The GOP not long ago stood to take control of the Senate, but key races are slipping away as party’s top candidate stumbles
Mitt Romney’s collapsing campaign is beginning to hurt Republican chances in key congressional races, risking their hopes of taking the Senate as a bastion against a second-term Barack Obama presidency.
More and more Republican congressional candidates are distancing themselves from their party’s White House ticket as they are hit by ads from their Democratic opponents linking them to Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan.
With Romney still reeling from one bad poll after another in swing states, the Obama campaign opened up a new front on Friday, sending vice-president Joe Biden on a two-day visit to Florida to warn the elderly that a Romney-Ryan victory would mean new taxes on their social security benefits.
Biden, in excerpts from his speech released in advance, said: “Right now, the majority of seniors don’t have to pay taxes on their social security benefits … But if governor Romney’s tax plan goes into effect, it could mean everyone, everyone, would have to pay more taxes on the social security benefits they now receive.”
Creating fear among the elderly is a potent message not only in Florida, a state with a high proportion of retirees, but in other swing states. A new poll, by the Washington Post and the health group the Kaiser Foundation, by Ryan to reform Medicare, the healthcare programme for those 65 and over, has alienated potential Republican voters..
The poll found that in three battlegrounds – Florida, Ohio and Virginia – the changes to Medicare proposed by Ryan have tilted the elderly towards Obama. The issue ranked with them as high as the state of the economy.
Sixty-five percent of those polled in Florida want to keep Medicare as it is. In Ohio, Obama held a 19% advantage over Romney among voters asked who they trusted most with the health programme, 15% in Florida and 13% in Virginia.
Romney’s lacklustre campaign, compounded by the threat to social security and Medicare coming on top of last week’s secret video of a Romney speech, appears to be pulling down Republicans in congressional races. Candidates can usually count on receiving a boost in their districts and states from a successful presidential campaign.
Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, told the Washington Examiner: “Republicans still have a chance, but it’s not what it was six months ago or a year ago. And if you had to weigh the two parties’ chances, you would have to say the Democrats have a better chance of holding the Senate.”
The Republicans hold the House and had high hopes of adding the Senate too. With control of Congress, they would be able to throw up a formidable barrier to Obama implementing new domestic policies.
The Democrats hold only a four-seat majority in the Senate and had looked vulnerable. But the disarray in the Romney campaign has thrown those hopes into doubt. The Democrats are threatening to win seats the Republicans had been expected to win easily, such as Virginia. The Democratic candidate in Virginia, Tim Kaine, is up 3% on his Republican opponent, George Allen.
The one remaining opportunity for Romney to turn the presidential campaign round is the first presidential debate on Wednesday in Denver, Colorado. Tens of millions are expected to tune in for the first opportunity to see Obama and Romney one-to-one in a debate in which issues such as tax, health care and the secret video of Romney disparaging 47% of the population as freeloaders are all likely to figure.
Debates usually end in draws that are quickly forgotten, as in 2008, but they can make a difference, as in the classic one between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 and more recently George W Bush and Al Gore in 2000, in which Gore annoyed lots of voters by rolling his eyes while Bush was speaking.
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns on Friday talked up expectations for their opponents while downplaying their own candidate’s chances. The Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod predicted Mitt Romney would be a “prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater”.
Fears that the White House may be beyond the Republican party this year has already seen fighting start among conservative commentators.
The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, rounded on Romney, saying he had “fumbled” the opportunity offered by the Middle East crisis.
He argued that it is not too late for Romney. “Make the case. Go large. About a foreign policy in ruins. About an archaic, 20th century welfare state model that guarantees 21st century insolvency. And about an alternate vision of an unapologetically assertive America abroad unafraid of fundamental structural change at home. It might just work. And it’s not too late,” Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post.
Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report, which had leaned a year ago to the Republicans taking the Senate, now argues that the range of possible outcomes goes from the Republicans picking up two or three seats – not enough for a majority – to actually losing a seat or two.
Charlie Cook, writing in the National Journal, said that if Romney does not pick up in the polls in the next week to 10 days, he faces “the very real prospect that Republican donors, Super Pacs and other parts of the GOP support structure will begin to shift resources away from helping him and toward a last-ditch effort to win a Senate majority – which once seemed very likely – and to protect the party’s House majority.”
