It wasn’t the politics of health care that did in Trumpcare. It was the substance.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2017 by Lorie Scholl.

I find myself frustrated at the tone of much of the commentary following the humiliating withdrawal of the Trump-Ryan health-care bill Friday. I could find a bunch of stuff to link to, but we’ve all seen it. It’s all about winning. So much winning. And if the bill had been approved, most commentators would be hailing President Trump for his big victory.

Yes, Trump got the politics wrong. But of far greater significance is that he and House Speaker Paul Ryan got the substance wrong. There was nothing in their legislation other than a chest-thumping assertion that Obamacare is dead — and that we’re going to screw the poor, help the rich, and dismantle much of what was accomplished by the Affordable Care Act.

The two groups that defeated the legislation did so on principled grounds: Democrats and moderate Republicans who wanted Obamacare to remain entirely or mostly intact; and the House Freedom Caucus, whose extremist members don’t want any government involvement in health care whatsoever. On the other side, those who supported Trumpcare couldn’t point to a single provision that would have improved anyone’s lives other than the wealthy people who’d get a tax cut.

After the defeat, Trump blamed House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. He’s right — it’s on them. And we should thank them for saving the most important piece of social legislation since Medicare was approved in the 1960s. And these folks, too:

Any major new program needs technical fixes along the way. Unfortunately, after Obamacare was approved, congressional Republicans refused to consider any such legislation. That, along with attempts by many Republican governors to undermine it in their states, is responsible for the ACA’s not working as well as it should.

On Friday, the ACA was saved. It now must withstand at least two years of Republican attempts to starve it of funds. But as Jonathan Chait of New York magazine points out, it’s not likely to be repealed after the debacle of this week. Trump and congressional Republicans won’t be in power forever. At some point, we’ll have an opportunity to get this right.

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Gather ’round the keg and let Paul Ryan explain why hurting the poor is freedom

Paul Ryan. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s slide in the public eye from policy wonk to partisan hack was a long time coming. But it finally reached its bottom during the past few weeks in two revealingly smug displays of insolence.

The first came in the form of Ryan’s prediction that a report by the Congressional Budget Office would show that fewer Americans would be insured under his plan to replace President Barack Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

“The one thing I’m certain will happen is CBO will say, ‘Well, gosh, not as many people will get coverage.’ You know why? Because this isn’t a government mandate,” Ryan said in a television interview. “So there’s no way we can compete with, on paper, a government mandate with coverage.”

Sure enough, the CBO reported that 24 million more Americans would go without coverage under Ryan’s plan than under Obamacare. And Ryan pronounced himself to be delighted, saying his legislation “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they can afford.” As for all those millions of people who would go without health coverage, well, you know, freedom.

Ryan’s second offense came last week in the form of a public conversation with Rich Lowry of National Review. In a classic “Not The Onion” moment, Ryan shared with Lowry his excitement at the prospect of slashing health care for the poor:

So Medicaid, sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate. We’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg…. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. We’re on the cusp of doing something we’ve long believed in.

Ryan was so proud that he posted the video on his own website, Speaker.gov. It speaks volumes that he feels so comfortable in his assault on poor people that he can crack frat-boy jokes about it in front of an audience.

Not too many years ago, Ryan was regularly described as the intellectual leader of conservative Republicanism. He was a reader of books — well, OK, Ayn Rand novels. He discussed complex policy issues as though he knew what he was talking about. And he thoroughly bamboozled much of the punditocracy.

In late 2015, shortly after Ryan deigned to become House speaker in response to the importunings of his leaderless party, Eric Alterman of The Nation dug up some choice quotes. Jacob Weisberg of Slate had referred to a Ryan plan to reform (that is, gut) Medicare as “brave, radical, and smart.” David Brooks of The New York Times wrote that Ryan had “set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion.”

According to a 2012 profile of Ryan by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic, the liberalish uberwonk Ezra Klein of The Washington Post — who later founded Vox — was also not immune to Ryan’s charms. Klein praised Ryan’s radical budget-cutting plans as “a more honest entry into the debate” than typical conservative boilerplate. MacGillis also observed: “Once you earn a reputation as a Serious Man in Washington, it’s almost impossible to lose it.”

Gradually, Ryan has managed to lose it. Without question, Ryan’s slide began after he accepted Mitt Romney’s offer to be his running mate during the 2012 presidential campaign. Ryan was demolished during his debate with Joe Biden — a far more intelligent man than he is generally given credit for, but someone who, unlike Ryan, has never been described as an “intellectual.” It was an embarrassing moment for Ryan, and one from which he has never completely recovered, despite his rise in the Republican hierarchy.

