Archive for December, 2011

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden

At the risk of damaging my policy-wonk cred, Ron Wyden is the longest-serving U.S. senator I had never heard of until this month.  The Oregon Democrat has managed to spend 15 years in the Senate — and fifteen more in the House before that — without ever making it onto my radar screen.

He may be on the brink of becoming better-known.  Earlier this month, while the nation was focused on holiday preparations and what even the Wall Street Journal aptly called “The GOP’s Payroll Tax Fiasco,” Wyden reached across the aisle to team with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin in proposing Medicare reform with a strong competition component.

At National Review Online, James C. Capretta offers strong praise from a conservative perspective:

In some respects, it represents an improvement over the design of previous versions of premium support. Whereas the original Ryan plan offered seniors a subsidy based on a predetermined formula, the Wyden-Ryan plan relies on competitive bidding for setting the government’s contribution rate. Competitive bidding has the potential to cut costs even more than a predetermined index, because an index tends to lock in today’s wasteful spending. Of course, Wyden-Ryan also very usefully shook up the political debate over premium support, making it much more difficult for Democrats to demonize the concept.

As you might guess from that last sentence, Wyden is being savagely attacked from the left, with the ever-gracious Paul Krugman labeling him a “useful idiot.”  Conversely, some conservatives are complaining that Ryan has compromised too early.  But Forbes columnist Avik Roy notes that a broad array of people are interested in the concept:

While there are plenty on both sides who have found fault with Wyden-Ryan, what’s telling is the range of people who support it. Several credentialed progressives have praised the plan. “Overall, it doesn’t sound too bad,” wrote Kevin Drum of Mother Jones. My Forbes colleague Howard Gleckman calls the plan “remarkable… amazingly, what they came up with might just work… it has the potential to become the framework for a new way to think about Medicare.” And Gleckman was no fan of Paul Ryan’s original plan, which he described as “unworkable.”

The plan has drawn mixed reviews from conservatives, as I noted above. But what’s really interesting is that the plan dovetails very closely with what Mitt Romney has proposed. Even his arch-rival, Newt Gingrich, who called Ryan’s original plan “right-wing social engineering,” has lavished praise upon Wyden-Ryan.

I’m certainly no expert on healthcare economics, an immensely complicated subject.  But I strongly believe that a system relying on corporate competition has a better chance of constraining costs than a system that gathers more power into the hands of unaccountable government bureaucrats.

The current system clearly is unsustainable, and any realistic reform will have to have at least some bipartisan support.  The Democrats rammed through Obamacare without a single Republican vote in either house of Congress. They paid a price for their arrogance in 2010, and they’re at risk of losing the White House in 2012.  The Wyden-Ryan approach may offer a realistic alternative that can attract support from across the political spectrum.

Brush With Greatness: Episcopalian Edition

I teamed up with the Web Goddess on Sunday to produce a web report published today on a visit to a Jersey City parish by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The occasion was a centennial celebration by Church of the Incarnation, launched in an era when black Jersey City residents had to travel to upper Manhattan to find an Episcopal church that welcomed them.  If the PB does something official in the Diocese of Newark, the Web Goddess is going to cover it, and I’m enough of a fan of The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori that I was willing to take an unpaid assignment.  Employing our usual division of labor, I did the words and the Web Goddess did the pictures — including the behind-the-scenes shot at the reception with your humble scribe above.  (That’s a shrimp tail on the PB’s plate.)

More behind-the-scenes tidbits: if you click through to the story itself, you’ll find a group photo of the PB with some young interns, and everybody is grinning broadly.  The smiles are because I, in my customary role as photographer’s assistant, am making bunny ears over the Web Goddess’s head while she takes the picture.  Works every time. I later told the spiritual leader of two million Episcopalians that making bunny ears is “the work I feel called to do.”

(Earlier blog posts in the Brush With Greatness series describe my encounters with Jimmy Carter and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.)

