Big Government Barack on Health Care

PERRY, Iowa — Barack Obama’s health care plan is less intrusive than that of his Democratic rivals, because it doesn’t include an individual mandate. This has brought him under attack from the left, with Paul Krugman even accusing him of echoing right wing talking points on health care. But while he may not exude the arrogance of Hillary Clinton or the smugness of John Edwards, conservatives should be under no illusions as to the big government impulses of Obama.

At an event here this morning, Obama was asked a question about health care, and explained that he would invite HMOs, private insurers and drug companies to the negotatiating table. His twist is that he would televise the hearings on C-SPAN so that the public can be involved. But if his conception of how those talks would go is any indication of how he would wield the power of the presidency, it’s scary.

Here’s what Obama said:

“If during the course of negotiations, the drug companies say, ‘You know what, we can’t negotiate for the cheapest available price for drugs, because we need these profits to invest in research and development’–that’s the argument they always make–then I’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s call in our health care expert, Dr. Smith.’ He’ll come out, and I’ll ask him, ‘Is what the drug companies say true?’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, you know, they do invest some of their profits in research and development, but a lot of those profits are actually going to marketing costs for TV ads…’

Beacuse it is public, we can enlist the American people in the process…If the American people know what the choices are, know what is at stake, know who’s representing who and who’s looking after who, that will shame Congress into doing the right thing.”

The idea of putting corporations through public inquisitions by government appointed “experts” to micro-manage private industry, and fan the flames of populist anti-business rage, has hauntingly Stalinist undertones. It’s especially off-putting that this is coming from a man who claims he wants to bring people together.

Obama Fever

DES MOINES — On Sunday night, Barack Obama gave a rousing address at the Nathan Weeks Middle School here that had the crowd of more than 1,000 on its feet for extended periods. (The crowd estimate is from the campaign, and I have no reason to doubt it–it was a large gym, the bleachers were packed, as was the floor, and people were standing along the walls).

The last time I saw Obama on the trail was back in May, and he has improved leaps and bounds as a candidate since then. In the early part of his campaign, Obama’s speeches were often meandering and professorial. His standard stump speech was really an updated version of his stump speech when he ran for the U.S. Senate–complete with the same jokes about his name and ruminations on cynicism being the cause of all the nation’s ills. But the man I saw Sunday night was much more like the Obama who rose to national prominence with his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

This Obama offered a fiery and energetic case for himself as an agent of change at what he called a “defining moment of history,” and he exuded Reaganesque optimism about America as he made the pitch for his brand of liberalism. “The American people are a proud people,” he said. “We are a determined people. We are a self-reliant people. We don’t expect government to solve all our problems for us. But what we do expect, is that if you’re able and willing to work, we should be able to find a job that pays a living wage…We expect that we should be able to send our kids to college, or afford college ourselves, even if we are not wealthy. We believe that we should be able to retire with dignity and respect…Of course, from a conservative perspective, we know that in practice this vision means an ever-expanding role for government, but it’s easy to see the appeal of his message in a change election year.

Another thing that Obama did cleverly in the speech was to disarm his critics by parodying their criticisms of him. So for instance, he addressed the issue that he should have gotten more experience in the Senate before running. “Some people say, ‘Obama may have some good ideas, he may have some good proposals, but you know what? He hasn’t been in Washington long enough,'” he joked. “‘We need to have him in Washington longer. We need to stew him, and season him a little bit, and boil all of the hope out of him.'” After the audience began to laugh, he used this as a jumping off point to address Bill Clinton’s criticism that voting for him would be like “rolling the dice.” He continued, “Well let me tell you something…the real gamble is to keep on doing the same things, with the same folks, over and over again, and expect something different.” That was his subtle way of linking Bush and Clinton together as part of a Washington consensus.

One thing Obama has working against him in Iowa is that with John Edwards in the race and running strong, the anti-Hillary vote is divided. But if Obama can pull off a win here and Edwards fades, he’ll be difficult to stop–not only for Hillary, but for any Republican.

