Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Return of the Welfare Queen — Beth Reinhard in The Atlantic reports that Republicans are bringing back the stereotypes of poor people on assistance and inciting class warfare.  Ironically, some of their staunchest supporters of the tactic are living on government assistance as their sole source of income.

The mythical welfare queen was accused of driving a Cadillac and pumping out babies to keep the government checks coming; under the “food-stamp president,” as Republican Newt Gingrich dubbed Obama, she (or he) nets free healthcare and expensive shellfish.

“Newscasts tell stories of young surfers who aren’t working but cash their food stamps in for lobster,” wrote Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy in a memo before the House vote, referring to a California beach bum who flaunted his food-stamp-financed lifestyle on Fox News. “Costing taxpayers $80 billion a year, middle-class families struggling to make ends meet themselves foot the bill for a program that has gone well beyond a safety net for children, seniors, and the disabled.”

The facts defy the stereotypes. The largest group of food-stamp recipients is white; 45 percent of all beneficiaries are children; and most people eligible for Medicaid are families with children in which at least one person in the household has a job. But pitting makers against takers is simply smart, hardball politics for some Republicans. McConnell, Cassidy, and Ernst all face GOP primaries that will be largely decided by a mostly white conservative base that hates the welfare state.


To understand Kentucky’s conflicted relationship with the federal government, 50 years after hosting President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the “War on Poverty,” is to meet Terry Rupe. The 63-year-old widower can’t remember the last time he voted for a Democrat, and he’s got nothing nice to say about Obama. He’s also never had health insurance, although he started working at age 9. Since his wife’s death four years ago, he’s been taking care of their 40-year-old, severely disabled daughter full time. She gets Medicaid and Medicare assistance.

“I don’t have any use for the federal government,” Rupe said, even though his household’s $13,000 yearly income comes exclusively from Washington. “It’s a bunch of liars, crooks, and thieves, and they’ve never done anything for me. I’m not ungrateful, but I don’t have much faith in this healthcare law. Do I think it’s going to work? No. Do I think it’s going to bankrupt the country? Yes.”

Rupe sounds like he could be standing on a soapbox at a Tea Party rally, but he happens to be sitting in a back room at the Family Health Centers’ largest clinic in Louisville—signing up for Medicaid. Rupe, who is white, insists that illegal immigrants from Mexico and Africa get more government assistance than he does. (Illegal immigrants do not, in fact, qualify for Medicaid or coverage under the Affordable Care Act.)

He’s not alone in thinking this way. A majority of whites believe the healthcare law will make things worse for them and their families, according to a United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.

“President Obama’s idea is taking from the working people to give to the people who won’t take care of themselves. It’s redistribution of wealth,” Rupe said. “I’ve always taken care of myself. You got these young girls who go out and get pregnant and then they get $1,500 a month for having a kid, so they have two.”

On the other side of town, Adele Anderson was signing up for Medicaid at a public library. The white, middle-aged woman makes $10 an hour as a child-care provider; she also gets $86 a month in food stamps. She was unaware that Republicans voted to cut $40 billion over 10 years from what’s called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “Democrats are too liberal,” Anderson said. “They just want to give handouts.”

The disdain she and Rupe show toward living on the government dole at the very moment they are doing just that is typical in a state that distrusts Washington as much as it needs federal help.

How The N.R.A. Does It — Robert Draper in The New York Times magazine on the power of the gun lobby.

To get to Joe Manchin’s private office in the Hart Senate Office Building, you first pass through a lobby where you encounter a small bronze statue of an Old West lawman holding a firearm — an award given to Manchin several years ago by a chapter of the National Rifle Association for his unswerving defense of gun rights. Then you turn down a hallway, past several framed photographs of children who were victims of the massacre a year ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The combination of the bronze rifleman in the lobby and the young faces on the wall suggests a particular viewpoint — I stand with gun lovers; I stand with victims of gun violence — that qualifies, in Washington anyway, as being nuanced, which is to say politically ill advised if not suicidal.

Even sitting behind his stately wooden desk in a suit and tie, Manchin, who is 66, possesses the craggy appearance of a small-town sheriff. As he proclaimed to me one morning in September, “I enjoy my guns, and my family enjoys their guns.” And indeed, Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, won election to the U.S. Senate in 2010 partly on the strength of a memorable TV ad depicting him firing a bullet through President Obama’s cap-and-trade bill that had been anathema to coal miners in his state. But Manchin’s outlook changed the day he came back from a hunting trip last December, having learned of the 20 children and six adults slaughtered at Sandy Hook. That unique horror motivated him in a way that other recent mass shootings in Tucson and Aurora, Colo., had not.

