’s debate in Ohio. “But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They’re going to go up significantly for the wealthy. And for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expansions.”

Warren’s unwillingness to be that direct is beginning to tarnish her reputation as the plain-talker who tells the truth. That is probably why, on Sunday, she announced that her campaign will release a plan to pay for Medicare for All in the next few weeks. This is where the rubber meets the road and it is possible to begin asking some questions that are actually relevant, as opposed to the ones we’ve seen from debate moderators up to this point.

In order to determine if Warren can keep her promise that costs will go down for people in the middle class, she will need to address two questions that the Sanders proposal doesn’t.

How much will providers be paid?

In order to determine the overall cost of Medicare for All, Warren’s plan will need to begin by answering the question of how much providers will be paid. Under our current system, private insurers pay providers significantly more than Medicare. The most substantial form of cost control can be found in bringing those payments closer to Medicare rates. While Warren has consistently made insurers the villains of our health care system, she has not demonstrated a willingness to take on providers.

Contrary to what many people believe, the issue of how much to pay providers was a major contributor to the downfall of the public option during the debate over Obamacare, demonstrating that it can be politically toxic. But any plan to move forward with either a public option or single payer must address this issue in order to be viable.

How will it be paid for?

Bernie Sanders has released a set of options about how to pay for Medicare for All, but hasn’t put forward a specific plan. That makes it impossible to assess the effect on individual Americans. In order to determine whether Warren’s plan meets the goal of bringing down costs for middle class families, she will need to identify which taxes will be tapped to pay for the plan.

It is worth noting that, when Sanders talks about the tax increases that will be needed to pay for Medicare for All, he says that, other than the wealthy, “virtually everybody” else will pay substantially less for health care than they do now. Jonathan Cohn provides an example of someone who might fall outside that qualifier.

Imagine, for example, a 30-year-old who today buys a minimalist policy directly from an insurer ― say, one of the “bronze” plans with relatively skimpy benefits that barely meet the Affordable Care Act’s coverage standards. Because that plan covers so little and because 30-year-olds pay lower premiums than older people, that bronze plan is probably pretty cheap.

The bronze plan could easily cost less than the new taxes for Medicare for All and maybe a lot less, depending on how much money the 30-year-old makes and just how skimpy that plan is.

But perhaps even more significant are those middle class Americans whose employer pays for all or most of their health insurance premium. It is very likely that under Medicare for All, they would be taxed at a rate higher than they’re currently paying.

These are issues that advocates for single payer, including Bernie Sanders, have avoided addressing. It is true that Medicare for All would be a more efficient way to deliver health care and that overall, it would likely cost less than the current system. But major issues emerge when we begin to address the challenge of transitioning from the status quo to single payer.

Warren has been clear that she will only support a plan that reduces costs for middle class families (I would assume that also applies to middle class individuals). So the target has been established. When she releases her plan, we’ll analyze it in order to determine if she can address these two major questions and reach that goal.

Trump Breaks His Pattern and Retreats on All Fronts

When acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney stepped to the mic on Thursday to address the press corps, he thought he’d be creating controversy by announcing that the 2020 G-7 conference would be held in one of the president’s own resorts. He was correct about that, but he did far more damage by his admission that there had been a quid pro quo of dirt on the Democrats in exchange for military aid to Ukraine, and that we should all just “get over it.”

White House ally Sean Hannity was unimpressed:

“What is Mulvaney even talking about?” Sean Hannity, a Fox News host and confidant of the president’s, said on his radio show Thursday afternoon, referring to what he called the acting chief of staff’s “idiotic interpretation of things.”

“I just think he’s dumb, I really do. I don’t even think he knows what he’s talking about,” Mr. Hannity said.

It won’t be possible to undo the damage from the Ukraine admission, although Mulvaney made a very unsuccessful attempt to reverse his position during a Sunday appearance on Fox News. Yet, as the New York Times reports, the decision on the G-7 conference proved even more immediately untenable.

