For The Foreseeable Future — Charles P. Pierce on how Obamacare became a preexisting condition.
You knew things had gone sideways when they locked up the House. The corridors that lead through the heart of the Capitol, from Senate chamber to House chamber, were still an unnavigable mass of tourists and staffers and journalists, all clustered by the walls and in unruly knots below the various graven images in Statuary Hall. The echoes were an impossible gabble of crying children, overmatched tour guides, angry parents, and television stand-ups from many lands. At about 3:30, when the voting was supposed to start, a small, tough-looking woman from the Capitol Police turned out the lights in one of the small foyers leading to the chamber. She swung the big doors shut and slammed the locks down into the floor. And that was pretty much it. Until, of course, Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, took to a podium in the bowels of the Capitol and said the following.
“Obamacare is the law of the land for the foreseeable future.”
That statement should have come with a sword for Ryan to hand over to Nancy Pelosi who, let it be said, is one legislative badass. She somehow kept her caucus united. There wasn’t even a hint of blue-doggery from her caucus as it sat back and let the Republicans rip each other to shreds, let the president* get exposed as a rookie who should be sent back to A-ball, and let the conservative movement expose itself as graphically as it ever has as the soulless creature of the money power that it’s been for 40 years. Usually, there are some Democrats who either want to make a deal so that Fred Hiatt will send them a Christmas card, or simply because Democrats occasionally can’t help themselves from trying to make the government, you know, actually work. (That nervous tic already is at work concerning the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.)
There was none of that over the past month, while Ryan was trying to formulate what he gamely referred to as a “member-driven” process. That’s precisely what it was. The Freedom Caucus cultist had Ryan by the member and they drove the process over a cliff. Watching in that great Caucus Room In The Sky, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, and Tip O’Neill poured out another round and hoisted their glasses at what Pelosi and her team accomplished.
“Today is a great day for our country,” Pelosi said during a news conference. “It’s a victory. What happened on the floor is a victory for the American people—for our seniors, for people with disabilities, for our children, for our veterans.”
A strange week came to a bizarre conclusion. The way word first got around that the healthcare bill was dead was that the president* called Robert Costa of The Washington Post, told him “We pulled the bill,” and Costa then tweeted it out into the great maw of the universe, most notably, those precincts of it that had gathered in the halls of the Capitol. It is a remarkable political defeat suffered by a Republican president at the hands of a Congress controlled by his own party. George W. Bush got bipartisan support for his massive tax cut, Ronald Reagan for his radical 1981 budget. For a historical precedent for what happened Friday, you have to go back to the rocky relationship between Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Speaker O’Neill in the mid-1970s. Carter walked into the White House with a 149-seat majority in the House and an equally massive advantage in the Senate. Then, as essayist Walter Karp pointed out:
The Speaker’s knife has been busy since the Inaugural. Hamilton Jordan sent him, he claims, some inferior back-row seats for an Inaugural celebration, which may or may not be so; Jordan himself adamantly denies it. “I said to Jordan,” the Speaker tells reporters, “‘when a guy is Speaker of the House and gets tickets like this, he figures there’s a reason behind it.’ ” According to the Speaker, the President’s chief political adviser then replied: “‘If you don’t like it I’ll send back the dollars.’ ” To which incredible insult to the most powerful man on Capitol Hill the Speaker tells the press he replied: ” ‘I’ll ream you out, you son-of-a-bitch.'” Such is bonhomous Tip’s story, word for word, as it appears in the New York Times Magazine on July 24, 1977, by which time it is a twice-told tale destined for a not-insignificant place in the history books.
That was a simple institutional, insider-outsider brawl. What happened to the Republicans this week was different by an order of magnitude. They cored themselves out as a party. They allowed the most extreme element in their caucus to set rules that became untenable and would have been even if Paul Ryan was as good a Speaker as Nancy Pelosi once was. By the middle of the week, the bill was caught in an impossible whipsaw of political imperatives. To get the Freedom Caucus cultists on board, the president* and Speaker Ryan had to make the bill even more cruel and punitive—Work requirements for Medicaid? Men asking why they had to pay for some woman’s maternity care?—and, having done so, it scared the daylights over what passes for a moderate faction in the House Republican caucus. The negotiations bounced impotently back and forth for three days, going absolutely nowhere. On Friday, the White House took its ball and went home.
On Friday, the White House took its ball and went home.
“We were a 10-year opposition party where being against things was easy to do,” Ryan said. “And now, in three months’ time, we’ve tried to go to a governing party, where we have to actually get … people to agree with each other in how we do things.” Of course, since 2010, the House has had a Republican majority and a Republican speaker. There have been two of them—John Boehner and Ryan. The crazy caucus ran Boehner out of office and now, they’ve handed Ryan his head. Pro Tip: it’s not you, boys. It’s your party.
