Healthcare law critics, backers mobilize efforts before Supreme Court ruling

At issue in the court case is whether it is legal for the government to provide subsidies to consumers in the almost three dozen states that have not set up their own insurance exchanges and instead rely on the federal marketplace.

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Many conservative critics say that the subsidies should be struck down and that such a ruling could be the first step in overhauling a flawed law. They would eliminate the law’s requirement that most Americans have insurance and call for a larger role for the states.

The American Enterprise Institute supports a temporary extension of subsidies for people now receiving them but not for new enrollees. The group also backs alternative ways to help people pay for insurance. Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, opposes any extension of the subsidies.

On the other side, Families USA, a liberal consumer group, and hundreds of other consumer and patient organizations say that if the administration loses the case, the states and Congress should take immediate steps to ensure consumers continue receiving subsidies. They cite government data showing that 6.4 million people in 34 states would lose their subsidies, resulting in a rise in the number of uninsured.

Beginning Tuesday, Families USA is conducting regional media briefings and releasing a series of state maps that detail by congressional district how many people could be at risk.

The latest swirl of activity is not aimed at the justices, who presumably voted on the outcome of the case some time ago. Rather, it targets the American public, the media, and especially federal and state officials who may be confronted with the uncomfortable prospect of millions of people being unable to afford health coverage.

“A lot of what’s going on now among the groups and on the Hill is sort of pre-spinning the decision to try to get the upper hand in the debate that would ensue if the court sides with the challengers,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The decision in King v. Burwell, the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act to reach the nation’s highest court, is expected by the end of the month. The plaintiffs argue that, under a straightforward reading of the law, only residents of states that set up their own exchanges are entitled to government subsidies to help them pay for their insurance. The administration counters that the law obviously intended for the subsidies to go to anyone who qualifies based on income, whether they signed up through a state or federal exchange.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have created their own exchanges, but three of them — Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon — are having technical problems, so they are using the federal exchange, HealthCare.gov. The remaining 34 states rely to varying degrees on the federal exchange.

About 85 percent of those who have bought insurance on state and federal exchanges receive a subsidy, and the average amount is $272 a month, according to government data. Consumers who are receiving subsidies could see their costs for insurance almost triple, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That could lead to people dropping their coverage and an overall unraveling of the law, some health experts say.

Many Americans who may lose their subsidies are only vaguely aware of the case.

Bea Cote, 56, a Charlotte resident who runs an organization that works with domestic-violence offenders, signed up for health coverage in March through the federal exchange; North Carolina does not have its own marketplace. Cote, who makes about $25,000 a year, gets a hefty subsidy and pays just $66 a month for health insurance. Without the subsidy, her premium would be $578.

“There’s no way I could pay that kind of money,” said Cote, who needs medication for high blood pressure and arthritis, as well as a machine for sleep apnea that keeps her airways open at night. “I would have to drop insurance,” she said.

Many supporters of the law say they are optimistic that the justices will not strike down the subsidies but want to be ready in any case. And many in the healthcare industry say that even if the court disallows the financial aid, they expect it to allow payments through the end of this year, to give policymakers a chance to respond.

If the court strikes down subsidies in the federal marketplace, the simplest fix will be for Congress to pass a law saying subsidies are permanently legal in all states. But there is little chance a Republican-controlled Congress would do that; many Republican lawmakers want to dismantle the law.

For example, a bill by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that has 31 co-sponsors would extend the subsidies until September 2017 for those currently receiving them but not permit them for new enrollees. It would also repeal the individual insurance mandate and other federal requirements.

“We want to protect the people that are harmed by the president’s illegal actions if the Supreme Court rules that way, but we’re not going to protect the law,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said at a recent news conference.

Administration officials have said they have no contingency plans if they lose in court, and they have vowed to reject any proposal to wreck the law. “Something that repeals the Affordable Care Act is something the president will not sign,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell recently told a House panel.

In the face of a federal standoff, states could try to fix the problem themselves by setting up their own marketplaces. Pennsylvania and Delaware recently announced plans to do so. But in many affected states, there is strong political opposition to anything that would preserve Obamacare.

Even without the political hurdle, states face logistical obstacles — not enough time or money — in trying to get new state exchanges up and running before the next round of open enrollment in the marketplaces begins in November.

