August is a strange season in politics. In the final weeks of summer last year, we had the incredible (and incredibly short-lived) public buzz surrounding Sarah Palin, before people realized she just used those glasses for looks, not reading. This year’s dog days brought us hordes of astroturf Teabagger Republicans demonstrating that they think public discourse boils down to “whoever shouts loudest wins.”
I’ve sat back and haven’t posted a great deal in recent weeks (although it’s been impossible to avoid following the theater of it all). For one thing, there are better things to do when the weather is nice (not all that common a condition in Chicago). For another, there’s been a lot of justifiable uncertainty and skepticism developing among progressives about exactly where and how Obama and the Democratic party are willing to take a stand, and I’ve been genuinely unsure of my own assessment, wavering from cynicism to optimism sometimes on a daily basis.
But Labor Day is behind us and silly season is over, and the president gave a major speech on health care tonight, and it’s time to take a serious look at where things stand.
Seriously, the past few weeks were emotionally and intellectually taxing for anyone who follows politics, indeed for anyone who cares about the future of this country. (N.B.: I do not include in that category the delusional fringe who proclaim passionately that the real threat to America today is a resurgence of communism.)
Let’s recap. In many ways, the current battle over health care has come to represent a defining moment for Obama, and indeed for any hope of a progressive Democratic agenda. The right wing certainly framed it that way (proclaiming it his “Waterloo”)… and this is something about which many on the left actually agreed, albeit from a different perspective: if Obama and his party couldn’t get something decent done on this issue, even with strong public support and huge majorities in both houses of Congress, then the change we all thought we voted for last year was a dead issue.
Health care reform has been one of Obama’s top three priorities from the start, along with fixing a collapsing economy and developing a sustainable energy policy. For good reason: the health care “system” as it exists in the U.S. is obviously broken.
Still, when the right end of the political spectrum defines itself by being radically reactionary, obstructionist, paranoid, indeed downright nihilistic (as even Time‘s finger-to-the-wind Joe Klein acknowledges), it’s the center of the spectrum that actually meets the traditional definition of “conservative”: people who think (erroneously) the status quo is okay, people happy to stand in the middle of the road because they don’t see any compelling reason to move to one side or the other. People who just don’t grasp that the system is broken, quite possibly because they genuinely don’t even understand how it works. Such “low information voters” (however sincere) can easily be swayed by misinformation, and they present an obstacle to constructive reform.
So despite the fact that a single-payer system would be the hands-down best solution in policy terms, it was widely perceived as too dramatic a change to be politically viable… and despite the fact (as I’ve written) that using it as an opening gambit would have made for superior legislative strategy, that same perception led Obama (and thus Congressional lawmakers) to eliminate it from the debate and instead focus on a “public option” as the centerpiece of reform.
The public option actually stands out as a genuine compromise approach—all about market competition and cost controls, things the right should embrace. But it was positioned as the “left” end of the debate, and the right (including way too many Blue Dogs) proceeded to hyperventilate in true Groucho Marx mode: “whatever it is, I’m against it.”
The opposition never commanded a majority, nor did they have any actual reasonable objections to reform. Yet from Obama on down, key Dems seemed oddly cowed nevertheless. Even after four other committees passed out health reform bills, they waited on the Senate Finance committee, where Max Baucus worked with a small coterie of Republicans who had all but admitted they weren’t negotiating in good faith. (The fact that he and they also happened to be among the biggest recipients of insurance industry campaign largesse did not go unnoticed.) They seemed cowed by angry hecklers at town hall meetings. They sent up trial balloons about backing off on the public option.
And Obama’s polls began to drop. Not in a way that should have pleased anyone on the right (though they claimed a victory anyway, his opponents there actually stayed exactly where they had been, opinion-wise), but because his supporters on the left were no longer sure what (if anything) he stood for.
Yet Obama’s team did nothing to assuage these concerns. Rahm Emanuel went so far as to call liberal criticism of the Blue Dogs “fucking stupid,” on the record, while an anonymous “senior White House adviser” mouthed right-wing talking points complaining that “the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo… It’s a mystifying thing.” Rahm, needless to say, has always been an abrasive self-important prick of the worst kind, the kind who can’t even learn from his own mistakes (insisting that Dem candidates shouldn’t oppose the war in 2006, opposing Dean’s 50-state strategy in 2008)… but even so, you’d think he’d understand that most basic rule of electoral politics: you dance with them what brung ya. You do not spit in the face of the liberal base, the people who gave your guy money and knocked on doors and turned out to vote for him in record numbers. You might need those supporters again someday.