“I always thought the House was going to be the easier part,” said Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania. “I thought they’d run into tremendous difficulties in the Senate but I always assumed, given their pretty big majority in the House, that they’d be able to get this through. I also think all the people who showed up at the town halls, and flooded our congressional offices with phone calls, or in person, made a big difference. These were people who wanted to save their healthcare.”
So, it turns out that Butcher’s Bill Kristol was right, all those years ago, when he wrote his famous strategy memo advising the Republicans in Congress to do everything they could to derail President Bill Clinton’s try at reforming healthcare. Kristol warned that, if Clinton succeeded, then people would find they enjoyed having good health insurance and it would be impossible to dislodge them from it, and the Democrats would have a generational advantage the way they built one with Social Security and Medicare. At least Kristol made more sense than Ryan, who went on the radio and bragged that getting rid of a federal entitlement was a epochal political triumph of the same order as, say, the Louisiana Purchase.
There are still several ways for the Republicans to sabotage further the ACA. They’re still talking like automatons about buying insurance across state lines and about tort reform, as if either of those will expand coverage or bring down costs in such a way as to maintain a decent quality of care. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price is as extreme as anyone in the Freedom Caucus, and he’s in charge of the second and third prongs of the Republican healthcare strategy. Of course, it’s possible that the president* simply will blame Ryan or the Democrats and then move on to something else. The man has the attention span of a flea.
To be fair, the president* took the defeat rather better than I thought he would, which is to say he blamed the Democrats, repeated claim that the Affordable Care Act is gasping its last breath, and was so fulsome in his sympathy for Paul Ryan that, were I Ryan, I’d hire a food taster. Somebody’s going to pay for this. You can be sure of that. Meanwhile, as Paul Ryan said, Obamacare remains the law of the land. The Rotunda was still packed with tourists when the news came down and you wondered how many people there had somehow been helped by the Affordable Care Act. Maybe it’s that elderly gent looking up at the statue of Huey Long, or that kid in the wheelchair paused beneath Norman Borlaug. Obamacare is now a pre-existing condition, and a damned stubborn one at that.
Blameless — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on how it’s never Trump’s fault.
Speaking in the Oval Office Friday afternoon, President Trump surveyed the wreckage of the Obamacare repeal effort and issued a crisp, definitive verdict: I didn’t do it.The president said he didn’t blame Speaker Paul Ryan, though he had plenty of implied criticism for the speaker. “I like Speaker Ryan. He worked very hard,” Trump said, but he added: “I’m not going to speak badly about anybody within the Republican Party. Certainly there’s a big history. I really think Paul worked hard.” He added ruefully that the GOP could have taken up tax-reform first, instead of Obamacare—the reverse of Ryan’s desired sequence. “Now we’re going to go for tax reform, which I’ve always liked,” he said.As for the House Freedom Caucus, the bloc of conservatives from which many of the apparent “no” votes on the Republican plan were to come, Trump said, “I’m not betrayed. They’re friends of mine. I’m disappointed because we could’ve had it. So I’m disappointed. I’m a little surprised, I could tell you.”The greatest blame for the bill’s failure fell on Democrats, Trump said. “This really would’ve worked out better if we could’ve had Democrat support. Remember we had no Democrat support,” Trump said. Later, he added, “But when you get no votes from the other side, meaning the Democrats, it’s really a difficult situation.”He said Democrats should come up with their own bill. “I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, because they own Obamacare,” he said, referring to the House and Senate Democratic leaders. “They 100 percent own it.”Trump was very clear about who was not to blame: himself. “I worked as a team player,” the president of the United States said, demoting himself to bit-player status. He wanted to do tax reform first, after all, and it was still early. “I’ve been in office, what, 64 days? I’ve never said repeal and replace Obamacare within 64 days. I have a long time. I want to have a great health-care bill and plan and we will.”Strictly speaking, it is true that Trump didn’t promise to repeal Obamacare on day 64 of his administration. What he told voters, over and over during the campaign, was that he’d do it immediately. On some occasions he or top allies even promised to do it on day 1. Now he and his allies are planning to drop the bill for the foreseeable future.
It is surely not wrong that there is lots of blame to go around. Congressional Republicans had years to devise a plan, and couldn’t come up with one that would win a majority in the House, despite a 44-seat advantage. The House bill was an unpopular one, disliked by conservatives and moderates in that chamber; almost certainly dead on arrival in the Senate; and deeply unpopular with voters. Even before the vote was canceled, unnamed White House officials were telling reporters that the plan was to pin the blame on Ryan.