A possible remedy suggested by the consulting firm Leavitt Partners — run by Mike Leavitt, HHS secretary under President George W. Bush — would be for the Obama administration to drastically reduce the administrative and financial requirements for setting up state exchanges. For example, the administration could allow states to create exchanges without first setting up a governing board, the proposal said.

AEI’s longer-term remedy calls for a new system that would allow states without exchanges to provide subsidies — but ones based on a consumer’s age rather than income.

If the pending court decision represents a threat to Obama’s legacy, it also carries political risks for Republicans, who largely back the challenge to the law and could be blamed if coverage is made unaffordable.

“If you prolong this, there will be enormous anxiety out there in the country for people and their brothers and sisters and co-workers, and the Republicans are going to take a horrible hit for this,” said Robert Laszewski, a longtime health insurance consultant. Politicians can say they support or oppose the law, he said, but the average person’s reaction will be, “Why are you screwing these people, what did they do wrong?”

Families USA hopes its plan to single out the most-affected congressional districts will increase pressure on elected officials.

For example, Florida, which did not set up its own exchange, has 1.3 million people at risk of losing their subsidies, or about 20 percent of the total across the country, according to the government’s data. Topping the list is the state’s 25th Congressional District, which includes the Miami suburbs, home to 91,000 consumers who could lose the payments.

Meanwhile, Heritage Action for America’s four lobbyists have been spending the run-up to the court decision trying to discourage Republican lawmakers from passing even a short-term extension of subsidies. Much would be gained by an administration loss in court, the group argues — if, for example, it ultimately led to the collapse of the law and the repeal of federal mandates, insurance premiums could drop.

“What we’re advising is to go with a completely different approach, saying we’re not going to refund or put back in place these subsidies, but what we will do is allow the states that are impacted by the decision to be able to opt out of all the mandates and all the insurance regulations that have driven up the price of insurance,” said the group’s communications director, Dan Holler.

“There’s a lot of fear that this could go poorly for Republicans if they win, and we’re trying to encourage them to see it as an opportunity to really help make the case about everything that was wrong with the law,” he said.

Washington Post staff writer Niraj Chokshi contributed to this report.

Rachel Dolezal breaks her silence, saying: ‘I identify as black’

Speaking to Savannah Guthrie in an interview for NBC’s “Nightly News,” Dolezal, who was born to two Caucasian parents, said: “Nothing about being white describes who I am.

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“It’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, are you black or white?” she said on the “Today” show.

Dolezal, 37, resigned from her post as president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter on Monday after accusations surfaced that she lied about her race. In a series of interviews with NBC — her first since she was thrust into the national spotlight — she was challenged about her race and the accusations that she had been deceptive for years.

“I did feel that, at some point, I would need to address the complexity of my identity,” she said on the “Today” show. But, she told co-host Matt Lauer: “I identify as black.”

She never corrected a local news report that identified her as a black woman, she told Lauer, “because it’s more complex than being true or false.”

To Guthrie, Dolezal said: “I am more black than I am white.”

“So on a level of values, lived experience, currently, I mean, in this moment, that’s — that’s the answer,” Dolezal said. “That’s the accurate answer from my truth.”

Dolezal rose to prominence as a black woman but was outed as white last week by her own parents.

“I don’t see why they’re in such a rush to whitewash the work that I have done and who I am and how I have identified,” she said Tuesday on “Today.” The timing of the revelation, she said, “was a shock. I mean, wow.”

But, she noted of her racial identity: “I’ve had to answer a lot of questions throughout my life.”

Amid an “unexpected firestorm” over whether she misrepresented her race, Dolezal resigned her leadership post with the NAACP’s Spokane chapter, citing concern that the controversy was hampering the group’s larger mission.

But Dolezal did not explain in her resignation announcement Monday why she had dyed her hair, darkened her skin and misrepresented herself as a mixed-race black woman for much of the past decade.

In previous interviews, Dolezal said she considers herself to be black, and she described choosing the black community over white culture during her college years in Mississippi. On Tuesday, she told Lauer that her “self-identification with the black experience” began as a young child, at about the age of 5.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and the black curly hair. That was how I was portraying myself.”

