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The Republican Brand Is Tea Party

House Republicans will hold their leadership elections next week and all signs point to them remaining more interested in appeasing a narrow base than governing a diverse country.

Consider: The only woman positioned to run for Majority Leader, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, decided not to make a bid. The two men competing for the job are conservatives from the Deep South. The favorite for Speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, is less experienced than John Boehner, less accomplished, and — if he follows through on private promises — more confrontational.

McCarthy has already signaled with a potentially costly gaffe that he may not be ready for primetime. It came when he boasted to Sean Hannity on Fox News that the House investigation of the 2012 murders of Americans in Benghazi has done serious damage to Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen,” he said.

Not that this was a secret, but thanks for the gift of a sound bite that makes clear the Benghazi probe — the latest of many — is not entirely about getting to the truth. The incident recalls a classic moment in 2012 when Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, ran down a list of achievements that ended: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

Later that year, President Obama beat Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania. And a judge ultimately struck down that voter identification law. The larger point is that until Turzai’s brag, conservatives across the country had religiously stuck to talking points about good government and rooting out (virtually nonexistent) fraud, as opposed to giving their side an edge by making it harder for some people — like urban minorities — to vote.

One of the deepest rifts in today’s chasm-ridden GOP is whether to try to attract a larger swath of voters or to double down on the party’s dwindling core of loyalists. The latest test — over whether to shut down the government in an attempt to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood — illuminated the divide. Republican reactions were revealing, especially among senators facing voters next year in blue and purple states.

You had Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire demanding of Sen. Ted Cruz, presidential candidate and chief agitator in the upper chamber, exactly what he hoped to accomplish when the Senate GOP did not have 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, much less 67 to override a veto by the Democratic president. And Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois tweeting Wednesday, after the Senate passed a bill to fund the government (including Planned Parenthood), “When our govt shut down in 2013, it cost U.S. $24 billion. We were elected to govern responsibly, not by crisis.” And Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who tweeted “Troubling that a #governmentshutdown was even an option, causing great economic hardship to the 15,000 Alaskans employed by the fed. gov.”

I don’t doubt the sincerity or passion of conservatives fighting abortion. I don’t even argue with the idea that by giving Planned Parenthood money for services like contraception, cancer screenings and STD tests, the federal government frees up money for the group to perform abortions. But the facts on the ground are stark. It will take a Republican Senate supermajority and a Republican president to get what conservatives want, and what they want does not have broad public support. That’s the case whether the issue is defunding Planned Parenthood, curbing abortion, or shutting the government.

Only 36 percent in a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll said more restrictive laws on abortion would be a step in the right direction. Majorities in that poll and two other new ones, meanwhile, said Planned Parenthood should continue to receive federal funds. One of the polls, from Quinnipiac University, found sentiment running 3 to 1 against shuttering the government over the issue. Only 23 percent favored a shutdown.

To cap off the bad-news week for the GOP, Planned Parenthood had a 47 percent positive rating in the NBC poll — the highest of any entity or person tested. Obama came closest at 46 percent, followed by the Democratic Party at 41 percent and Joe Biden at 40 percent. The most positively viewed on the Republican side were presidential candidate Ben Carson and the party itself, each at 29 percent.

Democrats have their own problems, but they are far more in step with mainstream America on a number of important issues — not least the idea that shutting down the federal government is an acceptable substitute for winning the elections you need to prevail.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at the the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, September 19, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

How To Get Sicker, Die Sooner, And Pay More For It

It is painful that five years after passage of the Affordable Care Act, 19 states still have not taken advantage of its option to expand Medicaid. It becomes more so with each new report on the deeply flawed U.S. health system.

The latest, from the National Academy of Sciences, finds that rich people live about 13 years longer than poor people. The researchers note that consequently, rich people end up getting the lion’s share of Social Security benefits. Such inequity should be attacked at its root. At the very least, we could use available tools to help low-income people get health insurance.

The NAS report is far from the first to highlight problems in our approach and results. The Commonwealth Fund last year examined health systems in 11 western industrialized nations. For the fourth time in a decade, the United States system placed first in cost and last in what it delivers. Our system is less fair, less efficient, makes us less healthy and gives us shorter lives. All that for an average of $8,508 per person, way more than second-place Norway at $5,669. In case you were wondering, Britain’s socialized National Health Service was No. 1 at less than half the U.S. cost.

That information landed just as Allan Detsky published a New Yorker analysis of two 2013 reports on global health systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the National Institutes of Health. The study of the 34 OECD countries found an alarming trend: The United States ranked 20th for life expectancy at birth in 1990 and fell to 27th in 2010. On a measure combining level of health and length of life, we plunged from 14th to 26th.

The NIH report by the federal Institute of Medicine found that Americans fared worse than people in 16 “peer” countries in nine areas: infant mortality, injuries and homicides, teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and disability. Why? The authors cite a larger uninsured population than peer countries, worse health habits, more poverty, and more neighborhoods designed to require automobiles.

