Marie Cocco

Did Obama Screw Up by Not Offering a Plan for Health Reform?

WASHINGTON -- I missed the hot fun this summer. While much of America seemed to be screeching over the incredible -- in the truest sense of the word -- notion that angry citizens could tote a gun even to a town hall meeting with the president of the United States, I was pondering the relative merits of bike ride versus beach walk. The brouhaha that has stripped away the thin veneer of good will that greeted the start of Barack Obama's presidency is over health care revision, and specifically over something the media keep calling the "Obama health care plan." That one stumps me, too, because there is no "Obama health care plan." Nor has there ever been one. That's part of the problem. The Obama political strategy has been that the White House would not propose its own health care legislation, lest it meet the same fate as the Clinton initiative of the early 1990s. The Obama political operation believes the death of the Clinton plan was foretold because President Bill Clinton sought to impose a White House blueprint on Congress, rather than letting lawmakers do their own thing.

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If Only Walter Cronkite Had Left His Integrity Behind

That's not the way it is -- not now, and not for a long time.

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Hundreds of Thousands of Workers Will Lose Unemployment Benefits Soon

WASHINGTON -- When a virulent disease is ravaging you like a cancer, you don't want a cacophony of voices promoting different or contradictory cures. Yet that is what we're starting to hear about the economic crisis, not only from a politically divided -- and pretty scared -- capital, but from within the Obama administration itself. In just the past few days, Vice President Joe Biden has said the young administration misread the depth of the recession -- an honest account, since most private economists did as well. Laura Tyson, an outside economic adviser to the White House, said it's wise to start preparing another stimulus package.

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Nasty Ads and Shady Campaign Contributions Take Over Judicial Races

WASHINGTON -- The appearance of extreme political impropriety, the Supreme Court has decided, is sometimes just too extreme. The circumstances of West Virginia's chief justice, who refused to remove himself from deciding a case involving the company of a political contributor, is an "exceptional" example of why appearances count, according to the high court's 5-4 ruling in a case that shines a brutal light on the spiral of campaign contributions that threaten to compromise too many state courts.

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Time for a Truth Commission

WASHINGTON -- The partisan firefight over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's incendiary allegation that the CIA lied to Congress about its use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- torture -- is a blessing. It turns the compelling case for a public inquiry into the Bush administration's policies toward terrorism detainees into an urgent necessity.

Americans must finally own up to what was done, at whose order, with whose acquiescence, and why. The United States government must at last hold accountable the architects of this calamity -- not only the underlings like Lynndie England and Charles Graner and Janet Karpinski, those frontline military personnel who paid the price for bit roles in the scandal after the first stomach-turning photos of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came to light.

This trio again comes to mind because even as the Pelosi furor escalated beyond all reason -- not to mention the known facts -- President Obama rescinded not one but two promises. He reneged on a commitment to release more photographs of the horror at Abu Ghraib and at detention sites in Afghanistan. The first pictorial chronicle of depravity at Abu Ghraib led to the congressional inquiries that eventually led us to understand that the United States had implemented torture as official policy. And that policy was not some half-baked idea cooked up by kids in the desert but developed by lawyers and top administration officials in Washington.

The presidential candidate who harnessed the power of the Internet to gain the White House seems oddly oblivious to the fact that, however much he may want to keep the photos private to spare U.S. troops the possibility of deadly backlash, more images already circulate. The unauthorized distribution of the graphic photos is just as likely to provoke the same reaction. Yet a controlled release by the Obama government, abiding by a court decision and what this president has pledged would be the "rule of law" on his watch, holds the possibility that the president -- and the country -- would gain respect abroad for breaking cleanly with the culture of cover-up.

Obama meanwhile has decided to reinstitute the discredited military commissions for trying suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison -- a system he once decried as anathema to civilized society. Even in doing so, he noted that as a senator, he'd voted in favor of military commissions in 2006. Which loops us back to the Pelosi controversy and to the larger question of Democratic complicity in the moral outrages of the Bush era.

We do not know who is lying about CIA briefings on torture, and who is telling what best approximates the truth. These briefings were at best cryptic, members of Congress weren't allowed to take notes, and the whole enterprise was classified. If Pelosi had emerged from such a session and blown the whistle on torture, the very same Republicans who now attack her for keeping silent would have howled mercilessly and quite possibly pronounced her guilty of treason.

Yet Democratic acquiescence in abhorrent Bush policies is a worthy subject for a chapter in any final report of a truth commission. Too often in the aftermath of 9/11, Democrats decided where to stand depending on where George W. Bush sat. When he sat atop the public opinion polls, they cowered at the possibility he would call them soft on terror and threaten their re-elections.

This syndrome was at the root of the 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq. A majority of Senate Democrats, led by Tom Daschle -- known last year as anti-war candidate Obama's inside-Washington promoter -- voted to let Bush charge recklessly into Iraq. Pelosi and most House Democrats voted no. Still there were many later opportunities for forceful action, if not against torture and abuse, then in determined opposition to warrantless wiretapping, the Guantanamo penal colony, the detainee deaths while in U.S. custody -- the list goes on and on.

That the list is so lengthy, and that we still lack basic facts about so much of what transpired, is reason enough to establish a nonpartisan panel, along the lines of the 9/11 commission, to at last expose the truth. Those who designed and implemented the policies that have brought such discredit to the nation must be called to account.

Those who looked the other way must now face their own responsibility. For the worst of human history inevitably unfolds when good people avert their eyes.

The Health Care Industry and their Capitol Hill Protectors Are Sabotaging Our Chance for True Reform

Every so often, I remember Ronald Reagan fondly -- not for his policies but for his skill at the art of persuasion. Right now, for example, I'd like to call the Gipper back to cock his head, give us that quizzical look and say "There you go again."

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Why Was Obama MIA When Geithner Pitched the New Bailout?

Well, that didn't work out. The split-screen image of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's speech on a new-and-we-all-hope-improved financial industry bailout plan was of a banker trying to do a politician's job while the markets he was trying to calm jumped off the cliff. Things got worse when Geithner went before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee to explain himself. How much worse?

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What Would a Ginsburg Vacancy Mean for the Supreme Court?

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's renewed struggle with cancer is both a demonstration of courage and a dismaying reminder that she represents a quota of one.

Ginsburg, who has pancreatic cancer, says she intends to resume her duties on the high court before the end of February, a quick return after surgery and harrowing treatment for a disease that is difficult to overcome. That is the courageous part.

The cheerless truth is that Ginsburg's ill health brings to mind her unique position. She is the only female jus tice, and has been since Sandra
Day O'Connor left the court in 2006. Certainly if Ginsburg's health fails and she is forced to retire, President Barack Obama would be under intense pressure to appoint another woman to fill her slot. With women voters providing Obama's margin of victory in last year's election, there is little doubt that he would do so.

But what then? Would a second vacancy automatically go to a man? That is how it usually works. This use of women as tokens must now be reversed.

Justice Clarence Thomas is the sole African-American sitting on the high court, and the only member of any racial minority group. All ethnic groups legitimately aspire to greater representation. But why set up a zero-sum game in which the advancement of one means the other must wait?

Women -- of all ethnic backgrounds -- are not a minority. We are a majority of the population and a majority of the electorate. Women earn about half the law degrees awarded each year, and comprise well over half of those earning bachelor's and master's degrees. Still, we are treated as a cranky interest group to be placated, and rarely given our rightful place in leadership.

But when women lead, something extraordinary happens: Suddenly the voice of more than half the population can be heard.

This was the voice that called out almost immediately after President Ronald Reagan appointed O'Connor as the first woman justice in 1981. Though she was appointed by the icon of the contemporary conservative movement -- and is best known as a centrist, swing vote on the high court -- O'Connor's most consistent votes were those she cast in favor of equal treatment for women. Her vision became apparent quickly, when she wrote the majority opinion in a 1982 case involving an admissions policy at the University of Mississippi nursing school, which favored women over men. O'Connor attacked not just the illegality of the policy but its pernicious message. The admissions rule, she wrote, "tends to perpetuate the stereotyped view of nursing as an exclusively woman's job" and so "lends credibility to the old view that women, not men, should become nurses, and makes the assumption that nursing is a field for women a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Ginsburg, in a stinging dissent to the court's 2007 decision toughening the rules governing when a woman can sue for sex discrimination in the workplace, took her colleagues to task for overlooking "common characteristics of pay discrimination" -- that is, year-to-year pay decisions that add up to long-term discrimination are often hidden from the employee. They might not be apparent or challenged immediately in court, Ginsburg wrote, "particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves." The ruling in this case, involving tire company supervisor Lilly Ledbetter, was just overturned in legislation that resets the rules to what they were before the Supreme Court decision.

