Monday, May 22, 2017

WHY TRUMP LOOKS BETTER FROM A DISTANCE

By Dominique Paul Noth

Less gracefully than Obama, Trump attempts a bow
to the Saudi king in a ceremonial presentation.
Halfway through his foreign barnstorming, President Trump has presented a calmer, more rational and reassuring face than his US charges have ever seen up-close and constant. It is a calculated and growingly necessary effort at calming the international waters after  excoriating Islam, limiting  travel from Latin American and  Arab-majority countries, sharpening ICE talons and scorning hard-won treaties and NATO.

But he is also going out of his way on the first leg – Saudi Arabia and Israel – to trash Obama.

He insists he is good at making friends and advancing economies while the previous president was not.  Indeed, he is attacking what conservative pundits call the Achilles heel of the Obama years – foreign appeasement or accommodation depending on who you are talking to. Apparently it was outrageous that Obama bowed before the Saudi king when receiving an award but not a big deal that Trump attempted something like a curtsy.

More centrist observers note that deeper belief in US ideals and maturity in leading the world were actually the heritage from Obama.

It is a strange case for a president who inherited a pretty decent economy and a great deal of foreign goodwill, but Trump may succeed in eroding that Obama image a bit by playing on the universal greed for something that sounds better – the same ploy of promises that has worked on Americans.

Trump was most successful with the entrenched wealthy autocratic sheiks and the hard right Israeli prime minister. The first are troubled that Obama showed concern for their human rights record and actually encouraged their serfs to act out, which is certainly a danger to them. 

The second wanted a friend who overlooked raw flaws so much that he would not ever deal with Iran, while Iran in its recent election has strongly shown an interest in moderation.  If that was a signal by the Iranian masses, Trump sure ignored it, though  many in Jerusalem  concede that Obama did very well in the nuclear deal.

The trip often seemed about bashing Iran even more than Obama, so if nothing else Trump may have chosen sides for the US in the endless rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

It will be interesting to see  whether this bashing game continues  at the Vatican.

Comedian Bill Maher joked that Trump made his first extended overseas trip a visit to the centers of  “three major religions” – Catholics, Jews and oil.  There is some sarcastic truth there – since there is no real olive branch in settling the long-festering Israel-Palestine dispute,  just  a lot of hope  that ceremonial exchanges in lavish settings are a sign of progress. It’s a variation on his “try me – what do you have to lose?” strategy with US voters.

All Trump would say about Israel and Palestine was  that it looked like one of the toughest deals ever but “I feel we will get there eventually . . . I hope.” That and crushing ISIS seemed the extent of his foreign policy details. His tsk-tsks on expanded Israeli settlements and Arab stabbing incursions are  unlikely to push into meaningful bargaining.

Trump’s much anticipated speech to Arabs was about driving ISIS out and then to death, not just driving them out to other places as is most likely to occur if his advice is followed. He was addressing an Arab community whose strictest beliefs and Wahhabism education of the young are blamed as a major force in encouraging violence that less tribal strains of Islamic teaching reject. Driving them out and making the US more isolated are not comforting responses to a global gang of murderers. Killing them all is hardly that easy. They are going to go someplace and even walls won’t keep them out, given the modern techniques of how they get in.

There is also much fear that the chumminess with Netanyahu and policies centered around Arab royalty  deliberately shut out the Palestinians from any equitable voice in bargaining.

Nikki Haley tours refugee camp in Jordan
while Trump wined and dined.
It was left to UN ambassador Nikki Haley, while Trump was dining and sword dancing with the Saudis, to tour a  refugee camp in Jordan and speak about the human tragedy of Syria.  With a lighter touch than Trump, she also pledged humanitarian aid would not be impeded in the new budget – which takes an ax to education and Medicaid.  She described the aim as helping Syrian refuges where they are, rather than open our doors to them, though right now elsewhere means safety.

Part of this was once natural in a centuries old  immigration reality.  Up until the 1920s, sometimes 50% of a country’s immigrants to the US did return on their own volition to their homelands with new skills and insights.  Today entrance and egress are xenophobically different. The Trump administration makes it clear the drawbridge is raised except for special skills needed, as defined by American industrial leaders or by Kushner family dealmakers in China

The upshot seems to be that death and destruction will remain in the region where the disaster exists but with  help from outside mainly in the form of money flowing in.  It’s a Band-Aid for the conscience.

Much of the arms deal with the Saudis had been years in the making and the goodies may not be totally legal to Congress if the Saudis use American armament in its war in Yemen. The deal is most notable by offering Saudis jobs in our weapons of medium destruction industry. 