Parents considering male circumcision have a right to expect objective medical advice, untainted by commercial interests
Matt Williams, an expectant father, stirred up strong debate this week in his Guardian essay on why he won’t let his newborn son be circumcised. Referring to a new edict from the American Academy of Pediatrics insisting that “the health benefits of circumcision” outweigh the negatives, Williams spoke for many parents in demurring with this conventional wisdom, expressing the many reasons for his unease.
He pointed out that this delicate decision is often mystified by conflicting advice. The studies upon which the pediatricians rely, he noted, often have to do with highly specific data: the risks in Africa of Aids transmission in uncircumcised men, for instance. And he argued, quite fairly (though he wisely does not equate them), that the pediatricians’ odd invocation of parental “religious” and cultural motivations for circumcision, and their assertion that these views should be respected quite apart from medical considerations, is a position that would be resisted if invoked by those who wanted to cut off bits of newborn girls’ genitals.
Williams is not alone. A growing movement of men has arisen to decry the practice of circumcision as a mutilation they feel they have undergone, which they say is barbaric, traumatic and sexually desensitizing. But is circumcision indeed emotionally traumatic to newborn boys? And is it, separately considered, physically damaging?
Thanks to research for my new book on the brain-vagina connection, I have a fair number of conversations these days with neuroscientists who study the data on this link. A significant body of literature does exist showing that trauma to the vagina or clitoris affects the female brain in ways far more substantial and lasting than the obvious post-traumatic one would expect from the physical injury alone.
So it is reasonable to wonder if the injury of male circumcision (though hardly comparable to female genital mutilation) could, as many claim, have some lasting emotional or psychological effect on men and the male brain – apart from, or in addition to, any physical harm from the incision.
Two neuroscientists I interviewed about potential harm from male circumcision came to very different conclusions: one, Professor Jim Pfaus, who is doing cutting-edge research on sexual neuroscience at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, notes that the data do not show any lasting harm from circumcision that is physical, and he agrees with the AAP that the medical benefits of the practice do outweigh the negatives. He makes a strong case that the movement against circumcision is not scientifically sound.
But the other neuroscientist, based in Midwestern university, who asked not to be named when he spoke to me (because his view is not medical orthodoxy) does indeed see harm in male circumcision that is less obvious than its potential medical consequences. He studies the effect of genital or sexual trauma on the body – a data set that now has many studies to support the assertion of strong mind-body connections. Sexual trauma in childhood specifically has lasting effects on the autonomic nervous system.
A neuroscientist who studies trauma regards emotions as physically embodied. This neuroscientist believes that the emotional experience of a newborn boy being cut in this intimate way by an authority figure, and a source of what should be love and protection, does imprint itself on the infant mind and create, potentially, a particular later orientation toward authority and risk.
“What kind of person does that trauma create?” I asked.
“Woody Allen,” he joked. (Since he himself is Jewish, I gave him a pass.)
He said he had circumcised his own sons – out of anxiety of what another less careful hand might do – and that his second son’s procedure was definitely traumatic. Apart from the baby’s experience, it is painful and counterintuitive for a new mother to witness her baby being hurt, eight days after she has given birth. Many mothers, even those who sign on for male circumcision for their child for religious or cultural reasons, find the experience traumatic. They feel that the strongly-held religious conviction in the rite of circumcision – whatever the science finally concludes – definitely sends a powerful message to a lactating mother still recovering from childbirth that she cannot protect her baby boy from the most rapacious demands of patriarchal ritual.
For these reasons, advocacy organizations for “genital integrity”, as they put it, for men are growing in number and in passion. These organizations are also gathering data to support their views.
Noharmm, for instance, collects testimonials from men who feel they have been harmed by circumcision. Most damningly, though, they offer a different explanation for the AAP pronouncement: commercial interest. Doctors Opposing Circumcision has published a detailed statement (pdf) rebutting the AAP’s advice in damning terms. Anticipating the AAP finding in favor of male circumcision, the DOP earlier stated (pdf):
“The AAP, despite its high-sounding academic name, actually is a trade association of pediatric doctors. Its primary duty is to advance the business and professional interests of its 60,000 members who are called “fellows”. The interests of its child-patients are a distant second to their primary interest.
“There is a severe and intractable conflict of interest between the financial interests of its fellows and the best interests of the child-patient. Most of its fellows perform non-therapeutic circumcisions on children and profit thereby. These members do not want anything to interfere or disrupt their steady income stream. The AAP will not publish a statement that would harm that income stream. The AAP ensures the outcome of its circumcision statements by appointing doctors who are known to have a pro-circumcision position.”