Wither, Iowa

DES MOINES — Every four years, politicians and the media swarm this small Midwestern state and shower its voters with attention and compliments, but very few people have the courage to admit the simple truth: Iowans are largely apathetic about politics, and they don’t deserve the disproportionate influence they have in choosing the leader of the free world.

The amount of access that the average Iowan has to presidential candidates leading up to the caucuses is simply absurd. Last Friday, Mike Huckabee spoke at the Pizza Ranch on Main Street in Pella, Iowa, a quintessential small town in the southern part of the state. Huckabee described the town as “one of those places where you feel like you’ve moved back into the neighborhood where Ozzie and Harriet could live.”

While Huckabee was speaking on one side of Main Street, Fred Thompson appeared at the Smokey Row Coffee House a few blocks away. The next morning, Mitt Romney visited the same coffee shop, and boasted that it wasn’t his first visit to the lovely Dutch-settled town with a population of 10,245.

At campaign stops, candidates from both parties say that Iowans are doing a great service for democracy by vetting them for the rest of the country.

“Boy, the folks of Iowa, you love politics don’t you?” Romney said in Pella. “You guys are just amazing. You really do the nation a service by getting to know each of us, and learning about what we believe, learning about our heart, and our character, and deciding who ought to lead our nation.”

At a rally in Des Moines on Sunday night, Barack Obama told the crowd admiringly, “You’ve lifted the hood, you’ve kicked the tires, you’ve taken all of the candidates out for a test run.”

The media often echo this romanticized notion of Iowans as savvy consumers who carefully evaluate candidates.

THE REALITY IS QUITE different. Even though candidates in both parties will have together spent hundreds of days in the state and doled out more than $30 million to air more than 50,000 television advertisements, only one out of ten eligible Iowans is expected to participate in a caucus on Thursday.

Even some of those who attend political events are not very knowledgeable about the candidates or major issues. I spoke to one man who told me that he thought Rudy Giuliani was “okay as governor” and another who told me that he was undecided between Huckabee and Romney, but he couldn’t say what the attributes or drawbacks were of either of them even though he had seen both candidates speak within the prior 24-hour period. He also said he didn’t know what issues were important to him.

To be sure, there are Iowans who are closely following the election, but they are small in number relative to the voting age population, especially considering the amount of attention that is heaped upon the state. The well-informed voters appear in news accounts because reporters need tight, coherent quotes for their stories. “I don’t knows” and blank stares do not make for good copy or television.

But the effect of filtering out uninformed voters is that it doesn’t provide Americans with a truly accurate picture of the political process in Iowa.

One of the obstacles to Iowans’ learning more about the issues is that much of the focus is on who spent how much time in the state. One Huckabee supporter told me he couldn’t support Fred Thompson because he hasn’t spent enough time in Iowa. The fact that Thompson has been virtually camping out in the state for the past few weeks was too little, too late, evidently.

The Des Moines station KCCI opened its newscast on Saturday night following the New England Patriots game with a series of reports on candidates touring the state. The brief segment on Giuliani’s visit didn’t report on what he spoke about. Rather, it was an opportunity for the newscaster to remind viewers several times that Giuliani was leaving the state and would not return.

When candidates do show up, they are often greeted with shrugs by jaded Iowans. On Saturday, the Ottumwa Courier ran stories on visits by Huckabee and Thompson — on page A7. The front-page local news included a story on a snowstorm and another headline:

“Cardboard ban officially goes into effect beginning Tuesday.”

IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE that voters would want to know that candidates care about them enough to visit and work hard for their votes, but Iowans are so spoiled by all the attention given to them, that it has gone to their heads.

Before the Romney event in Pella, I was minding my own business, tape recorder and notebook in hand, waiting for the candidate to make his way through the crowd and begin his speech. A grinning young attendee noticed me and taunted, “I bet I get to interview him before you do!”

