Oct 30 2009

David Swanson on healthcare debate, Bruce Dixon on the ‘public option’


Download MP3

This week on CounterSpin: Making sense of the health care debate. In the past week we’ve supposedly seen the comeback of public and political support for the public option, in some form or another. We’re also told that Democratic majority leader Harry Reid must gather 60 votes to pass any bill. Is any of that true or is media coverage of political possibilities off base? Author and activist David Swanson will join us to try and untangle these story lines.

Also, Progressives and others interested in truly universal healthcare, as in healthcare that would cover everyone, have been more or less prodded in recent months to give up the idea of a single payer system—dismissed as it’s been for years by not corporate press corps as not politically viable—and to get behind the public option, presented as single payer’s less ideal but more achievable variant. But does the public option as it’s now presented have anything at all to do with healthcare that covers everyone? We’ll talk with Bruce Dixon, managing editor of Black Agenda Report, about that.

That’s coming up, but first as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—With all the attention on the public option in the health care debate, some important pundits are warning that there’s something else going on. Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt warned on October 26 that the “public option” is just a backdoor way to bring a single-payer system to the United States:

Private companies would have to raise their rates, so more people would choose the public plan, so private rates would rise further—and we could end up with only the public option and no competition at all. Single-payer national health insurance may be the best outcome, but we should get there after an honest debate, not through the back door.

Well, on the same day Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson hit on the same theme:

Many would say: Whoopee! Get rid of the sinister insurers. Bring on a single-payer system. But if that’s the agenda, why not debate it directly?…That’s the debate we need, but in truth, doctors, hospitals and patients don’t want to be limited, whether by government or markets. Congress reflects public opinion. Fearing a real debate, we fake it.

Two columns in the same paper declaring the need for a true single-payer debate? This is good news. One of these guys should speak to an editor at the Post who could encourage more op-eds about single payer, which has faced a virtual blackout in the corporate media debate. Maybe Fred Hiatt could speak to the person who runs the opinion pages at the Washington Post; after all, what better place to encourage a Washington debate?

Wait—isn’t that Fred Hiatt’s job?

—James Zogby used to be considered a reputable pollster. But of late he’s made it clear that he’ll ask just about any question someone pays him to ask—no matter how loaded or offensive. He hit a new low recently with a poll he did for right-wing pundit Brad O’Leary, that actually asked this question:

Federal Communications Commission Chief Diversity Czar Mark Lloyd wants the FCC to force good white people in positions of power in the broadcast industry to step down to make room for more African-Americans and gays to fill those positions. Do you agree or disagree that this presents a threat to free speech?

Boy—forcing good white people to step down to make room for African-Americans and gays—kind of sounds as though Zogby were doing polling for the Ku Klux Klan. Strikingly, as slanted as this question is, he only got 51 percent of the people he polled to agree with it; maybe some of the other 49 percent rightly smelled a rat. The question, of course, is based on a distortion of something Lloyd actually said, which was an honest acknowledgment of the moral dilemma you face when certain classes of people have been systematically excluded from media power; as Lloyd put it, “Unless we are conscious of the need to have more people of color, gays, other people in those positions, we will not change the problem.” Zogby claimed that quality control processes had broken down, but really twisting words to offer red meat to McCarthyites like Glen Beck is something that no responsible pollster would having started doing in the first place.

—On his October 22 show, CNN host Lou Dobbs had some supposedly big news on—you guessed it—immigration:

New evidence that the American public wants action on the illegal immigration crisis in this country. A new CNN poll finds the vast majority of the American public wants illegal immigration stopped and most want illegal immigrants now in the country to leave.