We have gained a few new tools since some of those studies were done. Some, such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative and money for electronic medical records in the stimulus law, are nudging us slowly in a better direction. Among the most significant advances are the ACA’s new marketplaces (where individuals can buy insurance regardless of their health status) and the law’s expansion of Medicaid (even though the Supreme Court transformed it into an option that states could take or leave).

The Medicaid expansion is designed for people who make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but too little to afford even subsidized private insurance plans. In states that have rejected the expansion, nearly 4 million people are stuck in an absurd coverage gap. That’s even though the federal government is footing the entire bill for the additional enrollees until 2016 and will pay at least 90 percent for them after that.

If we’re already spending a huge amount on health care, why should we sink more into it? It’s a good question — yet we might not have to spend more if we were spending more wisely. We could start by slashing our astonishing medical pricing. It costs more than eight times as much for an MRI here as in Switzerland, a typical example from a study of nine countries released last year by the International Federation of Health Plans. Just this month, The New York Times reported on a 62-year-old drug that went from $13.50 to $750 per tablet overnight.

How can we get a grip on costs? In part by getting a grip on politics. Medicare, overcoming “death panels” alarmism, recently announced it will reimburse doctors for discussing end-of-life choices with patients. That may lead to a decline in expensive, painful and futile treatments. Next, we should lift bans on research into gun violence, the better to reduce shootings and their public health costs.

Ideology is standing in the way on guns, as it is in the 19 states refusing so far to expand Medicaid. The struggles of purple-state Virginia have been among the most epic. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been repeatedly thwarted by Republican lawmakers in his push to expand Medicaid. Last year, a disloyal Democratic lawmaker resigned and threw the state Senate into GOP hands. This year Democrats are trying to win back the chamber and, along with it, the slim chance of a Medicaid deal. In the meantime, some 350,000 Virginians are stranded in the coverage gap.

And this, dear readers, is how you get to be last place in the developed world.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

This is an updated and revised version of a column from June 19, 2014.

Photo: Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr

Surrender On Guns Is Not An Option

The anguish of Richard Martinez in the wake of the Santa Barbara, California, shootings that killed his 20-year-old son last year was almost unbearable. Now he is an old hand. “You are not alone,” Martinez told Andy Parker, father of slain Virginia journalist Alison Parker, in a recent USA Today column.

“Welcome to the heartbreaking club that no one wants to be a part of.”

If only we could fix this by keeping better tabs on disturbed young men and erratic co-workers. If only we could avoid more daunting political warfare over guns.

But let’s get real. There isn’t enough money in the world to train every cop, teacher, social worker, and family member in America to detect mental illness and predict its course. And cash is the least of the problem.

That’s because mental illness is the most mysterious, complicated, and uncontrollable element of the gun violence equation. There are many types of illnesses, not just one. Their symptoms, by definition, involve irrational behavior. Some people hide their difficulties. Some refuse help. Medication doesn’t always work. And even when it does, people often decide they don’t need their pills.

If you don’t treat mental illness or live with it, it is difficult to convey its force and magnitude, and how opaque it remains while in plain sight. Even the experts can’t foresee catastrophes in the making. A young man in Virginia, sent home by authorities who could not find him a hospital bed, killed himself after stabbing his father, state Sen. Creigh Deeds. Elliot Rodger’s mother, alerted to alarming videos he posted online, asked sheriff’s deputies to check on him — and they took his word that he was fine.

As for the politics of mental illness, there’s no tighter, more tangled Gordian knot in our age than the expanding right of the individual to bear arms; the right of society to be protected from troubled, armed individuals; and the rights of people who might or might not be troubled enough to warrant involuntary treatment. Sure, we should keep studying mental illness and train more people on the front lines, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves. Guns are much easier to manage than human behavior.

In writing this column, I stumbled on an eye-opening piece I did for the Associated Press in December 1993. President Bill Clinton was pushing an assault weapons ban, which he eventually won and which was later allowed to expire. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wanted a large tax hike on ammunition to pay for health care reform.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder had proposed a “firearm fatality reporting system” modeled on a federal database of traffic fatalities that had led to safer vehicles. Pediatricians were hoping that unsafe, easy-to-acquire guns would become as unacceptable as driving drunk or failing to fasten your child’s seatbelt.

The doctors never imagined politicians so intimidated that even after 20 children were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, they would refuse to plug holes in the background-check system for prospective buyers. They never envisioned a lobby so powerful it could prevent gun registration, research and even the collection of data invaluable to law enforcement and public health personnel.

If we treated cars that way, they wouldn’t be registered or insured. Turn signals would not have been introduced in 1937, and computerized warning systems would not be emerging today. We would not have saved 300,000 lives in 40 years, thanks to seat belts and air bags.