In offering an idealized portrait of Iowans (and out of fear of being seen as elitist), political reporters will often talk about how real Americans in Iowa have better things to do with their lives than obsess over politics. These real Americans would rather be watching the Orange Bowl on Thursday night than voting. This patronizing attitude is unfair both to Iowans and to the rest of America.

While it’s easy to understand how the political process can turn off voters, for all of the silliness that comes along with campaigns, the bottom line is at the end of this crazy circus, one person will emerge to become the most powerful leader in the world.

The president will help guide tax and spending policy, appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will make rulings for decades, determine under what circumstances America uses military force, and lead the nation through whatever crises may emerge in an uncertain world.

Voters often complain that the media control the political process, but Iowans have the unique opportunity to bypass the media and see all of the candidates up close, and even ask them questions directly. When next fall rolls around, many voters will complain about the lack of alternatives to the two major candidates, but because Iowa goes first, its voters have a chance to choose from a wide pallet of candidates in both parties.

Iowa’s status in presidential politics has real consequences. Because a given candidate may be forced to drop out after Iowa, voters in other states who may like that candidate will be denied the ability to vote for him based on what Iowans decide. It also prompts so-called small government Republicans to embrace farm subsidies and Democrats to advocate increasingly protectionist trade policies.

The power that Iowans exert over the selection of our president would perhaps have some justification if voters here lived up to the stereotype of being active and discerning. But if after all of the time, money, and energy candidates have concentrated on the state, nine out of ten voters stay home on caucus night, they will not have kept their end of the bargain.

Huckabee Meets Russert

Mike Huckabee just wrapped up his interview on “Meet the Press,” which aired early here in Des Moines. He got through it largely without incident, and was only on for a half hour (the show was split with Barack Obama).

He again accused Mitt Romney of being “desperate” and “dishonest in his attacks and defended his record on taxes, spending and meth. He took aim at Romney again for a $50 co-pay for abortions in the Massachusetts health care plan, questioned Romney’s commitment to the Second Amendment and raised the honesty issue (both on the MLK controversy and Romney’s statement that he had been endorsed by the NRA). Russert asked him about Pakistan, and at first watching he seemed to avoid another embarassing gaffe.

The rest of the interview was dominated by questions on faith, abortion, and homosexuality that will likely only serve to help Huckabee among those voters he is appealing to.

Des Moines Station Ribs Fred, Rudy

Des Moines’ KCCI Channel 8 led its newscast tonight following the Patriots game with a report on the various candidates touring Iowa ahead of the caucus. The emphasis of the Giuliani segment was that he was one of the few candidates who is leaving the state and who won’t return, while Thompson was poked for comments he made that he’s “not particularly interested in running for president.” Those comments were taken out of context, as Thompson explains in a post at RedState, which includes a transcript of his full remarks. In any event, neither candidate getting much love from KCCI.

Huckabee Outdraws Romney, Big Time

OTTUMWA, Iowa–Last night, I attended a Mike Hucabee event at the Bridge View Center here and made the conservative estimate that he drew a crowd of 400 to 500 inside an auditorium that held 650. When I noticed that Mitt Romney had an event at the same place this afternoon, I looked forward to getting an apples to apples comparison. I showed up again today and walked into the auditorium where I had seen Huckabee the night before, only to find it empty. The Romney event “is in a much smaller room on the other side,” I was told. Whereas the room where Huckabee spoke was the size of a large movie theater, for the Romney event I was directed to “Conference Room 1,” where I counted about 100 people once the event started. With the race in Iowa currently a tossup, everything will hinge on turnout, which is incredibly hard to predict, but crowd size is probably the best measure we have.

