The Thompson Twins

Fred Thompson’s running for president, meaning that Tommy Thompson will now be subjected to a year’s worth of references to “that other Thompson.” Poor Tommy. Anyway, I think Fred’s the most formidable of the four serious candidates in a general election, but considering the field that doesn’t say a whole heck of a lot.

Obama’s Health Plan

Short version: I like it. Long version: The plan preserves the private insurance model, something I’ve opposed in the past for reasons both wonkish and political. But the plan, unlike most I’ve seen, takes cost-containment seriously. This is crucial. Any universal health care plan – from Wyden’s to Hacker’s – has to grapple with the fact that Medicare’s budget is growing at an alarming rate and that increasing government-provided coverage is only going to make that worse. Through mechanisms ranging from prevention programs to better medical technology to (my personal favorite) the reduction of private-insurance company overhead through increased competition, Obama’s plan is calculated to reduce the cost of coverage by about $2,500 a year for a typical family, thus making it a more fiscally responsible option that its competitors.
The plan reflects some of Obama’s Burkean leanings, illustrated very well in Larissa MacFaquhar’s excellent profile in the New Yorker. Obama’s upbringing seems to have left him with a sense of caution about vast social changes. One can see the influences of this thought in the health care plan. Take, for instance, its lack of an individual mandate, which has caused both Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn to deny that it’s a truly “universal” plan (this is a quibble, and both Ezra and Jonathan know it). But the plan is designed such that everyone who wants to can afford to be insured, creating conditions wherein an individual mandate would, in the future, be sensible. As Ezra says, the plan “will take us much further along the road, ensure full coverage for all children, and create a system in which mandates could be more easily added later on.” This philosophy is also evident in the plan’s creation of a separate public insurance system for the unemployed, the self-employed, small businesses, and those whose employers deny them insurance. This is a system that, as Ezra points out, would be “trivial to expand it in the future, letting all businesses, or all individuals, buy in.” The overarching philosophy of the plan seems to be that the government must make America safe for universal health insurance before actually creating it.
Overall, the plan is a fiscally prudent method to insure the vast majority of the currently uninsured, while setting the stage for a more universal system in the future.

He Has Many Leather-Bound Books, and His Apartment Smells of Rich Mahogany

I really don’t understand David Brooks’ criticism of Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason. Basically, Brooks characterizes Gore as a technological determinist who believes that the nature of public discourse is entirely dependent on the dominant communications technology of a given period. This does seem to be Gore’s position, which Ezra Klein’s profile, what with its Habermas name-dropping, seemed to foreshadow. But Brooks’ critique of this mostly consists of snarky mockery, without any real substance to it. For instance, take the beginning of the column:

If you’re going to read Al Gore’s book, you’re going to have to steel yourself for a parade of sentences like the following:
“The remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way — a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.”
But, hey, nobody ever died from contact with pomposity, and Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason” is well worth reading. It reminds us that whatever the effects of our homogenizing mass culture, it is still possible for exceedingly strange individuals to rise to the top.
Gore is, for example, a radical technological determinist. While most politicians react to people, Gore reacts to machines, and in this book he lays out a theory of history entirely driven by them.

So Gore is wrong because he uses big words, is “exceedingly strange,” is a “radical” and, Brooks insinuates, robotic (how original!). None of these, mind you, are legitimate criticisms that challenge Gore’s argument. Instead, Brooks has spent four paragraphs leveling personal insults against Gore. In the New York Times. What the hell? Moreover, Brooks just keeps on emphasizing that Gore is not to be taken seriously because he’s too damn smart. “Gore writes in his best graduate school manner,” Brooks attests, and mockingly highlights his usage of words like “visceral” and “modulated.”
Brooks gets closer to having an actual thesis later in the piece, but still in a patently unfair, disparaging manner. In response to Gore’s assertion that the Internet has the potential to improve discourse, Brooks asks, “Has Al Gore ever actually looked at the Internet? He spends much of this book praising cold, dispassionate logic, but is that really what he finds on most political blogs or in his e-mail folder?” Has David Brooks ever actually looked at the Internet? Because if he has, he’d have found, like Gore has, that there are far more bastions of tempered wonkery there than on television. Of course, Brooks’ medium-based chauvinism prevents him from noticing this.
From here, Brooks continues painting Gore as a robot (now, actually, Brooks calls him a “Vulcan”) as if that constitutes an actual argument before revealing his real problem with Gore: Brooks just doesn’t like reason that much.

Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.
The reality, of course, is there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience.
Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.

Does Brooks really think this? Does Brooks really think that policy decisions are best decided passionately, without being carefully thought through, and that to do otherwise leads to genocide? Sure, one can use rational methods to pernicious ends. But rational decision-making is still far more effective at achieving whatever ends one might desire than emotional decision-making; no administration has shown this as vividly as the current one. This fetishization of emotion as such by Brooks is disturbing, and telling.

I Don’t Know How To Put This, But He’s Kind of a Big Deal

Number of people who came out to hear Barack Obama speak today in Hanover, NH: 6,000.
Population of Hanover: 10,850.
Let me just emphasize, before anything else, how many people 6,000 is in Hanover. Hanover is a teeny tiny little place. And even though substantial chunks of that 6,000 included college students and residents of nearby towns, one still felt as though everyone was there. I couldn’t walk a couple of feet without running into someone I know. When a presidential candidate can bring out almost the entirety of a community seven months before an election, you know something special’s going on.
The speech itself was fantastic. It reminded me a lot of his commencement address at Knox, which is still my favorite political speech of recent times. It covered all the bases, attacking the Bush administration’s “opportunity society” rhetoric while specifically promising universal health care and a more reasonable educational accountability system, and presenting a coherent foreign policy agenda that focused on diplomacy ahead of militarism. If this is his stump speech, he’s going to do very well; when I was handing out “supporter cards” for the campaign after the speech, I asked one woman if she was supporting the Senator, and she replied, “Well, I am now!”
Paul Hodes introduced the Senator; while he did not say that he was supporting Obama, his enthusiasm was clear. Between that and the public’s response, the event left me with the feeling that Obama’s going to be tough for the other candidates to beat.

Johnny Too Bad

When I saw Edwards speak at Dartmouth, it was fairly evident from his answer to a question about LGBT rights that he’s a homophobe. Now, Bob Shrum, in his memoir, is confirming this:

In his new memoir, “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner,” Shrum recalls asking Edwards at the outset of that campaign, “What is your position, Mr. Edwards, on gay rights?”
“I’m not comfortable around those people,” Edwards replied, according to Shrum. He writes that the candidate’s wife, Elizabeth, told him: “John, you know that’s wrong.”

For once, I’m with James Kirchick: Edwards, from this alone, is plainly not fit for the presidency.