But aside from their role in passing the Affordable Care Act seven years ago, Democrats are perhaps the one faction with the least blame for Friday’s fiasco. As much as they might have wished to claim credit, the opposition party was nearly a non-factor in the wrangling. There was never any intention to design a replacement plan that would attract Democratic votes, in part because of the huge Republican margin in the chamber. The Democrats surely owned Obamacare before, but given GOP control of the House, Senate, and White House, Friday seems to mark the day that Republicans came into ownership.Trump’s quick disavowal of any role in the collapse fits with an emerging pattern: The president never takes the blame for anything that goes wrong. What about his claim that President Obama “wiretapped” him? “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it,” Trump said during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week. “That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox. And so you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”How about his claim, during the presidential campaign, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination?
“Well, that was in a newspaper,” he told Time’s Michael Scherer this week. (The National Enquirer, to be specific.) “No, no, I like Ted Cruz, he’s a friend of mine. But that was in the newspaper. I wasn’t, I didn’t say that. I was referring to a newspaper.”
The ruling by a federal court in Washington state against Trump’s Muslim travel ban? The work of a “so-called judge,” Trump tweeted, and even he preemptively dumped the blame for any future terror attack on the courts for a decision that “essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country.”
Trump’s approach to the presidency thus far has rejected the mantra of his predecessor Harry S Truman, who famously placed a sign on his desk indicating that he was the final decisionmaker: “The buck stops here.” Trump, by contrast, is quick to pass the buck.
Assuming the public accepts it, this choice has both upsides and downsides. On the one hand, it means that Trump is never to blame for anything. On the other, if he’s so irrelevant, why should anyone pay attention to him or take his proposals and ideas seriously?
I recently had a brief chat with a hundred-year-old Jew. His name is Manuel Bromberg, and he’s a resident of Woodstock, New York. Mr. Bromberg had written me a letter, to tell me that he had read and liked my latest book, and in the letter he mentioned that in a few days he would be hitting the century mark, so I thought I’d call him up and wish him a happy hundredth.
An accomplished artist and professor for most of his very long life, Mr. Bromberg painted murals for the W.P.A. and served as an official war artist for the U.S. Army during the Second World War, accompanying the Allied invasion of Europe with paints, pencils, and sketch pad, his path smoothed and ways opened to him by the presence in his pocket of a pass signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, just like the Eisenhower pass carried by “my grandfather,” the nameless protagonist of my novel. After the war, this working-class boy from Cleveland rode the G.I. Bill to a distinguished career as a serious painter, sculptor, and university professor.
Mr. Bromberg sounded strong and thoughtful and sharp as a tack on the other end of the line, his voice in my ear a vibrant connection not just to the man himself but to the times he had lived through, to the world he was born into, a world in which the greater part of Jewry lived under the Czar, the Kaiser, and the Hapsburg Emperor, in whose army Adolf Hitler was a corporal. As we chatted, I realized that I was talking to a man almost exactly the same age as my grandfather, were he still alive—I mean my real grandfather, Ernest Cohen, some of whose traits, behaviors, and experiences, along with those of his brothers, brothers-in-law, and other men of their generation in my family, of Mr. Bromberg’s generation, helped me to shape the life and adventures of the hero of that book, as my memories of my grandmothers and their sisters and sisters-in-law helped shape my understanding of that book’s “my grandmother.”
Then Mr. Bromberg mentioned that he had now moved on to another novel of mine, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” and he wanted to tell me about another connection between his life and the world of my books: when he was in junior high, in Cleveland, Ohio, his chief rival for the title of School’s Most Talented Artist was a four-eyed, acne-faced wunderkind named Joe Shuster. One day in the mid-nineteen-thirties, in the school locker room, Mr. Bromberg told me, Joe Shuster came to him looking for his opinion on some new drawings: pencil sketches of a stylized cartoon strongman cavorting in a pair of circus tights, with a big letter-S insignia on his chest. To the young Mr. Bromberg, they seemed to be nothing more than competent figure drawings, but Shuster seemed to be very excited about this “Superman” character that he and a friend had come up with. “I have to be honest with you, Michael,” Mr. Bromberg told me, in a confidential tone. “I was not impressed.”