Her parents, speaking to Fox News after Dolezal’s “Today” show interview, disputed that claim, calling it a “fabrication.”

“That’s false; that did not happen,” said Dolezal’s mother, Ruthanne. “She has never done anything like that as a child, though she was always attracted to black people. We had friends from Nigeria and different places and African American friends that we had in our circle and she was used to relating to people of diversity.”

Said Larry Dolezal: “All we can surmise is that somehow that identity has transferred from being part of a multi-ethnic family to somehow thinking that she is somehow herself multi-ethnic.” The parents adopted black children when Rachel was growing up.

Speaking to Guthrie for the “Nightly News” interview, Rachel Dolezal said: “Up to this point, I know who raised me. I haven’t had a DNA test. There’s been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents.”

Guthrie noted that “there’s a birth certificate that has your name on it and their names on it.”

Said Dolezal: “I’m not necessarily saying that I can prove they’re not. But I don’t know that I can actually prove they are.”

Looking at a photo of herself as a blue-eyed blonde teenager, Dolezal told Lauer on “Today” that the person in the image “would be identified as white by people who see her.”

Lauer asked if she had done something to darken her complexion.

“I certainly don’t stay out of the sun, you know?” Dolezal said. But, she added: “I also don’t, as some of the critics have said, put on blackface as a performance.”

“I have a huge issue with blackface,” she continued. “This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real connected level. I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just with a visible representation, but with the experience.”

In another interview Tuesday, with MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, Dolezal said she felt a “spiritual, visceral, just very instinctual connection with ‘black is beautiful’ — just the black experience” from “a very young age.”

But, she added: “I was socially conditioned to not own that, and to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me. And so I kind of felt pretty awkward with that at times.”

“Are you a con artist?” Harris-Perry asked.

“I don’t think so,” Dolezal said.

Born in Troy, Montana, on Nov. 12, 1977, to conservative white Christian missionaries, Dolezal had one sibling, a brother Joshua, until she was 16. Then in 1993, the Dolezals began adopting four children: Zach from Haiti and Ezra, Izaiah and Esther from elsewhere in the United States.

After graduating from high school in 1995, Dolezal attended Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, where she participated in Voice of Calvary, a “racial reconciliation community development project where blacks and whites lived together,” her father said.

She later received a master’s of fine arts from Howard University. Ironically, the Smoking Gun reported Monday, Dolezal sued Howard in 2002, charging that the historically black school had discriminated against her because she was white, removing her art from an exhibition “to favor African American students.”

On Tuesday, Dolezal told Lauer that her scholarship was rescinded and she lost her teaching assistant position at Howard, too, because, she recalled being told, “other people need opportunities and you probably have white relatives who can help you with tuition.”

Noting that her two sons were in the “Today” show studio, Lauer asked Dolezal how they would identify her.

One of them, Dolezal said, had told her a day earlier: “Mom, racially you’re human. Culturally, you’re black.”

She added: “They support the way I identify.”

But, she said, her parents’ revelation (“She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian — that’s just a fact,” her father, Lawrence, has said) sparked a broader conversation about identity that, Dolezal said, could prove productive.

“As much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense recently in a very sort of viciously inhumane way . . . the discussion is really about what it means to be human,” she said. “And I hope that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”

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Washington Post staff writers Abby Phillip and Leah Sottile contributed to this report.

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Video: The parents of Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist under fire for her disputed racial identity, say they don’t know what caused their biological daughter to call herself African-American. (The Washington Post)

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Video: In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show, Rachel Dolezal talks about why she identifies as black. Here are a few facts about her and her time as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash. (The Washington Post)

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Air Force struggles to keep pace with explosion in the use of combat drones

“Yeah, it looks like a gun,” says an American drone pilot, peering into a greytone screen in a darkened, distant trailer.

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The pilot, who Air Force officials asked be identified only as Capt. Bert, is talking to ground headquarters through a headset. He then counts off the half-minute until one of the drone’s Hellfire missiles strikes its target, throwing the man to the ground with a flash of light.

The ground controller’s voice comes back in a static burst. “Confirmed: enemy killed in action.”

But this target is not a suspected militant on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan. He’s a U.S. airman, role-playing in the desert outside Las Vegas, and the missile strike was a training simulation at the Nevada air base that coordinates U.S. drone flight overseas.

