Browsing the blog archives for December, 2009.

Scorched Earth Politics

blogging, Obama Administration

Marcy Wheeler (Firedoglake) and Nate Silver (Five Thirty-Eight) have been having a cross-blog disagreement over the Senate health care reform bill. The links go to their most recent posts in the discussion. Marcy argues that the bill is detrimental to middle-class families, and Nate mostly disagrees. Remarkably, both of them are, as near as I can tell, trying to be honest with data. Even more remarkably, neither one has resorted to character assassination of the other.

This is a rare and wondrous event. Bronze those bytes and save ’em in a museum, I say.

I wrote recently about a strain of Manichaeistic thinking on the Left

This is the view that sorts all Democratic politicians into one of two categories — they are either pure and noble defenders of the righteous liberal cause or blackhearted, corrupt sellouts to the moneyed Powers That Be. And while the default mood of righties is seething resentment, the default mood of lefties may be either annoying self-righteousness or deadening cynicism, or the two combined.

And boy, are we seeing this now, big time. It’s gotten as bad as the Democratic Primary wars between Obama and Clinton supporters. Dispassionate discussion of facts is rare. Disagreements are almost always framed as character issues; people who disagree with My Noble Position are infected with evil. Sellouts, betrayers, dupes, etc.

I think the BooMan has a point here —

The split in the blogosphere is over splintering goals. On one side you have people who now identify the government itself (the insiders) as the corrupt entity regardless of party. On the other side you have people who don’t disagree about the systemic problems but who are looking for best outcomes and a successful presidency.

There is a place for both, but if you are waking each morning to blog about what a bunch of corporate whores the Democrats and the president are, you haven’t really adjusted your style to the new situation in Washington. In fact, you are effectively denying that there is a new situation in Washington. You just brought over what you were doing during the Bush administration and turned your guns on the Obama administration. And, remember, I am talking about motivation here, not discrete posts. I’m talking about themes and focus. Is this first thing you do in the morning to look for ways to talk about how the president has disappointed you? How Congress sucks? Then you aren’t interested in keeping the Republicans out of power any more. You are fighting a different battle. And if you don’t have a plan for how your reinforcement of Republicans memes is going to help lead to better outcomes, you aren’t really a Democrat anymore, and your activism can’t necessarily be considered progressive even if uses progressive terms and angles. That’s fine. No one is compelled to support the Democrats over the Republicans or to support policies they disagree with. But we should call this kind of blogging what it is, which is anti-Obama, and anti-Democratic Party…and anti-government, really.

BooMan is being roasted for writing this. At Firedoglake, Steelydan3 writes,

Here’s a quick short retort: We criticize the president and the party because by completely betraying the base on almost every single issue of import we risk losing the House and the Senate in 2010 to the Republicans. Of course, then Obama can have his prized “bipartisanship”. The first order of the day of course in January 2011 will be stripping the one or two decent things in the health care bill that Tom Harkin and Bernie Sanders sold their souls for and to turn the IRS into the gestapo in blue states with shoot to kill orders, but I digress about this horrific yet realistic alternate future.

Betraying the base. Sold their souls. Gestapo. Shoot to kill orders. I rest my case. Further, I say that when we think Bernie Sanders has sold out to the Dark Side, maybe it’s time to take a close look at where we have our own feet planted.

And, frankly, the idea that the way to help Democrats keep the House and Senate is to engage in relentless character assassination of those same Democrats (plus our only socialist, Bernie Sanders) is, um, hallucinatory. On its face.

The fact is, the health care legislation is enormously complex, and there are big chunks of it — the excise tax on expensive policies, for example — over which reasonable, intelligent people have honest disagreements. There are a great many projections of how the several aspects of the bill should work together to reduce cost and make health care more affordable, but like any complex thing we won’t really know how it’s going to work until it’s put into effect. And this would still be true if the bill had a robust public option.