To be sure, this is just one anecdote, and perhaps there are differences between Friday night and Saturday afternoon, or other varaibles that I’m not taking into account. Or perhaps Huckabee will follow the path of Howard Dean, who was unable to convert large crowds into turnout. But the dramatic difference in the crowd size is just one small example of the potential for grassroots enthusiasm to triumph over paid organization.

Romney Emphasizes Family In Final Push

ALTOONA/NEWTON/PELLA, Iowa — In a series of talks to the Saturday morning coffee and breakfast crowd in the southern part of the state, Mitt Romney argued that he had the right mix of character, vision, and experience to lead the nation.

Whereas Mike Huckabee tries to connect to the crowds here by presenting himself as being from a southern state with small towns not that different from Iowa in terms of basic values and concerns, Romney puts a heavy emphasis on family.

His wife Ann Romney held his hand at the Coffee House Hollander this morning, standing right by his side on top of a narrow box, as he addressed patrons. The couple spread out afterward so that Ann could hold a series of her own events. Romney also spoke about his father’s rise from humble beginnings to a successful business and political career, and through it all, his father remained most proud of raising his four children. It’s a sentiment Romney said he shares through his relationship with his five sons and 11 grandchildren.

The emphasis on the family is no doubt two fold–to connect with social conservatives and to counter the image of himself as robotic and unemotional.

Other than talking about family, Romney discussed the challenges including “global jihad,” health care, and education–and argued that his background in business, the Olympics, and Massachusetts gives him the experience needed to bring about change in Washington. Former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, who is traveling with Romney, also cited these experiences in calling Romney the “transformational conservative in the race.” However, given the problems Romney has gotten into with shifting his positions on a number of issues, I’m not sure “transformational” is an adjective that the campaign wants to employ on a regular basis.

Another interesting note was that the Huckabee campaign, perhaps because it lacks the resources to respond to all of Romney’s attacks on television, has taken to sending surrogates out to Romney’s events. I spoke with Huckabee supporter Gilbert Baker, an Arkansas state senator, outside the Midtown Cafe in Newton. Baker offered a point by point rebuttal of a Romney pamphlet he said distorted Huckabee’s record on immigration as governor. I would write more, but am off to another event right now.

Huckabee Rips Romney Back

OTTUMWA, Iowa– Mike Huckabee on Friday night accused Mitt Romney of being “desperate” and “dishonest” in his negative attacks as part of the most extensive and direct public criticism Huckabee has yet leveled at his chief Iowa rival as the caucus approaches.

Speaking in front of a crowd of several hundred at the Bridgeview Center here, Huckabee said he wanted to take the opportunity to “set the record straight,” and he countered Romney’s criticisms of his record on taxes, spending, and clemencies.

Unlike earlier in the day, Huckabee named names. “After watching some of Mitt Romney’s ads about me, I’m not sure I would vote for myself,” he joked.

Huckabee said that Romney is getting desperate, because he finds himself behind in Iowa despite outspending Huckabee 20 to 1. “When people get that far behind after spending that much money, they get desperate,” he said. “Desperate is one thing, dishonest is something else. When you get desperate and dishonest, it’s not a pretty site.”

In another example of the emerging everybody vs. Romney dynamic of the race, Huckabee came to the defense of John McCain, who has been trading barbs with Romney in New Hampshire over an attack ad. “John McCain is a true, honest to god, American hero,” Huckabee said.

He also went after Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. “Mr. Romney says I raised taxes,” Huckabee said. “What he doesn’t tell you is that he raised a half a billion dollars in fees, mostly on small business people.” In response to Romney’s argument that he granted zero clemencies as governor, Huckabee argued that Romney was doing the politically safe thing, and asked the audience for a show of hands as to whether they would have pardoned an Iraq War vet who couldn’t become a police officer, because of a BB gun offense when he was 13 (Romney didn’t).

Huckabee also questioned Romney’s pro-life credentials, noting that he was a recent convert and suggesting the audience look into the Massachusetts health care plan Romney signed, that offered abortions for a $50 co-pay.