Air Force officials hope to provide more training missions like this for drone operators as the U.S. military cuts back the pace of drone operations overseas. They say increased training for new and existing pilots, along with steps to improve pilot recruitment and retention, is crucial to maintaining the effectiveness of an overstressed force and would help the Air Force meet future demand for remotely piloted flight.

The plan to reduce drone capacity to a maximum of 60 simultaneous combat flights by this fall, which the Air Force made public this spring, is the centerpiece of an effort to make the pace of Air Force drone operations more sustainable, and to help heal the stresses caused by a decade of frenetic expansion.

But with renewed operations in Iraq against the Islamic State, a new campaign of strikes against the group in Syria and continued operations in Afghanistan, the demand for unmanned aircrafts’ surveillance and combat powers is higher than ever.

Col. James “Cliffy” Cluff, the top Air Force commander for remotely piloted aircraft, said the service had expected demand for drone flights to fall off as the United States wrapped up its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That plan “was overcome by the enemy,” he told reporters in a rare media visit to Creech Air Force Base, where Cluff commands over 3,000 pilots and support personnel. Since last summer’s dramatic advances by Islamic State militants, U.S. aircraft have conducted 3,600 strikes in Iraq and Syria, many of them conducted by unmanned planes.

The remotely piloted aircraft program burst into action in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2001 the Air Force only had capability to keep two drones flying combat missions at a time. Behind every one drone in the air conducting a combat air patrol there are hundreds of personnel required to maintain active and reserve aircraft and amass intelligence and even special teams deployed overseas dedicated to take-off and landing of aircraft.

By 2010, during President Obama’s surge of troops to Afghanistan, the program’s flight capacity had reached 39. It peaked at 65 in 2014.

The growth has complicated challenges the Air Force has faced in fielding and retaining pilots for the program, which has often been seen by pilots as an unattractive alternative to piloting manned aircraft. Today, the Air Force needs to produce 300 new drone pilots a year. Because of recruitment and training constraints, it is only producing 180.The Air Force also loses 240 drone pilots each year as airmen return to other duties or they leave the service altogether.

The 500 pilots and 500 sensor operators at Creech, nestled among bare hillsides an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, have pushed themselves hard in recent years to keep pace with the demands of overseas operations. While they typically work shifts of at least eight flight hours, five days on and then two to three days off, they are often called in for a sixth consecutive day because of personnel shortages.

The strains of that pace are “why we’re attacking the manning problem today.” As commander of Creech, Cluff is in the odd position of touting the effectiveness of the skills of the airmen of his 432nd Wing and 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing and their arsenal of more than 130 Predator, Reaper and Sentinel aircraft while also pushing for recognition that the pace of their operations must be eased.

Earlier this year, the Air Force announced plans to address gaps in drone pilots, including larger retention bonuses and greater use of reservists, National Guard personnel and contractors.

A reduction in U.S. drone flights comes as other nations seek to accelerate their own unmanned flight programs, which has the potential to ease the future burden to U.S. operations. The United States is also moving to allow the sale of lethal American drone technology to certain allies.

Kelley Sayler, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the reduction in flight capacity would “necessarily degrade” U.S. intelligence capabilities.

In the long run, she said, the Air Force must increase promotions and other opportunities available to drone pilots and consider making the job accessible to enlisted personnel or others with a lesser level of training.

“If the Air Force simply maintains its current course, we’re likely to see continued problems with retention, which could in turn result in further reductions in [flight capacity] and negatively impact future military operations,” she said.

The job is made personal for Shantae, a sensor operator who like other personnel asked to be identified only by her rank and first name.

The daughter of an active duty Marine, she takes pride in a mission she sees as primarily about keeping American personnel safe overseas. Air Force officials said the vast majority of unmanned flight hours are dedicated to surveillance, including watching over American troops as they conduct operations overseas. But she acknowledged that events on the battlefield sometimes “weigh heavy on you.”

The flight demands are made more striking by the fact that drone operators, like a small number of U.S. military personnel stationed in the United States, are “deployed in place.” While they may take part in combat operations during the day, most airmen get into their cars after their shifts conclude and make the 50-minute drive back to Las Vegas, with its lights and revelry.

