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Scary creatures / October 14, 2020
The world is a scary place, yet we’re often slow to pick up on mean and nasty ogres in our midst, before and after they strike. There couldn’t possibly be an ogre living down the road, right? Ogres smell bad, and they don’t look like anyone we know. Relatedly, most of the mean and scary things you read about in the news presumably are happening somewhere else — because folks around us, with whom we interact on a daily basis, are generally good people, even if sometimes you have to grade on a curve to reach this conclusion.

Is this a naive outlook on life? Probably. But it’s a persistent belief — and for good reason: without a baseline of common understanding and trust to guide our everyday dealings, society would fall apart. So a certain prejudice to think people couldn’t possibly be as “bad as all that” is ingrained in each of us.

Now politics, there’s a strange animal. (Even stranger than ogres.) On the one hand, everyone thinks politicians are crooks or just in it for themselves, but on the other, there’s a curious reluctance to accept that elected officials and political parties could possibly be as bad as their policy positions suggest. As an example of this, let’s take two programs everyone loves: Social Security and Medicare. What politician with a functioning heart would try to destroy these essential safety nets of old age? Maybe more relevantly, what kind of politician would admit to trying to end these programs? Just in time for Halloween and Election Day, monsters have a way of breaking out their disguises.

The result is the Orwellian language of politics — whereby candidates promise to “reform” or “strengthen” programs when the plan all along is to knock the props out from under them. At the moment of its creation, Ronald Reagan famously warned that Medicare was socialism run amok that would lead to the eventual destruction of American society. Decades later, former House Speaker and self-declared budget wonk Paul Ryan cooked up various schemes — taken way too seriously by the Very Serious Think-fluencers in our national media — to divert money from Social Security and Medicare trust funds to pay for massive tax cuts for the country’s richest citizens. Just this September, President Trump implemented an executive order to waive payroll taxes for pandemic relief, and, in so doing, crimped the revenue streams that support Social Security and Medicare. Trump has talked about making the payroll tax cut permanent if he is re-elected. Aside from being a terrible idea on its own terms — without a permanent waiver this tax cut will have to be repaid by workers and companies, surprise, surprise — it is also just the latest twist on the longstanding campaign by right-wing ideologues to destroy New Deal and Great Society programs they have always loathed, secretly or not so secretly.

The truth hurts, which is why politicians try to obscure it, and perhaps why voters can be slow to internalize it. Getting people to understand that Republican leaders pursue terrible policies for the benefit of their deep-pocketed donors — an objectively true statement — is a constant, uphill battle. The GOP is only too happy to divert attention from its reverse class warfare by yelling “squirrel” whenever Fox News whips up a frenzy about the latest menace to American life — whether it’s migrant caravans (remember those?) or death panels (which Republicans don’t talk about any more, for obvious reasons) or the Black Lives Matter movement, the newest make-believe scourge in a never-ceasing parade.

Here in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, an interesting experiment is underway in testing the strength of the GOP’s Teflon defenses of malarkey. The background: Democrats have a formidable candidate, Cameron Webb, running to capture the Republican-held seat in our crimson (red, with a touch of purple) district. Party activists ditched the incumbent congressman, Denver Riggleman, and put up hard-right challenger Bob Good to run on the November ticket instead. (More about Good in a second.) Webb is African-American, a practicing physician with the UVA hospital system, serves on the university faculty as director of health policy and equity at UVA’s School of Medicine, has family ties in Southside (his wife is from Appomattox County) and has a law degree, because he’s apparently crazy smart and accomplished. Plus he and his wife are raising two young children.

To win in the 5th, Democrats will have to capitalize on a schism in GOP ranks, and Good seems perfectly suited to the task — a lot of Republicans seem to really, really not like him. In scorched red Campbell County, one of the most conservative locales in the 5th District, two former elected sheriffs have endorsed Webb, basically destroying the narrative that this young Black progressive candidate is a BLM wolf in doctor’s clothing, on a secret mission to defund the police. (Webb’s father worked for the DEA).

Webb has raised a ton of money in the race — $2.7 million in the recent quarter, a truly mind-blowing amount — while Good has struggled to generate much money or, frankly, enthusiasm for his campaign. The money advantage has gone to good use: A recent Webb campaign commercial features half a dozen Republicans, mostly elderly and hailing from Campbell and Bedford counties, expressing disgust with Bob Good’s actions as a Campbell County supervisor (his main qualification for running for Congress). The people on the screen (all of whom are White) lay into Webb for short-funding the Campbell sheriff’s department and school system, and harshest of all, voting as a supervisor to raise the cost of EMS ambulance service for county citizens. “And Bob’s ambulance tax was the worst,” says one of the people who appears in the ad, introduced as Campbell County military veteran John Vincent. The head-shaking and lip-pursing by the people on screen ends in a crescendo: “When Bob says he’s going to raise the retirement age, and cut your Social Security, believe him. Your Social Security is at risk ... Take it from this Republican, Bob Good is bad news.”

Is this nothing more than Democratic scaremongering? Let’s look at the record. First, about that Campbell ambulance fee increase: despite having the highest costs for EMS transport in the area, according to the Lynchburg News & Advance, Campbell supervisors voted in 2016 to raise bills by 26 percent to fund a new rescue unit for the county’s fast-growing Timberlake community. This is a defensible decision — paying for fire and rescue service in the age of waning volunteerism will be an ongoing challenge for most rural communities — but it is telling how Campbell supervisors, on a 5-1 vote, decided to handle the matter: by sticking the people with acute medical needs exclusively with the bill. There’s a philosophical argument here: should a small group of people, the medically unluckiest ones, bear the cost burdens of EMS service, or should the Campbell board have considered a small tax increase, borne by most citizens, to pay for something any one of us — rich or poor, White or Black, rural or urban — might need at any time? Most people might make the latter choice, even if Bob Good didn’t.

There’s a strong echo here in the national debate (which Webb and Good are now part of) over how to pay for health care for people with pre-existing conditions. By passing the Affordable Care Act, Democrats required insurance companies to price all coverages equally, regardless of whether the people being covered are among the lucky ones (i.e., healthy individuals) or saddled with medical problems, many of which are extremely expensive to cover. This is why, prior to Obamacare, people were priced out of the insurance market — because there was no mechanism to spread around the high costs these individuals incurred. Republicans fought the Affordable Care Act at every turn, and continue to do so today. Accused of trying to end protections for pre-existing conditions, they protest they’d never do such a thing, yet they never say how they will replace the ACA when and if it is destroyed. Republicans claim to have a “plan” but won’t say what it is. Why should anyone believe them?

Social Security and Medicare are programs that bloom from the same tree — joining generations together in a shared approach to keeping people safe and healthy, providing a basic standard of living for all Americans as they reach old age. Bob Good, in contrast, is on the record saying he favors raising the retirement age. He chose a path of balancing a Campbell EMS budget increase on the backs of the county’s most medically vulnerable citizens rather than asking everyone to pay a small share. Is it such a reach to think that once in Congress, Good would eagerly join fellow party extremists in seeking to destroy programs like the ACA, Social Security and Medicare? His career up till now suggests that’s exactly what he would do.

Bob Good: Good guy, or policy ogre? It’s hard sometimes to recognize the difference, but it shouldn’t be that hard.

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