Republicans Face Reality They Created in Failed Obamacare Repeal Effort

24 March, 2017

After days of trying to thread the needle between two rival House Republican factions - the moderates (“Tuesday Group”) and the hard right wing (“Freedom Caucus”), Speaker Paul Ryan was forced to pull his party’s Obamacare replacement from the House floor. The stunning move came after days of negotiation and horse wrangling in which Republicans attempted to add enticements to appease moderates and deep cuts to placate conservatives. Still, it was not enough. And in a stunning defeat without even a vote cast, the now-majority Republican House was unable to achieve something they had done countless times before: pass a bill repealing Fmr. President Obama’s signature health care law.

There were many ironies evident in the legislative events of this week, but my favorite was the lack of any Republican policy alternative to that grand health care question. If you remember, achieving universal healthcare (or at least a broad overhaul that covered most Americans) was a major campaign issue in the 2008 presidential election. The massive shortcomings in America’s healthcare system had long been recognized by both sides of the country’s political spectrum. Upon taking control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, an internal debate brewed within the Democratic Party about how to fix the healthcare system. There were many who sought some version of a single-payer system - one in which the government directly provides medical services to citizens, either in total or as a supplement or alternative to a private system. However, seeking to achieve some measure of bipartisan support, Pres. Obama pushed for a market-based solution along the lines of the one originally proposed by the Republican Heritage Foundation and enacted in Massachusetts by then-Governor Mitt Romney.

Pres. Obama no doubt thought this concession would win him some portion of Republican support, since the idea itself encouraged a market-based competition for coverage. Republicans, however, had a different strategy in mind: unwavering and universal opposition. Ultimately, the Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act, later dubbed “Obamacare” by Republicans, on a party-line vote without even a single Republican. While many on the left have argued that this was a huge missed opportunity for Democrats to pass a plan more in line with their liberal sentiments, such as single-payer, ultimately this was a monumental error for Republicans.

Fast forward to this week. Having categorically opposed “Obamacare” for years - campaigned and railed against it, and promised immediate repeal - the Republicans finally found themselves in the drivers seat. There was just one problem - there were no policy options left on the table that would both be palatable to Republicans and also achieve that goal of providing coverage to a majority of Americans. Having railed against and derided as “socialism” the previously enacted market-based compromise solution (“Obamacare”), Republicans lacked any viable alternative plan. This became increasingly evident throughout the week as, at each attempt to placate their right flank, the leadership lost more and more moderates. With a small margin over Democrats of only 18 votes, the task proved too hard.

It's hard to imagine any Republican-led healthcare reform package being passed with large Republican support in this Congress. President Trump has already indicated that he may work with Democrats on an attempt to fix the "exploding Obamacare," and, in all fairness, this might be the approach most likely to succeed. Moderate Republicans are not able to swallow a plan that removes all the so-called "essential benefits," and Freedom Caucus members barely want a replacement plan at all (repeal, by itself, is really what they seek).

This is one of those times when you have to laugh at politics. Having passed Obamacare "repeals" tons of times throughout Obama's presidency, Republicans, now in charge, couldn't muster the support for even one bill. Maybe they shouldn't have categorically opposed the market-based solution that Obama proposed back in 2009 and 2010, because that was probably the most passable solution to America's healthcare ills that we are likely to see in this political climate.


Iraq predictably unravels into regional conflict

07 July, 2014

The invasion in 2003 was incredibly short-sighted. Whether blinded by hubris, or promises of personal gain, or whatever, the war was incredibly ill-conceived and the occupation was also a disaster. Paul Bremer’s decision to wholly disband the Iraqi Army (as well as basically every other institution of government in the country) was one of the biggest national security blunders of recent memory.

The unraveling currently occurring in Iraq had me thinking a few things today. First, Saddam’s rule shows that an ethnically and religiously fractured (and fictitious) country like Iraq can only be centrally ruled by an agnostic, oppressive dictatorial regime. That the situation on the ground would devolve along sectarian and ethnic lines once the US removed the stabilizing force of the Ba’ath party was both predictable and inevitable. The US handed the country to one sect (Shiites) over the others and then paid off the remaining factions and tribal leaders to gain their support for the new government (the Petraeus anti-insurgency plan, ‘the surge,”). Once we left, Maliki simply un-did all the relationships we created for him among the Sunnis and Kurds and proceeded to banish them from political life (and commit other repressive acts). It’s also worth noting that the presence of a Shiite government in Iraq was a huge boon for the Iranians (and then we turn around and complain of their growing regional influence… haha, classic America).