There is no credit to past administrations and won’t be because the hosts are playing nice with the new team and the new guys don’t want to hear anything good about the old team.  Bibi is just glad Obama is gone, perhaps because Trump looks far more malleable. He certainly downplayed any unhappiness in the Israeli intelligence community because Trump revealed to the Russians ISIS plans that could only have come from foreign implants (revealed by news sources as Israel).  Now no one ever accused Trump of naming Israel but he repeated that falsehood often as some strange justification for his loose lips. 

Other than that, he acted responsibly, at least like a celebrity tourist dropping in on the 19th hole.  That will get him good marks back home until you peel away what it is really saying about his US.

Because the first part of the trip was about class and class structure. Jews are fine because they have  a homeland to go to. Rich oil-drenched Muslims are fine and know best how to keep their people in check, they don’t need our advice.  Refugees,  those hungering for personal freedom and those shoved aside  by isolationist policies may be rich targets for ISIS, but they continue to be the ignored targets for Trump -- the people he thinks should be driven out to someplace other than the establishment palaces.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as one of the editors for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor, then was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as at his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.  


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

CLARKE GONE, MILWAUKEE CHEERS, NATION GROANS – BUT WHO WON?

By Dominique Paul Noth

Imagine David Clarke trying his shenanigans on
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
The sense of relief that coursed through Milwaukee May 17 was immediately mitigated by fears of what this means for the nation’s immigrant community and the concept of sanctuary communities. 

Sheriff (all hat, no cattle) David Clarke will quit next month to take an assistant secretary position in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security. It appears that Clarke rather typically jumped the gun on his new boss in making the announcement.

His title – assistant secretary, responsible for one defined internal division -- immediately limits on paper his damage on direct policy.  If  he tries to interfere there, expect strong pushback  from the general in charge, Homeland Secretary John  Kelly, who knows more about military ethics and social limits than Clarke ever did.   Make no mistake – Kelly is the real deal on hard law and order, but not averse to telling people to shut up if he doesn’t like how they do things or how they tell him what to do.

Clarke will be in charge of the Office of Partnership and Engagement, which is the liaison with state, local and similar law enforcement agencies.  Given his and AG Jeff Sessions bombastic attacks on sanctuary cities and immigrants (one Sessions speech described them as “filth”) this move does not bode well for the immigrant community --   some think right now it couldn’t get worse, but stay tuned.

“Sanctuary” is not even a term defined in law, but deals with compassion more than legality.  Local officials and law officers in so-called “sanctuary cities” do cooperate with the federal government on felony criminals, but don’t believe their officers should become uncompensated agents for ICE, questioning every person stopped, arrested , fined or jailed for minor offenses about their immigration status. They believe that reassuring the immigrant communities to report crimes regardless of status develops important police-community relations.

Kelly, from a military background that finds it “inconceivable” that criminals would be excused – which he is learning is not what sanctuary cities do – has also admitted he hasn’t a clue about what a sanctuary city is, but is open to communication with local law enforcement on a case by case basis – which may be in conflict with Clarke’s “shoot them all” rhetoric.

Kelly even told police chiefs, “I promise you we'll work with you and will make no Draconian moves until I fully understand what a given locale might be doing or not doing," 

The hatman cometh to Homeland -- this is
Clarke's own tweeter photo.
This appointment is clearly a reward for – or a submission to -- Clarke’s constant agitation in national speeches and FOX shows, though he should remember what happens to anyone in Trump’s world who pulls the spotlight away from the boss.

Latino rights group Voces de la Frontera immediately scheduled a press conference to emphasize that Clarke is unfit for any office.  One Wisconsin Now director Scot Ross put it more bluntly:  “David Clarke is the human embodiment of the insane email chain your racist uncle forwards you.”

However, in the Homeland Security world he will face far deeper scrutiny than Gov. Scott Walker ever provided, nor frankly than local officials could, since only the governor could fire and hire. Nor can he turn discipline into insult matches with his superiors, as he did with County Executive Chris Abele.  He will find the real national media eager to criticize his language more quickly than FOX ever did. 

The problems with Homeland Security are much larger than the presence of Clarke could change, though Sessions surely has gotten an unnatural ally in hatred and misunderstanding of sanctuary cities.  US citizens may be putting too much faith in Kelly, defense secretary Mattis and security chief McMasters to keep Trump in line and legal, but on first glance, the benefits for Milwaukee outweigh the damage to the nation.

