Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

It’s official. The CBO projects that the Senate version of Trumpcare would not be quite as mean as the House version. Instead of 23 million people losing their health care coverage by 2026, the Senate number goes all the way down to … 22 million.

That’s it.

We can start there and, really, if we have even a little of what Donald Trump daringly calls “heart,” we can stop there.

There’s only one question to consider: Under what circumstance is America better, much less great, by removing health care coverage for 22 million people? For all its problems, the great triumph of Obamacare is that the uninsured rate in the country has plummeted.  If the Senate plan passes, the number of uninsured Americans is projected to grow from 27 million to 49 million by 2026.

Is there anything left to say? I mean, we can debate all the other stuff, and, yes, there’s much to debate. We can talk about Mitch McConnell’s cynical plan to rush the bill through the Senate. But once you get to the 22 million, it’s hard to consider anything else.

Still, for the record, we’ll note the cruel Medicaid cuts, which would reduce projected spending by $780 billion. Yes, that’s three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Also the huge tax cut for the rich. The removal of lifetime caps. The essential health benefits that states can waive. The coming of even higher deductibles, which Republicans keep saying needed to be addressed and yet which would soar, under the GOP’s silver plan, to $6,000. The crushing premium hikes, particularly for those nearing Medicare age. A 64-year-old making $56,800 would pay — get this — $20,500. And then there’s the bizarre six-month waiting period to renew coverage — the plan that would replace the hated mandate. Under the bill, if you have no coverage and get disagnosed with, say, cancer in June, the doctor will see you in December, if you’re not already dead.

But we shouldn’t have to go there. If we know just this, that 22 million who have coverage now won’t be covered over the next 10 years and that, even worse, 15 million people who have insurance now won’t be covered in a year, we don’t need to know anything else.

What Republicans are trying to do here is to take a buzzsaw to the safety net. And not just that. But to give the savings to the wealthy, who don’t need the money or the saw. We have to remember to mention the tax cut, because Trump and the GOP never mention the nearly $1 trillion in cuts. You don’t have to wonder why. It’s the unspoken rationale for the bill, joined with the always-spoken rationale that whatever else this bill is, it’s not Obamacare.

Predictably, the Republican reaction to the report has been that you can’t trust the CBO estimates. But here’s how you know not to take the critics seriously: The Trump administration and Senate leaders never offer their own numbers to counter the CBO projections.

There’s a reason for that. What if they said 15 million people would lose their insurance? What if they said 10 million?There’s no good number here. Once upon a time, Trump said everyone would be covered. That, I believe, is one of the lies mentioned in The New York Times‘ full page of lies told by Trump since taking office.

But this is not just on him. You saw Mike Pence saying that the Senate bill was based on personal responsibility. He didn’t say which people needed to be more responsible, so we’re left to guess. You saw the many Republicans going on cable news to say that Medicaid would be untouched by the bill even as the CBO would reveal that touching is the least of it. And now, some Republicans are actually said to be wavering.

There’s the right wing contingent saying that too much of Obamacare is being left in place. They’re right about that, at least in one sense. The shell remains, even as the law is being gutted. And then there are the moderates who will admit this bill is a disaster while expressing their “concern.” If there are four or five votes in opposition, as some are saying, then the bill dies. Republicans, with their 52-48 edge in the Senate, can afford to lose only two, but don’t count McConnell or the bill out yet.

So now in Colorado we must ask, what will Cory Gardner do? As we know, Gardner co-authored a letter to McConnell saying he was worried that the rate of Medicaid cuts would potentially cost participants “access to life-saving health care services.” Since he is the one who put it in life-and-death terms,  we shouldn’t feel any compunction about going there. Experts tell us that of the millions who would lose coverage, many would die sooner than if they were insured.

And yet, Gardner told The Denver Post that the CBO score hadn’t changed his position — at last check he was “reviewing” — but that he was heartened by recent talks he has had with insurance company CEOs about stabilizing markets. He might have mentioned he was also seen recently reviewing with the Koch brothers.

