Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Big stakes

If the Democrats, with a 60-vote majority in the Senate, a solid majority in the House and a popular President in his first year of office, can't get something as genuinely important and highly popular (despite the noise level from the Tea Partiers, Republicans, Hate Radio and the Beltway Village) as health care reform, it's going to be hard to see that as anything but a sign of weakness.

And with the current Democratic approach to health care reform, the robust public option is an essential element. Triggers, the latest fig-leaf for surrendering on reform, won't cut it. There are other approaches to health care reform that theoretically could be tried, such as giving everyone the option to buy into Medicare. Economist James Galbraith has suggested that extending Medicare to everyone 55 and older would be an excellent measure to respond to the current recession as well as improve health care access. But that's not the approach the Democrats have taken. In the context of this approach to reform, relying on employee and employer mandates, the public option is essential for it to be meaningful and constructive reform. Without that, it could quickly turn into a nightmare for many insurance customers and the Democrats generally.

A defeat on the Democrats' signature issue of health care - and reform without a public option would be a defeat - will have huge spill-over effects. For instance, one of Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's boldest, most constructive and most promising foreign policy initiatives has been to make a prominent new push for a peace settlement in Israel-Palestine. Including the vital element of demanding that Israel cease expanding its unquestionably illegal settlements in the West Bank.

As Helana Cobban discusses in 500 new settlement homes in Jerusalem... Just World News 09/09/09 and "The White House regrets... " 09/05/09, the rightwing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has very publicly rejected Obama's demand. Noting the Obama administration's meek public response to this new barrier to peace talks and blatant diplomatic slap to the United States, Helena writes:

So what is Washington going to do about this? Why, nothing. This statement itself is the wet noodle that's being flapped in a desultory way somewhere vageuly [sic] in Netanyahu's direction. ...

If he tries to sell his efforts primarily by arguing "This peace is in Israel's interest"-- but Israel's own leader then chimes in and says, "No, it isn't"-- who do you think is going to win that argument? ...

... I am very worried by this statement, and by the fact that Obama has already lost 7.5 months of his presidency doddering around quite inconclusively on the settlement issue rather than going directly and firmly to the heart of the securing the final peace.
If Obama can't prevail over Congressional opposition within his own Party on health care reform, how will he ever prevail on a difficult issue like this against, on which the Democrats are even more divided and on which he can expect zero public support?

On the new settlements challenge, see also New Settlements Plan Heightens Tensions by Daniel Luban, Inter Press Service 09/05/09.

Not specifically addressing the settlements issue Stephen Walt writes in Time to get tough? by Stephen Walt Foreign Policy 09/08/09:

But I've also tried to cut [the Obama administration] some slack, knowing that they inherited an economy in free fall and a set of intractable foreign policy problems. Even a great president and a competent team would find it difficult to work instantaneous miracles, especially in a political system that has many veto points and was designed to make far-reaching change difficult to impossible.

That said, I am starting to wonder. In particular, I think Obama is going to have to pick an issue and demonstrate that there is a price to pay for thwarting him. Not every opponent is amenable to sweet reason and calm deliberation, and adversaries abroad --and at home -- need to understand that the President can be tough too. Like the early Bill Clinton, so far he's been better at punishing supporters (e.g., Van Jones, Charles Freeman) than opponents. ...

Bottom line: Obama and his team need to pick a fight with someone and win, so that both rivals and fence-sitters recognize that foot-dragging, malicious distortion, etc., are not without costs and risks. But one word of advice: a war with Iran is not the sort of fight I have in mind. [my emphasis in italics]
The trends lately have been discouraging for those not enthusiastic over the center-right consensus among much of the Democratic leadership.

Specifically addressing the settlements issue in Netanyahu throws down the gauntlet 09/04/2009, Walt addresses the same issue that disturbs Helena Cobban about the Obama administration's response:

The administration's official statement also declared "The U.S. commitment to Israel's security is and will remain unshakeable," and said that it still believed a two-state solution was the best way to guarantee that objective.

But here's my question: If Netanyahu and Co. can count on this "unshakeable commitment" no matter what they do, why should anyone expect their behavior to change?
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