O'Connor, a Republican and a Westerner, and Ginsburg, a Democrat and the personification of the Eastern intellectual, brought few similarities in personal background to the Supreme Court. Yet they shared an outlook as women who suffered blatant discrimination early in their careers. Both understood intuitively that women experience life differently than do men, and often saw the legal issues before them through that lens.

In 2007, Ginsburg told USA Today that she was "lonely" without O'Connor at the court, and worried about the symbolism implicit in having a sole woman justice. The message, she said, is that having a woman on the Supreme Court is a "one-at-a-time curiosity, not the normal thing."

"Normal" would be having a Supreme Court on which four or five justices are women. And if this sounds like a fantasy, it is only a measure of just how abnormal the high court's makeup is now.

Marie Cocco's e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group
 

How Much Should Obama Work with Republicans?

As the nation celebrated a day of uplift, Wall Street delivered a brutal downdraft. Even as Barack Obama was taking the oath of office, the markets plunged -- the Dow dropped more than 300 points, and broader indexes slumped on jitters about shaky banks. It was the worst Inauguration Day performance in more than a century of trading.

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America Out of Work

WASHINGTON -- There will be no freedom from want. The only thing we might now hope for is freedom from fear. Even that is a distant state of mind.

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Cigarette Consumption Down 28 Percent in 10 Years

WASHINGTON -- It was "a sophisticated, white-collar crime instigated by contingency-fee lawyers in pursuit of unimaginable riches," according to the libertarian Cato Institute. Or perhaps it established "entrepreneurial private litigators as a fourth branch of government," as Reason magazine warned.

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Where Are the Female Arnold Schwarzeneggers?

WASHINGTON -- It is time to stop kidding ourselves. This wasn't a breakthrough year for American women in politics. It was a brutal one.

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It Is Going to Be a Wal-Mart Christmas

WASHINGTON -- Merry Wal-Mart, America.

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Campaign Finance Reform Is More Important Than Ever

"Your support by Thursday at midnight is absolutely vital," the Obama campaign's pitch for a donation cried out from the e-mail that popped into my inbox Tuesday. "Your first donation of $10 or more will provide resources urgently needed before the deadline. And you'll receive a limited edition Obama-Biden car magnet."

Not that I wouldn't want to own something that's a limited edition. But I'll pass on that magnet. I'll even yawn at the hyperbole since it's just campaign rhetoric.

But really, who can feel the fierce urgency of now for a candidate who has already broken every fundraising record, and who is outspending his opponent in some states by as much as 4-to-1?

After the eye-popping fundraising revelations of the past couple of days, the need that's far more pronounced is the imperative of acting quickly after November's election to restore some common sense to the presidential campaign finance system -- before we don't have any system at all.

Not that the restrictions are working now. Democrat Barack Obama became the first candidate to opt out of the Watergate-era rules that financed presidential general election campaigns with an allocation of public funds to each major-party nominee. The staggering sums he has raised and the saturation spending he's now engaged in are tributes to his fundraising prowess.

But they are also the tombstones for a system that has served the nation fairly well for more than three decades.

Republican John McCain accepted the $84 million in public funds, which amounts to an automatic limit on both his fundraising and his spending. Obama raised nearly twice that amount -- $150 million -- in September alone. The Democrat's spending in September was $87.5 million. That one-month sum outstrips the total allocated under the public system that nominees are meant to use from the time of their late-summer conventions through Election Day.

The Obama campaign portrays its fundraising operation as a miracle of grass-roots enthusiasm, dominated by small donors who might give $10 or so and receive a car magnet. It's true that Obama has built the best small-donor operation ever. This is a tangible sign of the breadth of his appeal.

But it's also true that small contributions are only part of the story -- possibly a small part. The Washington Post has reported that only a quarter of the roughly $600 million Obama has raised over the course of the campaign has come from donors who gave $200 or less. The rest of Obama's money comes from the same high-end donors who've always played a disproportionate role in campaign fundraising. And both Obama and McCain are taking advantage of a loophole that allows their biggest contributors to give as much as $70,100 in combined contributions to their campaigns, to national and state parties and to various other campaign entities. Drawing on an analysis by Public Citizen, The New York Times reported that McCain has received donations of $25,000 or more from 1,800 people. Obama has received $25,000 or more from about 2,000 donors.

So who will have the new president's ear -- the person who pointed and clicked his way to a $5 donation, or the donor who polished the jewels for the $25,000 fundraising gala?

For all their inadequacies, campaign-finance laws are meant to accomplish several goals. Yes, they force disclosure of donor names and limit the size of checks. But they are also meant to level the playing field by keeping billionaires from dipping into their own wealth to buy an election -- or keeping a candidate who opts out of the public-financing system from racking up a lopsided money advantage of the sort Obama now enjoys.

Obama seems to have once understood this. Last December, he became an original co-sponsor of legislation by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would have fixed the presidential campaign financing system by boosting the sums the two nominees receive. The measure also calls for doubling public funds for a candidate who stays within the system -- but who confronts an opponent who has opted out and gained a daunting financial advantage. In other words, Sen. Obama supported a measure that would curtail or eliminate the very advantage Candidate Obama now exploits.

Does he still support the Feingold plan? Obama's campaign says he can't fix a crumbling system by "embracing it in its broken state." Once he's president, spokesman Nick Shapiro says, he'll keep his commitment.

Sarah Palin Is the Pet Rock of Politics

WASHINGTON -- There is something about Sarah Palin that gnaws at me, and it isn't that the Republican vice presidential nominee has wilted under the soft light shined upon her by CBS' Katie Couric. It isn't that I disagree with Palin on just about every single substantive issue I can think of, and probably some I haven't thought about.

What's bothering me about Palin isn't even Palin. It is that she's been made into the novelty act -- even the freak show -- of the presidential campaign.

Her mark in history may well turn out to be like that of the Pet Rock, one of those artifacts that has little value except as an object that is dissected for its cultural significance. During the brief but happy life of the Pet Rock in the 1970s, millions of Americans shelled out $3.95 to purchase an ordinary gray stone, packaged in a small cardboard box complete with an official Pet Rock training manual. The fad petered out in six months, but not before the promoter got rich and thousands of backyards became Pet Rock graveyards.

Now we prepare to watch Palin in today's vice presidential debate, compelled more by a cult-like curiosity than a call to civic duty.

Certainly some undecided voters may watch because they want to be convinced that the Alaska governor is qualified to be vice president or to determine, once and for all, that she is not. Republicans already attracted to her social conservatism and her family story will be cheering her on and will defend her against any slip or slight, real or imagined. Just as surely, some liberals will be itching to see what material Palin manages to serve up as fodder for Tina Fey and the writers at "Saturday Night Live."

Palin has become a sideshow: See Sarah stumble through the Couric interviews. Watch clips of Sarah's beauty-pageant swimsuit competition on YouTube. Laugh uproariously as Tina does a better Sarah than Sarah herself.

This is a terrible predicament not only for Palin but for all American women.

For decades women have protested the way we are objectified, only to have a governor running for vice president turned into an object. She is an object of over-the-top partisan projections, from the left and right. She is an object of scorn. And in some quarters, an object of sympathy.

I do not blame Palin for this. Which young, ambitious male governor, upon getting the call to join the national ticket from his party's presidential nominee, would humbly say, "No thanks, I'm not ready"? Yet some have laid Palin's failure to turn down the chance at promotion at her feet, as if it were her responsibility -- and not John McCain's -- to have chosen more wisely. Some conservatives who just a few weeks ago took delight in skewering liberal feminists with the rhetorical equivalent of Palin's moose-gutting knife now are aghast at the gaping holes in her knowledge.