But while he’s reviewing, he might want to check some other sources. He could consult the American Medical Association, which said emphatically that the bill would do America much harm. Or he could check the CBO report which says that with higher premiums and sky-high deductibles that “few low-income people would purchase any plan” at all.  He might review, too, what this bill means for the working poor — a majority of those who gained insurance through expanded Medicaid are employed, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation — who might have a stronger visceral sense of the bill’s impact than the CEOs.

In a recent column, I asked whether Gardner was willing to risk his political career by voting for a wildly unpopular plan in a state that has benefited greatly from Medicaid expansion and strongly favors many other aspects of Obamacare. But after the CBO report, which suggests that more than politics are at stake here, I think I should pose the question differently.

Is Gardner really ready to vote for a plan that not only risks his political career but also risks, for the sake of a needless tax cut, the futures of 22 million real live human beings?

Photo by Pictures of Money, via Flickr: Creative Commons

Whatever else I’ve had to say about Cory Gardner over the years, I’ve never once said, or even thought, that he wasn’t a shrewd and able politician. But now it may be time for a rethink.

I mean, is he really prepared to put his political career at risk by voting for an ill-conceived, ill-considered healthcare bill that is not only “mean,” as Donald Trump has so eloquently put it, but is also wildly unpopular with voters across the country and certainly in Colorado?

Not surprisingly, he isn’t saying. Gardner says he’s “reviewing,” which is either an attempt at looking thoughtful or a signal of real trouble for Mitch McConnell’s bill. As I may have mentioned before, if good-soldier Gardner is a ‘no’ vote, there is no healthcare bill. And as I should mention now, good-soldier Gardner — not up for re-election until 2020 — is currently voting with Trump at a 95 percent clip.

This is a bill, though, that Republicans, including Gardner, are having trouble defending. And no wonder. As the estimable Sarah Kliff at Vox explains, the bill would require low-and-middle-income Americans to pay significantly more than they did under Obamacare in order to get far less. What they would get is higher deductibles, higher co-pays, higher premiums. And that may be the best that can be said for it.

The bill is a full-on assault on Medicaid, capping subsidies, limiting their growth and eventually causing millions to lose coverage. The losers here will be, uh, children, people in nursing homes, people with disabilities and on and on. You may remember that Gardner signed onto a letter voicing concerns about Medicaid, which covers 30 million children and two of three nursing home residents. It’s hard to see how any of those concerns have been answered.

And it gets worse. The bill allows states to waive the essential-health-benefits provision that requires insurers to offer coverage for, you know, essential health benefits. It does get rid of the unpopular individual mandate but replaces it with absolutely nothing. That means young and healthy people are far less likely to be part of the pool helping to pay for older and not-so-healthy people.

Oh, and there’s this: The bill also serves up a huge tax cut for the wealthy, to be paid for by—wait for it—cutting services for the poor.  It is, as Democrats like to say, a massive wealth redistribution plan. Or as Elizabeth Warren puts it: “Blood money.”

This bill, which is polling somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, could never possibly pass but for two things: Republicans have been promising to repeal and replace Obamacare for seven years, and Trump, who has no idea what’s in the bill, thinks it would be humiliating not to pass something, even if it doesn’t have “heart.” So there it is, like it or not, and most people seem to be in the or-not camp.

The Senate version of Trumpcare is no better than the terrible House version of the bill that Trump celebrated in the Rose Garden before deciding it was too “mean.”  That’s one White House moment, by the way, they do have on tape.

And not only is it a terrible bill, Republicans are pretty open about the fact, having drafted it in secret and refusing to hold any hearings. It was almost as if they were begging fake-news punditry to point out the irony that Republicans had complained for years that Obamacare had been rammed down their throats. Now, in the updated 2017 version of bill-ramming, you apparently do it while blindfolded.

So, what will Gardner do? He told The Denver Post’s Mark Matthews that he doesn’t understand why there’s such a rush to get a vote on the bill, which is scheduled for late next week. That’s an easy question to answer, of course. McConnell is rushing the bill because that’s the only way it could pass.

