Political Animal

It’s the Obamacare, Stupid

Following the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the narrative has been that it energized the Republican base and neutralized Democratic enthusiasm heading into the 2018 midterm elections. One indication that the bounce could be short-lived comes from a look at the generic ballot. On the RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight and Huffington Post trackers, you can detect a slight bump for Republicans that quickly faded.

But it was the generic ballot graph at Civiqs that caught my eye.

The labelling of events over time drew my attention to what happened around the time that Republicans released their failed health care plan (BCRA) and the nation’s attention was captured by the potential repeal of Obamacare. Support for congressional Republicans plummeted. There wasn’t a surge in support for Democrats, but those voters drifted towards someone else or being unsure.

That confirms what we’ve seen in poll after poll showing that healthcare is the number one issue for voters in these midterms. It is also obvious that Republicans—especially those running in close races—recognize that preserving the benefits of Obamacare is important to voters.

For example, when Scott Walker was running for president, he promised that on day one he would repeal Obamacare in its entirety. Now, when it comes to the provision protecting people with pre-existing conditions, he’s singing a different tune.

As Jonathan Cohn documents, Republicans all over the country are attempting to re-write their history on Obamacare because they can read the polls as well as we can.  Even Ted Cruz, who is singularly responsible for shutting down the entire federal government in a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, talked about his support for protecting people with pre-existing conditions in the debate last night with Beto O’Rourke.

My title, of course, comes from James Carville’s famous line in the 1992 presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That’s because, while that national conversation gets caught up in the Kavanaugh hearings, Kanye West’s visit to the White House, or the latest outrageous tweet from the president, the issue that is actually animating voters is flying under the radar.

Is a Little Bit of Nationalism a Good Thing?

I am always interested in grappling with the kinds of arguments made by people like John Judis about how liberals should react in the Donald Trump era. His latest piece in the New York Times calls out liberals for their rejection of nationalism and proposes that national identity is essential to democracies.

Judis begins by denouncing some of the ways that Donald Trump’s nationalism is harmful. He then proposes this:

But these failings should not lead you to dismiss the value of nationalism, which, by itself, is neither good nor evil, liberal nor conservative. The perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state, which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon.

I have to admit that I have a natural gut reaction against the use of the word “nationalism” because of how it has been used by those who promote the superiority of the white race. I don’t react as negatively to the idea of “a common national identity.” But all too often the default of that identity has been the assumption that it revolves around the interests of white (primarily wealthy) men. The reason this country is struggling with its national identity today is because women and people of color are in a position to expect a seat at the table when we’re defining who is included.

If we’re going to talk about promoting a national identity it will need to be the one Barack Obama described during his speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery. He spoke about the “imperative of citizenship” that led the marchers to risk everything to realize this country’s promise.

That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it…

That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.  We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

Back in 1981, Bernice Johnson Reagon gave a speech on coalition politics that should be required reading for every liberal. She talked about how people are drawn to create what we sometimes call “safe spaces” full of people just like us.

That place can then become a nurturing place or a very destructive place. Most of the time when people do that, they do it because of the heat of trying to live in this society where being an X or Y or Z is very difficult, to say the least…And that’s when you find a place, and you try to bar the door and check all the people who come in. You come together to see what you can do about shouldering up all of your energies so that you and your kind can survive…

Now that’s nationalism. I mean it’s nurturing, but it is also nationalism. At a certain stage nationalism is crucial to a people if you are going to ever impact as a group in your own interest. Nationalism at another point becomes reactionary because it is totally inadequate for surviving in the world with many peoples.

Here’s the challenge to that kind of nationalism:

We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there…To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.

Judis spends a lot of time talking about how globalization led to an embrace of nationalism. To the extent that it became a vehicle for corporations to exploit people, I agree with him 100 percent. But even when we’re talking about the entire globe, there is no such thing as a “safe space.” Here is how Barack Obama talked about that during his 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt:

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere.  When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk.  When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations.  When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean.  When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century.  That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace.  For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.  Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.  Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.  Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

Judis ends his piece by saying that liberals need to respond constructively to, rather than dismiss, the nationalist reaction to globalization. I don’t know of anyone on the left who would speak out against the importance of a national identity or who rejects the idea that the priority of our government should be to protect its citizens and promote their well-being. But where nationalism must be rejected is in any attempt to limit who has a seat at the table when those decisions are being made as well as any efforts to return to the Great Powers era that is at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s vision to destroy the international order established following World War II.

It is often people on the right who criticize groups for attempting to set up “safe spaces.” But when nationalism means carving them out for white men in this country or pretending like we can isolate this country from the rest of the globe, it is a recipe for both cruelty and eventually failure.

Begin By Ending Cooperation in the Yemen War

I don’t agree with David French about much but I didn’t find anything to disagree about in his latest column which asks if it is possible for Trump to be at least as tough on Saudi Arabia as he’s been on Canada. It’s rare that writers at the National Review express opinions on foreign policy that are shared by a lot of people on the left, but here we have an example:

At a minimum, we can and should stop facilitating the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, a campaign that depends on American weapons and American help and is murderously indiscriminate.