We study and regulate cars in the interest of keeping people alive. We do the same with cribs, food, airplanes, medication, practically everything except guns, even as they continue to kill and maim. More than 30,000 people in the United States died in suicides and homicides involving firearms in 2010, according to federal statistics. Hundreds more die and thousands are injured each year in gun accidents.

But the numbers don’t matter to Second Amendment disciples. I’m not sure they’d budge even if the Founding Fathers personally assured them that they were good with expanded background checks and bans on certain types of weapons and magazines.

There may never be consensus, but there is a growing community of bereaved families determined to spare others their agony. They are embodied by Parker, who says his mission and Alison’s legacy will be tighter gun laws, and Martinez, who went from public anger and pain to working with Everytown for Gun Safety and getting results, state by state by state.

The only appropriate response for all of us, not just for the relatives of the dead, is to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get guns off the pedestal and treat them like the dangerous merchandise they are.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

This piece is an updated and revised version of a column from May 29, 2014.

Photo: Roo Reynolds via Flickr

Kim Davis And The Iowa-Or-Bust Syndrome

Watching Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz compete to make a martyr out of Kim Davis makes me wonder if it’s finally time to send Iowa toward the back of the line in the presidential nominating process. And while we’re at it, maybe South Carolina should head in that direction, too.

Huckabee won the leadoff Iowa caucuses in 2008, the last time he ran. If he doesn’t win them this year, his quest for the Republican presidential nomination will be finished practically before it starts. What does he have to do to win? Christian conservatives are the most dominant group in Iowa’s GOP caucuses. Thus, the crazy contest to champion the Kentucky county clerk who, adhering to “God’s authority” rather than a Supreme Court ruling and a federal judge’s order, went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The unquestioned victor of this round was Huckabee. Upon her release from jail, he not only walked Davis from the jailhouse to the waiting crowd, she stood between Huckabee and Mat Staver, her lawyer, as Staver addressed the media at length. You know what that meant. Huckabee was “in the shot.” With his arm around her. While he spoke his piece to the cameras.

Christian conservatives could watch Huckabee thank “this incredibly brave lady” next to him for challenging “the tyranny of judicial action that takes people’s freedoms away.” He praised her willingness “to go to jail for what she believed.” He even said that he’d be willing to go to jail in her place, because “we cannot criminalize the Christian faith or anybody’s faith in this country.”

That’s a ready-made TV ad for Iowa and South Carolina, maybe with the lawyer cropped out of the picture.

Meanwhile, according to both The New York Times and The Washington Post, a Huckabee aide physically blocked an “incredulous” Cruz from approaching Davis and the assembled cameras. Poor guy. The Texas firebrand went all the way to Kentucky and all he got was a rope line to work. There were no visuals of him with Davis, and only a few quote snippets in the media. Bested by Huckabee just a day before he would be sharing the spotlight with Donald Trump at a Capitol rally against the Iran nuclear deal. Good luck wresting those headlines away from The Donald.

By embracing Davis’s cause, Huckabee and Cruz did their party no favors on the big-tent front. According to media reports, signs at the rally called homosexuality an “abomination” and the Supreme Court “the new ISIS,” and posed the question, “AIDS: Judgment or Cure?” The GOP should, and usually does, go with candidates more like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a self-described supporter of “traditional marriage.” “The court has spoken,” he said on ABC’s This Week. “I respect the fact that this lady doesn’t agree, but she’s also a government employee. She’s not running a church. I wouldn’t force this on a church, but in terms of her responsibility I think she has to comply.”

Nate Cohn of the New York Times did an interesting analysis of the influence of blue states on the GOP primary process. They have ensured relatively moderate, mainstream nominees in the last two contests. So how about putting Illinois, California, or New York at the start of the primary lineup? How about Massachusetts, where only 16 percent of 2012 GOP primary voters said in exit polls that they were born-again or evangelical Christians, and only 15 percent said they were “very conservative”?

In the 2012 exit poll of Iowa caucusgoers, 57 percent said they were born-again or evangelical Christians, and 47 percent described their political philosophy as “very conservative.” A new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll of likely Iowa caucus participants found that 39 percent were Christian conservatives. That’s nearly double the size of the Tea Party and business groups.

South Carolina is, meanwhile, the fifth most religious state in the nation, according to Gallup. That goes in spades for Republicans. In a Winthrop University poll of likely GOP primary voters in April, more than 80 percent said religion was very important in their lives; 60 percent said they considered themselves born-again; 44 percent said evangelical Christians have too little influence on the Republican Party, and 69 percent opposed same-sex marriage.

It’s time to shake things up, for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Let demographically diverse Nevada stay toward the front if it switches from a caucus to a primary. Maybe even keep quirky New Hampshire as one of the first few contests as well. But let’s give blue states — and some different purple and red states — their moments in the sun. What would the candidates be talking about if faced with a new set of crucial early contests? Let’s find out.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, flanked by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (left), attorney Mathew Staver (second from right) and her husband Joe Davis (right) celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson, Kentucky on September 8, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Tilley