McCain and his campaign bear full responsibility. Palin's initial introduction as one tough reformer turned quickly into a sales pitch for one tough hockey mom, capable of nursing an infant and nudging legislation to passage at the same time. Palin wasn't expected to know anything about throw-weights. She was there to ease the worries the Republican right harbors about McCain and, it was implausibly suggested, to attract Hillary Clinton supporters to the Republican ticket.

The way Palin was sequestered from the media helped transform her into a calcified figure to be seen but not heard, at least not heard speaking from anything but a script. Like a Pet Rock, she wasn't supposed to escape from the yard or require genuine training. She only had to stand and absorb every odd projection of the national imagination, however awkward and demeaning a task that might be.

Now Palin goes live alongside Democrat Joe Biden, and an odder couple has rarely shared a political stage. I do not expect Biden to be anything but superior in his knowledge and in the stature he is able to project to a worried public. He will be on guard against condescension. I do not expect Palin to collapse in utter confusion or do anything less than survive -- even if she barely survives. But surviving a debate and the post-debate spin isn't qualification for the vice presidency. That is the nub of it.

Palin's candidacy isn't shattering the glass ceiling for her or any other woman. It is killing us with a thousand cuts.

Marie Cocco's e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

The Candidates Need More Than a Patchwork Approach to Health Care

WASHINGTON -- In the midst of a Democratic convention that is high on psychodrama and necessarily low on wonkish detail, it hardly seems fair to throw around a word like "entitlements." Besides, Republicans are set to commandeer the media spotlight with their own convention next week, and they can be expected to use the E-word once or twice, probably with modifiers to make it sound dirty. Examples: references to "runaway spending'' on "entitlements" and the need to "rein them in."

So it is worth pausing during these orchestrated partisan celebrations to look afresh at entitlements. There is no more recent evidence of their enduring value than the latest report from the Census Bureau on the number of Americans who are doing without health insurance.

The headline seems counterintuitive, if not downright baffling: The number of people without insurance dipped in 2007, falling from 47 million to just under 46 million. Did the private insurance industry suddenly make it easier for employers to pay for this benefit and so make fewer of their workers do without? No. Did more Americans manage to buy policies on their own, using the magic of the free market coupled with such conservative panaceas as tax-favored health savings accounts? No.

The government became the insurer of last resort.

Without a boost in Medicare and Medicaid enrollment, the number of uninsured people would have risen once again last year. The Census data show that the percentage of Americans getting their coverage through the government jumped almost a full percentage point, from 27 to 27.8 percent. Most of the increase came in Medicaid, the joint state and federal program that insures the poor. Medicare, which insures the elderly, and Medicaid combined now provide coverage for 81 million Americans.

At the same time, the percentage of people who get private insurance through employers fell again, to 59.3 percent from 59.7 percent in 2006. It's this decline that has driven up the number of uninsured people -- there are about 6 million more uninsured now than there were in 2001. Which means, of course, that in the current economic downturn more people will become uninsured as businesses shed jobs and try to contain their own costs by curtailing coverage. The employer-based health insurance system, for anyone who hasn't yet noticed, is crumbling.

So why would the two presidential candidates seek to build a new system upon such a creaky foundation? There are only bad answers.

To be honest, Republican John McCain would effectively destroy the employer-based system by breaking it up even further, giving individuals tax breaks to buy insurance on their own. It won't work for the simple reason that the whole concept of insurance is based upon pooling risk: Those who stay healthy effectively subsidize those who get sick, and premiums remain lower than they otherwise would be for a sole individual or family. Besides, after years of tax breaks and other efforts to boost the individual insurance market that were put in place by congressional Republicans, the percentage of people who directly purchase insurance on their own also is declining, the Census Bureau says.

McCain at least has a partisan excuse for taking this approach. The free-market ideologues in his own party are convinced of their correctness, even when their faith is easily punctured by facts.

But what about the Democrats? From the start of their primaries, it was clear that the major candidates were too skittish about taking their talk about universal, affordable health insurance to the logical conclusion: that there is no simple or affordable way to achieve this so long as we continue to rely on something that's neither universal nor even predictable -- employment -- as the basis for coverage. All of the health insurance plans outlined by the major Democratic contenders, including Barack Obama, essentially would patch holes in the existing system.

Yet the employment-based system of insurance is providing coverage to fewer people while costs, even for the best-insured families, continue to mount. Meanwhile, government programs are performing exactly as they were intended to, providing a necessary safety net -- so long as the state and federal governments fund them sufficiently.

All of us would rather build a house on a firm foundation rather than a shaky one. The illogic of doing just the opposite on health care has never been more apparent.

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

The Pinched Middle Class Is Ditching Target for Wal-Mart

The one certainty I have about the economy is that I did not cause Target's profits to slide. Quite the opposite. I've been dedicating time for trips to the discount retailer to save a few bucks that would otherwise have been spent thoughtlessly buying, say, paper towels at the grocery store, where you never know if they'll be on sale.

But it turns out that consumers more pinched than I am are switching to Wal-Mart, so that discounter has been posting sales increases while Target is slumping. With wholesale inflation for July just reported at a 27-year high, consumer prices in the coming months will likely have at least some of this summer's painful energy costs factored in, so we probably haven't seen the worst of inflation.

Even Saks, the luxury department store, is suffering a slide in sales and profits. The economic pain is trickling up, a perversely welcome change from the immunity the Saks class has enjoyed for too many years to count.

This week's bad news is almost sure to be followed by more next week, when the Census Bureau reports on 2007 trends in income, poverty and the number of Americans without health insurance. This consistently alarming number is likely to climb again. Employers were dumping insurance coverage to pare costs even before they started dumping significant numbers of jobs altogether. And since insurance coverage is usually tied to jobs, the logic is inescapable. "I expect a significant increase in the number of the uninsured," says Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

The surge in inflation comes after years during which wages have been mostly flat, another trend likely to be confirmed by the Census. The economic expansion that began after the 2001 recession could be the first on record in which real median family income actually will be lower at the end of the "recovery" than it was at the last business peak in 2000, Bernstein believes.

It is no overstatement to call this a crisis. The thoroughly disheartening twist is that it seems not to have sparked a political uprising, even in the midst of a presidential campaign.

With economic conditions about as bad as they've been since the early 1980s, the most pressing political stories of the past week have been entirely -- and exhaustively -- beside the point. One involved whether Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama was more effective in groveling before the famous pastor of an evangelical Christian megachurch. When the two candidates were not maneuvering their way through the religious thicket, they were calibrating their strategies for announcing their choices for vice president. Never mind that there's precious little historical evidence that this choice matters very much in an election's outcome. The way the candidates stage-manage the selection is now supposedly the significant and revealing event.

You are left to wonder what any of this has to do with the price of milk, which, like the price of most food, has gotten completely out of hand. I have never been one to hold politicians accountable for not knowing the answer to those silly questions such as how much a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread costs. This particular game of gotcha is unfair to politicians running for president since they really do live in a cocoon imposed partly by contemporary security needs and partly by their fear of giving a thoroughly embarrassing answer.

Still, the price of milk -- rather, the broader, complicated, awful economic circumstances we confront that have helped lead to the mind-boggling price of milk -- should be the most talked-about political issue right now.

Yet other than the drill-or-not-to-drill-for-offshore-oil debate, no economic issue has made it into the core campaign message of either candidate.

You can't blame McCain. He is closely tied to the Bush administration's failures on the economy and even flip-flopped to say he would continue the exorbitant tax breaks for the rich that he first wisely opposed. But where is the outrage from Obama? It has turned up, finally, in television ads that, in part, use McCain's own statements on the economy to depict the Arizona senator as clueless.

Amid this blur, I long for a candidate who would "focus like a laser beam" on the economy. That's what voters are doing as they see their paychecks shrink from inflation, their jobs threatened and their middle-class dreams diminished.

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Three Aging White Men to Moderate Presidential Debate

WASHINGTON -- A presidential campaign in which a prevailing theme is "change" makes it all the easier to see just how much things remain the same.

Take the presidential debates to be broadcast this fall. The Commission on Presidential Debates plans three events, as usual, with one a "town hall" format featuring questions from voters, a recent custom on its way to becoming routine.