“Every single day this base is at war,” Cluff said.

While the dissonance of remote warfare is real, a 2012 survey showed that what drone operators struggled with the most were familiar challenges: the demands of shift work, long hours, lack of sleep and inadequate staffing.

To address both kinds of stress, in 2011 the base stood up a “human performance team” including experts in air physiology, psychology and flight medicine, and chaplains, all of whom have top-level security clearances.

The Air Force is now trying to replicate the team elsewhere, officials at the base said.

In 2014 alone, officials at the base said, they made 13 “suicide saves,” or interventions with service members who were contemplating suicide. The suicide rate is no higher among drone personnel than other Air Force personnel.

While in other parts of the Air Force medical personnel might focus on training pilots on coping with high altitudes, those who operate unmanned aircraft must instead find ways to counteract the fatigue associated with long shifts sitting in trailers, their eyes glued to screens. Maj. Maria Elena Gomez-Mejia, who focuses on operational physiology, said many airmen struggled to adjust to regular changing work schedules that could keep them at Creech all or part of the night.

Over time, Air Force officials also hope to upgrade equipment in ways that will lessen the toll of long pilot hours. Now, pilots and their sensor operators must contend with a crowded array of 14 different screens, which provide information on everything from the aircraft’s position and course to area topography. To communicate with personnel on the ground or in the air, they can use radio, online chat or phone. The cluttered arrangement has not changed significantly in 15 years, Col. Matthew Finnegan said.

A next-generation cockpit now under development will merge those screens and streamline communications.

Post-Bloomberg morning briefing

The Washington Post

CHARLESTON-CHURCH — For Charleston’s Emanuel A.

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M.E. Church, shooting is another painful chapter in rich history. 1,430 words, by Sarah Kaplan (Post). With video.

CHARLESTON-1ST — Police are searching for a gunman who opened fire Wednesday at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Officials said nine people were killed and others injured. 400 words, by Lindsey Bever and Robert Costa (Post).

POPE _VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis lays out the argument for a new partnership between science and religion to combat human-driven climate change – a position bringing him immediately into conflict with skeptics, whom he chides for their “denial.” Developing, by Anthony Faiola, Michelle Boorstein and Chris Mooney (Post).

YEMEN-1STLD – Al-Qaida’s leader in Yemen was killed in “signature strike,” U.S. officials said Tuesday. 600 words, by Greg Miller (Post).

MIGRANTS – LONDON – The number of people uprooted from their homes by war and persecution in 2014 was larger than in any year since detailed record-keeping began. 1,000 words, by Griff Witte (Post). One graphic.

DOMINICAN — MEXICO CITY – The Dominican Republic was preparing Wednesday to enforce a registration deadline that has raised fears of mass deportations of undocumented workers and others of Haitian descent. 1,000 words, by Joshua Partlow (Post).

BRITAIN-ISLAMICSTATE — LONDON _One of three British sisters feared to have traveled to Islamic State-controlled territory has made contact with her family back home, police said Wednesday. 450 words, by Karla Adam (Post).

DOLLAR — WASHINGTON — A woman will be featured on the $10 bill, the first time in well over a century that a female will grace America’s paper money. 900 words, by Ylan Q. Mui and Abigail Ohlheiser (Post).

BRAT – WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia works in obscurity as a freshman lawmaker, who replaced Eric Cantor. 1,900 words, by David Schwartzman (Post). Three photos.

OBAMA-DEMS_ WASHINGTON — President Obama, after rebuke from Democrats on trade, heads west to raise money for them. 1,100 words, by David Nakamura and Juliet Eilperin (Post).

GOP-LATINOS — LAS VEGAS — Out of the GOP’s 16 declared or likely presidential candidates, only one – retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – bothered to show up at a major Latino political gather. 1,100 words, by Philip Rucker (Post).

NBC-WILLIAMS — NBC executives who are deciding the fate of Brian Williams have reviewed an internal video of his exaggerated and embellished stories, a clip reel that could be decisive in determining Williams’ status. 830 words, by Paul Farhi (Post).

HINCKLEY — WASHINGTON – Prosecutors, attorneys for John Hinckley and experts at the hospital where he has mostly has been confined since 1981 agreed Wednesday on many conditions for the potential release. 650 words, by Spencer S. Hsu (Post).