Well for starters, the poll he’s talking about found that 37 percent of people want illegal immigrants removed immediately, which is not most people. But what Dobbs did with the results of a strangely-phrased poll was another matter. As CNN reporter Lisa Sylvester put it, “These polling numbers show that comprehensive immigration reform is going to be a tough sell.” Sylvester added that Barack Obama still supports such reform. Funny, though, the poll never asked anything like that at all. But when you look at polls that do, you find that mostly people are open to some sort of overhaul of the country’s immigration laws. An April survey from ABC/Washington Post, for example, asked if people supported giving illegal immigrants a path to legal citizenship, 61 percent said yes. A CBS poll around the same time found a similar result.

So maybe some of the people who say they want illegal immigration stopped don’t mean it the same way Lou Dobbs means it. So then this CNN poll by itself doesn’t tell us much of anything about the immigration debate. It does, however, give Lou Dobbs one more chance to mislead viewers on his favorite subject.

—It’s not every day that a president is compared to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all at the same time. No, we’re not talking about right-wing talkers and Barack Obama; this is the November 2 issue of Newsweek magazine, and the president is the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. As the magazine’s Latin America correspondent Mac Margolis sees it, there’s something a little creepy about the fact that Chávez has put money into a public film studio, including facilities that are intended to be used by Venezuelan filmmakers. They call it Cinemaville, though Newsweek tells us that “many Venezuelans just call it Hugowood.”

But building a movie studio is not the real problem as Margolis sees it; as he put it, Chávez “courts Hizbullah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is stockpiling Russian-made fighter jets and tanks, and has given aid and comfort to Colombian narcoguerrillas.” That last one’s actually just a charge made against Chávez by his opponents, but no matter—remember, it’s Hugo Chávez’s clunky propaganda that we’re supposed to be concerned with. Margolis went on to write, “Like the 20th-century autocrats he emulates, Chávez is fascinated by the power of cinema. Ever since Hitler turned to Leni Riefenstahl…” well, you don’t need to read much more than that.

—And finally, investigative journalist Jack Nelson died October 21. Nelson played a key early role in unraveling the Watergate scandal but may be best remembered for his work covering the civil rights movement in the South, including the Selma to Montgomery freedom march. As Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, Nelson produced powerful stories about the FBI’s use of informants and agents provocateur in the civil rights movement. In 1968, he uncovered the truth behind an incident in which three black students were shot to death and 27 others wounded by state troopers at South Carolina State College, a black college in Orangeburg. The troopers claimed that the students had charged them, throwing bottles and bricks. But Nelson got hold of victims’ medical records, which told a different story, revealing shots in the soles of victims’ feet and in the backs of their heads. But, as Nelson noted in an interview,

Even today, if you ask somebody about the Orangeburg massacre, hardly anybody has a clue. But if you ask about Kent State, where it was white people, everybody knows about it.

Deemed an official enemy by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for his work, Nelson serves as a reminder that there are some reporters who prefer grilling powerful officials to sipping cocktails with them.


CounterSpin: It seems like every couple of weeks we are at another turning point in the health care debate. As it stands now, the public option is apparently very popular, and that public shift has pushed the Democrats to take some sort of action. Either that or Harry Reid is merely trying to placate the left-wing base of the party, who are really the only ones who like this business about a public option to begin with. It might not matter anyway, because we’re told that anything that passes the Senate requires 60 votes. Does any of this make any kind of sense? And what about an actual public health plan?

Joining us now to talk about where things stand is author and activist David Swanson. His new book, Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union is out now from Seven Stories Press.

David, welcome back to CounterSpin.

David Swanson: Great to be back.

CS: Let’s start with that public option; we’ve talked about this before, but the media consensus seems to be that the public has warmed to the public option, based on some polls showing that the idea is getting support from over half the public. That has pushed the Democrats to be a little bolder about pushing an idea that the pundits have been saying for weeks is way too far to the left. How important, do you think, are these polls about the public option?