After we talked, I found myself reflecting on the way that, with his Eisenhower pass and his connection to the golden age of comic books, with his creative aspirations rooted equally in hard work and the highbrow, in blue collar and the avant-garde, Mr. Bromberg had been able to find so much of himself in my writing, as so many Mr. Brombergs, in various guises, can be found in the pages of my books. I think there are a few reasons that the lives of that generation of American Jews have formed my fiction. The first is that I have always been—to a fault, it has at times seemed—a good boy. At family gatherings, at weddings and bar mitzvahs, from the time I was small, among all my siblings and cousins, I always felt a sense of dutifulness about hanging out with the old people, enduring their interrogations, remedying their ignorance of baffling modern phenomena, such as Wacky Packages or David Bowie, and, above all, listening to their reminiscences. As the extent of my sense of obligation about serving this function became apparent, I was routinely left behind with the Aunt Ruths and the Uncle Jacks and the Cousin Tobys, not just by my peers and coevals but by our parents, too. Even to this day, at the weddings and bar mitzvahs of other families, you will often find me sitting alone at a table with an Uncle Jack completely unrelated to me, patiently listening to the story of the plastic-folding-rain-bonnet business he started in Rochester in 1948 with a three-hundred-dollar loan from somebody else’s Aunt Ruth, a story that all of his own relatives tired of hearing years ago, if they ever paid attention at all.
The dutifulness of a good boy is not, of course, the whole explanation. I’m not that good. The thing is, I have always wanted to hear the stories, the memories, the remembrances of vanished Brooklyn, or vanished South Philly, or even, dim and sepia-toned and far away, vanished Elizavetgrad, vanished Vilna. I have always wanted to hear the stories of lost wonders, of how noon was turned dark as night by vast flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, of Ebbets Field and five-cent all-day Saturday matinées and Horn & Hardart automats, and I have always been drawn to those rare surviving things—a gaudy Garcia y Vega cigar box, a lady swimming in a rubber bathing cap covered in big rubber flowers, Mr. Bromberg—that speak, mutely or eloquently, of a time and a place and a generation that will soon be gone from the face of the earth.
My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.
More than ten years ago now, my cousin Susan, a daughter of my mother’s Uncle Stanley, forwarded me some reminiscences of Stanley’s childhood that he had set down just as his health was failing. Besides my grandfather, Uncle Stan was always my favorite among the male relatives of that generation: witty, charming, and refined, with a deceptively sweet and gentle way of being sardonic and even, on occasion, sharp-tongued. He was a professor, a scholar of medieval German who for many years was also the dean of humanities at the University of Texas. A Guggenheim fellow and Fulbright scholar, Stan was fluent in a number of languages, not least among them Yiddish; during his tenure as dean he created a Yiddish-studies program at U.T. He had been an intelligence officer in Italy during the Second World War, and was decorated for his service during the fierce battle of Monte Cassino.
His reminiscences—or fragmentary memoir, as I came to think of it—ignored all that. It was a delightful document, all too brief, a shaggy and rambling but vivid account of his early life as the son of typical Jewish-immigrant parents, in Philadelphia and Richmond. It featured memories of the godlike lifeguards and the Million-Dollar Pier, at Atlantic City; of stealing turnips and playing Civil War, in Richmond, with boys who were the grandsons of Confederate soldiers; of neighbors who brewed their own beer during Prohibition; of his father’s numerous unlucky business ventures; of his mother hauling wet laundry up from the basement to hang it out on the line, where, in the wintertime, it froze solid.
But what stood out for me most vividly in Uncle Stanley’s memories was the omnipresence and the warmth of his memories of his many aunts, uncles, and cousins, who seemed to take up as much room in his little memoir as his siblings and parents. In the geographically and emotionally close world they lived in, Stan’s extended family of parents’ siblings, their spouses and their siblings and their spouses, and, apparently, huge numbers of first, second, third, and more distant cousins, was just that—an all but seamless extension of the family he lived in. That’s how it was in those days. Somebody came to Philadelphia from Russia, and then his brother came, and then another brother, and pretty soon there were fifty people living in the same couple of neighborhoods in Philly, a kind of community within the community, connected not merely by blood or ties of affection but also by the everyday commitments, debts, responsibilities, disputes, tensions, and small pleasures that make up the daily life of a family.
When I was growing up, it wasn’t like that anymore. My parents moved seven times before I was seven years old, back and forth across the country. I had a lot of second cousins and great-aunts and great-uncles, and I used to see them—and be abandoned to their company—at weddings, bar mitzvahs, et cetera. Listening to those stories, I always felt a kind of a lack, a wistfulness, a sense of having missed something. Reading Stan’s memoir, looping and wandering as his thoughts were as he lay contending with his illness, seemed to connect me, briefly but powerfully, to all that vanished web of connections.
Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
“Thank you, Mr. Bromberg,” I said, just before I hung up, not sure what I was thanking him for, exactly, but overcome with gratitude all the same, both of us aware, I suppose, as we made tentative plans to meet sometime soon, or at least to talk again, that the next time I called there might be no one on the other end of the line.
Doonesbury — Black privilege.