Sunday, March 14, 2010

The perils of Rahmism on health care reform

Peter Baker's long New York Times Magazine piece, The Limits of Rahmism 03/08/10, is understandably getting a lot of attention. It's about the role and reputation of Obama's powerful White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel. Baker is a Times White House correspondent, and his piece carries some of the characteristic weaknesses of present-day Beltway Village reporting, such as his reliance of anonymous sources for political opinions or personal sniping. But it's long enough and covers enough ground that it provides some valuable insights. Like the discussion on the Obama White House's notions of bipartisanship:

More loyal [to Rahm], personally at least, have been the members of the class of 2006 that he helped bring into office, many of them in traditionally conservative districts. Even those who disagreed with Emanuel vouch for him. “It’s unfair for people to point the finger solely at him,” says Altmire, the congressman who voted against health care. “There’s a lot of blame to go around when things like this happen. Everybody’s looking for a scapegoat.” And it is clear that Emanuel has these members’ interests at heart as he measures how far to push. He hears all the time from moderates in the House worried about the direction the president is leading them. “We call him up and say, ‘Hey, Rahm, you’ve got to push this back to the middle,’ ” Representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina told me. “He always says: ‘I hear you. I hear everything you’re saying. I’m doing everything I can.’ ”

In a way, this is a problem of his own creation. Had he not helped so many moderates win their elections in 2006, perhaps he would not have to cater to them so much, or so the theory goes. On the other hand, he and his allies point out, without those moderates, Democrats might not even control the House, making the point moot. "I analogize Rahm to Gumby: he’s got the White House grabbing both hands, both Houses grabbing both legs, all pulling in different directions," Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman and chief deputy whip, says. “He’s really being pulled between the bold views of the president and the mechanical reality of the Congress, which is very incremental and often slow.”
This makes conventional political sense, except perhaps the cryptic Wasserman-Schultz quote about Gumby.

But the conventional wisdom here is very strange in one way, a legacy of the last three or four decades in which Democrats have chronically felt on the defensive and have developed a political style at the Washington level of assuming that they are always working at a disadvantage to Republicans.

The idea that the Democrats help Representatives from more closely-divided districts by pandering more to the Republicans effectively assumes that politics is structured along a purely ideological bandwidth from left to right. And that the only meaningful battle in a general election is to win ideologically centrist voters. This is a core piece of the High Broderist faith in Sacred Centrism.

But how the strategy of Sacred Centrism plays out for the Democrats in the health care debate doesn't really make much sense. Nor does it validate the conventional assumption.

If Democrats lose House seats in the November elections, the seats they lose are likely to be those in the more conservative Blue Dog districts that are closely-divided along partisan lines. Those districts are the ones where incumbents would most benefit from the active assistance of the popular President in their campaigns, and therefore the ones who have the biggest stake in cooperating with Obama. Conversely, they are the ones who would be most open to promises of support from the White House in exchange for their cooperation with health care reform.

Additionally, the health care reform is clearly more popular with the badly-needed public option included than it is without, according to the polls over the last year. So the best way to make a health care reform safer for the Democrats in more marginal districts is to promote the more popular version of the reform, the one that includes the public option. Which also happens to make the difference between the reform being a solid one and being a shaky one in policy terms.

Ideology itself is a moving target. If Obama builds public support for a health care reform, that in itself would push the center of the ideological spectrum at least a few millimeters to the left. And in terms of Party image, ideology interacts with a perception of leadership and principle. I don't think it would be accurate to say that the public in general looks for Leadership as a value-free quality independent of the goals of that leadership. But Bush the Younger did gain a certain amount of respect, not least among the fawning press corps, for his stubbornness in defending even policies that were unpopular.