To cut or not to cut? That is very personal question, which each parent must decide for him- or herself. But parents deserve real science in making up their minds, as well as transparency from professional bodies offering what is, ostensibly, purely medical advice. Parenting comes with enough difficult challenges and hard choices already, without undisclosed conflicts of interest from a pediatricians’ organization – especially when it affects such an intimate part of a newborn child’s life.
Bogged down rebutting the Obama Super Pac’s new Bain ad, Romney’s campaign did about as well as his dressage horse did
Throughout the week, news junkies like yourself are weighted with information the way the women of the US Olympic team are weighted with medals. But what is any of that worth? An Olympic medal can fetch up to $15,000 (US swimmer and eccentric hottie Anthony Ervin gave the proceeds of that sale to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami), but, as with political stories, most of the value invested in a medal is purely sentimental. This week, a brief look at a couple of stories you know about – and what they really mean. (PS Romney show horse Rafalca came in 30th. Fact.)
When did you stop killing that man’s wife? By now, if you’re the kind of person who’s reading this article, you’re probably one of the half-million people who’ve seen the controversial Priorities USA ad featuring a man laid-off from his job after Bain Capital took over the company. The Obama Super Pac has yet to pay anyone to air the ad, but it is by far the most-talked about piece of campaign propaganda this season.
You probably also know why that is: building upon the Obama campaign’s most successful lines of attack – linking Romney to Bain to people losing their jobs – the spot adds at least one other loop of logic to the chain, joining Romney to Bain to job loss to cancer to death.
The Romney team has been trying to point out that the trail of facts that connect Mitt Romney and steelworker Joe Soptic’s tragic story are more complex and less concrete than the Obama ad implies. They’re not wrong. In 993, Bain bought a steel mill in Kansas (adds Romney: he wasn’t running Bain at the time!). Soptic became unemployed (Romney: he was offered a buy-out!). Soptic lost his health insurance; his wife lost her health insurance (years after Soptic lost his job!). She was diagnosed with cancer (far into the disease’s progress); and then, yes, she died. The Romney camp has a point, but the Obama ad is ingeniously devious beyond a mere twist of facts – indeed, it’s downright Rovian. Romney may be running a repeat of McCain’s 2008 campaign, but the Obama team is channelling Bush’s in 2004.
There’s the obvious: as far as political knife-fights go, once you start arguing about whether or not your candidate killed a man’s wife, you’re already losing. Then there’s the way that debating the details of Soptic’s story has kept Romney and his surrogates from hammering Obama on the economy.
The sheer audacity of the ad has also forced the Republicans to resort to one of the least attractive tactics available: whining about what’s fair. Americans don’t like dirty politics and negative ads, it’s true, but it can hardly sit well with the Republican base that Romney now wants to hand over control of the debate to the mainstream media, complaining to one interviewer that “the various fact-checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them.”
Yes, by all means, let’s make campaigns pull every ad deemed inaccurate by journalists! Neither side would have many left.
What’s more, Romney campaign helped the Obama cause along by at first underscoring their point: given how many Americans die every year because they don’t have cover (45,000), it’s important to have health insurance! So important, in fact, that some states mandate it. The inappropriateness of Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul reminding reporters that Mrs Soptic would have had insurance if she’d lived in Massachusetts made some analysts wonder if the whole ad was some kind of trap wandered into by an increasingly rudderless campaign.
No less than noted authority on bedside manner Mark Halperin has said that the “cancer ad” oversteps some invisible line in political etiquette, though I have no doubt that should Obama win (ads are only in bad taste if the candidate loses), the line will simply move. Should journalists take a stand on whether an ad “goes too far”? Is “who will kill more people” a useful metric for deciding one’s vote? Should how they die matter? (Uninsured getting sick versus execution by armed drone?) I have no answers to these questions, which is apparently just fine because that’s not the debate we’re having.
These are not the vice-presidential candidates you’re looking for. A further question: stopping the media from speculating on veep selections – is there an app for that? The only good thing about reporters tossing out names of possible vice-presidential candidates is that you can’t accuse them of needing to do more reporting on it. It is functionally impossible to report on who Romney will pick to fill out the ballot because VP choices are one of the few modern political decisions that are truly personal. Polling data and focus groups play a role, but in the end, the nominee has to go with the person who feels right. As much as analysts say that carrying a home state matters, “regional balance” hasn’t been a factor since the last civil war veterans died off. Thus, I’ve been arguing that the most important thing Romney’s pick will tell us is what Romney thinks about himself. Call it an X-ray of the soul, though I suspect Romney’s might be more an X-ray for a soul.