Another tradition is firmly upheld as well: Three white men will be in charge of questioning Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama on behalf of millions of American voters who, as a group, are less white and male than ever before. Gwen Ifill, an African-American who is moderator and managing editor of PBS' "Washington Week," drew the number two spot. She will moderate the vice-presidential debate, as she did in 2004.

I have nothing against Jim Lehrer, executive editor of "The NewsHour" on PBS, or Tom Brokaw of NBC, or Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS' "Face the Nation." But how about a dose of reality? Race and sex already have become flashpoints in this campaign. McCain's age is an issue and Obama is sparking enormous enthusiasm among younger voters. So why are we stuck in a media rut with three white men, the youngest of whom, Brokaw, is 68?

Including the vice presidential moderator, "We chose four people who we thought were qualified," says Janet Brown, the commission's executive director. "That doesn't mean others are not."

Brown said the panel's research into voter preferences led it to conclude that a single moderator, rather than a panel of questioners, makes the best format. There also is a preference for moderators with live television experience. As for the vice presidential debate being assigned to the sole female and person of color, Brown said the commission does not consider the job to be a lesser assignment. "Gwen is not seen as being any less important a moderator or having less important an assignment than any other moderator."

Using the commission's criteria, it's pretty darned simple to come up with the names of television correspondents who are experienced in the issues and have the requisite live coverage credentials. Katie Couric, the CBS News anchor, is one. Christiane Amanpour, the CNN correspondent who has reported live from dangerous conflict zones for two decades, is another. Andrea Mitchell of NBC also would fit the profile.

Brown said the panel avoids naming network anchors as moderators because "they are such celebrities." It's awfully hard to see how Couric could be considered more famous than Brokaw, who, with his best-selling books and other projects, sometimes seems like a one-man industry. But never mind. The point is that the commission looked around and what did it see? The same old picture.

Since the commission began running debates in 1988, only one female correspondent, Carole Simpson of ABC, has moderated a presidential forum. That was in 1992 and the format was a "town hall" meeting in which Simpson's role was to facilitate questions from the audience, not ask them herself. Before his retirement, CNN's Bernie Shaw moderated both a presidential and a vice presidential debate. Simpson, Shaw and Ifill are the only African-Americans who've had such high profile roles.

"Truth be told, even I would say there are not a lot of women on the level of the Brokaws and the Schieffers," says Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center. "It's the networks that are so thin on women and people of color." The center is petitioning the debate commission to add more representative moderators to this year's lineup, not to eliminate a moderator who already has been announced. But Brown said that's not likely because of the single-moderator format.

Would more women, African-Americans, Hispanics or those of other ethnic backgrounds ask the presidential contenders dramatically different questions? Perhaps not. Once a campaign settles into the stretch, the issues that are dominating public discussion inevitably dominate the debates. Just once, though, I'd like to see the candidates pressed on how changes they propose to Social Security would affect women -- the group most dependent on the program and most vulnerable to changes in it. I'd like not just to hear about our future military posture in Iraq, but about America's responsibility to the millions of refugees the war has created.

There is value in pursuing the same issues from a different perspective. But it seems that this year we are destined again to see them through the same lens.

House Passes First-Ever Comprehensive Tobacco Regulation Bill

WASHINGTON -- Congress is known for leaving business unfinished, but rarely is a task left undone for more than four decades.

The tobacco industry is a prolific donor of campaign funds and a lobbying titan. So the federal government has left it mostly alone since the 1964 Surgeon General's report declared that cigarette smoking causes disease and death.

"This is the only consumer product that, when used as intended, kills people," says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "And it is unregulated."

Until, one can hope, right now.

Before departing for its August break, the House of Representatives passed the first-ever comprehensive tobacco regulation bill. It gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco by, among other things, cracking down on marketing to children, mandating dramatically stronger health warnings on every pack, and requiring that the warnings be larger than they are now. Most significantly, the government would ban use of words such as "light" and "mild" that are meant to fool smokers into thinking there is such a thing as a safe, or safer, cigarette.

It would prohibit sweet flavorings now used to make smoking seem palatable, though it wouldn't go far enough in reducing the use of menthol flavors, favored among African-American smokers.

And for the first time, tobacco companies would have to disclose to the government just what is in cigarettes. Right now, Myers says, there are more than 60 known cancer-causing agents in cigarettes, but most information on them is held privately by the industry. "The FDA doesn't even know what is in there," he says. The legislation, Myers believes, "takes the decisions about what might be in cigarettes away from the tobacco industry ... and turns them over to the scientists."

The politics of this belated action are notable and, it must be said, should give pause to any American who thinks that Congress, or "Washington," can never ever achieve anything of genuine significance.

Finally, a bipartisan -- and veto-proof -- majority of House members voted to support public health rather than suck up to Big Tobacco. In the Senate, supporters of the measure believe they have enough votes to survive a veto and perhaps even a threatened filibuster. Both presidential contenders are co-sponsors of the Senate bill.

Which leaves the Bush administration isolated. The White House has said that if the legislation reaches his desk, President Bush's advisers would recommend a veto.

The reasoning is positively Orwellian. "FDA regulates drugs and devices by approving products after weighing the benefits against the risks of a product," the White House policy statement on the bill says. "In contrast, there is no such thing as a cigarette in which the benefits outweigh the risks. The use of tobacco products is inherently unsafe."

Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that the government should ban cigarettes, not stop at merely regulating them. The only other translation possible is that the White House has concluded cigarettes are so dangerous the government should do nothing about them.

You might recognize this as the sort of doublespeak the industry itself mastered long ago. Cigarettes are an adult pleasure, it insists -- while systematically marketing them in ways that appeal to adolescents, the group most likely to take up smoking and become hooked. Cigarette smoking is a choice, not an addiction. Yeah, right. Most Americans stopped believing this nonsense years ago. Now it seems that Congress has finally caught up with public sentiment.

Besides Bush, the one obstacle to enactment of this necessary measure is time. In this election year, the Senate has few days left to work before leaving town once again to campaign. The rules of the chamber not only allow for a filibuster but also for linkage to a much more controversial bill -- offshore oil drilling, anyone? So a handful of opponents could still impede action. These are the kinds of smoke screens that have been used to shield tobacco in the past: The first effort at legislation along these lines was introduced more than two decades ago.

With 400,000 deaths each year and more than four decades after we were told this would be tobacco's effect, it is awfully hard to see how congressional delay and political denial should still carry the day.

Marie Cocco's e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

Will Obama Take on the Health Care Fight?

WASHINGTON -- Before the energy-price crisis, before the mortgage crisis, before the credit crisis and the banking crisis, there was the crisis in health insurance that is in reality a crisis in care.

This crisis has deepened in recent years as the number of uninsured has climbed and out-of-pocket costs for those still with insurance have soared. It has become common knowledge that a serious illness -- even among those with insurance -- can plunge families into bankruptcy. Though "problems paying for gas" topped the financial challenges people listed in the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation health tracking poll, "problems paying for health care and health insurance" ranked third -- just behind job concerns but well ahead of paying for food, dealing with credit card debt and paying the mortgage.

So it is downright shocking that there was a tussle over what the 2008 Democratic platform would say about the party's generations-long, bedrock commitment to health care for all Americans. In short, presumptive nominee Barack Obama did not draft a statement keeping that pledge. He presented instead his plan as one that would provide "access to" affordable and comprehensive health care. A coalition of liberal activists and Hillary Clinton supporters managed to negotiate a change so that the platform says the party is "united behind a commitment that every American man, woman and child be guaranteed to have affordable, comprehensive health care." Inclusion of the word "guaranteed" was the crucial point.

On the surface, this may look like a victory for Clinton supporters or even for the far larger group -- that is, millions of Democrats -- who have long believed that the promise of guaranteed, universal health care is a fundamental principle of their party. I am less certain, and it's not because I know that politicians can discard party platforms faster than they rid themselves of scandal-tainted donors.

It is because Obama did not campaign during the primaries on a plan that would achieve universal coverage, and indeed, excoriated Clinton for her proposal to mandate that everyone have it. In fact, even some of those involved in achieving the small health-care victory take little solace from it. "I'm not sure that Obama will actually pursue the same kind of idea that we had inserted in the platform," says Donna Smith, who lobbied the platform panel as a member of Progressive Democrats of America. "I think we will have to pursue our congressional representatives to bring legislation forward."

