So I hear the President made a speech tonight.
Full disclosure - 0ne thing I regret about taking a couple years off from blogging is that I didn't really write down anything about the whole campaign thing. It's sort of a damn shame because I started this blog to write about the election we lost and everything it dredged up about America, culture, values, religion etc. Then obviously I kinda got sidetracked. But I think the 2008 election cycle, while it certainly dredged up a lot of garbage as these things do, also revealed a lot of promising things. For my part a knocked on a lot of doors - Iowa, this time, Dubuque and Waterloo, places I discovered I really like. I wish I had pictures to post. The energy and tone of the campaign, as well as the stated political goals, were a profound mix of inspiration and practicality, the right message and messengers at the right time. I say this to let you know that I'm a sort of a diehard supporter, to give you context for what may well be a solid week of critical posts.
Because right now I'm frustrated with the guy. Not really with the policies - outside of the refusal to investigate torture, which I do believe is wrong and sets a dangerous precedent. But honestly I haven't given much thought to foreign policy and security issues in the last few months. On domestic policy, I'm actually lined up pretty closely with the Administration. For example, unlike lots of vocal lefties, I'm glad the Administration is not pushing for "single payer" health insurance. I don't want "single payer." The country I'm vaguely familiar with using this approach is Canada. And while Canada's health care system is probably better that the US, that's only because our health care system is really lame. Canada has the second most expensive system per capita to the United States, and in other ways seems like it's better that the US but worse than every other industrialized democracy that is not the US. And in this country, if there's only one insurance provider in the country, you just know they're not going to pay for abortion services or indeed much reproductive health care at all. It's just too politically explosive here for a plan to ever pass which actually paid for that stuff. And that won't be the only health issue that gets to be used as a political football. Remember Terry Schiavo? And anyway, while it will be great to have a public insurance option to cover the uninsured, I have no intention of ever using it for myself while I can get employer-subsidized private health care. I hate the bureaucracy (yes, Virginia, there would be less bureaucracy with a government plan, look in your heart you know it's true if you've ever tangled with an HMO or PPO over what they will deign to pay for) but like having choices.
No, what actually is pissing me off about the Administation is how incompetent these people appear to be. Which is frustrating because while I had tons of policy differences with them as well, the rank incompetence was really what drove me batty about the Bush Administration as well. I'll be bitching a bit about implementation tomorrow if I get the chance, but today what sticks in my craw has been the shocking political incompetence, a complete misreading of the political currents in which policy proposals need to swim, and from a team that really seemed to understand these things just a short year ago.
Here are some facts that everyone who pays attention to politics should be aware of:
- Ever since Clinton the American right has thrived by using cultural identity politics to convince a solid majority of white people that liberals are dangerous "other," alien, subversive, "anti-American," possible traitorous. The Bush "Administration" used this as a key element of its governing strategy. There was no reason to believe Republicans would stop this behavior in the minority. It's all they've got right now, frankly.
- Decent health care reform that gave everyone guaranteed coverage and ensured that no one would go bankrupt because of illness, lose their coverage because they lost their jobs, or be denied coverage because of an existing health condition would be extremely popular. It would change the nature of the relationship that Americans would have with their government in ways that would not benefit Republicans or the Conservative Movement. They know this, people. To answer the perennial political question, they are evil, not stupid. Had the Obama Administration been able to pass comprehensive health care reform quickly during the "honeymoon" period Democrats would have stood to pick up even larger majorities around the country in 2010, and go into post-census legislative redistricting from a position of great strength. In other words, they'd be in political power for a generation. No sane Republican politician would allow this to happen if they had anything to say about it.
- Following on from the point above, a bipartisan health care bill is impossible. Hell, the GOP wasn't even willing to go along with a bipartisan economic stimulus package. It had to be substantially weakened and made much less effective (by reducing the amount of aid to states, thus forcing pro-cyclical cuts to state budgets to offset new Federal spending) to get the tiny sliver of Republican support it needed to escape the Senate - and one of the Republicans who voted for it had to switch parties afterwards to avoid losing his primary. It's just not in the self interest of any Republican politician to support a Democratic health care reform bill.
- Republicans are therefore going to try to kill any proposal, attack it as Socialistic or Death Care or whatever. This is what they do. Making concessions to make the bill more palatable is just not going to work, they are going to make the same attacks whether they are true or not. Whatever it is, they are going to call it evil, immoral and Communist. Center-left Third Way proposals are going to be attacked with the same vitriol as more robustly liberal proposals. It's not about the policy, it's about holding together and expanding their coalition based on cultural identity politics.
- The right lost the last election and lost pretty badly. So while there are not many possible legislative parters on the right, the right is somewhat marginalized in Congress, with both houses dominated by a Democratic coalition of the center and the left. The only compromises that need to be made are among Democrats. Attempts by the Administration and even more so by Senate "moderates" to build a coalition including some Republicans have been foolish, not only because the GOP has not incentive to play along, but because these attempts have alienated many Democrats, angry about being cut out of some theoretical center-right legislative alliance. The real goal of Senate "bipartisanship" has been to falsely cast the position of these "moderates" as the conciliatory center of the debate, when in fact they represent its right flank. The real compromise needs to be worked out between Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh on the right and Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Caucus on the left. The President's original blueprint for health reform occupied such a spot in the center, not the center of the national "debate" but the center of the Democratic party. Attempts to "compromise" with the GOP are really attempts by the most conservative Democrats to bring the plan closer to their own position. And the Administration got played by these guys and lost control of the agenda.
So I hope the President gave a good speech tonight. I don't know, because I forgot about the time zone thing and tuned in at 8 pm, right as he was finishing. But whether or not he did, he needs to figure out, and quickly, that it's the Democrats' right flank he needs to be putting pressure on to make concessions, not the left flank. And if they won't get 0n board, then screw 'em. Who cares if we lose those seats. If they won't vote for the President's agenda, then "we" don't have those seats anyway. And we don't need them. Bush's Medicare expansion passed the Senate with something like 54 votes. It's not true that 60 votes are needed. And in a year nobody will care how a bill was passed, only if it's a good bill that helps Americans get their health care needs filled. Because it's not how popular a law is on the day it passes that matters, it's how popular the law is on election day. And on core practical issues like the economy and health insurance, the public knows more about what's working than the isolated media elite do. To win on this turf, you need effective policies. Winning the news cycle on a Thursday fourteen months before the next national election isn't actually worth very much. But policies that work matter. And if my side is incapable of delivering policies that work, then they will deserve to lose.