If anything, the most chattered-about names – Paul Ryan, Tim Pawlenty, and Rob Portman – probably have less of a chance than they did before we started talking about them. Having a high public profile is pretty much a negative. On Friday, Romney spokesperson Eric Fernstrom told reporters asking about the process to “download the app”. My gut feeling is that in Romney’s perfect world, the VP would be the app.
And now for something completely different. American Conservative senior editor Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans […], drew my attention to a story that’s gotten very little attention outside Catholic circles, but is an interesting counterweight to the media coverage of the band of nuns protesting Romney’s policy regarding the poor – and speaks to the future of the Catholic political tradition in the US.
“For the first time since the Vatican announced a crackdown on the organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – the umbrella group that represents 80% of America’s Roman Catholic nuns – met for its annual conference. For an organization under fire from Rome for its alleged theological heterodoxy, LCWR’s choice of a keynote speaker was unusual: Barbara Marx Hubbard, an elderly New Age guru whose vacuous nostrums bring to mind a nitrous oxide aficionado who just rollerbladed in from the Venice boardwalk. Hubbard called the nuns ‘the best seedbed I know for evolving the Church and the world in the 21st century’. Good luck with that.”
Dreher contrasts the “narcissism” of the nuns’ religiosity with the religious liberalism from generations past. Reflecting on LCWR’s decline, he writes:
“The problem with today’s religious liberalism is that it privileges individual desire and individual experience so radically that it gives away any solid ground from which it might stand to move the world and to change it. For that matter, how in the world are these nuns going to be the seedbed for any kind of change when they can’t even convince anyone to join their own ranks?
“US membership in Catholic women’s religious orders continues to plummet: 90% of American nuns are aged 60 or older, and only 5% are under the age of 50. Perhaps Marx Hubbard expects that desiccated seedbed to grow magic beanstalks. In any case, the LCWR conference at least somewhat gainsays the popular narrative that the American nuns are innocent victims of a Vatican Inquisition seeking to impose rigid doctrinal orthodoxy on kindly old ladies who only want to serve the poor.”
How does each country compare in the health spending stakes?
View post: The health spending map of the world
Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development predicts the law could help reduce federal health costs
The Obama administration received backing for its healthcare reforms from an unexpected source on Tuesday: the Paris-based economists of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.
Two days before the US supreme court is expected to a rule on the constitutionality of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the 34-member OECD predicted that the law could help reduce federal health costs, which it warned were the greatest threat to US fiscal stability
But it heavily qualified this, saying questions remained over whether the legislation will turn out to be effective.
A negative ruling from the supreme court justices could wreck Obama’s plan to extend health insurance to a further 30 million Americans.
The reform has polarised the country, with Republicans vociferously opposed and polls showing consistenly that more Americans oppose than support the reforms. The Obama administration has repeatedly argued that the reform will help drive down the overall health budget, a claim met with scepticism by Republicans.
But the OECD report offers some solace to the Obama administration. “In the medium to long term, the greatest challenge to fiscal sustainability comes from the federal healthcare programmes,” the report read.
It notes the congressional budget office, a source of independent advice to Congress, projects that federal health spending will grow by almost 2% of GDP over the next decade from 5.5% this year, partly because of ageing population.
The OECD said that the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare by its opponents, “offers hope that cost growth can be permanently reduced, although there is much uncertainty about how effective it will be”.
It added that the Medicare Trustees estimate that reforms in the act will reduce annual average growth in Medicare spending per person by 1.3% over the next decade.
The OECD report said: “If this proves not to be possible, policymakers will need to take further measures. One possibility in this regard would be to align the age of entitlement to Medicare benefits to the age of entitlement to social security benefits, although mechanisms (such as those in the Affordable Care Act) would need to be available to provide access to affordable health insurance for persons who are retired, and no longer covered by employment-based insurance, but not yet old enough to be eligible for Medicare.”
Mitt Romney, campaigning in Salem, Virginia, Tuesday said Obama had focused on healthcare reform instead of delivering on a promise to introduce immigration reform or dealing with the big issue of the day, the economy.