Smith is not a Clinton delegate, or even a convention delegate. She and her husband Larry were featured in the Michael Moore film Sicko because they were forced into bankruptcy and lost their home trying to pay the out-of-pocket costs stemming from her treatment for uterine cancer and his for heart disease. "Our purpose was not to attack the party," says Smith, who says she wants Obama to be elected and describes herself and her husband as "good and loyal Democrats." But certain lines have to be drawn.

"To say you're going to provide affordable coverage to people is not the same as giving them health care," she says. "Just because you have insurance coverage does not guarantee you access to the care that you and your doctor decide you need. And people with insurance understand that."

Most Democrats do, too.

In 1992, the party's platform said everyone should have "universal" access to health care "not as a privilege, but as a right." In 1996, a party chastened after the collapse of President Bill Clinton's health care initiative nonetheless committed itself to "ensuring that Americans have access to affordable, high-quality health care." In 2000, the platform noted that "for 50 years, the Democratic Party has been engaged in a battle to provide the kind of health care a great nation owes its people." In 2004, the platform said this: "We believe that health care is a right and not a privilege."

Securing that right is as important now as it was four, or even 50, years ago. When gas prices recede, when the housing market stabilizes and fears of imminent job losses ebb, there will still be an unconscionable gap between the glory of American medical science and the ability of millions of people to get the most basic care.

Obama avoided an intra-party brawl over the health platform. The unanswerable question is whether he will be as determined, as president, to take on the much larger -- and excruciatingly harder -- health-care fight.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

McCain and Obama on Social Security and Taxes

WASHINGTON -- In this summer of our economic discontent, it isn't necessary to manufacture a financial crisis or to make political hash out of discussing a nonexistent one.

So I'm baffled at why the subject of Social Security keeps popping up in the presidential campaign, and all the more so because neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama can manage to talk coherently about it.

McCain is guilty of head-spinning turns. Having once been a supporter of partially privatizing the vast retirement and social insurance system, McCain has been more consistent during the campaign in supporting a bipartisan panel similar to the 1983 Greenspan Commission to work out future financing problems. Everything, McCain said, has to be "on the table."

Predictably, this bit of straight talk raised the hackles of the conservative anti-tax lobby -- always antagonistic toward McCain. So McCain switched back to a strict anti-tax rhetoric, but in almost the same breath, continued to say that he would support a bipartisan commission that looks at all options.

Got all that?

More consistent, but no more comprehensible, is Obama's idea of creating a "doughnut hole" in the payroll tax structure that supports Social Security. Currently, payroll taxes are capped at earnings of $102,000 -- that is, someone earning more than that does not pay Social Security taxes on the rest of his or her salary. The workers' eventual benefits also are capped in line with taxes paid.

Obama says he would raise taxes to help finance the system, but only on those who earn $250,000 a year or more. His campaign refuses to say what percentage tax increase would be imposed, or even whether it would be a payroll or an income-tax hike. More significantly, the Obama campaign does not discuss what would happen to benefits with this unprecedented shift in how taxes are levied.

Since Social Security's inception, workers have received benefits that are roughly linked to the taxes they've paid into the system. This element of fairness is what keeps the program politically popular, and prevents it from being viewed as welfare. Would some future commission on Social Security go along with adding such complexity -- let alone changing the basic bargain that has served the program so well, for so long? Probably not.

Luckily, the heat of summer has produced at least one proposal that sheds light, and logic, on the debate. The American Academy of Actuaries -- an independent, professional group that has never before endorsed a particular method of bringing Social Security into long-term balance -- is calling for an increase in the retirement age.

I know this isn't what people want to hear. There is enough serious economic stress now to make mention of one more sacrifice almost too much to bear. As for me, I've been working since I was 14 and don't want to wait a day longer than necessary to retire.

The actuaries do not suggest a specific age (the current age to claim full benefits rises gradually to 67 for those born in 1960 and later). Nor do they estimate how much money a gradual increase would save the system.

What they do is present a compelling argument that makes far more sense than any politician's garble. "It's a demographic solution to a demographic problem," says Bruce Schobel, who chairs the academy's retirement security task force. In 1940, a 65-year-old man lived an additional 12 years longer, on average, and females lived about 13. By 2007, those figures had reached about 17 years for men and 19 for women.

The choice of 65 as the normal retirement age when Social Security was created in 1935 was driven entirely by cost estimates, Schobel says, and 65 was a compromise. The only change in the normal retirement age since then was the gradual boost to 67, enacted in 1983.

Privatizing Social Security sets up clear winners and losers, harming women and low-wage workers in particular. Raising taxes through Obama's "doughnut hole" produces different classes of Social Security taxpayers and beneficiaries, fundamentally changing the nature of the program. Tinkering with benefit calculations has different impacts on various groups of workers.

But if we want to keep Social Security fair, if we want a long-term solution to treat all recipients as equally as possible, and if we want to do it in a way that is straightforward and understandable -- not so convoluted that few understand how the change would affect them -- there is solid reasoning, and not political sleight-of-hand, behind the actuaries' plan.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Is Starbucks a Sinking Ship?

WASHINGTON -- I'm not one to take lightly the loss of 12,000 jobs, especially when they come with good benefits such as health insurance and vacations for part-timers. Still, I'm finding it hard to suppress a bit of smugness over the downsizing of Starbucks, the ubiquitous coffee chain that put the word "latte" on everyone's lips.

By next week, the first of 600 stores Starbucks intends to close will be shuttered, a shrinkage necessitated by a drop in profits and an overall drift of purpose that seems to have thrown the company into the type of identity crisis some of its patrons try to work out while lounging at the cafe. My irritation is directed at neither the company's management nor its employees, but at the Starbucks culture. It's always annoyed the heck out of me.

Starbucks seems to be a place that carries a whiff of excess. In its own way, it has a lot in common with SUVs, hot tubs and television screens wide enough to fill a wall. That is, it represents the bit-by-bit extravagances that helped get us into the tight economic jam we find ourselves in today.

I never did develop the Starbucks habit, an addiction that can cost otherwise levelheaded people $25 or more per week. Years ago, I remember shocking a colleague when I told him I walked across street each morning to get coffee at a shop where the basic brew was a dime less than a comparable cup at the Starbucks just an elevator ride down from my office. I could have easily afforded the 50 cents extra per workweek, but what was the point? A brewed coffee was a brewed coffee. And since neither Starbucks espresso nor its various versions of "latte" bear much resemblance to the real things I've consumed in Italy (or even growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood), I never much cared for them. Eventually, I gave up buying coffee from a shop altogether. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But the list of stores Starbucks is closing is a revelation. It shows that the company expanded to byways of America where I have no doubt that a decade ago, few would have deliberated the purchase of an expensive coffee, let alone an oddly named beverage. Take, for example, the store that is about to go dark in Triadelphia, W.Va.

That's near Wheeling, in the heart of an old steel and coal region that has struggled economically for what seems an eternity. "We haven't had retail (growth) in our county for 30 or 40 years now," says Greg Stewart, the development director for Ohio County.

Yet the county has succeeded recently in developing a major retail and office park, which has generated about 3,000 new jobs. Big-name discount department stores were lured in, and a big draw is Cabela's, a huge hunting, fishing and camping emporium. In 2007 when Starbucks wanted to move in, local officials had hoped the coffee shop would take a storefront in the "lifestyle center'' of the development, which features a theater and a pedestrian space. But the company chose a different spot in the development. And so, only a year after it opened, this is one of the first shops in the country that Starbucks will close.

Bridget Baker, a Starbucks spokeswoman, said she couldn't discuss store-by-store performance, nor would she disclose what the most popular purchase was in Triadelphia. She did volunteer that Starbucks offers more than 87,000 different "beverage combinations."

"Coffee seems to be something that's popular among a wide group of people," Baker says. "Obviously customers want us to be there. That's how we choose sites."