Months ago it became clear that I was not going to fall in love with anybody in the Republican field.  Ronald Reagan wasn’t coming back.

Chris Christie produces echoes of the Great Communicator, but he never had any intention of running.

I tried to generate some enthusiasm for Tim Pawlenty, but I didn’t work hard at it because he showed no signs of getting any traction.

When Rick Perry belatedly got into the race, I took a hard look at him.  Too much of a social conservative for my taste, but that would help him with part of the Republican base, and I liked the fact that he had governed a very large state.  But he started chewing on his toes almost immediately, and ultimately it seemed almost like he didn’t even want the job.

I was sorry to see Herman Cain flame out, but I sure didn’t want him to get the nomination.  He would have complicated the Left’s phony “racism” gambit, but he clearly had given very little thought to foreign affairs — the most important arena for any president.

When Newt Gingrich debuted as the not-Romney flavor of the week, I was surprised — I thought his campaign blew up months ago.  (Or maybe years ago.)  I figured he would fade quickly, but he’s already held on at the head of the polls longer than I expected — and the Iowa caucuses are only three weeks away.

As one prominent Republican after another steps forward to remind us that Gingrich is a hothead, Ross Douthat explains why the former Speaker’s vaunted debating skills hold little promise of overcoming President Obama’s incumbancy advantage:

Gingrich might debate circles around Obama. He might implode spectacularly, making a hot mess of himself while the president keeps his famous cool. But either way, setting up a grand rhetorical showdown seems unlikely to supply a disillusioned country with what it’s looking for from Republicans in 2012.

Conservatives may want catharsis, but the rest of the public seems to mainly want reassurance. They already know Barack Obama isn’t the messiah he was once cracked up to be. What they don’t know is whether they can trust anyone else to do better.

Last year, when the President and his party were foisting Obamacare on an unwilling public, the conventional wisdom was that Romney couldn’t possibly win the Republican nomination because he had implemented something similar in Massachusetts.  That made sense to me, and Romneycare is part of the reason Republicans have been flirting with one not-Romney after another for months.

But if Romney wins the nomination, I think he’ll be able to differentiate himself from Obama on healthcare pretty easily. It’s one thing to launch an experiment in a single state with broad bipartisan support.  It’s quite another to annex one-sixth of the nation’s economy without a single Republican vote in either house of Congress.

The other Republican complaint about Romney is that he isn’t conservative enough. But that also means he has a better chance of defeating Obama in a center-right nation.

Is America ready for a president who adheres to a faith that is only slightly older and slightly more reputable than Scientology?  Only time will tell, but there are 15 Mormons currently in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and I don’t think the Democrats should bank on the religion issue.

The saying is, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody” — and any sitting president is a somebody.  Romney’s not exactly charismatic or inspirational, and the risk is that he becomes the Republican analog to John Kerry.  Lots of people voted against George Bush in 2004, but hardly anybody voted for Kerry.

But Romney has a strong record of executive leadership, both in business and government.  It’s his second trip through the crucible of a presidential campaign, so there presumably are no skeletons left in the closet.  He has the best chance of beating Obama, and the country literally can’t afford four more years of this administration.

Ever since I realized that Michele Bachmann had no chance, I’ve told people that I’ll be voting for “whichever flawed candidate the Republicans nominate.”  Today I’m endorsing the flawed candidacy of Mitt Romney.

In the category of “even a blind pig finds a truffle now and then,” a repugnant left-wing organization has created a minor Facebook frenzy by publicizing a remarkable and inspiring three-minute speech by a 19-year-old advocate of same-sex marriage.

MoveOn.org is best known for the disgraceful “General Betray Us” ad that slandered the general who was winning the war in Iraq.  I’ll not link to their website, but it isn’t necessary, as the video is available directly on YouTube.  (There’s also a transcript, at Shakesville, “a progressive feminist blog” that is so eloquent I intend to explore it further.)

