Sunday, December 20, 2009

Is the Conventional Wisdom on health care winners and losers going to have to change? (Does it matter?)


Good news! The system works!

"The Republicans . . . put all their chips on an all or nothing campaign to defeat health care and Obama's presidency. It was an audacious gamble. They lost. In the end, they'll walk away with nothing. The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they've been dealt will last for decades."
-- Jonathan Chait, in a New Republic online post,
"The Republican Health Care Blunder"

by Ken

So now we have our grand compromises: on health care "reform" in D.C., and on something to do about climate change in Copenhagen. Gradually we'll find out just what these compromises entail, but the real impact, both substantive and political, is going to be discussed, often at high volume, for months if not years to come. Eventually we'll find out what we're buying into.

For now there are going to be hosannas from people who think the system, creaky as it is, has been made to work, and anathemas from people who bemoan that, once again, principle played so little role in a process that's primarily about egos and political calculations. But that's the system we've got.

Of course neither is a done deal yet. On health care, we still have to wait to see what comes out of the House-Senate conference. And the Copenhagen "agreement" hasn't even found its way into the political meat grinder.

Meanwhile, with regard to the politics of this weekend's Grand Democratic Compromise on health care, in which that thieving turd Ben Nelson took over the role of the Joementum Man, I find myself mortified to have little disagreement, beyond the substantive issue of how "staggering" an achievement this is, with a column posted yesterday by The New Republic's Jonathan Chait:

The Republican Health Care Blunder

Jonathan Chait

The United States is on the doorstep of comprehensive health care reform. It's a staggering achievement, about which I'll have more to say later. but the under-appreciated thing that strikes me at the moment is that it never would have happened if the Republican Party had played its cards right.

At the outset of this debate, moderate Democrats were desperate for a bipartisan bill. They were willing to do almost anything to get it, including negotiate fruitlessly for months on end. We can't know for sure, but Democrats appeared willing to make enormous substantive concessions to win the assent of even a few Republicans. A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign. And remember, it would have taken only one Democrat to agree to partial reform in order to kill comprehensive reform. I can easily imagine a scenario where Ben Nelson refused to vote for anything larger than, say, a $400 billion bill that Chuck Grassley and a couple other Republicans were offering.

But Republicans wouldn't make that deal. The GOP leadership put immense pressure on all its members to withhold consent from any health care bill. The strategy had some logic to it: If all 40 Republicans voted no, then Democrats would need 60 votes to succeed, a monumentally difficult task. And if they did succeed, the bill would be seen as partisan and therefore too liberal, too big government. The spasm of anti-government activism over the summer helped lock the GOP into this strategy -- no Republican could afford to risk the wrath of Tea Partiers convinced that any reform signed by Obama equaled socialism and death panels.

The role of Olympia Snowe is interesting here. Snowe negotiated seriously for months, and Democrats met what seemed to be her substantive concerns, but, like the Russian army retreating before Napoleon, she insisted that the bill be drawn out indefinitely. Snowe demanded that the process not be rushed, but she never defined what a reasonable time frame would be. In the summer, "taking your time" and "doing it right"meant waiting until after the August recess. In the fall, it meant until after Thanksgiving. Now it means until after Christmas. If it lasted until next year, eventually Republicans would demand that the process not be rushed before the midterm elections, and that the fair thing would be to let the people decide in the 2010 elections.

The GOP leadership has every incentive to stretch the process out as long as possible. It runs out the clock on the first two years of the Obama presidency, after which high unemployment and the natural effects of an off-year election would produce a Congress far less likely -- perhaps totally unwilling -- to cooperate with Obama. Snowe might have diverged from the party line on substance, but she seems to have agreed to hold the line on process. At some point, process becomes substance. Thus Snowe effectively removed herself from the negotiations.

And so Democrats found themselves all alone. It seems to be around August when the party realized that bipartisan dealmaking was not at hand, and it had to pass a bill or face the same calamity as it did in 1994. Politically speaking, there were no good options left, but passing a bill offered the least bad option. The unified partisan front of the Republican Party forced the Democrats to adopt their own unified partisan front, something that appeared impossible as recently as this last summer. This passage from the New York Times is telling:
Faced with Republican opposition that many Democrats saw as driven more by politics than policy disagreements, Senate Democrats in recent days gained new determination to bridge differences among themselves and prevail over the opposition.

Lawmakers who attended a private meeting between Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats at the White House on Tuesday pointed to remarks there by Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, as providing some new inspiration.

