Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Winning the retail political battles

The health care debate is a critical moment for the Obama administration and the progressive movement. The essentials needed in a health care reform package are a public option to provide a competitive to the private insurers, most of whom operate in a oligopolistic or near-monopolistic status in most states; a requirement that insurers not refuse to accept people with "pre-existing conditions" to prevent insurers from gaming the system by cherry-picking health clients; a requirement that businesses contribute to their employees' insurance to prevent businesses from gaming the system by dumping their employees onto the public plan (or dumping their health insurance altogether); and, a requirement that individuals buy health insurance to prevent individuals from gaming the system by only signing up for insurance when they are sick.

With all of those elements, a reform would have limited value and would likely make some things worse. Requiring individuals to buy insurance without a public plan available or tough limits enforced on insurance companies give the insurers a guaranteed new market but allows them to gouge their customers. Jane Hamsher explains today at FireDogLake about the consequences of such an approach:

It's just a guess, but when average Americans understand that "health care reform" means they will be forced to pay Blue Cross more money than they do now for worse insurance or be fined 2.5% of their income, I have a feeling it's not just going to be a couple of radical lefties who are pissed off about what amounts to an increase in middle class taxes.
Jane's post is titled, "White House Admits the Public Option is Gone, Will Sistah Soulja the Left." That doesn't mean that the fight for the public option is over. Dozens of House Democrats have pledged to vote against any bill that doesn't include a public option. The Progressive Caucus in the House has made that a "red line" for their support of a health care reform package.

She's referring to this Politico piece today, Under fire, President Obama shifts strategy by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei.

Obama is considering detailing his health-care demands in a major speech as soon as next week, when Congress returns from the August recess. And although House leaders have said their members will demand the inclusion of a public insurance option, Obama has no plans to insist on it himself, the officials said. ...

On health care, Obama’s willingness to forgo the public option is sure to anger his party’s liberal base. But some administration officials welcome a showdown with liberal lawmakers if they argue they would rather have no health care law than an incremental one. The confrontation would allow Obama to show he is willing to stare down his own party to get things done.

We have been saying all along that the most important part of this debate is not the public option, but rather ensuring choice and competition,” an aide said. “There are lots of different ways to get there.” [my emphasis]
With typical Beltway Village standards, Allen and Vandehei (whose wife worked in Tom "the Hammer" DeLay's office when he was the Republicans' Majority Whip in the House) allow "an aide" to make this comment without further identification, much less a name attached to it.

Of course, Obama would only get credit for staring down his own Party - credit from whom, the residents of Pundit District 9? - if the Progressive Caucus caves and enough of them vote for a health care bill without the public option. If that doesn't work, what the voters will see is that Obama failed to pass his most important domestic reform program and that the Republicans beat him. Our Pod Pundits may blame "the left", but the Republicans will take credit for exposing the President and the Democrats and their reform promises as hollow shells.

As Shaunna Thomas of says on Twitter: "looking forward to the prez debunking rumors he's ditching the public option. speculation is silly, he loses too many votes [without] it." The Blue Dogs gained a powerful position in Congress and the Party because they were willing to vote to kill legislation that crossed their own "red lines". If the Progressive Caucus holds firm on the public option, then it will be the White House and those aides hiding behind anonymity to trash the members of Congress who they should count as they most staunch supporters who will then be confronted with the choice of taking a good health care reform (meeting the essential conditions including a robust public option), or getting nothing and letting the Republicans roll them. The Blue Dogs don't appear to have the strength to block a White House-backed plan with the public option; the Progressive Caucus does.

Robert Reich has some useful thoughts about the Democrats' chronic difficulties in dealing with aggressive Republican opposition politics in The Guns of August, and Why the Republican Right Was So Adept at Using Them on Health Care TPM Café 08/31/09:

The most important difference between America's Democratic left and Republican right is that the left has ideas and the right has discipline. Obama and progressive supporters of health care were outmaneuvered in August -- not because the right had any better idea for solving the health care mess but because the rights' attack on the Democrats' idea was far more disciplined than was the Democrats' ability to sell it.

I say the Democrats' "idea" but in fact there was no single idea. Obama never sent any detailed plan to Congress. Meanwhile, congressional Dems were so creative and undisciplined before the August recess they came up with a kaleidoscope of health-care plans. The resulting incoherence served as an open invitation to the Republican right to focus with great precision on convincing the public of their own demonic version of what the Democrats were up to -- that it would take away their Medicare, require "death panels," raise their taxes, and lead to a government takeover of medicine, and so on. The Obama White House -- a veritable idea factory brimming with ingenuity -- thereafter proved unable to come up with a single, convincing narrative to counteract this right-wing hokum. ...

You want to know why the left has ideas and the right has discipline? Because people who like ideas and dislike authority tend to identify with the Democratic left, while people who feel threatened by new ideas and more comfortable in a disciplined and ordered world tend to identify with the Republican right. Democrats and progressives let a thousand flowers bloom. Republicans and the right issue directives. This has been the yin and yang of American politics and culture. But it means that the Democratic left's new ideas often fall victim to its own notorious lack of organization and to the right's highly-organized fear mongering. [my emphasis]
Although he defines a key part of the problem that we see playing out right now with the fight for health care reform, I don't entirely agree with his formulation because it doesn't make clear the key role that the Blue Dog Democrats have played in opposing health care reform.

