Friday, August 28, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

In Defense of Obama

Obama has bungled health care and the left is pissed. Many heavy-hitting, left-leaning pundits—including Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and our own Luvh Rakhe—have all voiced strong and reasoned reservations about Obama’s handling of health care, and have even gone so far as to float the idea that other like-minded lefties should contemplate open revolt against the feel-good, faux-reform, bipartisan-at-any-cost presidency. But this rash abandonment of Obama, or even just a loss of faith in him, would be a big mistake.

I never imagined I would find myself on Obama’s side of this particular debate. After all, I was one of the original Obama skeptics back in the primaries when it was already apparent that he wanted to please all peoples, all of the time, and was willing to sacrifice his principles to do so. And I certainly do not want to defend Obama’s pathetic political strategy for health care reform. I whole-heartedly agree that deferring to Congress and seeking bipartisanship was a big mistake. He should have been out front on the issue and using his rhetorical skills to their fullest potential.

But I do want to defend Obama’s presidency more generally, forgive him his political failings, and try to put the political jockeying around health care in the proper perspective.

Frankly, I’m puzzled that the left has decided to place almost all of the blame for the watering down of health care reform on the shoulders of Obama. Why not blame Congress!? While Congress is packed to the gills with spineless, clueless, compromise-obsessed Neanderthals, it’s clear to me that Obama’s heart is in the right place. Obama’s failure is not one of intention, but one of execution, which is a much lesser transgression.

And the left’s expectation that real universal health care reform was within reach because of big Democratic majorities in Congress was always a little pie-in-the-sky. The U.S. government is an inherently conservative body--not in terms of ideology, but in terms of its ability to legislate sweeping changes. The game is essentially rigged against radical reform, and always has been. The idea of universal health care has been around since the original Progressive Era; and back then it was stymied by the same forces Obama is struggling with today—a do-nothing Congress that is beholden to special interests and beholden to local, parochial constituents.

Teddy Roosevelt, the “radical reform” president of that Progressive Era, was able to pass a number of important reforms (including strong regulation of the then-powerful railroads, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and strong environmental protection policies), but could do so only in his second term after much of the conservative opposition within his own party had been neutralized (sound familiar?). And even in that second term, he was unable to pass other reforms that would have created an eight-hour workday, inheritance and income taxes, and would have regulated the stock market. In short, Obama’s difficulties with instituting sweeping reform are to be expected, and any reforms that are hard-hitting enough to satisfy today’s progressives will likely come in a second term—if Obama gets one.

We should also recognize that, when it comes to foreign policy, a political arena in which Congress has very little sway, Obama is delivering the goods (with the notable exception of Afghanistan). The fact that he has stumbled out of the gate on the domestic front is no reason to abandon him. Liberals should, instead, rally around him, recognize that Rome wasn’t built in a day, make sure he gets re-elected (especially because the likely alternative to an Obama second term is too horrifying to even contemplate), and then make a big push for more radical reform in 2012 and beyond.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat has an interesting piece that places blame for the bungling of health care on the Democratic Party's "inability to govern." I blame Congress more generally (the special interests, that power is skewed towards non-populous states, etc.--and after all, it's not just the Democratic Party that has shown an inabilty to govern!); but he is right that it makes no sense for Obama to take all the heat for a failure that is not entirely of his making.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The only mistake was calling it "Public"

It must be tough being a Republican wading into the health care debate. How are you supposed to know which of your ideological guideposts to navigate by? On the one hand, your whole life you’ve been convinced that government can’t do anything right – that everything government does is bloated, inefficient, ineffective, and wasteful. On the other hand, you just know in your heart of hearts that there’s scarcely a problem that private markets can’t handle, if they are truly allowed to roam like the grass-fed, free-range bison that we would all subsist off of if Washington hadn’t screwed it all up.

But here in the midst of the health care debate – and seriously, can you ever imagine a time when we’ll be talking about anything else? – the ideologically pure Republican finds himself in a bad quandary.