The president first heard the criticism of his choice of the Doral watching TV, where even some Fox News personalities were disapproving. By Saturday afternoon, his concerns had deepened when he put in a call to Camp David, where Mr. Mulvaney was hosting moderate congressional Republicans for a discussion of issues facing them, including impeachment, and was told the consensus was he should reverse himself. Those moderates are among the votes Mr. Trump would need to stick with him during an impeachment.

By Saturday night, the president was convinced they he couldn’t stick by his decision on the G-7 and reversed himself on Twitter. He blamed the media and the Democrats, of course, but it was Republican pushback that forced his hand. The same can be said of his decision to leave some troops in Syria, where his announced withdrawal had caused immediate humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophes.

These three reversals, on Syria, Ukraine and his Doral resort are significant because they represent a break from the crisis management style Trump learned from his old friend Roy Cohn.

Beneath the surface, though, Trump had connections that help explain how he came to launch a demagogic political career based on the racist and transparently inane theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to serve as our president.

First among them was Trump’s long relationship with the lawyer Roy Cohn. Cohn is most famous for his role as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In that role, he led the aggressive and unethical red-baiting Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations until the U.S. Army pushed back and he was forced to resign in August 1954. In private practice, Cohn represented prominent New Yorkers like la cosa nostra crime boss Carlo Gambino, Francis Cardinal Spellman and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, but was frequently at odds with the law. Over the years, he won four separate acquittals on charges varying from conspiracy, securities fraud, bribery, and obstruction of justice before finally being disbarred in 1986 as he was dying of HIV. What Cohn learned from McCarthy was the value of being dramatic and the utility of exaggerated claims and accusations. He passed these lessons along to Donald Trump.

According to Trump, he first met Roy Cohn in a members-only Midtown establishment called Le Club. It was 1973, and the government was accusing the Trumps of discriminatory housing practices. He asked Cohn, “The government has just filed suit against our company saying that we discriminated against blacks. What do you think I should do?” Cohn advised him to “Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court and let them prove you discriminated.”

The Trumps retained Cohn to represent them and Donald became his student. According to author Sam Roberts, it was from Cohn that Trump learned his now familiar three-part strategy for handling litigation which he has now transferred to political combat: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counter-attack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.

If nothing else, it’s fair to say that Donald Trump doesn’t like to reverse decisions or admit mistakes. It goes against his training and he considers it a losing strategy. Even when he is convinced that surrender is the best option, he resents the advice and eventually turns on the advisers.

Yet, the president finds himself in a very vulnerable position now, and he can’t afford to ignore the opinions of congressional Republicans if he hopes to win an acquittal in his inevitable trial in the Senate. Already, he’s almost certain to see some defections from House Republicans during the vote on impeachment. The more bipartisan the impeachment vote is, the harder it will be for Republican senators to paint the whole things as a partisan witch-hunt.

This is why Trump has been been in full retreat over the last week. Congressional Republicans did not consider his positions on Syria, Ukraine and the G-7 defensible and so the lines were abandoned and mitigation efforts were attempted.

It’s not a promising place to begin what will probably prove to be the worst week yet for Trump and his horrid presidency.

House Democrats Are Failing to Protect Farmers from Trump

Times are tough for American farmers. Everything from corporate consolidation to falling commodity prices is making it harder to get by. Strange, then, that the person most responsible for safeguarding their wellbeing, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, brought the following message to a gathering of Wisconsin dairy farmers: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” In other words, he was telling the farmers: you’re probably screwed and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Contrary to Perdue’s claims, the deaths of small farms are not a result of natural forces. They are a consequence of explicit policy choices that have allowed for the rampant consolidation and disinvestment that are crushing rural communities. Only two decades ago, there were 600 companies that sold seed. Today, there are only four. It’s no wonder that the cost of seeds and plant corn has risen 329 percent in that time period, with similar increases for other crops.

Perdue hasn’t just failed to recognize the root causes of farmers’ pain; he has actively aided the forces responsible for it. From his first days in office, he has turned the full power of the USDA against farmers and rural communities on behalf of Big Agriculture, betraying one of the constituencies most vital to Trump’s 2016 win.