There is something reassuring about knowing where somebody stands, even if what they stand for sucks. There are limits to this, of course. Franklin Roosevelt at the height of his popularity and political success couldn't pull off his "court-packing scheme", as history now remembers it, or his 1938 Party purge attempt when he unsuccessfully backed more liberal challengers in the Democratic primaries against particularly recalcitrant Southern Democrats. And - when the Democrats for once held firm - Bush's 2005 attempt to push a Social Security phase-out plan turned out to be a non-starter.

And if the White House has to cater to these new Blue Dog Democrats to the point of gutting an essential provision of his health care reform like the public option, what the hell good is it to have them in the Congress? Let them take conservative positions on other issues if they think they have to. But if they are going to be Democrats, then they should be willing to support Democratic Party positions on the basics of a central Party goal like health care reform.

Just to be clear: I still want to see the Progressive Caucus in the House be willing to vote down the health care reform if a public option is not included. It not only makes the difference between the reform being popular and being unpopular (at least in the short run), not having the public option is a major substantive problem. The reform is extremely unlikely to control costs or even boost accessibility in a major way without the public option. The Blue Dogs get outsize consideration of their views at odds with the vast majority of the Democratic base because they are willing to vote down critical programs. We haven't had enough Democrats who are willing to tell the Obama White House, look, you need a health reform bad. If you want it, you have to help us push enough Blue Dogs to vote for the public option to get it through.

This following strikes me as an approach of dubious promise based on an unrealistic view of what happening in the Republican Party:

Emanuel wants to jam a wedge into the fissure inside the Republican Party between, as he frames it, the descending wing that believes in small government and the ascending wing that believes in no government. Republicans lose, in this theory, whether they cooperate with Obama or not. “We’ve got to drive the ball at them,” a senior White House official told me. “Driving the ball at them, making them pick between small government and no government, putting them in their responsibility-and-accountability box. You walk away? You’re walking away from responsibility, and the public's angry at you. You participate? Your base hates you.”
The Republicans will pay a significant price for opposing Obama only if Obama takes clear stands on his major priorities and fights for them consistently. And if the Republicans can block his administration from major legislative accomplishments, Obama and the Democrats are more likely to be damaged. And understandably so. Obama was elected on a reform platform. His Party has large majorities in the Senate and House. The Senate Democrats accepted McCain supporter Joe Lieberman and long-time Republicans Senator Arlen Specter into the Democratic Caucus with open arms, justifying those actions by saying they needed them to get to that magic 60-vote "filibuster-proof" majority (which did them no good during the months they had it). If they can't deliver on major programs, voters will rightly wonder why they should bother to vote for them.

Plus, despite some factional differences between Tea Party Republican zealots and just plain Republican zealots, Rahm's comment assumes that there are Republicans in Congress who care about being responsible. Evidence strongly suggests otherwise. The Republican Party is pursuing a course of fundamental opposition, i.e., just say no, unless it involves promoting war or pumping more profits to defense contractors and Christian Right-led mercenary companies.

And Baker makes the statement:

Obama does not cast aside advisers during times of adversity. It would be surrendering to pressure. If they go, it doesn’t happen when the wolves are circling but only months later, as with Greg Craig, the former White House counsel, and Desirée Rogers, the outgoing social secretary.
Ask Gen. Wesley Clark about that, who was quickly tossed aside as a campaign spokesperson and adviser in 2008 when Republicans pitched one of their standard hissy-fits over a perfectly accurate comment he'd made about the great Maverick McCain. Ask Van Jones, who Obama quickly dumped when he became the target of sleazy, dishonest McCarthyist attacks from Republicans.

And, of course, none of this extensive analysis that largely focuses on the health care debate even mentions the truly pitiful job that the New York Times and other Establishment press organs have done in reporting on the substance of the health care reform controversies. The Village press likes to disappear their own role, except when they are defending their virtuous reporting against the dirty freaking hippie bloggers. (And Baker does do some of that in this article.)

But the Baker piece is well worth reading because it covers much more ground and provides more substantial information than a typical stenography article like those Dana Milbank has been cranking out.

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