DS: They’re very important to me; I’m not convinced they’re of the greatest importance to the Democrats in Congress. I think it’s been the activism around it that’s had significance and the actual taking of a stand by the more progressive members in the House, committing to voting no unless there is a so-called robust public option, which, for many of them, of course, was a dramatic compromise down from an actual Medicare for all single-payer healthcare system. But, of course, what robust means has never been exactly agreed upon by everyone, and by most arguments what has come out in the House bill is not robust, and so it remains to be seen which of those members now is going to vote no having committed to vote no and which are going to say well this is better than nothing, I’m going to go with it.

CS: Do you think there’s something strange about the Washington Post pushing this poll idea so hard and even liberals, MSNBC like Keith Olbermann are giving a lot of weight to this. From where we sit, single payer has often been very popular in the polls, but I don’t recall anyone saying the public has now demanded Medicare for all?

DS: [Laughing] That’s an excellent point. It has been by most polls, a strong majority of Americans for decades have been willing even to increase their taxes in order to provide Americans with a healthcare system like most wealthy countries have, where everyone is simply covered, and healthcare is a right rather than a perk or a privilege. And it’s just been blocked out, blocked out by the media, blocked out by the more progressive members in the House who opened this negotiation by agreeing with the President to not mention single payer, and blocked out by activist groups who sort of do an astroturf maneuver where they go and ask the Democratic leadership in Congress, what should we ask our members to lobby you to do.

Whereas, of course, most of the members of these labor unions and activist groups want single payer, they’ve been holding rallies around the country for months now where you’re not supposed to mention single payer. The problem with that, of course, is that it makes the public option the left side of the debate, and then the middle ground and the compromise becomes something much less than that, which is where we are now.

CS: I want to ask you about activism because all the while throughout all this single payer activism has actually been picking up especially in the last couple of weeks. Again the media blackout has been almost total. I think it was someone named David Swanson who once pointed out that not many people are pushing for or are willing to get arrested for a public option but people are willing to do that for single payer.

DS: Oh, absolutely, and as we speak, some good friends of mine, doctors, are risking serious jail time, violating the probation they are under having protested previously in a Senate Committee hearing, chaired by Senator Baucus, having spoken up out of turn, having been denied a place at the table. And you can imagine the size of this movement were there a push by any of our elected officials for single payer here in Washington.

Of course there’s been a very marginal push, Congressman Kucinich successfully put in an amendment back in July that would have made it much easier for states to do single payer at the state level, which is the most likely path to success, I think. It parallels how Canada got it with one province first. And that was passed with bipartisan support in July.

Speaker Pelosi has now unceremoniously stripped it out. In addition Congressman Anthony Weiner from New York, put in an amendment in another committee back in July to have a national Medicare for all plan, and Chairman Waxman told Congressman Weiner publicly in the committee hearing, Nancy Pelosi has agreed to give you a floor vote on that if you will back off and not insist on a committee vote, and Congressman Weiner said fine.

Well, now Nancy Pelosi has gone back on her word and will deny that floor vote. So the single payer movement is left with nowhere to go but to say vote this bill down—it’s worse than nothing, and those who have really pushed honestly for a robust public option where that meant something significant I think are in the same position. They have to push now for voting this bill down. And if those groups unite and push for that and are successful, then we start round two with a more honest and open and wide-ranging debate.

CS: Now, you’re in the phase now of counting votes and certainly that’s what majority leader Harry Reid is doing and this is the big storyline that’s, I think, washing over this entire debate: the idea he needs 60 votes in the Senate in order to pass some kind of public option. The Democratic caucus theoretically has 60 people in it, but this is still presented as some unusual hurdle, and it might strike readers or viewers as an odd thing anyway—why does something need to have 60 votes to pass by a majority vote? Explain where the 60 vote thing comes from since the media seem to not want to do that.

DS: Well there’s a rule in the Senate rule book that’s been changed many times through our history. We got through most of our nation’s history without it being there at all, it’s not in the Constitution, it’s not in the Holy Bible, it’s just a rule, and 51 Senators can change any rule at any time, but it’s a filibuster rule which says that you need three fifths of the Senators, that is to say 60 of the Senators, in order to cut off debate and have a vote. And so any 41 Senators can say we filibuster, and they’re not made to stand up a made to read dictionaries all night, they just say we filibuster and that’s the extent of it. They could be made to stand up and read dictionaries all night, but they typically are not.