Still, the people of Ohio County aren't exactly latte liberals -- a political term that could not have been coined without Starbucks. The median household income there in 2005 was $34,199, according to the Census Bureau. Four years ago, the county voted overwhelmingly to re-elect President Bush. In this year's Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton won 58 percent of the vote against Barack Obama.

Some neighborhoods are fighting to keep their Starbucks. Included among them are Manhattan shops serving upscale offices and, according to The New York Times, a cafe in downtown Newark that has become a meeting spot and a symbol of resurgence in the city.

And Triadelphia does like coffee. Stewart says he's already in talks with other food purveyors and is hopeful about filling the storefront soon: "We'd love to just put Dunkin' Donuts right in that space."

Unglamorous, perhaps. But maybe good to the last drop.

Doctors Push Cholesterol Drugs on Kids

WASHINGTON -- One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you soon will control your cholesterol.

Childhood long ago ceased to involve idyllic hours chasing small animals through the field or even careening around the neighborhood on a bicycle. But do we really need to liven it up with Lipitor?

To the cocktail of drugs young children already are taking, the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that some kids as young as 8 might benefit from cholesterol-reducing medication. The reasons are too familiar: Our kids are growing too fat (just like their parents), eating lots of the wrong foods (just like their parents), getting insufficient exercise (just like their parents), and showing the warning signs of serious future health problems -- high cholesterol levels -- that are precursors to heart attacks (just like they are for their parents).

So, after detecting an unnerving jump in cholesterol levels among the young, the pediatrics profession is suggesting that some kids with high cholesterol and a family history of early heart disease should "be considered" as candidates to take the drugs now prescribed mostly to those who are in middle age or older. Screening for cholesterol levels, according to recommendations listed in the journal Pediatrics, should begin for some children when they are as young as 2. Can cholesterol-drug commercials on the Disney Channel be far behind?

There's no wonder the medical profession is concerned about overweight kids who are developing life-threatening health conditions. The pediatric profession long ago recommended that children 2 and older eat less sugary food, consume whole-grain breads instead of processed, white baked goods and drink skim or low-fat milk. The children's doctors say kids should get "60 minutes of moderate to vigorous play or physical activity daily." And by vigorous, they don't mean thumbing to victory in a video game or racing to get a snack during a television commercial.

"It's appalling what we've let happen to our children," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "And the fact that the children have such high cholesterol levels is a sign of the environment we have created for them."

Another part of what Brownell calls our "environment" is the reliance on medication as the answer to the poor conditions we've created for ourselves. "As a culture, we're very prone to creating unhealthy environments and then trying to use medicine to mop up the damage."

The epidemic of obesity among children is real, and already it is leading to the onset of serious -- and expensive to treat -- diseases such as diabetes at ever-younger ages. But like another serious problem much in the news lately -- sky-high energy prices -- this is one that is largely of our own making.

We've allowed the food industry to market directly to kids, overwhelming them with a tsunami of sugary inducements in cereal ads alone. We've allowed vending machines full of junk food in the schools. We've somehow made the social activity of sitting around eating pizza while watching a sporting event as acceptable as playing the sport itself. As schools have come under increasing pressure to teach -- and test -- more, physical education programs and even recess for elementary-school kids often have been cut.

Just as we have a decades-long history of all the wrong habits when it comes to energy consumption, we've got a decades-long history of saying we want to be fit, while conscientiously ignoring most of the good advice that's been out there for years. "The fact that young kids may need statin drugs now is a sign of how bad we've made it," Brownell says. "If anything, this study should have sounded the loudest possible alarm bell that something needs to be done to provide better conditions for our children."

When the U.S. surgeon general first reported that smoking cigarettes was a killer habit -- and hardly the glamorous lifestyle choice portrayed in television and the movies -- people began to quit in droves. Eventually, tobacco use became a social taboo. Schools and parents go to great lengths now to keep kids from smoking. After all, there's no prescription drug that can cure lung cancer.

How loudly does the siren about our children's unhealthy eating habits have to sound before we get the message that the response has to come from us -- and not the pharmaceutical industry?

Marie Cocco's e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Obama Botches the Abortion Conversation

Somewhere along Barack Obama's winding road through the red states, he lost me. It happened when he talked about women who are "feeling blue."

Obama says that these women should not be able to obtain a late-term abortion, because just "feeling blue" isn't the same as suffering "serious clinical mental health diseases." True enough. And totally infuriating.

During the recent Obama pander tour -- the one in which he spent about a week trying to win over conservative religious voters -- the presumptive Democratic nominee unnecessarily endorsed President Bush's faith-based initiative, a sort of patronage program that rewards religious activists for their political support with public grants. Then in a St. Louis speech, Obama declared that "I let Jesus Christ into my life." That's fine, but we already have a president who believes this was a qualification for the Oval Office, and look where that's gotten us.

Obama's verbal meanderings on the issue of late-term abortion go further. He has muddied his position. Whether this is a mistake or deliberate triangulation, only Obama knows for sure.

One thing is certain: Obama has backhandedly given credibility to the right-wing narrative that women who have abortions -- even those who go through the physically and mentally wrenching experience of a late-term abortion -- are frivolous and selfish creatures who might perhaps undergo this ordeal because they are "feeling blue."

The wordplay began when Obama, in an interview with the religious magazine Relevant, said he believes late-term abortions can be banned except in cases where "a serious physical issue ... arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems with the mother carrying that child to term." In other words, a woman's emotional and psychological health would not be considered factors. Obama said he doesn't think "'mental distress' qualifies as the health of the mother."

Since this contradicts the landmark Roe v. Wade decision and subsequent court rulings that have upheld mental health exceptions to abortion bans, the campaign had to flip back from the flop. Obama spoke to reporters on his campaign plane and gave a definition of a mental health exception that goes like this: "It can be defined by serious, clinical mental health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue." He noted that neither abortion-rights supporters nor the courts have ever interpreted a mental health exception that way.

They have not. Because this sort of language -- that women might have late-term abortions just because they feel "blue" -- is that of the anti-abortion lobby. As part of its campaign to ban the procedure, anti-abortion activists have consistently depicted women who have abortions as doing so for convenience, to get themselves out of an uncomfortable jam of their own making.

In all the years I have covered the incendiary politics of late-term abortion -- procedures that comprise only about 1 percent of abortions in the U.S. -- I have never come across a woman who terminated a pregnancy late because she was "feeling blue." I have interviewed married women who ended a planned pregnancy after it went catastrophically wrong. One was carrying a fetus whose brain had grown outside the skull. Another had endured months of unexplained and uncontrollable bleeding, only to discover after her abortion that the placenta was breaking up and being passed from her body.

The medical conditions these women suffered might or might not have been considered purely physical under a restrictive abortion law that a state legislature -- or the U.S. Congress -- might pass. Their lives weren't in direct jeopardy; the pregnancies were. They agonized over their choice. Did they feel "blue"? No. It was much, much worse than that. A campaign spokesman said Obama made the point about "feeling blue" to show that women do not make abortion decisions lightly. I do not question Obama's support for abortion rights; he's been clear that he supports keeping abortion legal.

But I do wonder why a candidate praised for his rhetorical gifts talks about women in the way that he does. During the primary campaign, he said Hillary Clinton launched political attacks on him "periodically, when she's feeling down." He called a Detroit reporter "sweetie" when she was trying to ask him about job creation. Now he has incorporated a myth created by the right -- that women who seek late-term abortions should not be allowed to do so if they are "feeling blue" -- into his own lexicon. And this is enough to make me see red.

The Key to Driving Energy Prices Down

WASHINGTON -- Two cheers for the Saudis. Not so much for agreeing to boost oil production a bit -- a move that in the short term seems unlikely to ease summer gas prices. But because there's nothing like the Saudi version of straight talk to put in perspective the tongue-twisting of American politicians.

At the global confab of energy producing and consuming countries held in Jiddah over the weekend, Saudi Arabia -- the sole oil-producing nation capable of quick production increases -- said it would boost output in an effort to ease a global oil-price crisis. The sheiks gave a lesson in economics, insisting they will try to meet demand in their usual self-interested way: by boosting output just enough to quell a crisis, but not by so much that Saudi Arabia's own profits from high demand and correspondingly high prices are diminished.

This placing of Saudi cards face up on the table tends to infuriate American politicians and consumers. And that's a good thing.