In the video, 19-year-old Zach Wahls, who was raised by a lesbian couple, makes an impassioned plea to  the Iowa legislature, asking them to vote down a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.  (It happened back in February, and the amendment never cleared the legislature.)

It seems like half of my liberal Facebook friends have linked to the video, which truly is remarkable and well worth the three minutes it will take to watch it.  If you can’t spare three minutes, here are the bits that bring tears to my eyes:

My mom Terri was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000; it is a devastating disease that put her in a wheelchair, so we’ve had our share of struggles.

But, you know, we’re Iowans; we don’t expect anyone to solve our problems for us; we’ll fight our own battles; we just hope for equal and fair treatment from our government. …

I’m not really so different from any of your children. My family really isn’t so different from yours. After all, your family doesn’t derive its sense of worth from being told by the state, “You’re married—congratulations!” No, the sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other, to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones; it comes from the love that binds us. That’s what makes a family….

So will this vote affect my family? Will it affect yours? Over the next two hours, I’m sure we’re going to hear plenty of testimony about how damaging having gay parents is on kids. But in my 19 years, not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple.

And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character.

Bravo, Zach.  The “content of my character,” with its echo of one of the greatest speeches in American history, is a particularly nice touch.   His masterful performance takes me back to the days of the “extemp speaking” tournaments I entered in junior high, although I never crafted or delivered anything as powerful as that.

I’m not a “no-new-taxes” absolutist. I don’t share the “draw-the-line-HERE” militancy of the Taxed Enough Already Party, but I respect it, and I hope the Tea Party serves to tug the nation toward smaller government.  But we are in a deep enough hole — a hole dug with great enthusiasm over the years by both Democrats and Republicans — that any effective course correction will have to include both tax revenue and spending cuts.

This is a matter of pragmatism more than principle.  If we could start with a blank page and design a tax system, it no doubt would be very different from what we have.  (My vision might vary radically from yours, but nobody can say with a straight face that the current tax code is optimal.) In a democracy that thrives on the clash of ideas, progress may be possible only at the margins — so that’s where we should direct our efforts.

Ideas can gain power over time; Social Security was called “the third rail of American politics” in the early 1980s, but today there is widespread (though not unanimous) agreement that at the very least, something must be done to slow growth the growth of entitlements.

The GOP has long been caricatured as the party of the rich.  That image is unfair, but Republicans ignore its existence at their peril.

Comes today the news that Republicans in the Senate blocked a proposal that would have “extended the payroll tax cut set to expire at the end of the year.”  If no extension is passed, payroll taxes will increase sharply less than a month from now.  A family with a $50,000 income in 2012 would have to pay $1,500 more than the same family with the same income in 2o11.  To pay for the tax cut extension, the Democrats’ bill would enact a 3.25% additional tax on incomes over $1 million.

In other words, according to a helpful chart at TaxPolicyCenter.org, the top marginal rate would increase from the current 35% to 38.25% — and that higher rate would be applied only to the portion of a taxpayer’s income that exceeds $1 million.

That helpful chart also shows that through most of the 20th Century, top tax rates were much higher.  From 1932 through 1981, the top rate ranged from a “low” of 63% to a high of 94%.  And throughout all or most of that time, I’ll bet the top rate kicked in at levels much lower than $1 million.

Here’s a White House sound bite to drive the point home:

President Barack Obama quickly blamed Republicans, saying in a statement that they “chose to raise taxes on nearly 160 million hardworking Americans because they refused to ask a few hundred thousand millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.”

In other words, this stalemate enables the Democrats to say that the GOP is using tax increases on the middle class to pay for tax cuts for the rich.  The Republicans can only counter with eye-glazing explanations about the role of investment and capital formation in providing companies of all sizes with both the ability and the motivation to hire new workers and expand their businesses.

The GOP’s position on the importance of capital formation may be true, but as an argument it’s both a snoozer and a loser.  If the Republicans don’t compromise on taxes for the highest earners, they’re going to blow the chance to put a Republican in the White House.