Wednesday, November 12, 2014

As Lambs to the Slaughter

I have a right-wing friend, an avid runner, who lives in one of America's most polluted cities, about a third of a mile from a massive eight-lane (not including access and frontage lanes) freeway. Heavy traffic is all around him on other surface roads as well.

My government-hating friend loathes the EPA, with all its bureaucratic red tape and regulations that are in his mind nothing short of an affront to freedom. He believes the EPA intolerably "picks" who will win and who will lose in the regulatory game. Losers include oil refineries, which suffer under mandates to include additives in gasoline that reduce air pollution.

Pollution, for example, such as the ground-level smog, particulates, and ozone that he sucks deep into his lungs on his daily run.

According to the EPA, "breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue."

Ozone is particularly hard on children, who tend to have higher rates of asthma.

The American Lung Association agrees that "the current ozone national air quality standard fails to protect public health as required by law and should be significantly strengthened," and warns that "ozone is the most widespread air pollutant and is known to cause coughing, wheezing, and asthma attacks and increases the risk of hospital admissions and emergency room visits, as well as the risk of premature death.  New evidence links ozone to a broad array of other health threats as well, including cardiovascular harm, low birth weight in newborns and loss in short-term memory."

Running in a heavily polluted city (Houston, for example) has been equated to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day.

Ubiquitous though it is, ozone is just one noxious ingredient in the nasty stew of vehicular air pollution. Fine particulates is another. These lodge deep in the lungs and cause lung and coronary heart disease. The EPA's push for cleaner diesel fuels has helped to reduce this risk.

I have strong reason to believe my friend doesn't understand or acknowledge these risks. Nor does he understand, acknowledge, or appreciate the EPA's efforts to reduce harm to him and his fellow citizens, and indeed to all of us who use the public air—which, as Edward Abbey once quipped, is all we have for purposes of breathing. Sadly, I have little reason to hope that simply pointing out the facts about the dangers of air pollution will change his opinion about the EPA's value or legitimacy, much less engender any gratitude on his part about EPA's efforts on his behalf. Let's just say my friend generally tends to be unimpressed by facts (a common problem on the right), and his libertarian ideology is a reliable impediment to accepting any form of government regulation—even regulation that directly and specifically has his best interests in mind.

Still, most of us want our air to be as clean as reasonably possible, and understand that this can only be accomplished through collective action enforced by government.

How is it, then, that so many of us have lost sight of the fact that the EPA is our collective response to real, serious problems? That its legal mandate is to enforces laws such as the Clean Air Act that were passed by the peoples' representatives to enhance the peoples' health and well-being? And if you don't think any of this matters, look at what China is experiencing.

A headline in this morning's New York Times begins with "Republicans Vow to Fight E.P.A...."

This particular fight has to do with the EPA's intention to regulate greenhouse gasses, which have become the most serious (by far) air pollution problem humanity has ever faced. But on the right, especially, the EPA has long been a "job killing" whipping boy.  It's a sad commentary on the left's political incompetence that it has allowed the EPA to be portrayed as a villain instead of a hero, and that the right has so completely controlled the narrative in such a perverse way.

Do we, or do we not, want our air and water to be clean? There is every reason to believe that we do, as public polling has consistently shown. Are we willing as a self-governing people to set standards for industry, and for ourselves, that ensure we are as prosperous as possible without fouling our own nest? Previous generations of Americans have already grappled with the problems (such as Cleveland's Cuyahoga River that actually caught on fire) and solutions to our polluted past, but it seems we've forgotten much of what we've learned.

This should not be a hard concept to articulate in the political arena. Explaining and defending the EPA should be tantamount to claiming the political high ground, a kneejerk response, a consistently winning play. And yet, conservatives routinely score political points by attacking the EPA, caricaturing it as an out-of-control bureaucratic Frankenstein, with scant push-back from the left. Attacks on the EPA should provoke a jujitsu-like response that leaves that attacker weakened. Democrats, it seems, don't do jujitsu.