Second, because we chose to support a sectarian government in Iraq, we now find ourselves woefully entangled on both sides of the widening conflict. Whereas in the past it was America’s modus operandi to support secular dictators (such as Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam in Iraq and even Gaddafi in Libya can be included), effectively elevating US policy above sectarian disputes and insulating it from claims that it supported one or the other side, the US now finds itself supporting Sunni rebels in Syria and the Shiite government in Baghdad; working with the Saudis on Syria and the Iranians on Iraq (and possibly a wider rapprochement). In my opinion, this type of thing represents precisely the type of “entangling alliances” about which Thomas Jefferson spoke when he counseled for a non-interventionist foreign policy in his First Inaugural Presidential Address in 1801.

Third, we lack sufficient national interests in Iraq to justify large-scale military intervention. Oil is definitely not an interest – except insofar as we want to prevent any large shakeups in international markets that could harm the global economy – especially since the USA has just reclaimed the mantle of #1 oil producer in the world, overtaking Saudi Arabia. ISIS doesn’t appear to pose a direct threat to the United States – both in evaluating their stated goals (an Islamic State) and our quite-dominant capabilities for targeted actions. And, even if despite these points ISIS does desire and achieve some limited actions against the West, I don’t agree that "we must fight every terrorist group abroad to prevent them from hitting us at home." I think recent history has shown that the opposite is true; that military engagements in the Middle East and abroad (especially when conducted on the behalf of one internal group over another) breed further resentment and hatred of the United States and help to galvanize the next generation of fighters. Note that most of those calling for increased, direct actions against ISIS in Iraq are discredited neoconservatives (like Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Dick Cheney, John McCain and Lindsay Graham). There's no reason to think the outcomes of their current prescriptions of military action would be any different than the last time we did what they suggested (which is what we have NOW).

Contrary to the fatalist justification for not intervening that "the sects are involved in a centuries old never-ending conflict," it’s not clear that the ideological and literal warfare between the sects is inevitable. The New York Times had a good piece yesterday pointing out that entrenched interests (read: Saudi + GCC, Iran, etc) have diligently exploited these sectarian rifts for political purposes, inciting civil and sectarian war, but that the sects haven’t actually been at war with (or even hated) each other this whole time. Rather, there are spikes in the sectarian hatred usually caused by something else – power struggles between invested elites. If that’s true, it would bolster the legitimacy of our prior strategy for enforcing the Sykes-Picot borders in the Middle East – supporting non-ideological / secular elites in these countries.

This is one of the true lessons of America's wars in Iraq: that in order to secure one of these fictitious nations populated by competing sectarian groups, only a strong man with sectarian allegiance to none can govern from the center.

I think, absent that, our best option for intervening is to try to cut the head off of ISIS, then push forward with a partitioning of Iraq to create Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states. However, non-interventionism is also looking like a good option. At this point, we are basically fanning both sides of the dispute, which must end if we’re to resolve the broader Iraq/Syria conflict. Hopefully, the US can achieve a breakthrough with Iran on their nuclear program that will provide the legal and political space for the two countries to make progress on other issues (such as Iraq/Syria). If we can’t install secular dictators to effectively govern the two countries, then maybe reaching agreements with the two main regional powers is our best method for tampering the conflicts. (One last point on this- those opposed to rapprochement with Iran often argue that Saudi Arabia will be furious and will seek out a new benefactor, such as Russia or China, but while either could provide money and weapons, neither is willing or capable of being the security guarantor in the region with naval and air power, so they will continue to rely on the United States for the near to mid-term future).

Iraq and Syria are a complete mess and the US wouldn't be crazy if it decided to do nothing. Maybe if we can get a whole “inclusive regime, new political process, blah blah blah” then we can entertain propping up that government in Baghdad. Removing Maliki should be a first step towards any efforts to support Baghdad against the regions. Absent that, doing nothing, or abandoning hopes for "democracy" and instead supporting strongmen seem to be our only good options.

Russia laying tactical groundwork for invasion of Eastern Ukraine?

12 April, 2014

NYT: Pro-Russia Militia Seize Police Barracks in Eastern Ukraine

Russians appear to be repeating tactics used in Crimea, Georgia, Lithuania and Moldova in Eastern Ukraine. All eyes are on the 40K troops stationed over the border in Russia, but I personally still don't think there will be a military invasion.

VICE: Russian Roulette

30 March, 2014