None of this should surprise anyone. What should be genuinely shocking, however, is that Congressman Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota and the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has been practically silent about these attacks. Over the past nine months, he has only convened one full committee hearing. And while his panel heard testimony from Perdue in February, Peterson has yet to call him back despite his committing numerous transgressions since, including his continued efforts to impose work requirements on access to food stamps and pressing ahead to relocate the department’s research wing out of D.C.

Peterson, who declined our request for comment, has failed to fulfill his obligation to protect farmers and rural communities. That is not only bad on the substance, but it is a missed opportunity for Democrats to win back support among American farmers, who overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Trump in 2016.

In recent years, consolidated agribusinesses have translated their rising profits into formidable political power. They have successfully weakened or killed many measures that would have limited their control over farmers’ lives and livelihoods, including fighting laws that would give farmers the right to repair their own equipment, something that overzealous copyright protections have prevented them from doing. When these and other nasty practices get too much attention, Big Ag wields its considerable weight to silence critics, whether that means getting a newspaper cartoonist fired or suing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to close a public comment period on a proposed merger.

Over the past few decades, Democrats have too often either supported the policies that got us here, or fallen short in resisting them. In 2008, Barack Obama made fighting consolidation a feature of his agricultural policy platform. But once in power, he failed to act decisively on those promises. His administration hesitated to enact proposed regulations that would have made it easier for contract farmers to sue packing and processing companies for unfair practices. Then, it found itself unable to move forward once Republicans took the House in 2010.

As with most things, however, the Trump administration has taken a bad problem and made it worse. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice approved a merger between two agricultural industry giants, Monsanto and Bayer, allowing for the creation of a new behemoth. And those Obama-era contracting rules? They were eventually approved in 2016, but Perdue promptly scrapped them after taking power. Worse yet, Perdue’s USDA has walked back enforcement of many of the remaining rules to protect contract farmers.

This is all without mentioning what’s at the forefront of people’s minds when they think about Trump’s impact on farmers: trade policy. Yet as these examples should make clear, the harm this administration is inflicting on farmers goes well beyond trade.

Unfortunately, House Democrats have done little to draw attention to Trump’s deleterious agricultural policies When they do respond by holding a hearing, like over the decision to move the USDA’s Economic Research Service to Kansas City, they fail to confront those responsible for their actions, or take definitive actions to stop them.

Meanwhile, in the same time span that Peterson only convened one full committee hearing, Agriculture’s six subcommittees have held a combined 19 hearings, seven of which involved testimony from USDA officials. The Committee has issued zero subpoenas to corporate or governmental actors.

Peterson should reverse course and start from the top. The USDA is a big department with a diverse set of important responsibilities, ranging from protecting farming and rural economies, to ensuring food safety and administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

There have been other ways Perdue has materially hurt farmers and others working in the industry. In addition to cancelling the aforementioned Obama era contracting rules, Perdue announced, in 2018, that the USDA would begin to allow poultry processing plants to increase line speeds, putting already vulnerable workers at even greater risk of injury.

Trump has also failed to nominate an undersecretary of rural development almost three years after taking office, meaning there is no dedicated advocate for rural communities empowered to support rural businesses, utilities, housing, broadband, and more in the federal government.

But that’s not all. The USDA is also making meat more dangerous for consumers by allowing pork processing plants to perform their own inspections. Indeed, the USDA’s chief veterinarian from 2016 to 2018, Pat Basu, refused to sign off on the system and left the agency in protest. Basu recently said, “Look at the FAA. It took a year or so before the crashes happened. This could pass, and everything could be okay for a while, until some disease is missed, and we have an outbreak all over the country.” It seems like Basu might make for an interesting witness at a Agriculture Committee hearing.

Democrats need to perform meaningful oversight of the Trump administration’s assault on American farmers. Impeachment doesn’t obviate the need for skeptical oversight. It underscores it. Oversight is, put simply, a basic fulfillment of Congress’ governing obligations. It can uncover abuse, create pressure for change, and facilitate the development of much needed policy alternatives. And, as an added bonus, the political upside seems clear.

This strategy might seem somewhat unorthodox. It contravenes the gospel that Democrats can only win agricultural districts by espousing a quiet, inoffensive centrism. But that would cede control of the political debate to Trump. If Democrats only play on the president’s terms, the conversation will always shift away from the real issue.