Some observers have always been onto Ryan’s act. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which really does qualify him as an intellectual — has described Ryan as a “con man” and worse. Charles Pierce of Esquire regularly refers to Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny starver.”

Now Ryan is putting the finishing touches on his proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. As I write this, he is making changes to mollify conservatives who don’t think the measure goes far enough and moderates who think it goes too far. It will be quite a trick if he can pull it off. But as Robert David Sullivan of the Jesuit magazine America put it in a discussion on Facebook, “Paul Ryan is the Julia Child of making policy drafting catastrophes look barely presentable enough to swallow.”

Which is perhaps the ultimate irony of Paul Ryan. Even though he has been revealed as more an ideologue than an intellectual, even though his clenched-teeth alliance with President Trump has diminished him, he may be on the verge of his greatest triumph — a triumph that will line the pockets of the rich and harm the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

Ayn Rand would be so proud.

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ProPublica: Prosecutor was investigating Trump official at the time that he was fired

Preet Bharara in 2015. Photo (cc) by the Financial Times.

Preet Bharara was investigating Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price for possible insider stock trading at the time that Bharara was fired as U.S. attorney, according to a report by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

Recently, President Trump demanded the resignations of 46 Obama-era U.S. attorneys who had not yet departed. Although Trump’s move was not unprecedented, it was unusual. The last time a president removed his predecessor’s prosecutors en masse was Bill Clinton in 1993.

Bharara was fired after he refused to resign. His departure was the subject of some controversy, as Trump had apparently assured him he could stay. Now it looks like Trump may have ordered all 46 to leave at once to provide cover so that he could shut down Bharara’s investigation of Price.

I’m uncomfortable with ProPublica’s apparent reliance on one anonymous source. But ProPublica is the gold standard when it comes to investigative reporting, and so I’m going to assume that the person who provided the information (Cough! Bharara!) was truly in a position to know and provided some documentation. This is not a story that ProPublica would risk having to retract.

So let’s keep this in proportion, OK? If this were any other president, we would be talking about a scandal of epic proportions. If this were President Hillary Clinton, well, good God — the subpoenas would be flying by this afternoon. Don’t let all the other stuff going on distract you into thinking this isn’t a big deal. It is a very big deal. Or at least it should be.

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A major new study finds that political polarization is mainly a right-wing phenomenon

Stephen Bannon: From Breitbart to the White House. Photo (cc) 2017 by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A major new study of social-media sharing patterns shows that political polarization is more common among conservatives than liberals — and that the exaggerations and falsehoods emanating from right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News have infected mainstream discourse.

Though the report, published by the Columbia Journalism Review, does an excellent job of laying out the challenge posed by Breitbart and its ilk, it is less than clear on how to counter it. Successfully standing up for truthful reporting in this environment “could usher in a new golden age for the Fourth Estate,” the authors write. But members of the public who care about such journalism are already flocking to news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, locally, The Boston Globe, all of which have experienced a surge in paid subscriptions since the election of President Trump. That’s heartening, but there are no signs that it’s had any effect on the popularity or influence of the right-wing partisan media.

The CJR study, by scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School, and the MIT Center for Civic Media, examined more than 1.25 million articles between April 1, 2015, and Election Day. What they found was that Hillary Clinton supporters shared stories from across a relatively broad political spectrum, including center-right sources such as The Wall Street Journal, mainstream news organizations like the Times and the Post, and partisan liberal sites like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.

By contrast, Donald Trump supporters clustered around Breitbart — headed until recently by Stephen Bannon, the hard-right nationalist now ensconced in the White House — and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily Caller, Alex Jones’ Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. Even Fox News was dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during the primaries, and only re-entered the fold once it had made its peace with the future president.

The authors of the study refer to their findings as “asymmetrical polarization,” and they point to some deleterious effects. The Breitbart-led sites were able to push the traditional media into focusing on Trump’s favored issue — immigration — and to frame it on their terms: overwrought fears about crime and terrorism. Clinton, on the other hand, was defined mainly by scandal coverage in the form of her use of a private email server, the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the Clinton Foundation. The authors of the study, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts of Berkman and Ethan Zuckerman of MIT, write:

It is a mistake to dismiss these stories as “fake news”; their power stems from a potent mix of verifiable facts (the leaked Podesta emails), familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites.

Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, writing about the study earlier this week, recalled talking with a Trump voter in Pennsylvania who said she didn’t support Clinton because “I didn’t like how she stole those emails and it got people killed in Benghazi” — a perfect storm of misinformation.