And, one always has to ask, what’s the alternative? Every progressive blogger I’ve seen who supports the Senate bill forthrightly admits that parts of it stink out loud. But it beats the hell out of the alternative, which is the status quo. If there were a reasonable expectation that killing this bill would inspire Congress to cough out a better one next year sometime, then I’d be in favor of killing it, too. But that is not a reasonable expectation, at least in this time-space continuum.

Getting back to BooMan’s point about people not making adjustments — on the other blog yesterday I linked to an article from Tricycle magazine on Buddhist ethics. The author points out that opinions become part of our self-identity. Thus, a disagreement can be perceived as an existential threat. Thus, the opinion must be defended at all costs, and if we run out of reasonable arguments we must counter-attack and destroy the source of the threat — the person who disagrees.

Further, self-righteous anger feels really good. It’s one of the all-time great ego reinforcements. Pema Chodron has written quite a bit on the seductive, intoxicating qualities of anger. This is from an interview with Bill Moyer

I mean, not only has something, evoked a response in me but it’s going to be difficult for me to let go. Anger is like that for sure. Prejudice is like that. Critical mindedness is like that. You don’t want to let go. There’s something delicious about finding fault with something. And that can be including finding fault with one’s self, you know? So that’s what I mean by hooked. You’re sort of it because of the image of a fish and the hook and it has this juicy worm on it and you know the consequences aren’t going to be good. But you cannot resist. And one of the main things we’re addicted to is escalating aggression.

I agree with BooMan that lot of what we’re seeing is a refusal to adjust. That self-righteous anger that built up during the Bush Administration is just too intoxicating, to delicious, to let go. We’re looking at outrage junkies.

BooMan also points to a defense of relentless criticism of the President from Cenk Uygur, who argues that such relentless attacks from the left help President Obama politically. I say it just further poisons our already toxic political culture.

About the biggest reason the nation is so screwed up is that, for many years, we’ve been unable to engage in reasonable, rational, fact-base discussion about anything on a national level. Instead, every “debate,” whether on Iraq or abortion or taxes or health care or whatever, quickly collapses into a free-for-all in which people stop at nothing — including outright lies and death wishes — to defend their positions.

Today, some of the bigger personalities on the leftie blogosphere truly have lost all sense of proportion and decency. Bloggers who had been their comrades in arms through the Bush Administration suddenly are re-cast as Judas for having the temerity to disagree about the merits of a health care bill. This is self-evidently screwy.

Stop the hyperbole. Stop the self-indulgent self-righteousness. Just stop it. Being perpetually angry never helped anyone think more clearly. And even if, say, you score a political victory using these scorched-earth tactics, the ground on which you fought is too scorched to be of further use. This is not a rational way for the citizens of a republic to govern themselves.

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Upgrade Ur Software!


Is dis deh Norton Kitteh Edishun? I wants it. H/t Dependable Renegade.

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Memory Lapses II: The Return of Dick the Dick

Obama Administration, War on Terror

Recently I wrote about a particularly egregious bit of rightie revisionist history, in which Franklin Roosevelt was somehow an admirer of Mussolini and Hitler until “bullets and ashes started to fill the sky.” This is completely at odds with what’s called Actual Verifiable Historical Facts, which tell us that FDR opposed Hitler from the start. And before Pearl Harbor did as much as he could, at some political risk, to send aid to Britain and other nations under attack by Germany.

Every now and then I like to set records straight, even though I feel it’s a lost cause most of the time. Frankly, the most surprising thing about the “FDR loved Hitler” myth is that it contradicts the older myth that FDR somehow orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor so that the U.S. could get into World War II.

And you know that in rightie mythology, conservatives — no matter how doughy — have a special affinity for all things soldierly and military even if they never spent a day in the service, whereas a liberal career military combat veteran doesn’t understand war and is probably a traitor.

And you also know that rightie mythology constantly spills over into mainstream media, and not just on Faux Nooz. So it’s not surprising there is a huge discrepancy between the way media treat President Obama after the Pants Bomb attempt and they way media treated George Bush after the Shoe Bomb attempt. What’s astonishing, however, is that someone at The Politico is actually pointing this out.