Democrats must therefore redefine the debate on agriculture policy through rigorous oversight. In rural America, they have to demonstrate their willingness to take on political corruption of all shades, and to challenge corporate America’s chokehold over the political process.

Yet Democrats have been surprisingly unwilling to take on one of the most unifying issues across the electorate: how the system is rigged to hurt ordinary people and boost big corporations.

Trump has created an opportunity for Democrats to take up this message in virtually every area of policy, but now especially with farmers. House Democrats have a unique opening to prove to rural voters that they are serious about taking on structural inequities. All they have to do is highlight and push back against the administration’s efforts to enrich corporations at the expense of small farmers. In other words, they have to simply do their jobs.

In Homage to the Kurdish Women Who Fought ISIS

Much has been written about Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in Syria. But a recent tweet that showed up in my timeline brought it all home for me in a new way.

I was reminded that over the last few years, we’ve heard stories about the bravery of the Kurdish women (members of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units) who were fighting ISIS. That was particularly true during the siege of Kobani, which has been described as “one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the campaign against the militant group.” Here is what Newsha Tavakolian learned about the women who fought.

[I]t’s not just the battle against ISIS that brings these young women to a spare military camp in Syria, a half hour away from the front lines…The desire to break free from the macho Middle East was so strong that rural girls volunteered to join the YPJ, where they developed into soldiers ready to put their lives on the line. “In the past, women had various roles in the society, but all those roles were taken from them,” says 18-year-old Saria Zilan. “We are here now to take back the role of women in society.”

As Jen Kirby explained, Bashar al-Assad pulled out of northern Syria in 2012 in order to concentrate his forces on defeating rebels in the rest of the country, creating the self-governing Kurdish territory known as “Rojava.” Assad’s move had the added benefit of providing a disincentive for the Kurds to join with those who were fighting against the regime.

But in 2014, ISIS launched an attack on Kobani, which is part of Rojava, leading to a battle that lasted for the next nine months. The city was effectively demolished, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands becoming refugees. The statue in the picture above was sculpted by a Kurdish artist from Iraq, Zirak Mira, as a monument to the role of Kurdish female fighters in the war against terrorism. It sits in a part of Kobani that remains in ruins as an open museum to the public.

During the siege of Kobani, U.S. forces bombed ISIS positions, while the Kurds battled them on the ground. It was the headquarters of that U.S. operation that was bombed by Turkey last Friday. As Lara Seligman reported, Turkey claims that was an accident, but a “senior administration official told Foreign Policy the attack was a deliberate attempt to push U.S. forces out of the town.”

Even though Turkish President Erdogan promised Trump that he would not attack Kobani, his forces have advanced on the town. In response, Assad’s military has moved in as well. While Erdogan has been clear about his intentions, if Syrian forces prevail, Assad has a history of denying the Kurds basic human rights. Back in 2005, the New York Times reported that the Kurds were denied citizenship and forced to carry red cards identifying them as “foreigner.”

As the largest stateless nation in the world, the Kurds are basically “foreigners” no matter where they live. That is the result of decisions made decades ago.

The Kurds ended up where they are — without a homeland — because of the Western powers who drew the region’s map after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. The Allied powers (the UK, France, Italy, Japan, and others) who won the war signed the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres with what was left of the Ottoman Empire. That pact set aside territory for the Kurds as it carved up the Ottoman Empire. But that got amended with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which established the modern Turkish state and the other borders in the Middle East. That treaty omitted a Kurdish nation-state and left the population divided across several different countries.

History never forgets, so we are still living with the fact that the Kurds are stateless as a result of the map-carving that created modern-day Turkey. But rather than recognize that context, the U.S. president just condoned the idea that Turkey has to have them “cleaned out.”

It remains to be seen what happens to the Kurds of Kobani and the statue that was erected to the brave women who fought to save the city from ISIS. Leaders like Trump, Erdogan, and Assad have the power to determine their fate in the short-term. But I hope that, regardless of what happens to the statue, the children of Kobani will always remember that their mothers were brave warriors.