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Those other Pennsylvania primaries – Bill Cahir

Those other Pennsylvania primaries.

In addition to the Presidential primary, on April 22nd Pennsylvania’s Democrats will make choices about primary candidates for a variety of positions, including the 5th Congressional District.

The 5th District is in central PA, home to Pennsylvania State University, and is currently represented by Republican John Peterson, who is not running for reelection. It is the largest of Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts, and though it is Republican leaning, recent swings in voter registration before the primary have made many of the counties in it majority Democratic for the first time in many years.

Pennsylvania already has one Iraq war veteran in Congress, 8th District Representative Patrick Murphy. Murphy has now endorsed another Iraq veteran Democrat, Bill Cahir for the 5th District seat.

Cahir was a journalist for the Newhouse newspaper chain, before serving two tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq, and is still in the reserves. A native of State College and Penn State alumnus, Cahir is one of three Democrats fighting to turn the 5th District blue. He graciously took some time out to talk to Kaffeine Buzz about his campaign, the issues, and his background in the media and the Marines.

Kaffeine Buzz: You were a journalist yourself before you joined up with the Marines, right?

Bill Cahir: Yes, and I joined as a Marine Reservist so I actually kept my job at Newhouse News Service. I was on active duty basically three of the past four years, but I went back to that job as a newspaper reporter in between deployments.

KB: How did that work out? Did they keep asking you to write about Iraq, then?

BC: I’ll give you an example. I know a great deal about the war in Al-Anbar province and what the Marine Corps has gone through out there, and so I did write about that last December, and about how much safer Al-Anbar has become. You can imagine, some papers were willing to use that story and other papers were not, because they think it’s a conflict to have a Reserve Marine writing about it.

It gave me a leg up on other reporters. Not just my personal experience, but I know who the regimental commanders were, on the ground in Iraq. So I called the public affairs office in the Pentagon and the public affairs office overseas and was able to get interviews that no one else had because they probably didn’t even know who to ask for.

KB: Did you have any problems with the Marine Corps not wanting you to write about these things?

BC: I think it was the opposite. When you’re on active duty, it’s against Naval regulations to work for a newspaper or broadcast outlet. So I couldn’t do it as an active duty Marine. When I came home, it was precisely the opposite. I think the Marine Corps was very eager to have some coverage of the turnaround in Al-Anbar, and I think the disappointment in the Marine Corps is not that reporters are biased, it’s just that they’re not allowed. They feel like they have a very dramatic story to tell and there’s no one there to write it.

KB: The media coverage of the war has been pretty terrible, as far as I can see, especially in mainstream newspapers and television.

BC: I think some of the newspaper writing has been quite good, but there aren’t as many reporters embedded—they aren’t out in the provinces, they’re in Baghdad. I think the New York Times, with the exception of the Petraeus ad, which of wasn’t even their coverage, has been outstanding.

KB: Again, I haven’t seen a lot that is telling about what’s going on on the ground. It all seems to be coming from Washington.

BC: I’ll give you an example. C.J. Chivers was embedded with a Marine regiment in the Fallujah area the last time I was there. His work was amazing, really, really good, and I was surprised that he was able to get some of the things that he got, when snipers were shooting out of the back of cars and things like that.

KB: You went from being a full-time reporter to being a Marine Reservist on active duty, what made you decide to come back and run for office?

BC: I don’t think that Congress is doing the things it needs to do to get our economy headed in the right direction, to deal with the health care problems, to help us make good decisions about what we do next in Iraq. I think Congress is sort of paralyzed right now.

We need people to step forward. This is a touchstone election. We’re either going to address our economic and health care problems and get our foreign policy pointed back in the right direction, or we’re going to be diminished, economically and strategically, by just doing the same thing all over again.

