Monday, December 24, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: New Hampshire Counts Down

It is clearly easier for us to imagine ourselves living among better appliances than among better human beings. -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Anybody who has been praying for a White Christmas in New England can stop now. We've gotten about two feet over the last week or so. If Sunday's rain had been snow, I'm not sure where the plows would have put it.

Fifteen Days To Go
It's weird to be in a state that has two countdowns running simultaneously: shopping days until Christmas and campaigning days until the primary. And like most New Hampshirites, I am ambivalent about both. There's so much to do before The Day, and I long for life to return to normal. At least Santa Claus isn't calling me three or four times a day.

But Santa isn't bringing celebrities to town either. I missed the Oprah & Obama show, but I did catch Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt doing a warm-up act for John Edwards a few miles from here. Foolishly, I figured I'd just link to the YouTube video, so I didn't bring a camera, a voice recorder, or even a notebook. But the video people at the Edwards campaign are too artistic to just set up a camera and feed the video to the Internet, so while there is a video with clips from the next night in Manchester, I can't show you The Best Stump Speech Going.

Actually, it's the second best. A few months ago I went to a stage production of All the King's Men, and Willie Stark had a better one. But the two speeches are similar, so if you rent the Sean Penn version on DVD, you'll get some idea of how Edwards sounds these days. Both men are trying to rally ordinary people to take the government back from the corporations who own it now. "Why don't we have universal health care today?" Edwards asks. (I'm pulling this quote from memory, so it may not be exact.) "Because of insurance companies and drug companies and their lobbyists in Washington."

Cynic that I am, I have to wonder if Edwards' anti-corporate rhetoric has something to do with the cold shoulder he gets from the corporate-owned media. Edwards' haircut has gotten much more coverage than his message. To watch TV or read newspapers these days, you'd think Clinton and Obama were the only Democratic candidates running. And yet, an Edwards win in Iowa is a distinct possibility. (The best horse-race summary for each party is at Open Left.) And since that would break the two-candidate media monopoly, he would get a bigger bump out of it than either Clinton or Obama. As we've seen with Huckabee and last time around with Kerry, things can happen quickly once they start happening.

This, by the way, is why the first primaries need to be in small states. In a big state, the corporations that own all the major media outlets could just freeze out anybody they don't like.

I Become a Gravel Delegate
Ultimately all these primaries are about electing delegates to the party conventions. Where do they come from? How do you get to be one?

I'm not sure how those questions get answered in the big campaigns where everything runs smoothly. But on December 1, Gravel campaign manager Elliott Jacobson sent an email asking if I wanted to be a Mike Gravel delegate. Each candidate needed to have a slate of delegates registered with the party by December 5, and the Gravel people were scrambling to get theirs together. I didn't notice the deadline until December 3, so I quickly had to go to the NH Democratic Party web site, download their delegate registration form, and race it to the post office (you can't email it) to get it in on time.

OK, I feel obligated to point out that it was unethical for me to do this. I had just written a column on Gravel for UU World -- arranging the interview was how I met Elliott -- and journalists should not be delegates for candidates they cover. Elliott shouldn't have asked me and I shouldn't have accepted. I know how I'd feel if I found out that a Washington Post reporter was, say, a Clinton delegate. (It would explain a lot, actually.)

But the temptation to see another part of the process from the inside was overwhelming, so I rationalized: The actual (as opposed to apparent) conflict of interest was minuscule. The column had been finished without any expectation of becoming a delegate. The odds of any of Gravel's delegates making it to the convention is vanishingly small. (He would need to get 15% of the vote and he's polling around 1%.) I haven't even taken the Edwards sticker off my car.

So I wrote an explanation to my editor, who put a disclosure notice at the end of my Gravel column. I've delayed blogging about this until the notice was posted.

I thought that was that. But around 9:30 one Saturday morning (December 15) I got a call from Elliott: The caucus of 2nd district Gravel delegates was happening that morning at 10 at Franklin Pierce University, about an hour's drive away. Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley had even sent me an announcement -- using exactly the same envelopes in which the NHDP sends their frequent pleas for money. It was sitting unopened in my stack of good-cause mail.