DC-METRO _Washington subway’s safety management system has significant flaws, the FTA reports. 1,200 words, by Lori Aratani (Post).

DRIVERS-SENIORS – All those predictions of dangers from older drivers as boomers aged didn’t come true. 1,300 words, by Katherine Shaver (Post). One graphic. With DRIVERS-SENIORS-TIPS.

VIRGINIA-DRUGS — RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia should improve medical and police training, increase education and expand drug courts to help combat heroin and prescription drug abuse, a task force said. 800 words, by Jenna Portnoy (Post).

VIRGINIA-ABC — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was doing nothing wrong the night he ended up bloodied and in a jail cell after an encounter with ABC officers, a prosecutor said. 900 words, by T. Rees Shapiro (Post).

OCULUS — LOS ANGELES – Virtual reality and its viability as a consumer technology is a theme at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a convention for the video game industry. Oculus is leading the charge with the Rift. 800 words, by Hayley Tsukayama (Post).

LENDERS — Two of the nation’s biggest housing lenders, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, face new restrictions on their mortgage businesses for failing to clean up their foreclosure practices. 700 words, by Danielle Douglas-Gabriel (Post).

PENSIONS — Federal officials on Wednesday appointed compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to review applications from troubled multi-employer pension plans seeking to slash retirees’ benefits to avoid insolvency. 550, by Michael A. Fletcher (Post).

FCC — WASHINGTON — The FCC slaps AT&T with a $100 million fine, accusing the country’s second largest cellular carrier of improperly slowing down Internet speeds for customers who had signed up for “unlimited” plans. 1,000 words, by Brian Fung and Andrea Peterson (Post) One graphic.

HACK-COMMENT — Cyberburglary of the OPM is an even greater intelligence catastrophe than the Edward Snowden affair. And our negligent leaders, bureaucracies and their contractors need to be held responsible. 800 words, by Ryan Evans (Post special).

TRADE-COMMENT — The United States’ entire position in Asia is at risk, thanks largely to the machinations of organized labor, which once plausibly spoke for Middle America but increasingly speaks, and acts, only for itself. 800 words, by Charles Lane (Post).

Bloomberg

MIDEAST — JERUSALEM — Israel risks being drawn deeper into the Syria conflict as Islamist militants pose a growing threat to the Druze community on its northern frontier. 620 words, by Calev Ben-David (Bloomberg).

FRANCE — PARIS — Tents and mattresses, open-air kitchens, cries for help, shows of exasperation: in the heart of Paris, makeshift migrant camps are mushrooming in one of more visible consequences of the conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. 620 words, by Angeline Benoit and Gregory Viscusi (Bloomberg).

CAMPAIGN-TECH — What tech strategy reveals about the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls. 1,305 words, by Sasha Issenberg (Bloomberg).

BUSH-RUBIO — Asked if his emphasis on his eight years as governor is meant to put Sen. Marco Rubio on the wrong end of an invidious comparison, Jeb Bush demurs. But Bush’s backers are less coy. 1,210 words, by Sahil Kapur (Bloomberg).

SHAKESPEARE-COMMENT — Educators need a coherent theory of why we bother to teach any writers at all. 1,315 words, by Megan McArdle (Bloomberg).

TRADE-CHINA-COMMENT — The trade deal matters because it’s part of the broader American geostrategic goal of containing China. 910 words, by Noah Feldman (Bloomberg).

TAXES-WALMART — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. owns more than $76 billion of assets through a web of units in offshore tax havens around the world, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the giant retailer’s annual report. 960 words, by Jesse Drucker and Renee Dudley (Bloomberg).

CYBER-INVEST — NEW YORK — About the only thing rising as fast as online mischief is the stock of firms trying to thwart it. 785 words, by Joseph Ciolli (Bloomberg).

GREECE-CAPITAL — ATHENS — Greece and its creditors head for a showdown that’s raising the specter of the country’s exit from the euro or the imposition of capital controls; crisis-hardened company executives say the drawn-out turbulence has prepared them for the worst. 900 words, by Maria Petrakis (Bloomberg).

DECLASSIFIED — How the U.S. targeted al-Qaida’s Yemen chief. 815 words, by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin (Bloomberg).