I just felt that this is the time, to bring what experience I have working as an aide in the Senate, working as a reporter and then serving overseas, to bring that and try to make it bipartisan. When you serve your country in uniform, the mission always comes first. Maybe we need a little more of that in Congress, to put the health care mission, the economic mission, the foreign policy mission first and worry about politics as a secondary matter.

KB: I see a certain amount of that in the Presidential campaign right now. I see John McCain trying to move himself away from the Bush legacy, and I see Barack Obama saying that we need to move away from the partisan bickering and towards trying to actually get things done.

BC: It’s a very hopeful message that Senator Obama is trying to deliver, and he’s a first-time candidate in terms of running for national office, but he’s certainly got people in my hometown very, very excited. I grew up in State College and went to Penn State, and when he came recently there were literally more than 20,000 people who came out to see him. Senator Obama is practically a rock star at Penn State.

KB: Do you think that that energy will trickle down to your election?

BC: There’s been some coverage in the last couple of days from local television outlets, suggesting that the Congressional race has not really captured a lot of attention on campus, yet. We really do want to capture that enthusiasm. We did a lot of groundwork in January with the college Democrats, we’ve done a couple of events up on campus already, appeared at a Rock the Vote event, and in the next week we have to redouble those efforts, to make sure we have some name recognition with the students.

Our challenge is, we’re not only dealing with the Presidential race, but also I’m running in a primary where there are three Democrats and nine Republicans. There may be a tendency for people to just say, “I don’t know anything about any of these guys.”

KB: Especially with these college students that are just getting mobilized by these Presidential campaigns that have tons of money.

BC: That’s another challenge on the fundraising front. You call supporters and they say “well, I just gave $500 to Hillary Clinton, or $500 to Barack Obama,” and we say “Well, can you split it?” People don’t have another $500 to give.

KB: Especially right now.

BC: Exactly. It’s the same paycheck.  I’ve met with the college Libertarians, I’ve done a Q&A with the college Democrats, I spent Martin Luther King day with the college Democrats, we’re doing a couple more events up there this week with them, and tomorrow night’s event that I’m going to is college Dems, the Obama and Clinton campaigns, they’re hosting it for me.

KB: Back to Iraq, I hate to keep going back to it, but I saw in your bio that you actually applied for an age deferment to sign up with the Marines. What was it that originally made you want to sign up?

BC: I wanted to serve my country during the war on terrorism. I knew that it was likely that my reserve unit was going to be deployed, and I wasn’t necessarily trying to validate policy decisions in Washington, but I had always believed about myself that I was the kind of person who would serve if and when our country was in danger or was at war. I felt that I had a duty to live up to that expectation of myself after 9/11, after the war on terrorism got started.

I still feel that way. I’m still a drilling reservist and I have said that if I get mobilized again I would go back on active duty without a word or a syllable of complaint. You’ve seen Marines in recent months, they’ve rescued people from mudslides in the Philippines, they’ve evacuated people from Lebanon, we’re now taking part in the operation in Afghanistan, which everybody supports, and we’ve had great success turning the situation around in Al-Anbar province in Iraq. I take a great deal of professional pride in that and I think my fellow Marines do as well.

KB: Did you see that the Iraq Veterans Against the War had a Winter Soldier conference?

BC: I’m so determined to talk about the economy and health care and other issues, and just to get around a 17-county district, I think I just missed that.

KB: It’s the largest, geographically, district in the state, right?

BC: And the second largest east of the Mississippi. 

I haven’t joined up in one of the groups, Iraq veterans against the war or veterans for the war. I’ve seen where we’ve been so polarized on either end of this discussion that we’re not talking to each other sensibly about it. I’ve tried to say that, look, we do need to map our way out of Iraq, we’re not a colonial power, we don’t belong there on a permanent basis, but I haven’t come out and said we need to impeach someone or something to that effect. I haven’t gone what I consider the most shrill or most opportunistic route, because I’m trying to be bipartisan about it.

KB: On to domestic policy. What would you, in an perfect world, want to see as a health care plan?