When you read Ray's letter, it's obvious that the delegate caucus process is designed for candidates for whom lots and lots of people want to be delegates. "Don't make the mistake of assuming that you can simply show up to the caucus and get elected. ... Most likely, everyone there was brought there to support someone. In order to be successful, you should reach out to your friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors and bring them to caucus with you. In addition, you should produce signs, fliers, buttons or lapel stickers to promote your candidacy."

I found directions to Pierce on the internet, and hopped into the car. My wife was still in her pajamas. I didn't ask her to go.

Franklin Pierce University turns out to be a beautiful place. It sits across from Mount Monadnock on a small lake, which was frozen. Somebody was trying to ice-fish.

I arrived 45 minutes late. The local Gravel campaign leader and one other Pierce student were there. We chatted about a Gravel campaign video the other would-be delegate was planning to make for YouTube. Eventually two other folks showed up, at least one of whom was also a Pierce student. There were (if I remember right) seven delegate positions, and the rules say you have to be present to be elected. We had no signs, fliers, buttons, family members, or other campaign accessories. We skipped over the place on the agenda where the delegate wannabees give speeches, and went straight to the part where we all vote for each other. Our paper ballots were stuffed into a small cardboard box, which the guy from the campaign collected so that he could send the official vote tallies to party headquarters in Concord.

I didn't see the count, but I feel fairly certain I was elected. It's possible that (somewhere in my stack of good-cause mail) a notice from the New Hampshire Democratic Party has already arrived. I should look.

Now all I have to do is hope that Gravel gets at least 15% of the vote. Maybe I should take the Edwards sticker off my car. Or not.

Have You Heard of Nataline Sarkisyan?
I hadn't either, but her story is all over the liberal blogosphere. She's giving a human face to the health insurance problem. Not the problem of the 47 million uninsured, but the problem the rest of us have when we put ourselves at the mercy of profit-making insurance companies.

Nataline is (was) a 17-year-old who died while waiting for her family's insurance company (Cigna) to approve her liver transplant. (Well, that's not true, strictly speaking. The insurance company stalled, and then when the case became a public-relations problem they approved the treatment too late, hours before she died. Nataline was technically still alive when the approval went through.) Now, I don't know whether prompt treatment would have saved her or not, and I hate making policy by anecdote. But if the story of a pretty teen-age girl's death can break through the myths about our healthcare system, at least some good will come out of this.

One bit of rhetoric I've heard from several Republican presidential candidates is that you don't want your medical decisions made by government bureaucrats. Here's a quote from Rudy Giuliani's web site:
I believe we can reduce costs and improve the quality of care by ... empowering patients and their doctors, not government bureaucrats.
I don't want to pick on Rudy; you can find a similar quote from almost any Republican. They always contrast a government program with one where the power rests with patients and doctors. As if that were the choice.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Decisions today are made by insurance bureaucrats, and it would be a huge improvement to have them made by government bureaucrats. The government bureaucrat would be trying to balance the patient's interest against the public interest; the insurance bureaucrat is trying maximize his company's profits. I know which one I'd want making a life-or-death decision about me.

To bring that point home, Jerome a Paris on DailyKos tells about how the French healthcare system dealt with his 4-year-old son's brain tumor. Short version: They gave him world-class care and didn't ask for payment. And since public health and public schools are all part of the same government, the lingering handicaps from the brain tumor can be dealt with seamlessly through the school system.

My ex-college-roommate reported something similar from Australia. He has a handicapped son and spent one school year on sabbatical in Canberra. Even as a foreigner, his son's problems were handled seamlessly by the healthcare/school system. It was a major hit on their household to come back to America, where he and his wife had to push forms through the insurance bureaucracy and deal with school officials who didn't think healthcare was their problem.