Josh Gerstein has actually written a fairly lengthy analysis comparing Obama’s and Bush’s responses to the perspective incidents, and finds that Obama is being treated unfairly.

Eight years ago, a terrorist bomber’s attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner was thwarted by a group of passengers, an incident that revealed some gaping holes in airline security just a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11. But it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.

That stands in sharp contrast to the withering criticism President Barack Obama has received from Republicans and some in the press for his reaction to Friday’s incident on a Northwest Airlines flight heading for Detroit.

All together now: IOKIYAR

Another difference is that President Obama forthrightly declared that the Pants Bomber revealed that “A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable.” When President Bush finally was prodded into saying something about the Shoe Bomber, he would not admit to a fault in his administration. He said,

This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11. We’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously we’re still not completely safe because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us for what we believe in.

Joan Walsh writes
, “Predictably right-wing gas bags are as hung up on Obama calling Abdulmutallab an ‘extremist’ and not a ‘terrorist.'” It’s beyond me why that’s important. It says something about rightie psychology, but I’m not sure what.

Dick the Dick has emerged, finally, from whatever nether region he inhabits to thump his chest and claim all the bananas.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused President Barack Obama on Tuesday of “trying to pretend we are not at war” with terrorists, pointing to the White House response to the attempted sky bombing as reflecting a pattern that includes banishing the term “war on terror” and attempting to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

“[W]e are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe,” Cheney said in a statement to POLITICO. “Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war?.”

However, if you read the Politico piece and compare the actual Obama Administration response to the Pants Bomber to the actual Bush Administration response to the Shoe Bomber, you see it was the Bushies trying to pretend nothing had happened.

Further, I don’t see President Obama “pretending” anything. Little George liked to put on his quasi-military costumes and strut around in front of troops and call himself a “war president.” President Obama is less into the strutting part and doesn’t go around clubbing people with the “w” word, reminding them that war presidents are special. What matters is whether the President is responding properly to volatile situations, and frankly he’s more of a “war president” than I’d like.

But I don’t see “pretending.” There is only an assumption of failure, based entirely on the fact that the President is not a Republican. You might think of it as a variation of “driving while black.”

But righties place enormous importance on what things are called. The other day Charles Krauthammer had a fit because President Obama refers to Iran as the “Islamic Republic of Iran” instead of just “Iran.” Krauthammer fumed that Obama had “conferred legitimacy” on the Iranian governing regime — as if the words of a President could do that. Personally, it seemed to me the President was reminding Iran that it’s supposed to be a republic, not a dictatorship. And the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the regime; it’s the entire country, citizens and all. And, anyway, it’s the proper name of the country. Details.

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The Excise Tax on “Cadillac” Policies: Two Views

Health Care

However much I respect wonkiness, I lack the math skills to be a wonk myself. Especially when numbers (including money) are involved, I must trust the wonks to know what they’re talking about. I can’t present arguments of my own beyond “what Bob the Wonk said.” So, when I run into opposing arguments from people I respect that involve numbers I don’t always know who’s right.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, an MIT economics professor named Jonathan Gruber presented an enthusiastic endorsement of the excise tax on “Cadillac’ health insurance policies. Gruber calls it “an innovative way of financing the health reform we so desperately need.” On the other hand, in today’s New York Times, Bob Herbert says the tax “will hammer millions of middle-class policyholders, forcing them to scale back their access to medical care.”

So who’s right? Hell if I know. Maybe they both are — the excise tax is a means of financing health reform that will impact many middle-class policyholders. Or not. Hard to say. Note that Ezra Klein is less enthusiastic about the tax than Mr. Gruber but less alarmed than Mr. Herbert. Exactly how the tax would impact individuals depends on a lot of other factors, apparently.

A “Cadillac” policy according to the Senate bill is a policy whose costs exceed $23,000 annually for family coverage and $8,500 for individuals. The excise tax would be a tax paid by the insurance companies on the amounts over those thresholds. In other words, if a family policy costs $24,000 a year, the tax would be levied on $1,000. This tax would impact all qualifying policies; the income of the policy holder is irrelevant.

