Democrats go it alone on health care reform; Afghanistan prepares to go to the polls.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 19 2009 5:36 AM

Majority Rule

The New York Times leads with news that in the face of stiffening Republican opposition to health care reform, Democrats look increasingly likely to quit wooing minority lawmakers and focus instead on building support among their own ranks. In theory, that should allow Democratic leaders to cut through the noise and push through more speedy and substantive reforms; still, going it alone is no guarantee of success. The Washington Post leads with a report on Democratic infighting over the White House's apparent shift away from the public option, a move that riled progressives and threatened to derail the broader debate. "I don't understand why the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo," sighed one senior White House adviser. "It's a mystifying thing."

The Wall Street Journal tops its online newsbox, and gives space on its front page, to reports that U.S. consumer spending remains weak and could undermine the country's tentative economic recovery; retailers say they don't expect their sales figures to improve until next year. The Los Angeles Times has better news: House sales are on the rise, at least in California, with demand for entry-level homes in some cases sparking bidding wars. USA Today leads with predictions that farmers would plant 18 million acres of new trees by 2020, covering an area the size of West Virginia, if reforestation incentives included in pending climate legislation are passed into law.

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Democratic leaders yesterday accused Republicans of reflexively opposing health care reforms in an attempt to score political points against the Obama administration, reports the NYT. "The Republican leadership," said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, "has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama's health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day." Party leaders now intend to pour their energy into mustering Democratic votes for the proposals; the WSJ notes that much will depend on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who some Democrats worry may not be forceful enough to push through the reforms.

The broader issue, though, is whether going it alone will help Democrats sell health care reform to an increasingly skeptical public. The Post notes that following the public-option brouhaha, Democrats are increasingly concerned that Obama's bipartisan approach effectively ceded control of the national conversation to the reforms' opponents. Now, the WSJ says, Obama will likely try a new tack, addressing broad emotional themes rather than allowing himself to get bogged down in detail. Still, the public-option debate continues to rumble: The LAT and the Post both run op-eds arguing that the public-option spat is a sideshow distracting from more important matters, while in an editorial the NYT argues that if Democrats do decide to snub Republicans, they should go all-in and push for a robust public plan.

Meanwhile, the LAT off-leads with a look ahead to another potential health care reform pitfall: the fate of Medicare Advantage, a program that pays insurance companies to enroll senior citizens. The White House says the program is wasteful and expensive, and hopes to trim its subsidy to bring per-patient costs in line with regular Medicare, saving $177 billion over 10 years; still, officials worry the move would spark accusations that the president wants to slash Medicare benefits. 

Afghans will vote tomorrow to decide their next president, and in a splashy above-the-fold report the Post says that current leader Hamid Karzai is the clear favorite; voters shaken by decades of violence say they're of a mind to overlook the incumbent's lackluster performance for the sake of stability. "We don't have any alternative," says one. "We're afraid of what the other candidates might do." The WSJ fronts a report noting that the election—the second since the fall of the Taliban—doesn't guarantee stability; a recent wave of violence could keep people from the polls, handing a boost to the country's insurgents.

In a bid to maintain order, the NYT reports, Karzai's government will censor news organizations on Election Day, barring them from reporting on violence that might deter voters. A WSJ editorial pre-emptively trumpets the election's success and  calls for Afghanistan's voters to stick their "ink-stained thumb in the eye" of the Taliban. In a more measured piece, Slate's Anne Applebaum counters that recent violence underscores the need not for "some kind of Jeffersonian idyll in the rugged heart of Central Asia," but simply for a government recognized as legitimate by the majority of Afghans.

Government-backed researchers say that a new vaccine designed to protect against HPV and cervical cancer has a safety record in line with other vaccines, reports the NYT; still, it's unclear whether any level of risk is acceptable, since cervical cancer can be prevented by screening. More troublingly, notes USAT, the researchers also reveal that three medical associations received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Merck, the vaccine's developer, in order to promote its use—and subsequently promoted the vaccine to affluent women rather than targeting poor women who were at greater risk of developing cervical cancer. "This clearly shows how Merck was able to influence opinion leaders in the medical field to promote the vaccine without presenting any of the downsides," a doctor who helped test the vaccine told the Post.

President Obama met with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak at the White House yesterday, and afterward said that he remained upbeat about the prospects for progress in the Middle East. The Post and the NYT stress the meeting's cordiality; the WSJ emphasizes Mubarak's demands that Obama press Israel to accept a freeze on West Bank settlements. As the Post notes, that may not be easy: Polls from Israel indicate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making political gains by defying U.S. pressure to halt the settlements' spread, despite Israeli voters' longstanding tradition of punishing politicians who distance themselves from Washington.

The FBI's use of "threat squads"—dedicated teams of counterterrorism agents assigned to investigate tips and rumors—come under scrutiny in the NYT; the squads are a drain on the bureau's resources, and their investigations seldom result in prosecutions. "A lot of the time we are chasing shadows," admits one agent.

And finally, all the papers note the passing of Robert Novak, the 78-year-old conservative pundit and self-branded Prince of Darkness, who died early yesterday morning from brain cancer. The Post, which ran Novak's column for 45 years, reports his death below the fold and gushingly editorializes about his merits as an old-school reporter turned political insider; unsurprisingly, the WSJ's opinion-page editors are equally effusive in their praise. Of course, Novak's immediate legacy is less his columns (which Slate's Jack Schafer reminds us won't be anthologized anytime soon) than the lingering fallout from his 2003 outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame—a move that earned Novak enduring opprobrium from liberals. Still, perhaps the grizzled old ideologue wouldn't have minded leaving a slightly sour aftertaste. "Novak loved his vampire-like public persona," recalls one Republican strategist. "His one last dream was to play an assassin in a movie."

Ben Whitford writes for the Guardian, Mother Jones and Newsweek.

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