And so you can have 41 Senators representing at the lowest level 11 percent of Americans block all legislation in the Senate, and therefore most legislation in the House as well. And that is the most anti-democratic thing imaginable, and yet all the Senators from both parties, plus Senator Sanders, treat it as inviolable, as if it is much more important to Americans with untreated diseases and illnesses to maintain the filibuster rule than it is to get healthcare. And of course if they threw out the filibuster rule they would have a much better playing field across all issues, not just healthcare.

Instead, the extreme of the proposals has been to use a reconciliation bill that could maneuver a healthcare bill through the Senate without facing a filibuster. But of course that would leave us with nowhere to go on the Employee Free Choice Act or any other issue. You would still have that 60 vote hurdle and the problem of course is that the Democrats don’t effectively pressure their 60 members to get in line and the Republicans do successfully pressure their 40 members to get in line, and that puts all the power in the hands of someone like Senator Lieberman.

CS: But technically, once they got past that cloture vote and were actually at the stage of voting for or against healthcare reform, it’s a 50-vote margin again, isn’t it?

DS: Oh absolutely, yes. You may have a couple of cloture votes in the process, but once you have a cloture vote on whether to have the vote, then you just have the vote. And at that point you just need 50 plus 1, you just need a majority of Senators present, whoever’s present—just a bare majority. And so it is entirely possible and has happened millions of times for a Senator to vote yes on cloture, that is let’s have the up or down vote, and then turn around and vote no on the actual bill. It’s a perfectly respectable thing to do if you can talk about respectability in such an anti-democratic institution.

CS: We’ve been speaking with author and activist David Swanson. His new book, Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union is out now from Seven Stories Press. You can find David at DavidSwanson.org.

Thanks for joining us this week, David Swanson.

DS: My pleasure. Thank you.


CounterSpin: When our next guest asked back in July, “Is the Obama Health Care Plan Really Better Than Nothing?” some might have seen it as too negative. After all, the plan included something called a “public option” that sounded good, and it was being resisted by big insurance companies, so how bad could it be? Months later, as reporters slowly, slowly, start to ask substantive questions about the plan, it turns out to look, in fact, quite different from what many progressives imagine they were promised. But what are the alternatives? According to corporate media, there aren’t any. But then according to corporate media, the single payer idea that majorities of Americans have said for years now they would support is not “politically viable”, so how grounded is media coverage in reality, anyway?

Here to help us find some solid ground on the issue is Bruce Dixon, he’s managing editor of Black Agenda Report. He joins us now by phone from Marietta, Georgia.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Bruce Dixon!

Bruce Dixon: Thanks for having me, Janine.

CS: Well, Trudy Lieberman is covering healthcare at Columbia Journalism Review, and she recently pointed out that in more than 2000 stories on what’s called the public option from August 15 to September 15, only 76 stories actually told people that in all likelihood the public option didn’t apply to them. In other words, this is the story of the day, public option public option, but there’s virtually no effort being made to connect it to most people’s lives. Is it your sense also that media are having a healthcare conversation that’s divorced from reality? And what else then are we not learning about this so-called “public option”?

BD: Well, the first thing you need to know about the public option is that it doesn’t apply to most of the public, that it only applies to a very, very small section of the public.

Barack Obama in his early September healthcare speech described the public option that he said would only apply to at most 5 percent of the insurance market. Now if a public option is supposed to keep insurance companies honest by competing with them, it’s got to be far, far larger than that. The guy Jacob Hatcher, who invented the term public option back around 2001, he envisioned a public option that would contain 120 million people, and that would have made it large enough to actually compete in the marketplace against private insurance companies, but the public option that’s being described by Democrats now is just a tiny, tiny public option.