You’d think that Gardner, who’s definitely not in a hurry, would know that much since he was one of 13 senators assigned to craft the bill. But Gardner told The Post his role was actually limited to providing input, including, he said, helping to make sure that children with disabilities and certain other complications would be exempted from Medicaid limits. One problem with that. If Medicaid funds are limited, and they would be, that simply means some other child is necessarily excluded.

I’m not sure what to think about the bill’s prospects. Republicans can afford to lose only two senators or the bill is dead. So let’s put Gardner aside. Four senators from the right — Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Ron Johnson — have withheld support so far, saying the bill is too much like Obamacare and therefore, in effect, not mean enough. I don’t know if that’s anything more than a bargaining ploy, although Paul is the most likely to defect. I’d bet strongly against the other three.

From the moderate end, Susan Collins sounds like a ‘no,’ but she often sounds like a ‘no’ and then votes ‘yes.’ Nevada’s Dean Heller, who’s up for re-election in 2018 and who is already considered vulnerable, has to be shaky. There are a few other moderates in play.

And Gardner? How much pressure would he have to feel before he’d defect, even in a blue-ish state, and vote to save Obamacare? OK, I can’t imagine it either. We all remember Gardner’s letter-waving opposition to Obamacare and the 50-plus times he has voted to repeal the law. The letter waving helped make him senator. The repeal votes were no more than show votes, though, with no chance of becoming law.

But this is the real thing. The stakes are real. The pressure is real. The potential human cost is real. The CBO’s scoring of the House bill estimated 23 million people would be made to lose their insurance. It’s just that real. The CBO score of the Senate bill is due early next week, and the losses will again surely be in the many millions. That’s all that’s at risk, which is why you can be sure Gardner will still be reviewing up until the moment he has to actually cast his vote.


Photo by Gage Skidmore for Creative Commons on Flickr.

Don’t fall for the spin. Karen Handel’s five-point win in the Georgia special House election was a crushing defeat for Democrats, who learned, once again, that the great majority of Republicans are more than willing to ignore that strange odor coming from the White House.

Yes, Democrat Jon Ossoff came close in an overwhelmingly Republican district that Democrats routinely lose by 20 points or more and have been losing since Jimmy Carter was fighting off rabbits in his fishing boat. Doesn’t matter. This is also an affluent, highly-educated suburban Atlanta district that does not like Donald Trump. This is a district Trump carried by little more than a point in 2016 while Rep. Tom Price, now your anti-Obamacare Health secretary, was winning it by 23.

You get the idea. In this solid-red district, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll put Trump’s approval rating at, ahem, 35 percent. No wonder the cash poured in, making this the most expensive House race in history. No wonder this was seen as the place where a breakthrough was possible. No wonder — and this is the hard part for the Democratic faithful — Democrats were so willing to believe again and to risk having their spirits crushed again.

If the Democrats thought they could win this special election — and they did — it wasn’t because the district had suddenly turned blue. It was solely because of the disaster that is the Trump presidency, which, historically, should mean energized Democrats and dispirited Republicans. So much for history. No wonder they teach it differently in red states.

And that’s why the result is so troubling. Trump is a disaster. The Russia affair, however scandalous it may or may not turn out to be, generates devastating headlines by the day. Trump’s poll numbers are historically low. The Republican Obamacare replacement bill is so unpopular that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s game plan has been to keep it secret even from his own members and probably from his wife.

And yet, with all this, enough Republicans stuck with the party in Georgia’s 6th CD to lift Handel past Ossoff, the young movie documentarian who hadn’t bothered to move into the district. What happened to the Trump Effect? And why in Trump’s name isn’t it more effective?

You see, another thing Ossoff didn’t bother to do was to make the election all about Trump. That wasn’t an accident. His strategy was to be civil, which, we know, almost never works. It was the plan for him to avoid mention of Trump nearly as assiduously as Handel would. This would be basically a non-Trump zone in an election that was, after all, supposed to be a referendum on the president.

It’s easy to figure out why. Democrats didn’t want to force Republicans to feel that relentless attacks on Trump were, in effect, attacks on them. But, of course, that’s what happened anyway.