As for empowering the doctors: Another Kossack, nyceve (a contraction of Eve from New York City, I think), passes on to us what a transplant surgeon wrote to her:
Insurers always qualify their denial letters with a sentence to the affect that the doctors must provide whatever care is necessary and that the payment is a separate issue. Insurers never deny CARE only the authorization for payment. To stall the actual delivery of care, insurers hold out an insincere promise to authorize payment if only the doctor provides more information. This leads the doctor on indefinitely, while insurers never says absolutely 'No' until the patient gives up or dies. ... If I do go ahead without approval, as I have on many occasions, the administrators in my hospital call me in to explain why so many of my patient's insurers are not paying and why am I performing surgery not approved by the insurer? No one rescues the patient and the family who face huge bills and bankruptcy.
Jerome concludes:
It's been tough enough to deal with a sick child; I simply do not want to imagine what it would have been like if I had to beg for care or to scurry around for money in addition. It's just inconceivable. And thus, I was happy to pay taxes before, and I'm really, really happy to pay taxes now to provide that level of care for those that really need it.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if Americans could take national pride in the care we give the sick? That's another part of the Edwards stump speech: "What if we asked Americans to be patriotic about something other than war?"

Short Notes
If you're not sick of Christmas music yet -- or maybe even moreso if you are -- you might enjoy this version of The 12 Days of Christmas by the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.

We got some good news on the FISA bill, which I reported last week was about to pass the Senate with the language giving the telcom companies amnesty for breaking the law and invading the privacy of their customers. Instead, Senator Dodd's parliamentary maneuvering made enough problems for Harry Reid that he delayed the bill until January. Senator Kennedy nailed the issue in this speech. Advocates of corporate lawlessness have racheted up the rhetoric by warning that the likes of ATT might be bankrupted if the rule of law prevails. (As if the outcome of our justice system were some random act of God rather than, say, the outcome of a justice system.) If you want to be aware of what you can do, sign up for action alerts at FireDogLake.

Tom Tomorrow begins his Year in Review.

If you thought conservative authors could not stoop any lower, you were wrong.

On the same theme, we finally get a clear-cut example of how oppressed conservatives are on campus and how biased administrators won't protect them from liberal brownshirts: A conservative organizer at Princeton was beaten in an attempt to intimidate him into shutting up. Except ... it turns out he staged the whole thing. And he did the same thing at prep school.

The blogger to watch as the whole CIA torture tapes story unfolds is emptywheel, a.k.a. Marcy Wheeler, author of Anatomy of Deceit. The thing Marcy does better than anybody is chronology: What can we figure out from when something happened? Why then? What was different from a day, a month, or a year before? What does that tell us about why it happened at all? It's hard to do this kind of analysis without veering off into tinfoil-hat territory, but Marcy manages. Her work is necessarily speculative, but it's very insightful.

David Corn goes back to look at a book Mike Huckabee wrote in 1998, as is disturbed by what he finds.

TPM summarizes the Sunday talk shows for you.

In general, I've been unimpressed by Obama's why-can't-we-all-get-along rhetoric. (When corporations are happy to profit over our dead bodies, or -- in the case of Blackwater -- over the dead bodies of innocent Iraqis, no, we can't get along.) But Mark Schmitt over at American Prospect has an interesting theory: It's "a tactic, a method of subverting the unified conservative power structure." I hope he's right.

Matthew Yglesias asks an interesting question: What do you do when the polls indicate that people want something that can't happen? For example, what if the people want to get out of Iraq quickly without losing? This is a situation, he says, where real leaders would be shaping public opinion, not just reacting to it.

The media is starting to see past the Surge-is-working stories. In July we have to start drawing down our troops, and what happens then? Is the country really in any better shape, any closer to a sustainable solution? The LA Times says maybe not.

Finally, the Concord Monitor makes an anti-endorsement: Mitt Romney for not-president. "If you followed only his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, you might imagine Romney as a pragmatic moderate with liberal positions on numerous social issues and an ability to work well with Democrats. If you followed only his campaign for president, you'd swear he was a red-meat conservative, pandering to the religious right, whatever the cost. Pay attention to both, and you're left to wonder if there's anything at all at his core."


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