“You have the right to know the truth,” Huckabee said several times. “Quite frankly, I believe we ought to elect a president not because he’s been able to disable his opponents, and not because he’s been dishonest with people about his opponents. Because just remember this: if somebody is dishonest in order to get a job, how can you trust them to be honest in the job?”

I was told that the auditorium, about the size of a movie theater, seated 650 people, and I would say 400-500 of those seats were filled–which Huckabee claimed was a turnout twice as big as that of Bill and Hillary Clinton at a recent event at the same place. Romney is also speaking at the venue Saturday afternoon, so I’ll be able to compare crowd size.

Free Market Fred

OTTUMWA, Iowa — Say what you want about Fred Thompson, but the man is not pandering.

At an event here at the Ottumwa Hotel this afternoon, Thompson called on a man in the front row who let out a huge cheer during his formal remarks, perhaps expecting a softball question. What Thompson got instead was a question from Mickey Hucks, Sr., who retired eight years ago from Deere & Co. and received notice in October that his health care plan would be changed in a way that will force him to pay more out of pocket. Hucks wanted Thompson’s thoughts about a large company that would switch health care on its retirees.

“Well, I hate to see that,” Thompson responded. But then he retorted, “What are your thoughts concerning what we can do about that as a federal government?”

Hucks was impressed. “Good comeback,” he acknowledged.

Thompson went on to argue that the only responsibility of government is to support policies that would allow the free market to thrive, and as long as businesses are following the law and abiding by contracts the government should step aside so they can compete.

“And have record profits and never are satisfied?” Hucks followed up.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with record profits,” Thompson shot back.

“Except when they’re taken off the back of the worker that put you there,” Hucks interjected.

Then Thompson implored him to “look at the whole picture” rather than one situation. “What I’m saying is that as a general rule, the President of the United States cannot sit there and make a case about what some company ought to do down in Houston, Texas, or somewhere like that,” he said. “What a president can do is insist on lower taxes, less regulation, less interference, a decent Fed policy through appointment to the Federal Reserve Board, and things of that nature that will make for a good, free, viable, economy. And if companies do wrong in the free market place, they’re usually punished by that same market.”

I spoke with Hucks afterward, who said Thompson gave a “fine” answer and that he understands that the federal government has limited power in his circumstances.

“I’m going to support Senator Thompson, without a doubt,” he told me. “I like his fundamental conservative thoughts on everything, especially that comment about high fences and a wide gate.” That was a reference to Thompson’s philosophy on immigration.

Hucks said he had also considered Mike Huckabee, but had issues with his record on immigration as governor. He dismissed Mitt Romney by saying Romney had switched his positions on several issues, so he doesn’t trust him to maintain his current positions going forward.

Despite the endorsement of Hucks (and as happy as I was to see Thompson defend free market principles), I saw no evidence of a late Thompson surge that some were predicting following his excellent debate performance earlier this month. Though the event was standing room only, it would have been pathetic if it weren’t, since it was held in a tiny room with just about 40 seats. Unlike Huckabee, who made a clear closing argument based on his populist appeal to the electorate, it wasn’t obvious what Thompson was going for. He mentioned that conservative commentators universally praised his Social Security and tax proposals (and rightly so), but while a stronger candidate at this point in the race would have been able to have a tight explanation for what’s so special about them, he referred the audience to his website and said he could answer any questions about them after his remarks for those who wanted more details. Then he went on to say that voters aren’t going to vote for a proposal on Jan. 3, but for a leader. That’s fine too, but it kind of undercuts any attempt to use his proposals to sell his candidacy. While Huckabee skillfully wove in references to Pella throughout his remarks this morning, Thompson didn’t mention Ottumwa during the speech –even though the local newspaper endorsed him on Wednesday. There’s only so much you can tell from one event, to be sure. But I would be surprised if, with less than a week to go, the man I saw this afternoon has a strong showing next Thursday.