What a curious conclusion to make! But Clarke has been so seriously out of step with other law enforcement agencies and has given Milwaukee a bad name in the class of cryptosporidium that his departure was an occasion of joy.

Except, what’s next?

Walker still has the reins of appointment, though to be fair Clarke was not his choice. It was an interim GOP governor, Scott McCallum, who chose what he thought was a conservative Democrat – and it is under that label that Clarke has run, despite rejection by the local Democratic Party and growing evidence that he embraces the Attila right of the Republican Party.

Pundits have painted his constant re-election  as a prelude of Trump – tough talk, no action –but he also could and did play the race card in a minority-majority city. His  stalwart opponent last time, Chris Moews, had equivalent law credentials but was white, and the election came at a time when the Milwaukee police, especially the white Milwaukee police, faced intense community criticism.  Moews was victim of the times while Clarke was rewarded by the fever.

The wealthy Abele, who has had fierce run-ins with Clarke,  funded a broad campaign swipe at him in 2014 featuring Clarke as a cartoon gunslinger.  But in the black community, painting one of their own as a cartoon caricature had a built-in backlash based on history.

None of Clarke’s stock techniques will work in D.C., but Walker has reasons not to similarly succumb.  He is definitely going to run again in 2018.  His budget dangled a bit of leg to the left on education – a false limb it turned out, promising to return some money he took away --  and he otherwise wants to soften his image of cruelty. 

His pick for a new sheriff could do that. He might even pick the Democrat (no named Republican has won the sheriff’s race) who was likely to take Clarke out next election – Earnell Lucas.

Earnell Lucas from his video
Lucas is a Milwaukee native with a university degree in criminology and management. Like Clarke he is a former city of Milwaukee police captain. He has headed national baseball security for years as vice president for Major League Baseball.  This is hardly an inconsequential job when you think of how many cities, teams and special events he has had to handle with local law, but it requires organizational skills and working with others, qualities Clarke sorely lacks.

Lucas, unlike everyone else, is not focused on Clarke. As he told me a week before the Clarke news, “It’s what the community needs that we all should be talking about.”

Even with Clarke out of picture, Lucas plans to run
for sheriff.
On May 17, Lucas said he intends “to submit my name to Governor Walker for appointment to fill the unexpired term “ at the appropriate time so he “can get right to work on the problems the community needs to address.” Which includes people dying in custody under Clarke.  It’s an eagerness for change  the community should appreciate.

Whether being close to Walker would help or hurt doesn’t matter.  Lucas’ view is county first.  Will that be Walker’s?  He has seldom shown such perspicuity – a fancy word for common sense.  

Another sigh of dismay may come from Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s camp. Not just in horror at what is happening to the nation, but what has been removed from their opposition research, which the sheriff was daily enriching.

It was never quite clear how serious was the GOP agitation for Clarke to run against her – they have gathered $20 million to oust her ahead of having any candidate. But it is giving away no secrets that the Baldwin team would have been delighted to oppose him. 

They are similarly pleased that the state GOP is now turning its hopes to  state Sen. Leah Vukmir, whose ties to ALEC and the right wing and whose crazed rhetoric have been much documented.

Just as Democrats are upset that a candidate to oppose Walker has not yet emerged as the leader, the GOP is even more in turmoil about who will  take on Baldwin. 

Their confusion is elevated at the unsettling news from D.C, where the appointment of a special counsel provides enormous weight to the worries about Trump’s behavior toward Russia.

The issue that’s playing out here in the Baldwin race and others is simple -- who has stood behind Trump and who has been shrewd enough to move away.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as one of the editors for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor, then was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as at his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Sunday, May 14, 2017

HOW BOTH SIDES EXPLAIN TRUMP’S BEHAVIOR

By Dominique Paul Noth

All eyes are now on deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, pressured
both ways on a special prosecutor.
Parsing the views of legal experts and media insiders has uncovered reasons on both sides for Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey. Strangely, not a single one has anything to do with Clinton emails.

Here are the top choices:

1. He knows he's innocent and is sick of the investigation.

2. He believes he's innocent (in terms of staff involvement) and is sick of the investigation.

3. He knows he's guilty and is getting sick of worrying.

4. He believes he’s guilty (in terms of staff involvement) and is sick of worrying. 

5. He hasn't a clue but fears the answers – including his tax returns – may taint his election.

None of those reasons, you’ll note, justify firing Comey. So initially he tried horsing around the barn with Clinton’s emails. If the Democrats were still angry about that, wouldn’t they forget everything else? Not so much.

