Monday, March 22, 2010

Whose Waterloo?

The Democrats finally achieved victory to reform this nation’s health care system after decades of efforts. The Senate bill that passed the House of Representatives may not have been as sweeping as many Americans had hoped for but it moves this nation ever closer to universal coverage, closer to controlling escalating costs, and away from insurance industry discriminatory practices.

Despite the expressed desire of the President and many leaders of the Democratic majority for bi-partisan legislation, Republicans refused any compromise that would have committed their votes in favor of health care reform. The all-or-nothing strategy to make the President and majority leadership look ineffective also meant giving up any leverage to shape the legislation to make it more Republican-friendly. This was to be President Obama’s Waterloo but the Democratic majority held.

A Republican policy loss may or may not turn into a political gain at the polls in November and even if it does, so what? Legislators are elected to enact legislation and Republican members of both houses of congress have proven themselves ineffective in impacting the most significant bill before them in decades. Republican David Frum, former speech writer for President George Bush, sees this as a disaster for Republicans because they have allowed themselves to be painted into a corner by extreme voices in the entertainment industry:
Conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.

It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the disaster. Conservatives may cheer themselves that they’ll compensate for today’s expected vote with a big win in the November 2010 elections. But:

(1) It’s a good bet that conservatives are over-optimistic about November – by then the economy will have improved and the immediate goodies in the healthcare bill will be reaching key voting blocs.

(2) So what? Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now.

So far, I think a lot of conservatives will agree with me. Now comes the hard lesson:

A huge part of the blame for today’s disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.

Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.

This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.
Matthew Yglesias argues that Republican “no compromise” strategy resulted in a stronger bill than if they had opted to use their leverage:
… It’s a historic achievement that instantly rockets him to third place on a podium alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as the key architects of the American welfare state. Nancy Pelosi, whose firm but pragmatic brand of liberal leadership was integral to the success, should perhaps go down as the greatest progressive speaker the House of Representatives has ever known.

We should also, however, spare a thought for the unsung hero of comprehensive reform, McConnell and his GOP colleagues, who pushed their “no compromise” strategy to the breaking point and beyond. The theory was that non-cooperation would stress the Democratic coalition and cause the public to begin to question the enterprise. And it largely worked. But at crucial times when wavering Democrats were eager for a lifeline, the Republicans absolutely refused to throw one. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other key players at various points wanted to scale aspirations down to a few regulatory tweaks and some expansion of health care for children. This idea had a lot of appeal to many in the party. But it always suffered from a fatal flaw—the Republicans’ attitude made it seem that a smaller bill was no more feasible than a big bill. Consequently, even though Scott Brown’s victory blew the Democrats off track, the basic logic of the situation pushed them back on course to universal health care.

Today, conservative anger at the Democrats is running higher than ever, and for the first time in years the GOP leadership’s blanket opposition has won them the esteem of their fanatics. But in more sober moments in the weeks and months to come, my guess is that the brighter minds on the right will recognize that their determination to turn health reform into Obama’s Waterloo sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Universal health care has been attempted many times in the past and always failed. The prospects for success were never all that bright. Many of us, myself included, at one point or another wanted to try something more moderate. But the right wing, by invariably indicating that it would settle for nothing less than total victory, inspired progressive forces to march on and win their greatest legislative victory in decades.
Jonathan Chait concurs:
… Many Senate Democrats started the debate believing that a bipartisan accord was the only morally legitimate path to major legislative change, and desperately hoping for bipartisan cover as they undertook wrenching change to the status quo. If they had put a compromise bill on the table, moderate Democrats would have leaped at the offer, and it would have taken just one Democrat to make such a deal and kill comprehensive reform.

The Republicans had another chance last month when President Obama convened a bipartisan health care summit. If some Republicans had come forward with a meet-you-halfway plan, or even meet-you-quarter-way plan, Democrats would have been in a bind. They let the opportunity pass. …

The Republican strategy of total opposition instead forced the Democrats into an all-or-nothing choice of passing a comprehensive bill or collapsing into catastrophic defeat. (Republicans tried desperately to convince them that letting the bill die was their best political strategy, but Democrats wisely rejected this awful advice.) Let me be clear: I'm glad they did it. I'm willing to accept higher Democratic losses in exchange for a health care bill that really solves the pathologies of the health care market. The Republican strategy was an audacious gamble, and it could have worked, but it came up empty. Thank goodness.
Thank goodness indeed.

You can read Frum here, Yglesias here, and Chait here.

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