BC: We need to have a universal system, universal coverage. I think it’s widely and broadly agreed, even in the medical community, that single-payer is the most efficient. The problem with that is that the private sector system that we have, we have people who are earning health care through their jobs, people who have good health care don’t want to lose it.

When I worked for Senator Wofford in ’93 and ’94, when we came out with a very complex plan—when the White House came out with a very complex plan, there was a backlash against it because one, people didn’t understand it, and two, they thought they were losing their choice of doctor and things of that nature.

I think ideally we need a system—and I have a proposal on my Web page—but the ideal situation would be universal coverage, fairness, no preexisting conditions, and a high state of efficiency on the administrative side.

I need to some more research on it, but I noticed that Google and the Cleveland Clinic—obviously this is not in my district–they are talking about developing some kind of patient record system that would simplify and maybe even standardize the way patient records are kept. There might be big savings there if we could do something like that.

To answer your question, we all know that single payer would be the most efficient way to go, but given the situation in Congress and the fact that a lot of people get private sector health insurance that they like, I don’t know that a single payer bill could get through the House or the Senate.

KB: It seems that we’ll have to have some halfway point where we move to a national system, and once people are OK with that then we can move to an  actual single payer system.

BC: Well, what I’ve said is that I want to lower the Medicare age, from 65 to 60, because Medicare is a single payer system, whether you call it that or not.  I want to prevent the President’s Medicare cuts, he has $5.5 billion in Medicare cuts. That’s going to be very damaging to rural hospitals, and I want to support the Medicare drug benefits, so we reduce the size of the “doughnut hole” as they call it, and also empower Medicare to bargain for better prices. Those are essential changes that need to happen.

I’ve also talked about creating a purchasing league for small businesses and the self-employed, and for farmers and people in the timber industry—that of course is specific to my district—like the federal employees health benefits program. So that people could choose their model of health care, there’d be no preexisting conditions, the federal government would help people who are either between jobs or are simply uninsured and can’t pay for one of the options. And that would be voluntary, and it would be available to people who are uninsured—what they lack is muscle in the health care marketplace right now.

KB: My parents own their own business, and they pay $45,000 a year for health insurance for the two of them.

BC: That’s ridiculous. I don’t know how they manage to do that. That’s more than people earn in a year.

KB: When you’re doing outreach to college students, do you see health care as much of an issue among them?

BC: When you talk to people who are outside of the university, health care is like a number one issue, people who own small businesses or have families, health care is their number one economic concern or outside of just having a job, it’s their number two economic concern.

With students, other issues come first and health care is maybe the second or third. They’re more likely to bring up No Child Left Behind, or to bring up Iraq. There’s tremendous interest in the student body in alternative energy and in conservation and renewable fuels. But that’s across the board, because everyone’s concerned about gas prices.

I guess among the younger, healthier students, health care just doesn’t come to mind as their most pressing issue.

KB: What do you think about the current state of the media? I see so many problems with consolidation. . .

BC: It’s interesting that you bring that up. I was the reporter who wrote the first story about the Federal Communications Commission changing the media ownership rules, to allow cross-ownership. I got some tips about what was going on, did some interviews. Through Newhouse, I broke that story and helped get that story rolling, so I’m very familiar with the media consolidation problems, I’ve interviewed Michael Copps, on the FCC, the guy who raised the red flag about this concern. We see that Rupert Murdoch is not only buying up the Wall Street Journal, but hasn’t he made an offer for Yahoo?

KB: He’s trying to get involved in the Microsoft and Yahoo deal.

BC: A couple of different things are going on. Consumers of news can go to the Internet and go to blogs and get opinions and information in ways that they couldn’t before, and a lot of that is good. You see that the story about what Barack Obama said in San Francisco actually broke through Huffington Post. As recently as the last presidential election or maybe back in 2000, people weren’t—though I should be careful because Matt Drudge was breaking stuff through his website back in the ‘90s.