“To sit here and do nothing, I could’ve done that all day long,” Manchin said. “Let this be the happy retirement home.” Instead, for the first time in his 30-year political career, he acted against the N.R.A.’s wishes. He introduced legislation that would require universal background checks for commercial sales. Background checks have been federally mandated for firearm purchases from licensed dealers since 1994. The bill would have extended them to gun shows and all Internet sales. Manchin was aware that universal background checks would not have prevented the Newtown killings, because the shooter, Adam Lanza, used firearms that were legally purchased by his mother. Nonetheless, a confluence of factors at the time favored his efforts: a newly re-elected Democratic president personally stung by the gun tragedies that took place on his watch; a fractious and self-doubting Republican Party; the seemingly bottomless financial resources of the New York mayor and ardent gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg, whose alliance of more than a thousand mayors throughout the United States, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, would sponsor an aggressive wave of TV ads; and the forceful but sympathetic lobbying presence of Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who had been shot in the head in Tucson, along with the voices of the Newtown parents whose children were killed. Given this climate and the overwhelming public support for universal background checks, even the N.R.A. was braced for the passage of some version of Manchin’s gun-control bill.

But no version did pass. Four months after the Newtown shooting, on April 17, the bill failed to win the necessary votes to make it through the Senate. The most fearsome lobbying organization in America prevailed once again. Other victories would soon follow. On the day before I visited Manchin’s office in September, two state senators who spearheaded a recent passage of tough gun-control legislation in Colorado were recalled — another triumph for the N.R.A., despite having been outspent by Bloomberg’s group. (A third Colorado state senator who supported the bill announced her retirement last month in the face of a recall.) Not long after that, a mentally unhinged gunman at the Washington Navy Yard, less than two miles from the Senate office buildings, killed 12 employees. In his eulogy for the victims, the president noted somberly: “Once more our hearts are broken. Once more we ask why.” But few were asking why Joe Manchin or some other senator wasn’t out trying to round up more votes for his bill. If the murder of 20 schoolchildren had proved insufficient motivation to address gun violence in America, this killing was not enough to persuade anyone to take on the N.R.A. again.

“As far as putting on a full-court press, I don’t see that happening,” Manchin told me in his office. “And I don’t hear much conversation about it.” The defeat of the bill has added to the legend of the gun lobby’s brawn. Though the N.R.A.’s opponents still question whether the group is really as indomitable as it is perceived, at a certain point, political mythology engineers its own reality. One recently retired congressman from a conservative district told me, “That was the one group where I said, ‘As long as I’m in office, I’m not bucking the N.R.A.’ ”

One Country Saved Its Jews — Michael Ignatieff reviews the book Countrymen which tells how Denmark spared its Jews from the Holocaust.

When, in October 1943, the Gestapo came to round up the 7,500 Jews of Copenhagen, the Danish police did not help them to smash down the doors. The churches read letters of protest to their congregations. Neighbors helped families to flee to villages on the Baltic coast, where local people gave them shelter in churches, basements, and holiday houses and local fishermen loaded up their boats and landed them safely in neutral Sweden. Bo Lidegaard, the editor of the leading Danish newspaper Politiken, has retold this story using astonishingly vivid unpublished material from families who escaped, and the testimony of contemporary eyewitnesses, senior Danish leaders (including the king himself), and even the Germans who ordered the roundups. The result is an intensely human account of one episode in the persecution of European Jews that ended in survival.

The story may have ended well, but it is a complex tale. The central ambiguity is that the Germans warned the Jews and let most of them escape. Lidegaard claims this was because the Danes refused to help the Germans, but the causation might also have worked in the other direction. It was when the Danes realized that the Germans were letting some Jews go that they found the courage to help the rest of their Jewish community escape. Countrymen is a fascinating study in the ambiguity of virtue.

The Danes knew long before the war that their army could not resist a German invasion. Instead of overtly criticizing Hitler, the Social Democratic governments of the 1930s sought to inoculate their populations against the racist ideology next door. It was in those ominous years that the shared identity of all Danes as democratic citizens was drummed into the political culture, just in time to render most Danes deeply resistant to the Nazi claim that there existed a “Jewish problem” in Denmark. Lidegaard’s central insight is that human solidarity in crisis depended on the prior consolidation of a decent politics, on the creation of a shared political imagination. Some Danes did harbor anti-Semitic feelings, but even they understood the Jews to be members of a political community, and so any attack on them was an attack on the Danish nation as such.

Doonesbury — Home for the holidays.