If the supreme court rules Thursday that it is unconstitutional, Romney said, “then the first three and a half years of this president’s term would have been wasted on something that has not helped the American people. If it is deemed to stand, then I’ll tell you one thing, we are going to have a president, and I am that one, that is going to get rid of Obamacare and we are going to stop it on day one.”
A modest tax on speculative financial transactions would be some restitution for the human costs of this bank-made crisis
As JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon showed up to Congress on Tuesday to try to explain how his “too big to fail” bank could mysteriously lose $2bn in risky trades, he was suddenly diverted to a back entrance. Why?
Because Robin Hood was waiting.
Nurses, healthcare and community activists were in the hallways ready to send him and the rest of his Wall Street gang a message: it’s time to pay up for the damage you have done to our communities and our nation.
This week, the Robin Hood campaign, which has exploded across the world, took a major step forward in the US with a stepped-up campaign that included visits by Robin Hood and his merry men and women to JP Morgan branches across the country, and scores of other actions. It also included the release of a new video, featuring actor/director Mark Ruffalo, musicians Tom Morello and Chris Martin, nurses, and lots of others speaking on behalf of the 99% who were on the other end of the casino gambling so cavalierly carried out by Dimon and company.
Today, no fewer than 40 countries have some tax on financial transactions already in place. It is time for the US to step up. A Robin Hood tax is a sales tax on speculative Wall Street trading. A small tax, 50 cents per $100, on trading in stocks, and even smaller assessments on bonds, derivatives and currencies, could raise hundreds of billions of dollars each year in the US alone. The tax is aimed at high-volume trading, which now makes up a majority of all trades.
Not only will this tax produce badly-needed revenue in meaningful amounts, it will help limit reckless, short-term speculation that threatens financial stability – such as JP Morgan Chase’s notorious gambit. A Robin Hood tax also serves to curtail speculation in essentials, as in food and fuel, and start lowering the costs that are devastating families.
Why Robin Hood? Just look at our collapsing healthcare system. No matter how the US supreme court rules in the coming days on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, employers will continue to drop health coverage or shift more costs to workers; medical bills will continue to account for nearly two-thirds of bankruptcies, and insurance companies will still deny needed care.
The healthcare crisis has been severely aggravated by the economic collapse. Nurses see the signs in dire human terms, every day. RNs recount how patients, even children, are appearing in large numbers with stress-related illnesses. A Robin Hood tax will inject critical revenue into our economy that can help people struggling with loss of their jobs, homes, and those unpayable medical bills.
Why Robin Hood? Half of college grads over the last six years lack full-time jobs, according to a recent Rutgers University survey (pdf). Those are college grads. Overall, more than 12 million Americans are officially out of work (pdf), with millions more making do with part-time jobs.
More than 4 million foreclosures have devastated families – another 1.8 million homeowners await this awful fate of being shown their own door. Robin Hood does not want to see more neighborhoods abandoned and families displaced.
Those who would be paying this new sales tax can certainly afford it.
Compensation pools at the seven biggest US banks totaled $156bn in 2011, a 3.7% increase over the previous year’s record-breaking number. It is only fair that financial transactions incur a sales tax – just as the rest of us pay – and put some Wall Street resources back into Main Street.
Today, 23% of our nation’s GDP, or $3.6tn, is sitting in banks’ and non-financial corporate accounts: this is an unprecedented cash reserve in the face of overwhelming national need. Economist Robert Pollin estimates that a stimulus of $400bn would create enough demand to spark a solid US economic recovery:
“Expanding government spending is the only way to establish a solid floor to overall market demand [and] begin moving a significant share of cash hoards into productive investments.”
Make no mistake, tens of millions of American families face calamity with no prospect of real recovery. Nothing less than a fair tax that raises a real sum will do. That’s the Robin Hood tax.
A poll shows how the US president has disappointed the hopes of many worldwide. Americans, though, have their own issues
We have a lot of truisms in American politics, and some of them are even true – at least some of the time. “All politics is local,” the late Tip O’Neill, veteran speaker of the House of Representatives, famously said. So I suspect that Tip, wherever he now presides, wouldn’t set much store by the latest headline from the Pew Global Research Center revealing that President Obama’s global reputation has slipped considerably in the three years since he took office, won the Nobel peace prize and kept the United States from sinking into a depression.
Why has this happened? And what does it say about his prospects for re-election?