This is the point, we’re told, where partisanship gives way to tribalism. Trump has his base — and we can join the argument about how much that base is motivated by economic populism and how much by ethnic resentment and how much by a mix of the two — but Trump also has non-base Republicans, who mostly stayed with their team.

The message voters heard from Handel and from the outside money that joined the fight was that, if elected, Ossoff would be a pawn of Nancy Pelosi and Hollywood. (And there was the particularly ugly ad from an outside group saying Democrats were cheering the Alexandria baseball shooting, but, hey, who didn’t expect that?) Handel, though hardly a great politician, was relentlessly on message. And it worked, too, or it worked well enough. And while going anti-Pelosi may not work quite as well outside the South — are Colorado Republican children sent to bed with scary Pelosi stories? — it was a case of the best bogeyman available. In that same Journal-Constitution poll, by the way, 6th District Republicans disapproved of Pelosi by a staggering 91 percent.

The strange thing about the night was that there was another special election, in South Carolina, and the Democrat there came as close as Ossoff did. It was a four-point race in a district Trump had won by 18. Obviously, Trump cost the Republicans there, but, again, not quite enough. And one working theory is that Trump cost them more there because of the lack of attention and lack of money and lack, therefore, of the need for Republicans to, you know, come to the aid of their party.

It’s a theory. Democrats have come close or, at least, closer than expected in Kansas, in Montana, in Georgia, and now in South Carolina, all Republican strongholds. But if they’re going to win back the House in 2018, they have to pick up 24 seats. According to people who have done the math, there are 26 seats now held by Republicans in districts where Hillary Clinton scored better than she did in Georgia’s 6th. But the 6th seemed like a setup. These were the disaffected Republicans who were being asked to send Trump and Washington Republicans a message.

But the message for Democrats was that the Trump Effect has its limits. If there’s anything that Democrats were supposed to have learned from the Clinton defeat is that being anti-Trump is not sufficient to win. Dems are famously divided now on message, between the Bernie/Warren faction and the Democratic establishment. But I don’t think that divide mattered at all in Georgia. What matters is that Democrats still don’t have a defining message, and they’re in desperate need of one that works.

But it’s early. And the wise heads say despite the four losses in four Republican strongholds, the vote still shows a significant Democratic lean, which could portend well in 2018. Or, of course, not.

What Democrats need now is reassurance (read: victories) to confirm that the Trump disaster is, in fact, a political disaster. Political sabermetrics are fine, but this is not fantasy politics. And there’s the risk that expectations work only so long as there are rewards.

Or as Huffington Post’s Sam Stein put in the best tweet of Election Night: “Democrats are destined to lose every race from here to eternity by margins just close enough to maintain some hope for the future.”


Photo by Heather Kennedy, via Flickr: Creative Commons

In the aftermath of the horror that played out on a Virginia baseball field, we can — and should — step back for a day, maybe a few days, and remember amid all the hateful talk that we are, as the president rightfully reminded us, one nation and one people.

But even as we do so, even as a nation prays for those who were shot and wounded, we’ll know we’re not fooling anyone, least of all ourselves. This is the sad, heartbreaking truth.

We are, of course, united in horror at the direct attack not only against real people with real lives, but against our democratic system, an attack that David Frum called in The Atlantic an attempted “veto by murder.”

That someone would attack Republican lawmakers, presumably because they’re Republican, on a baseball diamond, as if to reinforce the idea that this is an attack on American values, is nearly beyond imagination. That Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican whip, should lie critically wounded on the field is almost too much to take in. And yet there it was:  Capitol police engaged in a firefight during early-morning practice for a charity game between Democrats and Republicans.

And the fact is that the first thing we wanted to know, the very first thing, was whether the shooter was a Democrat. And when we learned that the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson III, was a Bernie Sanders volunteer who loudly opposed Donald Trump and came to Washington from his home outside St. Louis to register his unhappiness by unleashing a mass shooting, it shouldn’t have been beyond our imagination at all.