The Public Plan. The second word is “Public.” Let’s go burn down a town hall meeting. And we’re not too wild about the word “Plan” either.

If the machinery of public process were ever about anything other than partisan warfare, for just a day, wouldn’t we see that the rationale behind The Public Plan seems to be exactly the coin of compromise in which we’d all rather be trading? As far as I understand it – which maybe I don’t – here’s the basic idea:
• Make a health insurance company.
• Have the government run it like Medicare (which is one of the best-run insurance companies in the country).
• Let people stick with their existing policy, but give them the choice to switch to The Public Plan if they so choose.

Insurance companies hate it. They – some of the most fantastically profitable private companies in the country – say that they can’t compete against a low-cost government-run new market entrant. But here’s where the ground begins to give way underfoot for the ideologically pure Republican. If you don’t think government can ever do anything right, then the insurance companies are wrong – they can compete against the government, because the public sector won’t be able to provide what people want, and even if it could, it wouldn’t be at a price that beats the private sector. But if the insurance companies are right, and they can’t compete with The Public Plan, well then I’m giving that one of my all time biggest WTFs. What ideology is it that tells any elected official to protect insurance companies from a cheaper plan to which people choose to switch?

There are two answers, as far as I can tell. First, and obviously true and part of the answer, is that it’s the ideology of getting campaign contributions from rich people who require government intervention to stay rich. Second, though, maybe some people think that the end of that story is that we are again left without competition and choice – that some people would rather not be on Any Public Plan, but that they would have no choice after most or all insurance companies are driven out of business (again, by a government insurer that offers quality care for less). In that sense, those who cry foul when President Obama says “if you like the insurance you have, you can keep it” may be right. You may have to switch to a plan that is cheaper and better, run by your choice of the government or a new insurance company that can, through American-style creative destruction and innovation, compete with a cost-effective, science-based, market-driven alternative, probably by being cost-effective, science-based, and market-driven itself.

The Public Plan is such a sensible compromise. It essentially says, OK, let’s not be deterministic about whether The Public Plan is right for none or a few or most or all Americans, let’s just dip the public toe into the marketplace, and let’s let the market figure it out.

Shouldn’t this appeal to the ideologically pure Republican? Perhaps co-ops could do this just as well. Hopefully we’ll get to at least try something.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Health Care: Change We Can...Not Do?

I was shocked the other day to find myself IMing the following to a friend: "I'm on the verge of wishing I had voted for Hillary."

You could be forgiven for thinking I'm just trying to be provocative, and - full disclosure - I was totally delighted by my dad's reaction to my complaint: "You brought me to Obama-land! Don't leave me here." But it's true. I am on the verge. To me, the single best reason for nominating Obama over Clinton was his ability to wield the soft power of the presidency, to control the national conversation, to be teacher-in-chief - stuff that would be especially helpful in a health care debate. Instead, Obama's relative silence in the debate (until recently) has been deafening, and the "public option" is getting skeletonized before our very eyes.

I am unwild about the "learn from 1993, majorly defer to Congress" idea. This isn't 1993. The Democrats have surged back into power, and Americans are mighty disgusted with the corporate behavior they've seen over the past ten years. It would have been a great time for Obama to be out front on this issue, not to ram a bill down Congress' throat, but to give weaker members of the donkey herd some cover. Instead, we're waiting for Senator Baucus, who represents about 450,000 people, to make up his mind about a few things. Frankly, I'm not even sure what is being referred to when the press mentions the "Obama health care plan."

Things do seem to be changing now, but I think it's too late. Obama gave speeches in New Hampshire and Montana, but now they just seem to be responses to the town hall yahoos. He's sharpened his rhetoric against the insurance companies - and I do give him credit for bringing them in and neutering the Harry and Louise threat - but they seem to be getting what they want (a dead public option).

P.S., Tom Daschle, I've never wished more that you had remembered to pay your taxes.