“What have you done for me lately?” Long before it became a hit for Janet Jackson, this was the catchphrase of Fiorello LaGuardia, three-term mayor of New York, an Italian-Jewish-socialist-Republican who remains the greatest local politician in American history and, as one of his biographers put it, “a balanced ticket all by himself”. Obama shares some of LaGuardia’s crossover appeal, but he is also now burdened with a record, and that record gives ample cause for disillusion.
The inspirational speaker who promised the Muslim world a new beginning in Cairo in 2009 is now the president who has yielded so much ground to Bibi Netanyahu, he ought to have a triangular-shaped sign on his backside. The Socratic figure who took America to school on race and history in Philadelphia in 2008 is now the arbiter of a “kill list” – a phrase that probably says more than any other about the great falling-off in the president’s moral authority. (In Pakistan, where presidentially-approved drone strikes are killing their inevitable share of bystanders, along with America’s enemies, they know very well what Obama has done for them lately – and they don’t like it very much.) And the candidate who promised, time and again, to close Guantánamo Bay is the president who has repeatedly failed to keep that promise.
Then, there’s the economy, stupid. Here, Obama’s international reviews are mixed. That the Chinese don’t like him much – in fact, Chinese confidence in Obama is down 24% from 2009, a bigger drop than anywhere else in the world – is not entirely to his discredit. Given how many US assets they now own, the Chinese attitude is partly that of any landlord toward an unruly tenant. But some of it doubtless derives from the unwelcome encouragement, in words if not in deeds, that Obama continues to give to human rights campaigners in countries the United States doesn’t need to buy oil from or base troops in. Europe remains pretty confident in Obama – 80% of you are still drinking the KoolAid – and surprisingly (60%) favorable toward the US. But then, if you look at how George Osborne’s austerity-led growth plan is working out in the UK, maybe the hopey-changey thing doesn’t look so bad.
The phrase “American exceptionalism” comes from a debate between Joseph Stalin and American Communists in the 1920s. But the belief that our country is somehow different from other nations is at least as old as the Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Which makes it more than a century older than any sign of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. Yet, the world’s opinion of America, and America’s president, does matter. Obama may deserve little credit for the Arab spring, but the response to his Cairo speech showed how much influence a US president can have when he speaks what people know to be the truth.
Still, most of us who drank the KoolAid last time are warier now. For some of us, it was the crippled compromise of Obamacare, and the failure to preserve even the possibility of a real national health service. For others, it was the way the Bush administration’s battering of civil liberties has been sustained, rather than repudiated, by his successor. Not to mention his love-in with Wall Street. Or the eagerness with which the president has embraced his role as murderer-in-chief, not just regarding the unlamentable Bin Laden, but in his grim insistence on personally approving every targeted killing.
Does all this disillusion – yours, mine, theirs – say anything about his electoral chances? Probably not.
“The only poll that matters is the one on election day” is one of the least true truisms. For campaign strategists trying to figure out where to spend their ad budgets, polls are enormously important. Likewise for journalists blocking out a fall travel schedule. But a poll of foreigners’ feelings is not going to carry much weight even if Americans were paying attention – which we tend not to do until Labor Day (3 September).
What psephologists dream about is a bellwether – a poll, or a state, that will reliably predict the election result (with the margins of statistical error, of course). In Mr Bartley’s burger bar, off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts – though awkward to admit – my favorite has long been the “Mitt Romney”, named in honor of the former governer and consisting of a perfectly grilled burger topped with swiss cheese, grilled onions and a side of onion rings, for $11.70. For the past few years, however, the menu has also offered a “Barack Obama”: with feta cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and french fries, for an austere price of $10.15. If you factor in the cost advantage of the Obama with the home turf factor for the Romney and were able to find out comparative sales over the next few months, I think you might just have a bellwether in a bun.
It’s not that using government to tackle obesity is wrong, but this mayor has eroded New York’s democratic culture with his diktats
Mike Bloomberg must be getting a bit antsy in these waning days of his semi-legal third term as mayor of New York. After ten years in office, my hometown CEO seems to have given up on our crumbling infrastructure and troubled education system, and he is facing down a problem he can handle. At City Hall this week, Bloomberg announced he will outlaw the sale of sodas, iced teas, sports drinks, and other sugar-packed beverages greater than 16 ounces, which these days is about the size of a McDonald’s small. The proposal is riddled with exceptions, and New Yorkers will still be able to buy enormous quantities at supermarkets or bodegas, but everywhere from your corner restaurant to Madison Square Garden, the days of the mega-soda are numbered.