So it’s not going to be able to compete with the big guys on price, it’s going to be restricted to people who can’t get insurance any other way, and you won’t be able to… well, it’s neither public nor optional, I guess you could say for most people. It’s not public because it’s only open to a small number of people, and it’s not an option that most of them will be able to avail themselves of, because you won’t be able to switch from your employer provided insurance to it, and you won’t be able to switch from the insurance that they’ll make you buy in most cases to it. So, it’s neither public nor optional.

CS: Well, what it could have, as you pointed out, is the effect of almost pitting the very poor against the slightly less poor who will be asked to subsidize that public option for the tiny fraction of the public to whom it applies.

BD: It’s going to be financed in part by taking money away from Medicaid, which provides coverage to the poor and also by a tax on people who are already getting decent benefits from their jobs, middle class people and working people in many cases. And they will be forced to pay for this, so it does have that magnificent effect of dividing the population one against the other. And it’s going to be means tested so you’re going to have to have a level of poverty to be able to avail yourself of it.

So it’s going to be stigmatized and means tested. So people are going to dislike people who are on the public option. They’re going to be seen as freeloaders who are hitching a ride on the benefits of ordinary people who worked hard for their benefits.

CS: And we can only imagine what media coverage will do to contribute to that situation. Well, when media aren’t dismissing the universal coverage option that most people want, they’re pretending that other things are that truly universal option. Back in the presidential campaign, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was running, reporting on health care in Massachusetts was calling that “universal health care”. And that’s kind of happening now, with things being called “universal” that really are emphatically not universal, isn’t that true?

BD: Well, the Massachusetts plan, and the plan that’s being put forward by Democrats is something that’s going to be a step closer to universal insurance coverage, and what it is is it’s instead of being a universal healthcare program for people, it’s a universal bailout for the insurance companies because people will be forced to buy their private insurance product, whether it actually covers anything or not and whether the deductibles and co-pays are affordable or not.

And people who can’t afford to buy their insurance product will be subsidized with tax money and also through the taxes on people with existing benefits. And a few of those people who can’t afford to buy regular insurance even at the subsidized rates are going to be able to avail themselves of the so-called public option.

CS: And many others will not, as folks like Steffie Woolhandler who’ve been looking at Massachusetts have made clear. It doesn’t seem like it requires too much to say that requiring people to buy healthcare coverage is not the same as providing them healthcare coverage.

BD: No, not even close, but that’s the Massachusetts plan, that’s what we’re going to get.

CS: Well, let’s talk about those insurance companies, because I always remember a New York Times article from 2006 by David Leonhardt in which he was talking about single payer, and he said it really made the most sense in terms of cost containment, which is supposed to be the number one concern, and also in the matter of actually providing people healthcare. But, in that sort of standard corporate analysis, he said, single payer isn’t gonna happen, but he said why not in terms that were unusually frank. He said, “Health insurers made $100 billion in profits last year, and industries of that size are just not legislated out of business.”

BD: Too big to sail, I guess.

CS: Yeah, I can’t help but think, though, that if the lines were drawn that clearly day after day, people would find it pretty easy to figure out which side they’re on.

BD: And that’s exactly why media are not drawing lines in that way.

And on the other hand, that’s exactly why Democrats are painting a picture of the public option that makes it hard to tell their imaginary public option from Medicare for all. They want people to believe that they will be able to choose some alternative to the predatory private insurance with this bill, and it’s hard to understand how they think they can keep fooling people like this forever. It’s easy to do when the bills are a thousand pages long and obscure and cryptic and hard to read and hard to understand, but pretty soon they’re going to actually have to pass something in the law and enact it, and the scales are going to fall off people’s eyes when they see what they’ve really got here.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Bruce Dixon, he’s the managing editor of Black Agenda Report. You can find his work and the other work of that outlet on the web at BlackAgendaReport.com.

Thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

BD: Thank you for inviting me.


David Swanson

Black Agenda Report