But Sullivan’s prescription is unsatisfying. “There’s another way that the traditional press has allowed right-wing media to flourish — by moving too far to the left itself,” she writes. Though it’s true that studies show most mainstream journalists are liberal, she offers little evidence suggesting that the situation has changed much over the years, although longtime media observer Tom Rosenstiel did tell her that there are fewer Republicans in newsrooms than there used to be.

Besides, in contrast with the partisan right-wing media, mainstream journalists are dedicated to the proposition that facts should be verified and errors corrected. Let’s not forget that it was the Times that exposed Clinton’s email habits — an overblown story that almost certainly cost her the presidency when FBI Director James Comey reopened his investigation on the basis of zero evidence barely a week before the election.

Then, too, the kinds of people who share stories from Breitbart on social media are politically engaged in ways that the average Trump supporter is not. But never fear: the right-wing media machine is there for them, too. The current issue of the National Enquirer features two front-page photos of Trump and the headlines “How I’m Cleaning Up Obama’s Mess!” and “Amazing Secrets Behind Triumphant Capitol Hill Speech.” (Also: Michael Jackson was murdered.) I would quote from the Trump story, but that would require me to read it.

What’s at issue here is not just asymmetrical polarization but asymmetrical news consumption. The left and the center avail themselves of real journalism, however flawed it may be, while the right gorges on what is essentially political propaganda — all the while denigrating anything that contradicts their worldview as “fake news.”

Doing a better job of listening to criticism and being open to change, as Margaret Sullivan suggests, is always a good idea. But it is hardly going to give rise to a new “golden age.”

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Why is Ryan happy with the CBO report while Trumpsters are calling it ‘absurd’?

Paul Ryan. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

This is truly one of the more bizarre after-effects of the Congressional Budget Office report that 24 million people will lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed and replaced: House Speaker Paul Ryan is very happy, saying that’s exactly what he intended, because, you know, freedom. But the Trump White House is denigrating the CBO, saying its numbers make no sense.

From The Washington Post:

Declaring that the plans would usher in “the most fundamental entitlement reform in a generation,” Ryan said the legislation “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they want and can afford. When people have more choices, costs go down. That’s what this report shows.”

And:

“Just absurd,” was the way Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, responded to the forecast, while Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said, “The CBO report’s coverage numbers defy logic.”

What this comes down to, of course, is who promised what. Ryan and his fellow Republicans have always promised needless pain and suffering (freedom!), and the alternative they’ve drafted to Obamacare would give people exactly that. Indeed, the CBO report is actually good news for Ryan, since it may impress Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul, who has complained that the Ryan plan doesn’t go far enough in returning us to John Locke’s state of nature.

President Trump, by contrast, promised repeatedly to replace Obamacare with something bigger and better. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” he said at one point. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.”

As ABC News’ “The Note” puts it: “There are tensions everywhere — between what Ryan has long planned, what tea partiers and outside conservative groups have yearned for, and, critically, what President Trump promised.”

There is a perception among some that, unpopular though Trump may be (and he is), he’s nevertheless fulfilling his promises. For instance, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam writes:

This isn’t the world I would choose to live in, but it’s a world we may need to get used to. I can’t see any evidence that Trump has done anything other than deliver on almost every one of his hateful campaign promises. Sure the central press hates him, and is working long hours to bring him down, but they hated him well before he was elected, and it affected the election barely a whit.

In fact, repealing Obamacare and replacing it with anything like the Ryan plan would amount to a massive breach of one of Trump’s key promises, and it would harm his voters more than most Americans. Yet Trump and his minions appear to be paving the way for passage of the Ryan plan — let’s call it Trumpcare! — by deriding the CBO report as “fake news.” Unfortunately, it will actually accomplish exactly what Ryan is aiming for, which is to undermine the entire notion that government can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

Globe editor McGrory defends placement of BMC ad atop front page

The print edition of today’s Boston Globe includes a banner advertisement that appears above the nameplate at the very top of the page. The ad, for Boston Medical Center, promotes that institution’s addiction services. The placement is unusual enough to have prompted a message to the staff late Monday night from Globe editor Brian McGrory.

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Re-reading Anthony Lewis’ ode to the First Amendment in the age of Trump

We are at a frightening moment. To refresh my understanding of what the First Amendment truly means, I recently re-read Anthony Lewis’ magnificent 2007 book “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.” I’m glad I did. The late New York Times columnist, who was married to former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Margaret Marshall, was a giant in his understanding of and reverence for the right to speak and write freely.

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