However, no one seems to know exactly how many of these “Cadillac” policy holders are out there. The average costs of family and individual policies are lower. For example, the average cost of an employee-benefit family policy in 2009 is $13,375, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. So who would be impacted? Right now, I don’t know. If health care costs continue to rise as fast as they have in recent years, eventually it would suck in just about everybody, however.

Non-group individual HMO policies, by which I mean policies that are not in a group plan, here in New York are a lot more expensive than $8,500 a year, and I assume the excise tax would apply to those also. One of the frustrations of trying to purchase individual plans here is that the companies don’t give you choices — here’s our HMO plan at $900/month, take it or leave it. A plan with lower premiums but, say, higher co-pays might be welcomed by some people, and the excise tax would force Empire Blue Cross to come up with such a policy.

But, ultimately, the success or failure of the entire health reform process depends on getting costs under control. Various provisions in the bills — such as the dreaded mandates — are there to reduce cost, and if they work the “Cadillac” plan provision possibly won’t be that big a deal to that many people. If they don’t, then yeah, I can see how the excise tax could result in a bite.

For that reason, it seems to me to be a bit deceptive to take one part of the reform plan and examine it outside the context of the rest of the plan. Bob Herbert’s arguments are compelling, but they seem to assume that nothing else about our health care “system” will change. For that reason, I’m not sure he’s right. Maybe he is, but not necessarily.

According David Leonhardt at the Times, a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “a liberal research group,” endorsed the plan and said liberals should like it. Another endorsement from the wonks. On the other hand, Dartmouth economics professor Andrew Samwick says,

I am not a fan of the excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” health plans. I would need to be convinced that the reason why the premiums are so high is unrelated to the health characteristics of the insured group. What if the premiums are so high because the insured group is old or has large families? Simply including all plans in the ex post risk adjustment and reinsurance aspects of the bill is the right way to even out premium costs in the face of differences in the insured group. And if people want to spend more on their own health insurance, through high-quality services or (to my thinking) inefficiently low deductibles and co-pays, why stop them?

Well, as I said above, in some situations the insurance companies aren’t providing a lower-quality, lower-cost choice. But the larger point is that on this bit of the Senate bill, reasonable people disagree.

Update: Ezra Klein responds to Bob Herbert.

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Rising Above the Noise Level

Obama Administration

Aftermath of the Pants Bomber — to be fair to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, when she said the “system worked” she was referring to emergency systems, not airport security systems.

Obviously, somewhere, “the system” did not function. President Obama’s first reaction was to order an investigation into airport security gaps. This was sensible.

The other “system” that did not seem to function was intelligence. Sean Rayment of The Telegraph asks,

How can a Muslim student, whose name appears on a US law enforcement database, be granted a visa to travel to America, allegedly acquire an explosive device from Yemen, a country awash with al-Qaeda terrorists, and avoid detection from the world’s most sophisticated spy agencies?

The answer appears in an article in today’s Washington Post:

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father in Nigeria reported concern over his son’s “radicalization” to the U.S. Embassy there last month, intelligence officials in the United States deemed the information insufficient to pursue. The young man’s name was added to the half-million entries in a computer database in McLean and largely forgotten.

The lack of attention was not unusual, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who said that thousands of similar bits of information flow into the National Counterterrorism Center each week from around the world. Only those that indicate a specific threat, or add to an existing body of knowledge about an individual, are passed along for further investigation and possible posting on airline and border watch lists.

“It’s got to be something that causes the information to sort of rise out of the noise level, because there is just so much out there,” one intelligence official said.

Later in the article —

“What happened after this man’s father called our embassy in Nigeria?” Lieberman asked. “What happened to that information? Was there follow-up to try to determine where this suspect was?”

White House officials struggled to explain the complicated system of centralized terrorist data and watch lists, stressing that they were put in place years ago by the Bush administration.