In this day and age, I’m inclined to latch onto any bipartisan agreement I can find, and I also agree with this:

Republicans and Democrats alike have looked the other way as the Saudis exported radical Islamic theologies, funded jihadists, and oppressed their own citizens. We’ve consistently treated the Saudi government as if we need them more than they need us.

Of course, our relationship with the Saudi regime was forged in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and the Eastern Front of that conflict, at least, largely followed a logic that is impossible to understand outside of the context of energy resources. Hitler made a race for the Caucasus rather than concentrating all his troops on a crushing blow against Moscow because he needed the fuel, and it’s the same reason that the German dictator was so interested in taking over and holding Romania. Tanks and planes require vast amounts of fuel and an alliance with Saudi Arabia (and, initially, Iran) gave us a chance to not worry about that factor in any confrontation in Europe with the Soviets.

At the time, the culture, politics, and welfare of the people of the Arabian Peninsula were far down the list of American national security concerns, and we were primarily interested in applying the lessons we’d learned from the war so that we’d be better positioned in any future conflict. In retrospect, we might have made some different choices, but it’s doubtful we would have risked having that oil and gas fall into the hands of the Soviets who enjoyed enough of those resources as it was.

With so much money available, we naturally saw some of our purer motives become corrupted over time, and there’s not much to be proud about when we look back at our relationship with the House of Saud. Particularly after 1979, the relationship has curdled badly and we already had the experience of blowback in 2001, when we were attacked on our own soil by Saudi terrorists.

I’m probably more forgiving of our Saudi policy than many on the left, mainly because I recognize the legitimate reasons for why it began and that nothing is easy in the region. There are never easy pat solutions to the problems we encounter there, and when we pull back it invites different problems that are sometimes just as severe and devastating as when we move in.

We’re making progress on being less dependent on the regions’ energy, but that hasn’t solved as much as we might have hoped. Syria’s refugee crisis has already transformed the politics of Europe and the United States, leading to a resurgence of the type of fascist ideas that we fought to defeat in the 1940s.

What’s most depressing in our current situation is that the president is now running interference for a Saudi Crown Prince who has been caught red-handed murdering an American resident and journalist and having him chopped into pieces. That’s probably a new low. America is actually free to criticize the Crown Prince and to punish him, but apparently President Trump doesn’t feel that way.

This mess obviously needs to be dealt with with some delicacy and deftness, but we should not have our president helping the Saudis make up some story about how rogue and unauthorized elements are responsible for this murder.

And, as David French said, at a minimum we should respond by cutting off all assistance for the indiscriminate bombing in Yemen.

Remembering Jeffrey Leonard

A memorial service for Jeffrey Leonard will be held this Sunday,October 21st, at 2 p.m.,
at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church,9601 Cedar Lane, Bethesda, Maryland. The visitation and reception ison Saturday, October 20th, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Home,7557 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, Maryland.

The Washington Monthly is heartbroken to report the sudden death of our friend and colleague, Jeffrey Leonard—writer, board member, and benefactor—on Thursday.

It is hard to exaggerate what a wonderful, impressive, and generous man Jeff was, or the central role he played in sustaining and strengthening the Washington Monthly. A decade ago, when we were on the ropes financially, Jeff gave us a substantial personal donation, became chairman of our board, and brought with him the estimable Diane Straus as our publisher. For a year we ran the magazine rent-free out of extra offices at Jeff’s Global Environment Fund (GEF), a private equity firm that invests in the clean energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable resource sectors. There we got to know his terrific wife (and high school sweetheart) Cal and meet (or at least hear proud stories about) their three kids, Michael, Anna, and Peter. Under Jeff’s fatherly guidance, and with Diane in the lead, we rebuilt the magazine’s business model, expanded its funding base, and ultimately “moved out of the house.” But Jeff became a regular in our new offices and a continuing source of wise advice on the business front.

Jeff was not only a brilliant businessman, but also a visionary policy intellectual. A D.C. native with a doctorate from Princeton, a master’s from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor’s from Harvard (where he roomed with our own Nick Lemann), he wrote five books, served as vice president of the World Wildlife Fund and the Conservation Foundation, and advised a host of government agencies, from the World Bank to the EPA, before cofounding GEF in 1990. More than anyone I’ve ever known, he had deep knowledge of the workings of both government and markets, of how the two intersect, and of their respective strengths and weaknesses. He also had a reporter’s sensibility, constantly picking up intel as he traveled the world—and the D.C. think tank circuit—and formulating the information into pragmatic, ahead-of-the-curve policy ideas. He turned many of those into visionary stories for the Washington Monthly—like this great one, in which he predicted (pre-Tesla) the electrification of American transportation. See also here, here, and here. His most famous piece, about how large corporations were increasingly and systematically delaying payments to their smaller business contractors and damaging the economy in the process, landed him a guest appearance on The Colbert Report and spurred action by the Obama administration.


The Washington Monthly is hardly the only organization that has benefited from Jeff’s many gifts. He chaired the board at City Year Washington DC, co-chaired the Clean Technology Venture Network in San Francisco, and was most recently treasurer at New America and a senior fellow there in global studies. In business, his policy work, and in every part of his life, Jeff made the world better. He left us too soon, and he will be keenly missed.