All the reasons listed above discount the frequent speculation about the mental state of the president. Frankly, that way lies madness. 

Was Trump unhinged? Or shrewd? Flailing? Or deliberate? Whichever way you think, he did it -- and insists Russia was on his mind when he did it in the Lester Holt TV interview. The only firm conclusion left is that he didn’t mind making his staff and the Department of Justice look like dupes, which may also be a prelude to what the Russian investigation will do to the rest of us.

Some pretty formidable names are arguing Trump should be impeached before he destroys the democracy, but they may be getting ahead of the game in our partisan gridlock. Nixon? He’s not up to that level yet. Clinton? Trump has so openly messed with women that even that can’t be used against him.

No, he is the misleading shiny object, claiming Obama wiretapped him (massively disproven except to him) or threatening Comey had better hope a tape of their dinner doesn’t exist (while Comey clearly hopes one does).  He’s gambling that tweets are not facts to hang him in court. 

As  Obama’s White House counsel Bob Bauer noted in a Lawfare column,  “As scandals-in-the-making go, this one may become famous for featuring the President as the principal witness against himself: he seems committed to uncovering any cover-up.” 

He figures some will always believe him – that’s his view of America. He can rely – for a little while -- on leaders in his party to back him up, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (the “over my dead body” defense against a special prosecutor) and his SNL boy slave, Paul Ryan. They shrug off his behavior in ways they would never allow for a Democrat.  Their profiles in cowardice are easy to understand – their party has the White House and this may not happen again for ages.  The deciding line may be whether Trump will cost them any possibility of getting it back.

I’ve been struck by how Trump’s gamble that he’ll escape echoes Gov. Scott Walker’s behavior in the John Doe case, where big money and subservient high court came to his rescue.  What worked in Wisconsin may work in the US by pulling executive strings.

Sen. Whitehouse one of the few Democrats who think
twice about a special prosecutor.
Not all Democrats are on board with the idea of a special prosecutor, who legally would have to be appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. 

Respected Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse fears it would further delay an investigation whose length in any case will be frustratingly long to the American public.  But with the potential of criminal prosecutions in his toolkit, a special prosecutor has strengthened powers of subpoenas and witness compulsion, which may actually speed the process.   

The Republicans argue that criminality is not yet clear so that a special prosecutor is premature. Rosenstein, on the other hand, needs to redeem his reputation in the face of how blatantly the White House mischaracterized his role in the Comey case and apparently tried to pin the blame on him. So several kinds of pressures are underway.

Historically, Trump likes turmoil – the lack of a clear path is where he thrives, contradicting his own statements to demonstrate he is just as confused and unpredictable as his rally shriekers.  The last thing he needs is for his supporters to think hard about those five reasons and which ones make the most sense.  Rational citizens have already chosen.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as one of the editors for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor, then was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as at his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.  


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

THE COMEY CRISIS SHOULD STIR JOHN DOE MEMORIES

By Dominique Paul Noth

Comey is understandably puzzled by reasons given
for sudden firing.
The firing of FBI director James Comey shut out other headline-making news but not the one headline President Trump had tried to suppress – the nature and depth of the Russian interference in the US presidential election he won and whether his associates were in any way involved.

Blaming the firing on Comey’s treatment of Hillary Clinton’s emails – first his closing the investigation as nothing more than carelessness 10 months ago and then reopening the probe in October with no negative results – was painfully laughable. The first round hurt Trump’s campaign, the second may have handed him the presidency and brought much praise of Comey from new president Trump into March of this year. 

The Democrats were surely upset that Comey placed his own judgment ahead of Department of Justice tradition to probe the inconsequential so close to Nov. 8, but many believed he did it over an inflated devotion to his noble FBI image – an Untouchable Elliot Ness hubris.  There is no question he had redeemed himself in critics’ eyes by his nonpartisan plunge into the Russian investigation – and yet that’s when Trump discovered tattered ancient reasons to fire him.

It clearly wasn’t over Hillary – and if Trump wants to reopen that investigation I think her legal team is primed and ready to go. 

Despite what Trump’s  press agents are saying  (they are still behaving like PR flacks rather than press secretaries required to buttress a president’s decisions with believable  information)  his doubts only started building after Comey’s March 20 testimony that Trump team members were being targeted in the Russian investigation.  

That was also the testimony in which Comey rebutted the president’s tweet storm against Obama and his suggestions that foreign intelligence agencies were helping. “With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully,” Comey testified. 