The mayor is no fan of sugary drinks, which he insists contributes to the city’s obesity epidemic: 58% of the residents of the five boroughs are now overweight or obese. To be fair, this is New York – at least we don’t drive, and maybe we can burn off a few of those thousand calories on the waddle to the subway, where riders can see ads from the administration featuring a diabetic soda lover with an amputated limb.
Last year, you may remember, Bloomberg tried to prohibit low-income New Yorkers from using food stamps to buy soda and other sugary beverages; the federal government shot it down. With this ban, though, Bloomberg can have his way far more easily. All that’s required is a revision of the city health code, which the mayor can do pretty much unilaterally. He doesn’t need to get a law passed in Albany, which often ends badly for him: Albany killed his one truly great idea, a London-style congestion charge. He doesn’t even need to get it rubber-stamped by the city council.
This is Bloomberg in his favorite mode, that of unquestioned head of New York Inc. Our nonpartisan mayor has never had much time for the niceties of government, negotiating with colleagues and meeting stakeholders. He far prefers to rule from his bullpen at City Hall, executing from the top down or else delegating to a host of deputies hired from the private sector. In today’s New York, the CEO proposes, and his will is done.
It is interesting to note, though, that the mayor’s own company is actually more permissive than his city when it comes to downing high-fructose corn syrup. Bloomberg LP, the financial media company that made him into the 12th-richest man in America, may be notorious for its Orwellian surveillance of its employees, who carry security passes that track their location – but they can slam as many sodas as they can afford to pay for in the company pantry.
The mayor is taking abuse from all sides now about his penchant for these kind of nanny-state provisions. Bloomberg has banned smoking not just in bars and restaurants, but in public parks and on outdoor terraces. He made New York the first city to ban artificial trans fats, such as margarine and cheap, processed vegetable oil. And he introduced calorie counts at fast food joints and your local Starbucks, where the cold caffeinated beverages of a different socio-economic class can be every bit as fattening as a soon-to-be-banned giant Mountain Dew.
These laws infuriate people – and not just the anti-government right and the populist press, but self-congratulatory liberals who would never touch a half-gallon soda at 7-Eleven but recoil at the thought of leaders “telling us what to do”.
But here’s the thing: public health is a totally legitimate concern of local government, and it’s pretty weird for the very same people so angry that the Republicans or the US supreme court may void federal healthcare reform also want to defend unhealthy behavior in the name of “freedom” or “individual choice”.
Smoking leads to a horror house of epidemiological costs: would anybody contend that we shouldn’t regulate it? And while banning sugary drinks would obviously be ineffective (and Bloomberg’s proposed food stamps prohibition was classist and foolhardy), regulating the terms of their sale is exactly what the government is for. The original glass Coke bottle was a refreshing eight ounces. Yet portion sizes have ballooned to antisocial scale in recent years: food companies make more money selling larger sizes, since the perception of value in giant portions outweighs (too literally) the marginal cost of production.
The soda industry profits while public health declines and public coffers dwindle. If regulating portion sizes can improve public health, even at the expense of private enterprise, then let’s get to it.
The problem isn’t the nanny state; the problem is the nanny. Regulation and governance are supposed to take place in a robust democratic framework, but that is not how things work in contemporary New York, where our billionaire leader will have his way. City Hall is promising a three-month “comment period” before the measure comes into effect, but we know what that means. The decision has been taken at the top: deputies and mandarins have gathered the data to support the chief’s idea; the media have been enlisted to make the case; and public forums will offer the veneer of consultation.
At a press conference announcing the measure, Bloomberg told reporters that he was going ahead with the ban because “I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.” Well, he would know.
Bloomberg’s most deleterious legacy, then – and one from which New York will need a long time to recover – is how he deactivated politics in the city for an entire decade, and how, by dint of his billions, he reduced an entire city from citizens to consumers. His absurd re-election in 2009, which cost him $100m of his own cash and entailed cowing the entire political and media establishment to allow his scrapping of term limit laws, exposed just how inert he has made New York, a city once called ungovernable but now worryingly quiescent.
While the brief interval of Occupy Wall Street gave us a reminder of what public political engagement looks like, that is almost certainly finished now. So we have receded once again into a population for whom the regulation of the sale of carbonated beverages is the closest we get to caring about our own laws and government. It’s telling, really, that many opponents of this new measure have been so upset that our mayor is telling us “how to live”. Because in Bloomberg’s New York, that is all that’s left: this is a city where how we live is now congruent with what we buy.