One suspects that system will need to be overhauled before it can be made useful. It would be just like the Bushies to concoct a system that brought together every shred of incriminating evidence on everybody on the planet, but fail to provide a way to sort, prioritize or use any of it.

I read somewhere that the type of explosive the Pants Bomber attempted to use would have been detected by a bomb-sniffing dog. More bomb-sniffing dogs, less war, say I. (All I want to know is — since the Shoe Bomber, we’ve had to take off our shoes to get through airport security. Now will we have to take off our pants?)

Update: See also “Crotch-Bomber Fails to Blow Up Plane, in Yet Another Disaster for Obama” in the Village Voice.

Update: OK, this is just stupid. A rightie blogger writes,

Citizens understand this. Thus when passengers smelled the smoke Abdulmutallab created while trying to carry out his attack, they jumped him, subdued him, and dragged him to the front of the plane. As Fox News reported on December 26, 2009:

Experts say an aggressive response from passengers has become the common response [to attempted terror attacks] since … 9/11.

But where is Obama’s “aggressive response”? What do average everyday citizens know that he doesn’t?

Um, the average everyday citizens were close enough to smell the smoke, and the President wasn’t? So the POTUS is supposed to put on his superhero tights and cape and fly to the plane to subdue the bad guy?

A lot of us didn’t notice with everything else going on, but a few days ago the United States launched cruise missile against alleged al Qaeda sites in Yemen, on President Obama’s orders. This ABC News story is from December 18:

On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.

One of the targeted sites was a suspected al Qaeda training camp north of the capitol, Sanaa, and the second target was a location where officials said “an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned.”

The Pants Bomb Plot originated in Yemen, I understand. Perhaps it was al Qaeda’s attempt at retaliation. So it appears the President knows something that average everyday citizens don’t. Of course, wingnuts won’t be satisfied with anything less than an invasion, especially one they can watch on the TeeVee.

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Memory Lapses

American History, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

The ever mildly annoying Ann Althouse criticizes President Obama for being on vacation in Hawaii while the nation suffered a terrorist attack. And even as you read this, I’m sure some of you are thinking of the last President, who was nearly always on vacation when anything significant happened. Well, Bush was nearly always on vacation, in Washington or out of it.

But that’s not what really inspired me to write. One of the commenters wrote,

Being President of democratic republic isn’t much fun.

Insty linked to a NY Post story citing how dissatisfying Obama finds our form of government, when tyrannies clearly make the trains run so much better.

In a similar vein, FDR’s acolytes thought wistfully of Hitler and Mussolini, at least until the bullets and ashes started to fill the sky.

The link goes to a Charles Hurt column in the New York Post titled “O Rips the American Way.” Wow, it’s hard to imagine an American president expressing a preference for a dictatorship, huh? Oh, wait …

In fact, Hurt doesn’t quote President Obama saying anything bad about our great Republic. The President was discussing the current malfunction in the Senate, which is a genuine concern outside of Wingnuttia.

But what really astonished me was the bit about “FDR’s acolytes thought wistfully of Hitler and Mussolini, at least until the bullets and ashes started to fill the sky.” Here in the Matrix of Objectively Verifiable Facts, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration did its best to oppose fascism in Europe in spite of much public sentiment to the contrary. FDR opposed Hitler from the beginning of his administration. Before Pearl Harbor he already was doing as much as he could for America’s future allies, in particular Britain. He pushed through the lend-lease program, for example.

No, it was the conservatives of the 1930s who thought Hitler and Mussolini were swell guys with whom America could do business.

Yet we are not quite done in the memory lapse department. Another blogger — I’m guessing he’s a libertarian, but his blogroll doesn’t give away a partisan orientation — defended President Obama and said it was silly to think the President’s being in Hawaii instead of DC while some guy tried to blow up a plane flying over Michigan made any difference to anything. Of course not. But then he said,

The greatest President in American history was inaugurated on August 2, 1923. He was woken up after the death of his predecessor, strolled downstairs, took the oath of office, and went back to bed. Would that we understood today how to behave as the chief bureaucrat of the central public goods administration.