Yet neither this direct refutation of the president nor mention of the Russian investigation were given as reasons.  As poker player Sen. Tim Kaine mused, the giveaway “tell” was Trump feeling it necessary to include in the firing letter reference to three times Comey assured Trump he was not personally a target of the Russian investigation.

The strongman image Trump likes was revealed by an interim PR flack, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who defended Trump’s change of heart about Comey by elevating him as the ultimate authority for an agency that long prided itself on independence:  “Once you take over leading the Department of Justice, that’s very different than being a candidate in a campaign.”

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd speculates that Trump’s history is to run toward trouble to defy it.  I see it somewhat differently. He feints toward the threat as he did with Trump University but quickly backs off and settles when the opposition looks too strong. Here he may have acted before the opposition becomes too strong and will back away when – or if -- he sees he miscalculated. 

I doubt that the “personal assurance by Comey” Trump dragged into the firing letter really settled him down – it indicated how stirred up he had been and how worried he is.

There is a standard investigation technique of closing in on the little fish to hope they will flip on the bigger fish, and the littler fish had clearly been talking to the Russians --  to the point that new AG Jeff Sessions recused himself from all things campaign-related,  yet apparently waded in on firing Comey for something campaign related!  It was a fresh perversion of the term “recusal.”

Wisconsinites have reason to recognize the little fish technique and the Trump cover-up, because that is what it is – an amazing degree of cover-up if Trump really didn’t know what the Russians were doing, just as it was a big guns cover-up of Walker if he really were innocent of illegal campaign finance collusion in the John Doe case.

When the first John Doe investigation circled in on and landed lawbreakers in Scott Walker’s realm, the issue for those caught and those under later investigation was whose side was it better to be on.  Leaving ethics aside, could they survive some prison time and be rescued with gainful employment and restoration of status by the forces of Walker? Or would the harm inflicted by the arm of the law be worse?

They decided on their own party rescuers because they knew Walker had the state supreme court locked up, the big money on his side and a series of well-financed blocking maneuvers that were likely to stifle if not crush the investigation getting closer to Walker, who was not a target but could have been if the prosecutors were left alone.

Sure enough, the John Does forces were shut down. The big fish is still swimming.

Trump may well be assuming that having the White House and its bully pulpit, plus a winning number of public voters even if a minority of the nation, and the AG and the once respected deputy AG on his side,  he will escape harm. He certainly considers the executive more powerful than the Congress -- and the courts he will now appoint -- regardless of what the Constitution says about equal branches. 

The Republicans in Congress are so in love with having the White House that they will clearly put up with a loose cannon with an R after his name despite what that niggling conscience on their shoulder is telling them. They are unlikely to look the evidence coldly in the face, just as the Democrats are likely to smell deception even as they plead with their colleagues to look and look again at the president’s behavior.

There are some stirrings of resistance in Congress, including several GOP House members calling for a special investigation. For the first time in Trump’s short reign, a legislative proposal of the president to reverse Obama drilling requirements involving methane gas was killed May 10 because three GOP senators joined the resistance.

If case his administration is not capable of finding its conscience without some strong nudging,  the public shoves at the Trump cabinet may change complacency,  as Betsy Vos just found out. Many groups are now calling for public action to strengthen the spines of Republicans in Congress on making sure the Russian investigation is in no way impeded.

Some call this a constitutional crisis, others a political crisis. However you analyze it, it is a democratic crisis that will test the resolve of the nation and its elected representatives.

If former security chief James Clapper is right, the Russian interference is the most inflammatory attack on democracy in our post WWII history. Even the president ought to want to get to the bottom of it rather than muddying up the ocean’s depths. If the president is engaging in machinations to protect himself at the nation’s expense, we are worse off than even Clapper envisions.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as one of the editors for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor, then was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as at his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.  


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

RYAN'S HIGH-RISK PRETENSE NOT HEALTH SOLUTION

By Dominique Paul Noth


Paul Ryan makes laughable claims about
Wisconsin high risk pool.
As a journalist I got deeply irritated with my Washington-based counterparts for allowing Paul Ryan at his press conference to praise Wisconsin’s high-risk pool for setting a model for covering people with pre-existing conditions and otherwise lapsed insurance coverage.  Wish they had asked the people.

I was further irritated May 3 when GOP moderates offered a high-risk pool amendment sweetening the money pot for the states by adding $8 billion over five years – while the experts say it would actually cost $171 billion a year over the Affordable Care Act now and still require higher premiums, deductibles, and caps on life-time coverage.  All this in the name of saving money!