For whenever spikes in energy prices lead to the inevitable upsurge in public demands that somebody do something, American politicians resort to nothing so much as self-defeating silliness. That is behind the call, embraced by Republican John McCain and, before her bid for the Democratic nomination ended, Hillary Clinton, for a summer gas-tax "holiday." Implementing this would cause people to drive more at the very time when high prices are prompting them to drive somewhat less -- that is, it would have precisely the opposite effect from what is really needed.

Democrat Barack Obama correctly opposes the gas-tax holiday as a blatant political pander. But what of his newest energy proposal? He seeks a crackdown on oil-market speculation, which might or might not be one of the causes of the current price surge.

I'm all for getting tough on nefarious traders who seek to profit from making other people's lives miserable. But be honest: Did the unraveling of Enron and the ultimate prosecution of those well-known wrongdoers spare us from the current energy price crunch?

At bottom, high energy prices are driven by high demand, and currently that demand is being driven by the rapidly developing economies in China, India and elsewhere. Politicians in the U.S. have historically feared telling Americans -- still the world's biggest consumers of oil -- that they need to use less of it. This is why McCain has now promoted offshore drilling, a proposal that would probably take a decade or more, give or take a few lawsuits and state political upheavals, to produce a drop of oil. It's one reason why Obama is so devoted to ethanol subsidies, a supposedly virtuous way to replace oil with a biofuel -- even though the diversion of corn crops to fuel production already is contributing to rising food prices.

As usual when it comes to energy politics, we have failed to meet the enemy and conclude that it is us. Remember how Jimmy Carter was ridiculed and reviled for putting on a sweater and telling us to lower our thermostats? Well, what if we had done so three decades ago rather than a few months ago?

And what if we'd never had a love affair with SUVs? What are now symbols of energy profligacy were, only a couple of years ago, the ultimate suburban status symbols. All manner of rationalizations were cooked up to justify their purchase: The need to drive kids to soccer practice -- a trip that requires extra room for little but a ball and a water bottle -- was one of my personal favorites. In truth, you can't pass a suburban office park without noticing that their lots are packed from end to end with these behemoths, which are driven far more often for commuting trips than for camping excursions.

Those looking forward to a change of presidents to usher in a serious change in energy policy should consider this: It took Congress more than three decades to increase vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and eliminate a loophole through which SUVs had boldly driven. The inertia prevailed regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in charge of Capitol Hill and the White House.

Alternative fuels are indeed needed and so is government policy to promote them. But there is no miracle cure that can cut energy prices in the short or long term other than that rarest of commodities, a political and personal commitment to sacrifice.

(c) 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Psychologist Recommends Refusing to Treat Vets Suffering from PTSD

WASHINGTON -- The comment was outrageous, but it was not the least bit surprising. A psychologist responsible for assessing returning war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder -- a psychological ailment that could entitle them to monthly disability payments -- told staff members not to diagnose the illness because to do so would increase the government's costs.

"Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out," the psychologist at a Department of Veterans Affairs center in Texas wrote in an e-mail. She suggested diagnosing a less severe disorder that would not carry the greater long-term disability costs.

The correspondence was made public by VoteVets.org and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, two groups that have dogged the Bush administration about our latest national disgrace: the shoddy care and bureaucratic callousness shown toward the warriors who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with life-altering wounds of the body and spirit.

Of course, the morally indefensible missive was repudiated by higher-ups in the Department of Veterans Affairs as soon as it was revealed last week. And of course, the persistent congressional outcry over the treatment of veterans -- not to mention the onrushing election season -- makes it more likely than not that some temporary alleviation of the pain and suffering vets endure in a system that is supposed to be serving them will be addressed. Somehow, some day, that is.

That bit of politically induced relief for vets, should it come, does not change the underlying sentiment of the message. Because at bottom, it is a demoralizing reminder of the way the U.S. health care system works for just about everyone.

Certainly, the government agency in charge of caring for veterans is not supposed to behave this way, under the law or any standard of conscience.

In truth, the mind-set mirrors the unconscionable standard of the health insurance industry's thinking that the rest of us must endure -- and from which neither leading candidate for president promises much relief.

The industry's term for paying a claim is "medical loss." This is a disturbingly blunt but perfectly accurate reflection of reality: To make a profit, an insurer must take in more money than it pays out in claims.

Denying payment on claims, or strictly limiting payments even for the most obvious or debilitating medical conditions, is how the industry stays financially viable.

"I was told repeatedly that I was not denying care, I was simply denying payment," Linda Peeno, a doctor and former managed-care medical claims officer testified before Congress in 1996. A video clip of her testimony was included in Michael Moore's 2007 documentary "Sicko," the story of how the American health insurance system really works -- or rather, doesn't -- for most people.

The slip-up at the veterans' health agency comes at a propitious time, because neither of the two men likely to become president next year would do anything to change the type of thinking it revealed. Democrat Barack Obama relies on the current, if uneasy -- and increasingly unworkable -- partnership between the insurance industry and employers to expand coverage. But Obama would not make universal coverage mandatory and so insurers would still be able to cherry-pick among those it really wants to insure (the healthiest, and therefore the cheapest) and those it doesn't (the sickest and most expensive).

Republican John McCain's answer is far worse. He would effectively break the link between employers and the insurance industry, and give individuals a tax credit with which to buy a policy on their own -- a purchase they would make at the mercy of insurers. If you liked President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security and move toward a do-it-yourself retirement system, you'll love McCain's do-it-yourself answer to the insurance crisis.

But of course, no one can really do it himself because the whole idea of private insurance is to spread risk broadly. That's why employers are able to purchase policies more cheaply than can individuals: The expensive employee whose child has cancer is offset by the cheaper employee who is as fit as a marathon runner.

The psychology of the cost-conscious official at the Texas veterans' medical facility is the psychology that controls the health care system for all of us. If we are outraged at the hint that it might be applied to wounded service men and women, we should also be angry that it is applied every day to the rest of us.

Will Dems Get Robbed Again in 2008?

"Powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way," the candidate said, "and the odds seem stacked against you -- even as you do what's right for you and your family."

He would fight these powers, and take on in particular "big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs." Sometimes, the candidate declared, "you have to be willing to stand up and say no -- so families can have a better life."

John Edwards, 2008? No. Al Gore, 2000.

The campaign trail is ablaze now with fiery populism, with just about every Democrat -- and Edwards in particular -- railing against the forces they say have eroded the economic well-being of the middle class, diminished Americans' access to health care and threatened the roofs over their heads as the subprime mortgage crisis is transformed into a foreclosure calamity and credit crunch. Even Republican Mike Huckabee, breaking from his party's orthodoxy that there's nothing really wrong with the economy, has been chanting the populist mantra, to the chagrin of the party's pro-business wing.

Has something changed since Gore delivered his populist manifesto during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles -- and was ridiculed by much of the political class and the media as a phony making a fraudulent argument?

Well, yes. Much of what Gore warned would happen if George W. Bush won the presidency has come to pass.

The Republican president did try to privatize Social Security and carve out private accounts from the government-guaranteed benefit. "Social Security minus," Gore called it then. The Republican president and a Republican Congress did, indeed, pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit that "tells seniors to beg the HMOs and insurance companies for prescription drug coverage," just as Gore predicted in his speech.

"Big tobacco" turned out to be one of the biggest winners of the past legislative session, even with Democrats in control of Congress. The White House and a core group of House Republicans refused to go along with hiking tobacco taxes to pay for an expansion of health insurance for needy children. That was even after Democrats stripped out a proposal to pay for the kids' insurance by reducing billions in subsidies the Republican Congress had lavished on the managed-care industry.

As for "big oil," who needs more than a visit to the gas station? With the price of oil reaching $100 a barrel, and industry profits already having set records in 2006, does anyone wonder what kind of year "big oil" will turn out to have enjoyed when it posts profits for 2007?

Gore could not have foretold the stagnation in wages that has been the dominant, if little discussed, economic trend of the past seven years. With the focus on HMO outrages during the 1990s, the former vice president can be forgiven for not having predicted a worse development: the number of Americans without any health insurance has grown by 8.6 million since 2000.