To which I had two reactions — one, what the hell is the “central goods administration”? And two, — OMG, he’s talking about Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge let the country rot and prepared the way for the Great Depression.

If it’s true that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana), we’re in trouble.

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More Sizzle Than Pop

Terrorism, War on Terror, Weapons of Mass Destruction

When I heard about explosives on a Delta flight to Detroit, my first reaction was the same as Thers:

It means Greater Wingnuttia is going to get the very special happy Christmas they most desire, because what they like best of all is to wet their pants in an ecstasy of hysterical screeching;

I noticed the initial blogosphere reactions to the incident were almost all from the Right. I assume they spent yesterday stuffing Christ back into Christmas, but they took time out to comment on the near-atrocity. However, the reaction from the screechers seems to me a tad toned down from what it would have been two or three years ago. So far, for example, Little Lulu has not devoted even one exclamation mark to the story. Maybe she’s run through her yearly quota.

The incident must have been genuinely terrifying for the passengers. On the other hand, if this is the best al Qaeda can do these days (assuming al Qaeda is involved at all, which I think at the moment is only being assumed) I’d say we’re winning the war on weapons of mass destruction-related program activities, although terror itself still has some of us on the ropes.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) is telling people the man with the explosives has “significant terrorist connections.” This would be great news if it were true; it would tell us that significant terrorists are a pretty lame crew these days.

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Christmas Day

Obama Administration

Mozart, Ave Verum, performed by the Vienna Boy’s Choir.

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Christmas Eve

Obama Administration

I love the old traditional Christmas music. If this doesn’t get you in the mood for Christmas Eve, nothing will — “Lo, How a Rose” by Michael Praetorius (probably February 15, 1571 – February 15, 1621). For those who don’t associate roses with Christmas, the words the children are singing are below.

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

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Senate Passes Bill

Obama Administration

The Senate health care bill passed in the Senate early this morning, by a 60 – to – 39 party-line vote. The only senator not to vote was Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky, who’s been absent much of the week for unknown reasons. Possibly he’s forgotten how to find the Capitol Building.

I think there are still a lot of questions about what’s in the Senate bill — which of course will not necessarily be in the final bill — so here are some informative articles —

First, on the excise tax on “cadillac plans.” Under the Senate bill if a policy costs more than $8,500 for a person or $23,000 for a family, the insurer would have to pay a 40 percent tax on the cost above that threshold. Retiree policies require a slightly higher threshold. Ezra Klein explains why this provision probably is a good idea, although it’s not the best the Senate could have come up with.

Some recent commenters seem to think that the mandates are only in place because the private insurers wanted them, and that I support them only because I’m a mean person who wants to force people to buy expensive insurance policies. There is actually a solid and rational reason why there have to be mandates. Also, Joshua Holland has a good article on the mandates at AlterNet, in which he provides data showing how much people will have to pay for their insurance. I think you will find this information reassuring.

See also Paul Krugman: “how anyone can call a plan to spend $200 billion a year on Americans in need a defeat for progressives is a mystery.”

Brad DeLong has a letter signed by several prominent economists supporting the bill. See also Timothy Egan, “Profiles in Cowardice.”

Updates: Bwana Broder is once again taking us simple native people to task for our bad manners. Steve Benen responds.

Ezra Klein, “Winning Ugly, But Winning.”

Nate Silver says debating “kill the bill-ers” is getting to be a lot like debating global warming denialists. They are unswayed by, you know, facts.

Jonathan Chait says the health care bill is the greatest social achievement of our time. Maybe, but that does tell us something about “our time,” doesn’t it?

Jonathan Cohn:

Vice President Joe Biden presided over the session and, on the floor, members seemed aware of the moment’s historical import. The ailing Robert Byrd, who had to be wheeled in to the chamber for each of this week’s four votes, reportedly shouted “for my friend Ted Kennedy, aye.”

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