PESEK — China’s status as an independent asset class confirms the financial clout Beijing covets, but might encourage policymakers to lose sight of the country’s economic fundamentals. 735 words, by William Pesek (Bloomberg).

EGYPT-COMMENT — A life-or-death decision for Egypt’s new “Pharaoh.” 970 words, by Noah Feldman (Bloomberg).

BITCOIN-COMMENT — Is bitcoin ever going to become money? The answer to the question depends on the answer to a much deeper question: What is money, anyway? 970 words, by Noah Smith (Bloomberg).

The Japan News/ Yomiuri Shimbun

JAPAN-SKOREA — TOKYO — Ministerial talks between Japan and South Korea set for Sunday are expected to cover the controversy over World War II comfort women and other issues. Developing (Japan News).

JAPAN-DOGS — TOKYO — New tech-based services cater to dog owners in Japan. 675 words, by Taisuke Takeda (Japan News). One photo.

JAPAN-OLYMPICS — TOKYO — The design plan for the new National Stadium, the main venue of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, is still under review, but the unconventional and nonstandard design makes it impossible to keep the construction cost within a predictable budget. 760 words, by Masahiro Sakita and Shuichi Muto (Japan News).

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Coming up this morning: editorials and commentary from The Post, Bloomberg View and The Japan News.

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Editors: A features budget will move at 12:30 p.m. ET. The daily budget for tomorrow’s editions will move at 3 p.m. ET.

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What season 5 of ‘Game of Thrones’ taught us about Westeros – and ourselves

The crescendo of discussions about the sexual assault of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), the burning of Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingraham), the moral trajectory of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and the general virtues of submersing ourselves in a world as grim as Westeros signaled the full-on arrival of a genre of criticism I’ve been practicing for six years.

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I enjoyed some of these debates, which in certain cases helped to clarify emergent ideas about art and ideology.

But every Sunday night for the last 10 weeks, I’ve found myself feeling slightly out of step. I’d never say these conversations were unimportant. But at moments, I wished we could talk about other elements of “Game of Thrones,” too. For all the tangents that didn’t quite pay off, particularly Jaime Lannister’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn’s (Jerome Flynn), and for all these 10 episodes largely existed to set up the show’s endgame, this was a year when it felt like “Game of Thrones” reached new artistic heights. And at moments, it seemed like no one noticed.

“Game of Thrones” is a sprawling show, and this year, the show sharpened its use of film editing in a way that tied its storylines together and advanced the plots in the sophisticated use of cuts. It was an approach conspicuous from the opening scenes of the season, when the show’s first flashback, to Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) childhood visit to a soothsayer, transitioned back into the present, as the embattled queen remembered the prophecy as she rode in a litter on the way to her son’s wedding. And the cuts kept coming, as deft — and often as devastating — as Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) flaying knife.

Cersei’s exiled brother Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) wondered “How many dwarves are there in the world? Is Cersei going to kill them all?” only for the show to jump to an image of a dwarf’s severed head being laid rather roughly on a table. In Meereen, a member of an underground resistance group rails against the rule of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who has freed the city’s slaves and is trying to reshape the city-state’s social order; in the next scene, he’s crucified up against a wall, “Kill the Masters” written in his blood by his body.

When Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) tells Ramsay that”The best way to forge a lasting alliance isn’t by peeling a man’s skin off. The best way is marriage. Now that you’re a Bolton by royal decree, it’s high time you marry a suitable bride. And as it happens, I’ve found the perfect girl to solidify our hold on the north,” the cut to Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) on horseback tells us everything we needed to know about the horrors to come before anyone spoke another word.

And in the season finale, when Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) appeared to land a killing blow on Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who she’s sworn to kill in revenge for his murder of his brother, Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), the show cuts to Ramsay, engaging in some brutal battlefield cleanup. No one needs to explain what Brienne could become if she allows vengeance to override her finer principles; we see it all in that brief and nasty juxtaposition.

“Game of Thrones” grew in the grand moments, too. The show has never quite transcended Ray Harryhausen’s animated skeletons in its depiction of the dead humans animated by the White Walkers. But if there was intimate terror last season in watching the Night’s King (Richard Brake) transform a human baby with a touch, frost creeping across the infant’s irises, the world’s end in ice was chillingly concrete in the sight of the White Walker raising his hands and legions of the dead along with them.