We have, of course, a long history of assassination in this country. And we have only to go back six years to the attack on Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords, to the murderous attack that left dead a federal judge, a 9-year-old and four others. Following that attack, we asked ourselves whether the political rhetoric had grown too hot, whether a crazed gunman like Jared Loughner was pushed, whether we needed to take a hard look at ourselves and decide whether this is who we are.

Well, we looked. And apparently it was. And the rhetoric, meanwhile, has grown worse, and you can argue whether Hodgkinson’s decision to bring guns to a baseball field should be blamed on anti-Trump rhetoric or on one man’s confusion that turns normal political opposition into abnormal rage or the fact that a man once arrested for domestic abuse still had access to those powerful guns.

What you can’t argue is that we’re worse for the political anger that is bred on talk radio and cable news and social media and wherever else you look. You can’t argue, either, that we elected a president whose lock-her-up campaign was based on promoting fear and who, not two weeks ago, unaccountably involved himself in a Twitter war with the Muslim London mayor even as his city was mourning its dead.

We have become hardened, somehow. And even with fine speeches from Paul Ryan, who asked the House “to show the country, to show the world that we are one house, the people’s house, united in our humanity,” and from Nancy Pelosi and from Donald Trump, there was already finger-pointing and blame-making.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), whose district lies just north of Hodgkinson’s home in Belleville, was on the field when the shootings took place. Still in his baseball uniform, he took to CNN to call out “political, rhetorical terrorism” and then asked what for Davis was no longer a rhetorical question: “Is this America’s breaking point? It’s my breaking point. We’ve got to end this.”

But are moving speeches and heartfelt pleas for comity and an agreement to go ahead with the charity baseball game enough? In San Francisco on the same day, a man shot and killed three co-workers and himself at a UPS facility. In Washington on the same day, a hearing had been scheduled in the House on making it easier to buy silencers for firearms.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, which sadly keeps track of these things, there have been 1,399 mass shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2013. A mass shooting, by this definition, requires four people other than the shooter to have been hit. In those shootings, at least 1,564 people were killed and more than 5,500 wounded. The latest Washington shooting is just one more.

But no one was talking gun control in the aftermath of the shooting. Gun control, in and of itself, isn’t really the issue. Gun-violence control is the issue. But here we go back to the rhetoric and to warnings of gun grabbing and of the need for the Second Amendment to protect ourselves against the government or to the president tweeting after the London knife and car attack that, you see, it’s not about guns at all.

There’s no one who can rationally argue that gun violence isn’t among the greatest problems in the country. Watch the baseball-field video. It looks like a war zone. Check out the Chicago murder statistics. They might as well have come from a war zone. But it’s a non-starter in Congress even after Congress becomes a direct target. So, what does it mean to ask whether we’ve reached a breaking point? It is a question we do need to ask ourselves, but there isn’t much point asking until we’re actually ready to find an answer.

Photo by MarineCorps NewYork via Flickr: Creative Commons










Now that Jared Polis, the well-known political disrupter, has officially shaken up the Democratic race for governor, at least one thing is clear: No one has any idea how it will turn out.

It’s just that kind of year. Believe me.

It’s as if the Colorado Democratic Party had decided to throw nearly its entire bench into one race. And if you haven’t heard, the rumor is that the bench may go deeper and wider still. It should be the wildest Democratic primary race in memory, if not in history. And the Republican race may turn out to be nearly as crazed.

It’s definitely that kind of year. If there’s one lesson to be drawn from the Trump election — I mean other than you-don’t-want-Melissa-McCarthy-playing-you-in-the-SNL-skit lesson — it’s that there are no longer any certainties.

The Dems are now at four legitimate high-powered candidates, two of them congresspeople. And I’m hearing that John Hickenlooper is pushing Donna Lynne, his lieutenant governor, whose lack of political ambition was supposed to be her most significant credential, to consider entering the race to succeed him as if he couldn’t find anyone else to support.

There are obvious reasons for the deep field, starting with the expectation of an anti-Trump wave. But what I’m guessing is mostly at work here is the principle that the political world, like the natural world, abhors a vacuum. And Ken Salazar’s decison not to run for governor in the same year in which Hickenlooper is term-limited left a gigantic void to fill. And you see the results.

