I just about dropped what’s left of my teeth when I saw on Sunday that The Billings Gazette had endorsed John Lewis for the U.S. House over Ryan Zinke.
Mr. Zinke seemed to be the natural pick in this race: tons of experience, some of it relevant; an unflappable public presence; a history of edging toward moderation. Even the Butte Weekly, a Democratic-leaning newspaper in a Democratic-leaning town, has endorsed Mr. Zinke, a Republican.
True, Mr. Lewis does seem to be gaining ground. I have seen the candidates debate three times, twice in person and once on television last Saturday night. In my inexpert opinion, Mr. Zinke cleaned up in the first debate, the second was a drab draw, and Mr. Lewis won the third on substance, if not on style.
Indeed, it’s beginning to look as if Mr. Zinke’s notorious political wavering isn’t mere pandering. He really doesn’t seem to know what to think. Here’s how he handled four tricky pitches.
Strike one: Mr. Lewis accused Mr. Zinke of threatening to invade Mexico to free Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooresi, who has been in a Mexican prison since March 31, when he was arrested for carrying guns – he says accidentally – across the Mexican border.
Mr. Zinke denied Mr. Lewis’ charge, but the people who run Breitbart News, a staunchly conservative website, reported that Mr. Zinke told them, “If I was the first executive of the United States, I would have called the 1st Marine Division and told them to go get their Marine back, and I would give them the equipment to do it.”
Sounds like an invasion to me.
Mr. Zinke’s own website was only a bit less bellicose. He said there that President Obama “should immediately close the border … and mobilize the 1st marine division to the border until Sgt. Tahmooresi is returned home.”
Strike two: Mr. Zinke argues that the Affordable Care Act is “sinking,” but he lacks a clear alternative that would keep parts of the bill he likes, such as coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
There is good reason for that: Finding a way to cover those people without bankrupting the system is nearly impossible without a mandatory insurance plan similar to Obamacare. To suggest that tort reform, low-cost clinics and health savings accounts will fix the problem is to light a tiny candle on a bitter night.
Moreover, evidence is mounting that Obamacare actually is working. There is no space here to cite all of the sources needed to back this claim, but Jonathan Cohn has a good summary at The New Republic. In short:
• The number of uninsured Americans has declined by 10 million to 12 million people.
• Two-thirds of those who have bought insurance on the healthcare exchanges rate their plans as at least good.
• States that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare report that visits by uninsured patients to hospitals have dropped by a third, which saves money both for hospitals and for patients – except in Montana and other states that opted out.
• The cost of healthcare is increasing at about half the rate it was before Obamacare.
• Rates for those who get insurance from employers, not from the exchanges, rose about 3 percent this year, barely above inflation.
• The Congressional Budget Office still says that Obamacare is reducing the deficit.
But you don’t even need to look at the numbers. Just tune in to Sean Hannity. He barely mentions Obamacare any more, a sure sign that something is going right.
If this is what a veteran naval officer describes as “sinking,” I wonder how he defines “floating.”
Foul ball: Mr. Zinke says he supports Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as a “framework” for balancing the federal budget within 10 years, but he can’t seem to decide which parts of the budget, if any, he endorses.
He opposes turning Medicare into a voucher plan, which is an absolutely key component of Rep. Ryan’s plan. He opposes the $716 billion in Medicare cuts (or savings, depending on your point of view) included both in Obamacare and in the Ryan plan, and he seems to oppose cuts in student loan funding. What exactly is left that he likes?
Strike three: Mr. Zinke defended his lack of a plan to deal with climate change by pointing to a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Steven E. Koonin, who has worked both for the Obama administration and for BP. Mr. Zinke said the article shows that global warming is not “settled science.”
But Mr. Koonin does not dispute that humans are causing the planet to get warmer. He wrote, “There is little doubt in the scientific community that continually growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due largely to carbon-dioxide emissions from the conventional use of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate. There is also little doubt that the carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere for several centuries.”
His claim was merely that no one knows for sure what effect the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere will ultimately have.
That’s certainly true. By pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we are conducting an enormous science experiment on a global scale. It’s impossible to know for sure how it will turn out, and it’s startling that people who claim to be conservative could be so indifferent about it.
To use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction is like saying that cigarettes will kill you, but you might as well keep smoking because nobody knows when.
John Lewis’ long-shot campaign may be running out of ammunition, but Mr. Zinke is giving him plenty of targets.
Last Updated on Thursday, 09 October 2014 10:53