Well, Ryan was not challenged by the press then, though his attitude has long been laughed away by experts. But I’m challenging now, after having heard from many who had bad memories of participating.  Turns out they were respectable people I know, such as a friend forced into the high risk poll after his job ended.

Coverage was average, certainly not as comprehensive as (the plan I had).  Deductible was high. And the premiums were breathtakingly expensive. So Gov. Walker and Rep. Ryan: it did not work well for this customer.

Medical experts clearly agree that Paul Ryan is once again talking through his hat.

Yet high risk pools are key to the new Republican health care bill, which is still scrounging for votes. It is a central reason, along with strange female health no-nos on acceptable heath plans. The Republicans are unlikely to succeed with any legislator who studies the details of the bill, even newly amended whispers. Trump apparently doesn’t understand it and Ryan is allowed to lie about its “improvements.”

Two of us were forced into the high-risk pool in 2005 because of pre-existing conditions after my COBRA expired, and the premiums were brutal. One year, for the two us, the premiums were $2,000 monthly and $24,000 annually -- you definitely needed substantial income to make just the monthly premium payments.

(COBRA incidentally is the abbreviation for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985,  a law passed by Congress signed by President Reagan to keep most  employer group health plans -- at high cost --  for a limited time after your employment ends.)

I have a theory about health coverage – that people’s eyes roll out of their heads when a technical issue is being talked about on television.   What is a high risk pool? Well, it’s not only for those who can’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions, such as a cancer that rendered them uninsurable under the old system Ryan wants back. It also was a safety valve for people who retired or were forced to leave their company before Medicare kicked in.  It involves a complicated procedure by health providers to determine who is eligible – in other words, more power to the very people who make money by charging you.

That means politicians can get away with untruths a lot, so you had better cast issues like high-risk pools into everyday language – and use the experience of actual participants as rebuttal.

Ryan failed to mention a lot of things when he described how Wisconsin had led the way in high risk pools and claimed it was a good idea. Yet it was actually rated as one of the better pools. Problem was, by whom and for whom? 

Largely he was repeating claims made in February to a House Energy and Commerce Committee that have since been clarified and explained as far more limited by the testifier – J. P. Wieske, Wisconsin’s deputy insurance commissioner. He later admitted that high premiums did cause an affordability problem and that his research never quantified the numbers it helped.  Basically it seems to have aided those who could afford it. 

(Turned it down because) it would have cost me about $1300 per month. That didn't cover most of the things I had. Another political talking point, but had nothing of substance.

Ryan also failed to mention the paucity of participants and how all the nation’s high risk pools lost money. Wisconsin’s high risk pool was created in 1979. It operated until the Affordable Care Act took over, eliminating the need for those with pre-existing conditions to search under rocks for coverage. At its height it only covered 22,000 citizens.

That’s compared to the million or more nationwide who had been rejected for affordable insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions and similar reasons.  Despite what some Republicans have claimed – that bad health is usually brought on by living habits – there are profound examples where this is simply not true. 

On May 1, TV host Jimmy Kimmel gave a  moving account of how his son, born with a rare heart condition, under ACA no longer had to worry about pre-existing conditions to find coverage even though his son faces two more operations into his teens. Kimmel didn’t mention the obvious – his son could die if he wasn’t rich and the Republican health plan moved forward.

Much of the objection to the GOP health plan is how Trump insists that pre-existing conditions are covered. Here we have a president who doesn’t even look at the wording and then blames the Democrats for exaggerating. The plan is about access to such coverage, nothing about cost savings if states now get the power to decide what health issues outside the core can be charged consumers.

The Kaiser Foundation points out that Wisconsin was part of a national effort to bridge the gap for these citizens until the online marketplaces got going in 2014.  So federal money became involved then – with the ACA -- where high risk pools in the past relied on 60% payment by enrollees' premium payments, 20% by assessments on Wisconsin insurers, and 20% by provider discounts. 

The states and Ryan liked the program because it didn’t cost the taxpayers a dime then,  required a six month waiting period and a complicated approval process. Even if federal money is now made available, it’s hard to imagine states like Wisconsin suddenly becoming generous with support.  Look at how Walker keeps reducing the coverage under Medicaid, also partly paid by the feds.

Many participants back then have told me they were forced into the program because of insurance circumstances and they don’t want that game back in any shape or form.

My premium in Wisconsin's high risk pool was about $1000/month. Not sustainable at all!


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as one of the editors for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor, then was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as at his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.