Middle-class concern about the economy has deepened since then, as jobs and pensions have become less secure. The anchor of middle-class life -- homeownership -- now seems threatened. Unease that was buried beneath the rubble from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and obscured by the bloodshed in Iraq has become a full-blown fear of falling backward.

Still, the anointed commentariat is likely to dismiss the populism that rises up from the campaign trail as lacking substance, political staying power, or both. Among those who sneered at Gore were Peggy Noonan, William Safire, George Will, Michael Barone and various other pundits who, while sometimes giving the vice president points for delivery, declared his us-against-them speech to be a surefire turnoff.

After the campaign, Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, said populism was "ineffective" and that Americans reject "us-versus-them" rhetoric. But the populist Gore, whose support surged after the convention, managed to win the popular vote. Lieberman now supports Republican John McCain for president.

There's no mystery about what will happen in 2008, once the nominees are known. Some sort of economic populism will remain central to the Democrats' message -- otherwise they'd be guilty of political malpractice. Republicans will decry this as "class warfare" and hew closely to the Bush economic prescriptions of tax cuts for the well-off and willful blindness to other economic pressures burdening families.

So we are doomed to go back to the future, facing much the same choice we did in 2000.

The Iraqification of Afghanistan

Winter approaches, and as many as 400,000 Afghans face starvation. The trouble is not an insufficient supply of food. There is no way to get food to those who need it.

Attacks on aid workers and the hijacking of food convoys -- the United Nations' main feeding program says it has lost about 100,000 tons of food to attacks by insurgents and criminals so far this year -- have made it all but impossible to transport supplies along the main road connecting vast stretches of the country between Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west.

Nothing exposes a hollow promise like the prospect of mass starvation. By now, six years after the United States and its Western allies launched military operations to avenge the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and free Afghanistan from the grip of the Taliban, humanitarian workers surely should not be forced to give up on feeding the desperate. But this is only one measure of our catastrophic failure.

While the Bush administration crows about the apparent pacification of some neighborhoods in Iraq as proof that its surge of military forces there is working, Afghanistan hurtles toward chaos. You might call what is now unfolding there the Iraqification of Afghanistan.

The Taliban is resurgent, and has extended its presence through more than half of Afghan territory, according to new research by the Senlis Council, an independent, international think tank with field offices in Afghanistan. This is no longer a regional or tribal threat, but a full-blown insurgency aimed at U.S., NATO and other allied troops, as well as the government of Hamid Karzai, portrayed in Taliban propaganda as an illegitimate puppet of Western powers.

Foreign militants are joining up with this reconstituted Taliban, just as they once were lured to Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden and the holy warriors of al-Qaeda -- just as they have been drawn to Iraq. "Foreign fighters from, amongst others, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya and China are once again using Afghanistan as a battleground for their interpretation of global jihad," says the Senlis Council's latest report, released last week. In sanctuaries just over the border in Pakistan, the militants have developed "quite openly" a terrorist infrastructure that includes recruiters, safe houses and suicide bombers who prepare to infiltrate Afghanistan.

There is the "import of tactics perfected in Iraq." These include suicide bombs and roadside bombs aimed at civilians as well as national and international forces. Senlis offers a cold tally: From 2001 through 2004, Afghanistan suffered five suicide attacks. In 2005, there were 17. By 2006, the number had climbed to 123. Already this year, there have been 131 suicide bombings.

In a worst-case scenario for the future, the research group envisions "a wholesale import of terrorist tactics and methodologies from Iraq. Seemingly inexhaustible supplies of martyrs permeate the country, indiscriminately attacking public spaces, military forces and the institutions of state."

In our own political discussion, the problem of Afghanistan is often reduced to two claims against the Bush administration. One involves the failure to capture bin Laden when he was cornered at Tora Bora. The other centers on the distraction of Iraq, and the diversion of resources to that conflict. Both complaints are legitimate. Both are now sadly beside the point.

We are failing in Afghanistan -- the very country where failure was not supposed to be an option. Besides the military's inability to pacify the country and subdue the Taliban, Western development and reconstruction money has been scarce. The opium poppy crop is again a mainstay of the Afghan economy, and there is deep disagreement among allies over what to do about it.

Yet, as the presidential campaign careens toward an early winnowing with a front-loaded schedule of primaries, barely a word is uttered about the approaching disaster in Afghanistan. Democrats squabble over the five-year-old vote to authorize military action in Iraq, and about which of them will draw down the most troops. Republicans attempt to best one another with their bellicose posturing about Iran, falling into line with this latest Bush administration fixation. The prospect of war consuming the entire Middle East seems not to trouble them.

Our government stood accused in the years leading to 9/11 of ignoring or at least failing to respond adequately to the gathering danger in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. That history could repeat itself so soon is a chilling indictment.

All We Want for Christmas is a Good Economy

Sometime before the average price of gas topped the $3-a-gallon mark, just as Wall Street was getting jumpy about its year-end bonuses -- the cache is expected to dip by 10 percent this year, down from last year's record haul of $23.9 billion -- an inevitable moment arrived. The economy beat Iraq as the issue of most concern to Americans, according to a Newsweek poll.

It's hard to fret over whether Manhattan financiers will be buying summer estates in the Hamptons next year, or merely renovating that waterfront cottage with so much potential. Still and all, in an economy where for years the greatest rewards have trickled up, it gives me the jitters to think that the rich might suddenly become more like the rest of us: suffering the fallout from the too-often-ignored scandals and the utter neglect of nagging problems that are distinguishing characteristics of American economic policy.

The broad credit crisis now rocking the financial markets is the unwanted child of the mortgage crisis. Now looming is a retail crisis. Based on an abysmal October and the inevitable squeeze from fuel prices, holiday sales are expected to slump. This comes on the heels of the tainted-toys threat. And this, just after that annual and increasingly depressing envelope arrived to inform millions that their health insurance premiums and other out-of-pocket health expenses will again be rising in 2008. That's for people who got the good news. Some will get the bad news that their employer has decided to stop offering coverage.

In August, while Washington was consumed with anticipation of Gen. David Petraeus' September report on the efficacy of the troop surge in Iraq, the Census Bureau gave Americans an update on a story they already are familiar with: Their pay is stagnant. Adjusted for inflation, median annual earnings of men and women who work full time fell in 2006, for the third year in a row. Health insurance premiums, meanwhile, grew by 78 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Cumulative growth in wages during the same period was 19 percent.

The shock and awe with which some in the media have reacted to news of deepening economic pessimism is itself shocking. It is the result of elite isolationism that puts more faith in broad numbers -- overall growth has been strong thus far this year -- than in the breach of faith so many workers are experiencing.

"American concern about the economy as a top-of-mind issue has been fairly low so far this year," the Gallup polling organization wrote in a Nov. 2 analysis. Still, those who are dissatisfied with the country's direction (and that's now a huge majority) "are more likely to mention aspects of the economy than any other issue." By the summer, Gallup said, the public's rating of economic conditions was sinking, and "had become among the most negative that Gallup has measured since the early 1990s."

Not since the last serious recession have Americans been so squeezed by economic pressures, and so scared about them. Yet seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses, here is the state of discourse: Republican presidential candidates continue to tout the benefits of tax cuts as a solution to every problem, of less regulation always being better than more, and of free trade shaped immutably by business interests. This is the Bush brand of economic policy. At the moment it sells about as well as lead-painted Chinese toys.

Democrats, meanwhile, have taken a dreary turn into a campaign about the campaign. Barack Obama and John Edwards are so consumed with knocking Hillary Clinton from her front-runner's perch that they've made the contest all about her. They use the same diversions to which Republicans always turned when they couldn't figure out any other way to topple Bill Clinton. Each of Hillary Clinton's parsed words is supposed to represent a character flaw; each twist of the tongue somehow indicative of inner slime. Note to Democrats: Every day you make the headline about Hillary, it is not about the housing crunch or the horrible prices at the gas pump.

Clinton is not as skilled at verbal jousting as is her husband. Yet she would do well for herself, and maybe even the country, if she would just tell voters what Bill always did: This campaign isn't about me. It's about you.

This is what voters -- sticking close to home to save on gas, swaddled in sweaters and hoping that no one in the family gets sick -- really want for Christmas.

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