Indeed, the EPA disconnect exemplifies the left's political incompetence, and is an apt illustration of why Democrats fared so poorly in the recent mid-term elections. Democrats are disturbingly inept at explaining what they're for and why, and taking credit for their accomplishments, even as Republicans are skilled at demagoguery and defaming government and public institutions.

A satirical exchange between Jon Stewart and "political analyst" Jordan Klepper on Comedy Central's The Daily Show lays it out in painful detail [my transcription]:

STEWART: For more on the Republicans' mid-term victory we turn to senior political analyst Jordan Klepper. Jordan! Thank you so much. This new un-gridlocked GOP ... Can the GOP follow through on their pledge to get something done for America?

KLEPPER: Can they? Last night, at approximately 11:27 eastern time, the Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate, and results were almost immediate. The economy? Now growing at a robust 3.5 percent! Gas this morning? Under three bucks a gallon! Look [enthusiastically], stock market ... at record levels. Deficit's cut in half. Ten million more Americans have health insurance. And unemployment sub-six percent for the first time since we elected [air quotes] "Chairman Obama."

STEWART: Wwwait, hang on a second Jordan, because the things you're describing ...

KLEPPER [interrupting]: Even Ebola, Jon — think about this! — which was on the verge of destroying the country, under Obama's feckless leadership, has suddenly become a problem for, like, one guy.

[audience laughs]

KLEPPER: It's morning in America, Jon.

STEWART: Jordan, that, that is an incredibly impressive list, that you ticked off, of things that happened under Obama and the Democratic Senate.

KLEPPER [dismissively]: Oh, please, Jon! If Democrats had accomplished all of that, they would have been out there bragging about it for months. It would have been the central message of their campaign, instead of their actual message, which was like — I'm quoting this here — we're sorry, don't be mad! We don't like Obama either. We like guns, too. Amen.

STEWART: Jordan, I ... everything you're describing is exactly how things were before last night.

KLEPPER: No. No. Not from where I'm standing. It's like, suddenly this country ... it's like people are filled with, like, an anticipation ... an optimistic expectation ... it's, it's like a sense ...

STEWART [interrupting]: Hope. It's hope ...

KLEPPER: Right, but it's more than that. It's as though things are going to be ... it's not like they're the same as they once were, they're going to be, they're going to be ... different ... they're going to ...
STEWART [interrupting]: Change! It's hope and change!


STEWART: Hope and change!


STEWART: Alright.

KLEPPER: You feel it too, Jon! Hope and change! That's the Republican message!

STEWART: The Republicans cannot, the Republicans cannot claim that as their message.

KLEPPER: Yes they can! Yes they can! Jon! The American people — they can! — the American people are grateful ... they've already set aside the last Thursday in November as a national holiday to give Republicans thanks for all these blessings.

STEWART: That's not ... that's not the Republicans, that's Thanksgiving ... you can't credit that to the Republicans, it's been around for a hundred and fifty years.

KLEPPER: We disagree. Respectfully, disagree.

STEWART: So things are instantly much better now, but we still have problems ... immigration crisis, income inequality ...

KLEPPER: Yeah, I know, right? F*** [bleep] Obama.

STEWART: Thank you Jordan. Jordan Klepper, everybody. We'll be right back.

It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. Hell, it's funny anyway. And Klepper is right: No competent politician would neglect to trumpet all the good things that have happened on his watch, so it follows that the list of positives all occurred since the big Republican win on November 4. Of course, the only problem is that the old Congress has not yet returned since the election, and the new Congress won't be sworn in until January. Even so, is there a better explanation?

The only one I can think of is that Democrats are not competent politicians. Take Obamacare as an example of abject Democratic failure. Democrats spent the election running away from Barack Obama, and from the law that bears his name: his—and their—signature accomplishment. After all, polls still showed the majority of the public has an unfavorable opinion of the Affordable Care Act (the law's formal title).