Mr. Bayh said that the health care measure was the kind of public policy he had come to Washington to work on, according to officials who attended the session, and that he did not want to see the satisfied looks on the faces of Republican leaders if they succeeded in blocking the measure.
Evan Bayh! When you've turned the somnolent, relentlessly centrist Indiana Senator into a raging partisan, you've really done something. The Republicans eschewed a halfway compromise and put all their chips on an all or nothing campaign to defeat health care and Obama's presidency. It was an audacious gamble. They lost. In the end, they'll walk away with nothing. The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they've been dealt will last for decades.

In truth, what drew my attention was that headline proclamation of a "Republican blunder." As I've been saying repeated, we have yet to see the Just Say No-ers pay a price for their policy of uniform, unyielding obstruction. And for weeks now the Conventional Wisdom has been that the GOP strategy has had the Dems between a rock and a hard place. I always think you can't go too far wrong by Just Saying No to any Conventional Wisdom, but wouldn't it be a hoot if now, suddenly, the Conventional Wisdom stands on its head? Without, of course, acknowledging the 180-degree turn.

Now I'm not in a position to accuse Mr. Chait of taking such a dramatic turn. I don't keep close track (much of any track, really) of his writing. After all, there are only so many hours in each day, and I've got a stack of unwatched Simpsons episodes molding on my DVR, not to mention those drab TNT shows Leverage and, uh, what's the one with Dylan McDermott called?

Still, I'm wondering how many of the Conventional Wisefolk will see the politics of health care the way Mr. Chait does, and transform the GOP's surefire win strategy into a "substantive policy defeat" that "will last for decades." Which is, more or less, what Master Rahm Emanuel has been claiming would happen all this time he's been pursuing "a bill, any bill" strategy.

Well, I've still got those Simpsons episodes stacked and waiting. And Leverage, and that other show also.


Our friend Jimmy the Saint has passed along an important Glenn Greenwald piece, "The underlying divisions in the healthcare debate," in which he argues that divisions among progressives on the package taking shape reflect more basic ideological differences that were to an extent masked by the need for a common front against Bush-Cheneyism.

There are other differences, Glenn notes, but the one he focuses on is the fault line below differing enthusiasms for corporatism, which has not only solid support in the famous political "center" but even among professed cadres of the left, who seem to believe that the only, or at least the best, way to achieve desired policy goals is by making government a servant of corporate interests.
Whether you call it "a government takeover of the private sector" or a "private sector takeover of government," it's the same thing: a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else's expense. Growing anger over that is rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s. It's true that the people who are angry enough to attend tea parties are being exploited and misled by GOP operatives and right-wing polemicists, but many of their grievances about how Washington is ignoring their interests are valid, and the Democratic Party has no answers for them because it's dependent upon and supportive of that corporatist model. That's why they turn to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh; what could a Democratic Party dependent upon corporate funding and subservient to its interests possibly have to say to populist anger?

Even if one grants the arguments made by proponents of the health care bill about increased coverage, what the bill does is reinforces and bolsters a radically corrupt and flawed insurance model and an even more corrupt and destructive model of "governing." It is a major step forward for the corporatist model, even a new innovation in propping it up. How one weighs those benefits and costs -- both in the health care debate and with regard to many of Obama's other policies -- depends largely upon how devoted one is to undermining and weakening this corporatist framework (as opposed to exploiting it for political gain and some policy aims).

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At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this from Greenwald in your interesting post: "but even among professed cadres of the left, who seem to believe that the only, or at least the best, way to achieve desired policy goals is by making government a servant of corporate interests."

And I thought about Ralph Nader's fairly recent surrender to fatalism in his plea for willing non-evil multibillionaires to save America from the greed of other multibillinaires.

Who ya gonna call, Ralph and Rahm? Ghostbusters?

At 7:50 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I can't think of a better bet than Ghostbusters, Anon. Everybody else'll sell you out faster than their grandmothers. (Oh yes, Granny's collateral for a complex financial folderol with Dubai.)

What I love about Glenn G is that somehow he continues to believe, or act as if he believes, that resistance is not futile. You know, the way Ralph N does -- or, it appears, used to.

Ffor the record, the bit you've quoted isn't Glenn but me, or rather my paraphrase of him. I just want to make sure he's not held to account for my representation of his case.


At 7:25 AM, Blogger Bob In Pacifica said...


In America corporations have been given all the rights of personhood and none of the responsibilities.

By the way, how is it Constitutional for the federal government to force people to buy insurance from private companies?

At 12:49 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Interesting question, Bob. But I suppose there are lots of sort-of precedents, like requiring vehicle owners to buy insurance -- though they have the at least theoretical option of not driving.

It will be interesting to see if there is any challenge to the constitutionality of it.


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