David Nutter, who directed both the Red Wedding and Dany’s embrace by the slaves she’d freed back in the show’s third season, came back for the last two episodes of this one. Dany’s dragons have always been the best special effect on “Game of Thrones,” and Nutter and showrunners and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss put them to particularly good use in “The Dance of Dragons.” Nutter caught the claustrophobic element of fear on the faces of Dany and her counselors when they were ambushed by terrorists in a gladiatorial arena, then gave us an enormous catharsis when Dany flew out of what seemed like an impossible situation on the back of Drogon, her prodigal dragon.

An episode later, Nutter reversed that emotional polarity when Stannis, his army depleted, his daughter burned, his wife dead by suicide, makes his last stand outside the gates of Winterfell. Nutter moves the camera from Stannis’ face when he sees the Bolton forces riding out to meet him, but pulling back provides no relief: an aerial shot of the Bolton forces closing in shows us the sophisticated, disciplined Bolton formations closing in on Stannis’ ragged little column like snapping jaws.

In addition to these accomplishments, “Game of Thrones” managed to accomplish something few television shows even attempt: It improved on one of its long-standing aesthetic weak spots, the throwaway use of female nudity. An early episode in Volantis featured one of the series’ trademark brothel scenes, but nudity found other and more interesting uses as the season wore on.

In Meereen, a prostitute lay down with a castrated soldier, first to comfort him, and then, as it turned out, to distract him from the men who had come to kill him. In Braavos, the sex workers got to stay dressed. And during Cersei Lannister’s ritual humiliation by the High Septon, who is determined to try her for a variety of religious crimes, nudity became a kind of assault as commoners exposed themselves to the fallen queen while propositioning her.

There was even an element of unusual cleverness in what at first seemed to be one of the silliest deployments of eye candy, when Tyene Sand (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) stripped down for Bronn when they were both imprisoned in Dorne. Her nudity seemed like a distraction but it served a purpose: Tyene propositioned Bronn again on the dock when he was leaving for Westeros, distracting the normally watchful former mercenary as Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) poisoned Myrcella Baratheon (Nell Tiger Free).

Tyene’s behavior might have been ludicrous, but it worked, on both Bronn and us. Bronn ended up thinking with the wrong part of his anatomy at a critical moment. And we got tested: Could we see Tyene’s ruse for what it was? Or would her naked flesh short-circuit our critical faculties, stopping us short on our politics and blinding us to the deception and Tyene’s wiliness, though for very different reasons than those that diverted Bronn?

And for all it was a busy season, “Game of Thrones” paused for the kinds of conversations that action spectacles rarely make room for. Brienne of Tarth’s long conversations with her squire, Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman), did little to advance the show’s many plots, but they reminded us that humanity’s worth preserving. Stannis Baratheon’s decision to tell his daughter how he fought for her life against a deadly disease only made it more devastating when he decided to waste what he’d preserved in service of his fanaticism.

The blossoming relationship between wildling Gilly (Hannah Murray) and Night’s Watchman Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) provided some motivation for Sam to book it South of the Wall, but it mostly served to remind us that people can find decency and tenderness even as the world’s getting pulled into the widening gyre.

It would be easy for “Game of Thrones” to shuck these scenes off in favor of more sword fights and dragonfire. But it’s these moments, more than another rape scene or killing, that actually juice the show’s stakes. Awfulness doesn’t do it, really; if humanity were all that bad, we might as well root for the Night’s King to take the Iron Throne. It’s moments of kindness and connection that make the fight seem worthwhile.

If “Game of Thrones” finally became a weight that felt too heavy to carry this season, none of these accomplishments will change that for you, nor should they. But political criticism of the show doesn’t necessarily invalidate its aesthetic achievements or render them irrelevant, either. How we weigh these elements of art is up for each of us to decide. We’re a long way from knowing how “Game of Thrones” will end, and whether, as I discuss in part of the video above, it can stick a landing that’s consistent with its critique of the tropes of high fantasy. But its fifth season — or at least in the discussion of this fifth season — we’re getting a glimpse of the legacy “Game of Thrones” might leave us, as we hash out what matters most to us when we look at art.