And no wonder. The discourse, more like propaganda, has been blistering and entirely one-sided from the beginning, with hardly any Democratic push-back. Democrats never found a way to explain how the law works or what it does, making it especially easy to misrepresent. As far as I can tell, they never really tried.

Consider the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky between incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. Kentucky, unlike many "red" states, chose to implement its own health insurance exchange under the ACA, and (as states are wont to do) branded it "Kynect." Kentucky did a good job with the exchange and web site, the implementation and rollout went well, lots of people got insurance that hadn't previously been able to afford it, and all-in-all Kentuckians were rightfully pleased with what they'd accomplished.

Just one thing. Kentuckians, God love 'em, don't generally understand that Kynect is but a state exchange under the hated Obamacare. Who's going to tell them? Certainly not Alison Lundergan Grimes, the very Grimes who will not be addressed as "Senator" any time soon.

But she should have told them. Why? First, they ought to know, if for no other reason than to decrease the amount of ignorance in the world. Second, such a good outcome for Kentucky is something to take credit for. And third, Mitch McConnell—who in addition to being senator from Kentucky, is also (presently) Senate minority leader—has repeatedly and voraciously vowed to pull out Obamacare "root and branch." If he keeps his promise, Kynect will be no more. Isn't that a discussion Kentuckians ought to have?

For his part, Mitch McConnell has worked hard to avoid acknowledging the Kynect-ACA connection, and has even disingenuously denied it. (So, fourth: McConnell's dishonesty ought to be a potent political issue. Why not shake things up?) Kentuckians seem to have not caught on. McConnell danced around the question by saying that if Kentucky wants to keep Kynect it's fine with him. But he never explained how that is possible (it isn't) if the ACA is repealed. It's a telling parable of the mindlessness of the 2014 mid-term election that Kentuckians don't generally understand that their esteemed Kynect is part of Obamacare, and nobody—particularly the Democrats—tried very hard to inform them.

It's not as if running away from the ACA proved to be a winning strategy. And there was much that could have been said in the law's favor. After all, at this point in time Obamacare is working  better than even its supporters had expected, by every imaginable metric: There were more enrollees than expected, and most have paid their premiums. The percentage of uninsured persons has dropped sharply nationwide. Many are now able to afford health insurance for the first time ever. The rate of increase in health care costs is slower than it has been in decades. Health insurance premiums on the new exchanges were lower than anticipated. Even more insurance companies will be joining the 2015 exchanges than participated in the first year, meaning greater competition and more choices. The solvency of Medicare has been extended by years. And the Congressional Budget Office has scored (dozens of times) the ACA as reducing the national budget deficit in the short, mid, and long term.

Those are the unassailable facts. Against that, Republicans simply assert that Obamacare is a  "failure," and Democrats' meek reply is something along the lines of "sorry about that."

Saying this was a mindless election is an understatement. Republicans had no governing agenda on offer, and apparently didn't need one. Equating every Democrat with Obama was quite enough. Over the summer, Republicans advanced the illogical claim that Central American children intentionally surrendering to U.S. officials at our southern border somehow showed the border is "insecure." Ebola and ISIS (the latter's emergence a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq) darkened the campaign's final months with irrational fear (never good for the incumbent party), and certain GOP politicians warned hysterically that our "insecure" southern border was an open invitation to infected west Africans, terrorists, or infected terrorists. (As I write this there are no Ebola patients being treated in the U.S., nor are any persons in the twenty-one day incubation period. America, for the moment, is Ebola-free. But the hysteria helpfully peaked right before the election.) Democrats ran away from Obama, and from each other, as lambs to the slaughter. Republican strategists were taken aback that Democrats didn't at least highlight some obvious successes to which they might lay claim. Is there a political lesson in here, somewhere? Maybe?

Copyright (C) 2014 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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