Michael Lind, a former conservative turned Democratic liberal, tries to articulate an expansive vision for fighting Dems. In Can Obama give 'em hell before it's too late? Salon 09/01/09, he looks nostalgically at Roosevelt and the New Deal to complain:

The most dangerous deficit that the United States faces is not the budget deficit or the trade deficit. It is the Democrats' demagogy deficit.
But he's still in thrall to some flawed conservative assumptions. In fact, his (ironic?) embrace of FDR's most combative political rhetoric as demagogy may in itself be a sign of lingering Republican understandings of That Man in the White House, as the plutocrats of the 1930s called Roosevelt, a patrician himself but seen by his social peers as a "class traitor".

Lind is misleading at best when he writes:

While the right was rejecting its gloomy elitism and embracing the mass society and populist politics, liberalism was moving in the other direction. Liberal intellectuals, shocked by McCarthyism and the rejection by the voters of the urbane Adlai Stevenson for Dwight Eisenhower, concluded that the American people themselves were the problem. In "The Age of Reform" and other works, the influential liberal historian Richard Hofstadter argued that the Progressive and Populist movements, far from being the precursors of New Deal liberalism, were reactionary movements by downwardly mobile professionals or farmers suffering from "status anxiety." Seymour Martin Lipset and other sociologists and historians including Daniel Bell and Peter Viereck argued that many members of the working class had "authoritarian personalities" and that populism here as in Europe could lead to fascism. Although more accurate historians and pollsters demolished their caricature of working-class Americans as proto-Nazis suffering from "status anxiety," the damage had been done. The New Left of the 1970s and 1980s, clashing with socially conservative blue-collar "hard-hats," were if anything even more hostile to the white working class, and sought allies instead among blacks, immigrants and various "social movements," most of them staffed and run by members of the college-educated upper middle class.
I won't try here to dig into whether he's characterized the work of those scholars correctly. But there have been some serious sociological and political-science studies on authoritarianism. And people who want to understand politics shouldn't just dismiss them as accusing "working-class Americans" of being "proto-Nazis".

The idea that "the New Left of the 1970s and 1980s" were "hostile to the white working class" is thinly-based at best. To the extent he's describing the McGovern/Kennedy activists in the Democratic Party, it's frivolous. And it's a recitation of the Nixon-Agnew posturing that transformed the Republican Party through their "Southern Strategy" into what it is today. Confronted when they took office in 1969 with an active antiwar movement in which veterans, always a significant part of the movement, were taking an increasingly prominent role, and a labor movement increasingly critical of the war as well as dismayed by Nixon's economic priorities, went all out to stigmatized the antiwar, civil rights and youth movements of the time as elitist, snobbish, un-American and opposed to the salt-of-the-earth values crooks like Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew stood for. That was demagogy and a largely fanciful view of the world. But it did have appeal to Republicans and to many of the more conservative Democrats of that time, especially in the South.

As I've written before, Lind has a bee in his bonnet over alleged liberal elitism.

Lind spins an equally fanciful diagnosis of the Democrats' timidity in confronting the "populism" of the e-coli Republicans:

Whereas progressives and populists alike had been able to invoke the people against the interests, the mid-century liberals and many of their successors on the center-left to this day fear the people even more than they fear the interests. They worry that if liberals rile up the crowd against Wall Street, the rampaging mob, like the torch-bearing Transylvanian villagers in the old Universal Pictures Frankenstein movies, might turn on the universities or carry out political pogroms against minorities.
No, the Blue Dog Democrats and the more timid of their liberal compatriots are not biting their nails over the prospects that howling mobs will storm the campuses. (Even howling mobs generally find more suitable targets for their outrage.) They are fretting about their corporate campaign contributions.

And, like most politicians in all times in all democracies, they have to be pushed by their constituents to get constructive things done. Otherwise, the .001% of the public that have particular interest in individual pieces of legislation will dominate their attention.

The rest of the piece continues in much the same vein, reading more like "concern troll" sniping at the real and imagined failings of Democratic liberals. Lind is much more perceptive, it seems to me, in analyzing the darker side of his former colleagues on the Republican right than he is in diagnosing the problems of the Democratic Party. His New York Review of Books article "Rev. Robertson's Grand International Conspiracy Theory" 02/02/95 on the radical-right political assumptions behind Pat Robertson's Christian Right worldview and his 2003 book Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics are two excellent examples.

Joe Conason does a much better job of criticizing the weaknesses of the Democratic political strategy on health care reform in articles like Obama and the Drawbacks of Rahmism 08/18/09 and Now more than ever, bipartisanship is for suckers Salon 08/21/09; In the 08/18 piece, he writes:

The ultimate responsibility for this sorry state of affairs belongs with the president, who vacillates between speaking out boldly for a “public option,” and permitting his aides and appointees to undermine his message by confiding their plans to sell out. His worst tendency, to exalt bipartisan compromise above progressive policy, has left him at the mercy of senatorial frauds like Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who pretended to negotiate over details while denouncing the president for seeking to terminate America’s grandmothers. He assigned far too much responsibility for health care reform to aides who exacerbate that weakness—and in particular to Rahm Emanuel, the current chief of staff and former congressman from Chicago.

Every mistake made by the Obama White House in the pursuit of health care reform can be traced to the political style and ideological prejudices of Mr. Emanuel, who has sought to intimidate progressives and empower conservatives, always in the name of winning elections and “getting things done.” [my emphasis]
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