But I think that the blogging that’s going on is very healthy, it’s brought a lot of new journalists into the field, and has helped consumers get access to news and opinion in a new way that’s very energizing and is drawing a lot of independent voices into journalism. That’s very healthy, and I don’t think newspapers have quite figured out—they’ve asked reporters to launch their own blogs, which is great, and I did that myself but it was just one more thing you had to do on top of everything else you had to do. You had to do your stories, your weekend column, now you have to blog as well. In traditional media, it just becomes additional responsibility.

I’m opposed to the consolidation of all media into single corporate ownership. I do believe it’s fundamentally unhealthy if one company owns your television station, your newspaper, your Internet provider, maybe even your satellite provider in your state or in your community. Fortunately, with the Internet these days, people can go to different sites and hear a broad diversity of views. But I still think it’s unhealthy economically if one company controls every media outlet in a community.

I think the Internet has changed the game in a lot of ways. It’s draining classified advertising from newspapers, and it’s bringing new voices into journalism. In some respects that’s good for consumers—they get free classified advertising on Craigslist, and they get to read your blog and many others. That’s great. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we want News Corp and Microsoft and Google to own every newspaper on the West Coast.

KB: Even so, bloggers are still a lot of the time responding to stuff they find in the newspaper or on television.

BC: Even though newspapers are not as profitable as they were at the height of the tech boom in the late ‘90s, they’re still profitable, they still make money, they’re still a good business to be in if you’re willing to look to the long haul.

KB: It seems that a lot of the problems we have right now are based on people not looking at the long haul and looking to make a quick buck right now, not worrying about what’s going to happen six months, a year from now, let alone ten years from now.

BC: Look at WorldCom and the Enron mess, look at what we’ve seen with mortgage-backed securities and the paralysis of our credit market, that’s all been a lack of integrity, a lack of good basic accounting in corporate America and it’s been caused by the same thing over and over again, people want to drive up the price of securities so they can make a quick buck every quarter. People want to play for financial gain, but whatever happened to creating jobs and sustaining families.

KB: Even the problems with the environment and sustainable energy were caused by oil companies making money, and gas prices being low enough so people didn’t care.

BC: I don’t know about you, but I think we’ve finally turned the corner on alternative energy.

KB: I think that we have. I see that oil companies are advertising their alternative energy investments, people are buying smaller cars and looking for fuel efficiency.

BC: But also private capital—capital on Wall Street, for instance, is investing in solar technology, solar power as something that might pay off down the road. There’s a company that went public a few years ago, the Wal-Mart family helped bankroll it and now it’s employing hundreds of people. In other words, the people who are interested strictly in profits have begun to say, “Wait a minute, there’s a buck to be made in alternative fuels and renewable energy.”

There’s definitely a sea change and I don’t think that was true ten years ago.

I’ve said over the course of this campaign that the era of cheap petroleum is probably over. The economies of China and India rising, demand rising there, that’s your number one cause of higher oil prices, and the number two cause is the wars in the Middle East. So even if we can bring the Iraq War to the most humane conclusion possible, you’ve still got to deal with the fact that China and India are still there.

KB: One last broad question about foreign policy—what direction do you think we need to go with our foreign relations worldwide.

BC: I think some of the candidates have said that we need to engage in more diplomacy and be less willing to see everything as having a military solution. I think it’s very healthy and good that people are saying that and I agree with that observation. There are limits to what the military can accomplish and that’s not a slam on any soldier out there.

It’s just a fact of life that vigorous diplomatic engagement with both your friends and your adversaries is a good idea. Broader diplomatic engagement in the Middle East is needed. Repairing our ties to our traditional allies in Europe has got to be a priority. I think whoever our next President is is going to make that a priority. This may be heresy to say, but I think even Senator McCain would make diplomacy a higher priority than the current administration.


Bill Cahir is on the ballot in the 5th District in Pennsylvania on April 22nd.

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