Still, I would never have predicted that Polis, who you may have heard is a Boulder liberal, had any chance to win a top-of-the-ballot statewide race in Colorado. That, of course, was before the political world turned upside down. In a normal year, Democrats might be shocked that Polis would enter a race against his friend and colleague Perlmutter. It breaks about a dozen unwritten rules. But if there’s any year set for a candidate willing to roil the established order, it is 2018, the first post-Trump, post-Bernie election cycle.

And as you may have heard, Polis is not only a liberal with an activist background, but he also brings his own money to the table. He has spent deeply and widely in his political career —hell, he once spent $1 million to win a seat on the not-exactly-prestigious state Board of Education  — and it’s fair to guess he’ll throw a small fortune at this race.

And so Democrats have Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis, Cary Kennedy and Mike Johnston. Maybe Lynne. Definitely businessman Noel Ginsburg, who may have picked the wrong year to run as a Democratic moderate. There’s much overlap on the issues among the candidates — say, Polis and Johnston on education reform — and most of the differences will be at the margins. But this is a race someone could win with, say, 28 percent of the vote, which means the unlikely becomes ever more likely.

But what Polis does guarantee is that fracking, and all oil and gas issues, will be front and center in the race. What’s not guaranteed is how that plays in a gubernatorial race.

In Colorado Democratic politics, moderates generally rule. Think Hickenlooper, Bennet, Salazar, latter-day Udall for starters. But these days, Democrats everywhere are being pushed to the populist left. That’s the ground Polis wants to claim, but it’s not as if he has a clear path to the Bernie vote.

Even the fracking issue is problematic for him. In 2014, he was the driving force and bankroll behind two major anti-fracking initiatives, but Hickenlooper and Mark Udall, who were both running that year, convinced him the initiatives were too dangerous for them in an election season. And Polis, who had spent years convincing Democrats he was a team player, dropped his support for the initiatives in a late-term compromise. In return, he got a couple oil-and-gas-sponsored counter-initiatives dropped and the promise of a Hickenlooper fracking task force that, if we’re honest, wasn’t at all forceful and clearly not up to the task. There are many who haven’t forgiven Polis for caving in, even though he continues to work on limiting fracking.

And then there was Polis’ unexpected fast-track vote supporting Barack Obama’s ability to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which labor strongly opposed and which the unlikely trio of Trump, Clinton and Sanders made certain would be dropped. There are a list of other Polis votes that have gone against the liberal grain — I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about them — which Polis will argue shows his independence. The degree to which he’s successful there may be the key to how well he performs in the race.

If there were a betting line on the race, I’d guess that Perlmutter, with strong ties to all Democratic voting blocs, would still be a slight favorite. A primary brings out older, more moderate voters than the caucus system that went so strongly for Bernie Sanders in 2016. And Colorado’s new open-ish primary system might make the electorate more moderate still.

But that doesn’t mean you want “establishment pick” on your resume. Kennedy has Emily’s List on her team. Johnston had a stunning opening-quarter fundraising total to his credit. But Polis, you figure, is the game changer.

He can, and will, contribute millions to his own campaign, meaning Perlmutter’s fundraising advantage will be diminished. Despite Polis’ fracking fracas, he’ll still challenge whatever advantage Kennedy has built with enviros. And while Polis, like Perlmutter, was a Clinton super-delegate, he’ll challenge Johnston, who has his own issues in reaching the Bernie vote, on the left. For the record, Johnston and Kennedy also supported Clinton. You may remember a time when that seemed like the smart play.

Polis began his campaign naming three key issues — going 100 percent renewables by 2040, free full-day preschool and kindergarten for ages 3 and up, a plan to encourage companies to provide profit-sharing plans for their employees — but I don’t see those issues (Johnston was already out there on renewables) separating him from the field. At least two of them will never get beyond campaign promises. But it’s early. At this point, there’s no way to know what issues will drive this race — only that the race itself is certain to be very, very crowded.


Photo by Corey Hutchins