People responded with disappointment, as any reasonable observer (outside the White House bubble) might expect. Former supporters openly described the administration as “failing.” A former top adviser urged the administration to be “more bold.” No less than Paul Krugman observed that
there’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness, and progressives increasingly feel that the administration is on the wrong side of that line. … It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can’t be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled.
Glenn Greenwald offered a trenchant analysis concluding that for too many of the players involved, prominently including Emanuel, there was no principle involved beyond increasing political leverage; that the goal was not to reign in the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries (despite the plain fact that their business models are at the root of the problem), but rather to ensure that their campaign largesse winds up in Democratic pockets. Matt Taibbi explained in detail just how Democrats and industry lobbyists systemically gutted some of the best aspects of reform.
This is not what progressives voted for.
Still, criticism was hardly universal. Others argued that Obama was good at playing political chess, seeing several moves ahead, pointing not unreasonably to his consistent and effective strategy during the grueling 2008 primaries. They framed the quickly retracted weekend trial balloon about abandoning the public option as a “swerve” or a “head fake,” deliberately intended to get the liberal base to recognize the stakes and get riled up about them, to force his hand and “make me do it,” in FDR’s terms. Michael Moore, echoing the views of many on sites like Daily Kos, emphasized to Rolling Stone how impressed he is with Obama’s successes so far, especially on the international stage, and switched the chess metaphor for basketball, opining that in matters of strategy the president routinely “fakes right and moves left.” Still, his view wasn’t so rosy as to prevent him from acknowledging that a final health care bill without a public option would “significantly change” his take on Obama, and moreover that he’s already disappointed with the timidity fo the Democratic Party leadership: “I don’t know what part of ‘massive, overwhelming victory’ they don’t understand.”
Personally, as noted above, I found myself nonplussed. I’ve never been under any illusions that Obama was other than a cautious moderate-liberal, so I never expected him to be a progressive firebrand, nor did I ever imagine that all of this country’s long-festering problems could be solved in a matter of months. I’m well aware that there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of his administration thus far. Still… I can’t pretend he’s not a marked improvement over any other president in my political lifetime. It’s easy to be cynical about government in a “pox on all their houses” sense, especially after years of right-wing misrule encouraging exactly that attitude, but I’m not sold on the idea that Obama or most of his appointees (Rahm, Larry Summers, and a few others notwithstanding) are just in this to boost their egos and line their pockets. I’ve found myself varying from day to day on what to think and how much honest optimism I can muster, but on good days I’m fairly confident that most of the administration is comprised of people who genuinely believe that they, acting through government, can achieve meaningful progress for the people they serve.
Even in that upbeat perspective, however, that’s not to say they always get the strategy right. (Certainly after the fiasco of last winter’s watered-down stimulus bill, for instance, they should’ve learned a lesson about how to “negotiate” with today’s GOP, but the post-partisan rhetoric as yet seems rather thick on the ground.)
Cynicism is easy; trust is hard. (Never mind faith. I don’t believe in that.)
Still, in recent weeks the fickle tide of public (and elite) opinion began to shift again. The GOP’s rabid-dog antics weren’t winning any new friends outside their already narrow circles. The progressive grass roots, led by indefatigable advocates like FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher, persuaded a critical mass of House Democrats that a health care bill without a public option was worse than none at all: a giveaway to the insurance industry without any serious controls or competition. And unsurprisingly, much dramatic tension still swirled around what Obama himself would do.
So… the speech itself. How did it go?
You know… This is already stretching out to some considerable length. I tend to do that a lot; I don’t know whether anyone actually reads them all the way through, but thanks to anyone who’s still with me. (Since I began blogging, I’m much more impressed than I used to be with columnists who can consistently stay within a 700-word limit.) Having set the stage, therefore, I think I’ll reserve the drama itself for another post.Tags: Democrats, Glenn Greenwald, health care, Obama, Paul Krugman, progressives, Rahm Emanuel