Political Culture: The Boston Tea Party

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Whether or not Democrats manage to salvage health care legislation, losing Ted Kennedy’s seat is just desserts for their substantive and strategic failures.

For about four months now I’ve had a copy of Ted Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, sitting on my nightstand. So far it has served as a coaster and as a paperweight – and as an acceptable pile-topper when I don’t feel like cleaning old newspapers and half-read magazines off the table. But I’ve never cracked it open. I’m not really sure why – actually, I can think of one reason – but now I’m wondering if I’ll ever read it at all. Since Tuesday it has come to seem decidedly less necessary, historically speaking … like a rock band’s phenomenal debut album that was followed by a dozen shitty ones, or like Tiger Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championships.

In fact, something interesting happened on Tuesday night. Remember that scene near the end of Back to the Future, when Marty’s hand begins to disappear as chances of his parents getting together become less likely? Well, on Tuesday night an entire section of True Compass vanished from my nightstand. It was Teddy’s health care legacy. Will Democrats somehow find a way in the coming days and weeks to restore those pages to the book, or are they – and, with them, the usefulness of the Democratic Party as a governing coalition – gone for good?

Ted’s legacy is hardly the most important potential casualty of Massachusetts’ idiotic decision to place Scott Brown in Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat, but it’s hardly the least important, either. Symbolically speaking – and we may as well speak of symbols, because reality flew out the window a long time ago when it comes to the health-care debate – Tuesday’s vote represents the (overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning) people of Massachusetts marching en masse down to Arlington Cemetery and pissing on the eternal flame. One day very soon, Brown will cast an inevitable, lockstep “No” vote on an issue that hasn’t yet been utterly poisoned by demagoguery — an issue for which Teddy would have been leading the fight, on behalf of the huge majority of people in his state who favor progressive action rather than the conservative let’s-do-nothing approach. A jobs program, maybe? On that day, some significant number of currently spiteful, moderate Massachusetts voters will think to themselves, and not for the last time, “My God, what have we done?”

In all honesty, it’s hard to blame those voters for their boneheaded move. Martha Coakley was a terrible candidate, and – particularly considering what a monstrous boulder health care has been to push this far up the hill, and considering how energized even the Bay State’s tiny Republican base was bound to be – it’s astonishing that Democrats didn’t treat this election as though their lives depended on it. Instead, Dems screwed the pooch in every possible position: changing state laws on succession (twice!), nominating Coakley, taking a lengthy Christmas vacation, and generally taking the voters for granted. And with Nancy Pelosi announcing today that she doesn’t have the votes to pass the Senate bill as-is, avoiding further negotiations and a certain filibuster, that boulder seems destined to rumble back down the hill — perhaps leaving Barack Obama’s administration as flattened as the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.

But that’s all process. (Though it must be said that the Republicans’ apparent plan to use their new, 41-vote Superminority to bring Congress to a standstill, rather than negotiate compromise for the good of the nation, is a mockery of representative democracy.) On a broader, and ultimately more important level, Democrats have lost miserably on the substance of health care. They might still emerge with a signing ceremony at the White House – though right now it’s difficult to envision a path to that event – but even if they do, it will be a law that begins its life with a couple of broken limbs and a huge cloud over its head. And it didn’t take an inventive campaign of opposition by the Republicans, or an election decided by fickle voters to make the Democrats look ridiculous. No, the Dems brought this upon themselves, just as surely as Tiger’s career was felled not by his opponents learning to play better, but by the exposure of his own massive flaws.

This past year was, to be sure, not the most convenient time to attempt a major overhaul of the nation’s abominable health-care system. The economy was a shambles, the workforce was hemorrhaging jobs, government spending was already unpopularly profligate — and while health-care reform is a key long-term component to fixing the first two of those problems, it was hardly a short-term solution to the third. Still, the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority gave them a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a longtime legislative dream come true – and simultaneously to make progress on a problem that for decades has served as a lead weight on the economy — and they were right to seize the initiative when they did.

That, however, was just about the only thing they did right. There will be a lot of finger-pointing over the next few weeks related to process-oriented fiascos – at Bart Stupak and Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson (all of whom may now go ahead and refer to themselves as (D-Aetna), in the wake of today’s Supreme Court decimation of campaign finance laws); at Olympia Snowe and John McCain, and several other Republicans who ought to be better than this; and particularly at the Senate Finance Committee, for the foot-dragging that allowed the August recess to commence without a concrete bill in hand. But on the substance of the legislation, there is one man on whom the lion’s share of blame must be placed, and that is, of course, Obama.

Obama entered 2009 as the most trusted politician in America. In fact, let’s face it – he entered 2009 as pretty much the only trusted politician in America. Yet it quickly became clear that, on both the stimulus and health care, Obama was going to let Congress lead him (at least publicly) rather than the other way around. As the first president in a half-century to emerge from the legislative branch, his heightened (and misplaced) respect for that branch surely factored into it. But he no doubt also believed that, by declining to use his power as a bludgeon, he would be offering a corrective to the Bush administration’s “unitary executive” arrogance; he also likely thought, on health care specifically, that turning the bill-writing over to Congressional committees would help him avoid the “my bill or nothing” trap that many believe had swallowed the Clintons’ earlier attempt at reform.

Obama may have thought he had learned the lessons of 1994, but in reality he flunked his first major test as soon as he failed to write his name on the paper. He knew that Americans wanted (and still want) health-care reform in principle, but that Republicans would resurrect all the bogus arguments that sank the Clintons 16 years ago, and then some, in order to make reform unpalatable in practice. But he left the job of responding to (or ignoring) those lies in the hands of legislators whom the people didn’t trust, who hadn’t themselves received the electoral-college mandate that he had. Even worse, his failure to use the bully pulpit – loudly, forcefully, as inspirationally as he had used his campaign stem-winders – left him (and Democrats in general) in a permanent defensive crouch, even as they slapped each other on the back each time the legislation passed one more committee.

There’s no choice but to engage in some rapid response when your opponents are tossing around feces like “death panels” and “government takeovers.” But Obama, for the most part, neglected to play offense. Early on, he tried to achieve a sense of inevitability – Hillary Clinton’s favorite word, and look where that got her in 2008 – by making concessions to insurers and doctors and Big Pharma and then trumpeting their sign-ons to the effort. (Of course, his coalition building turned “reform” into an inside job, and started us down the road to the ungodly mess of legislation we now have before us.) But he never built or argued for the mountain of evidence that would have helped him appeal to the American people’s intelligence, and would have trumped the lies that right-wingers aimed directly at our fears.

For example, Obama should have had at the ready a stream of cost-benefit analyses from economists and think tanks – a new one every week, if necessary. He should have drilled it into our heads that the bills’ cost for extending insurance to most of those 15 percent of Americans who are currently without it – approximately $90 billion annually, spread over 10 years – re-arranges about 4 percent of Americans’ $2.3 trillion total annual spending on health care. FOUR PERCENT!!! (Even without the gimmickry of putting off major spending until 2013, the $160-billion annual budgets for the later years still only represent about 7 percent – hardly a “government takeover.”) He should have – but couldn’t, since he had already given away the store to get their lip-service cooperation – done a much better job condemning the insurance companies’ parasitic presence in the system, and arguing that government bureaucrats could scarcely do a less efficient job of managing the health of a few million public-option participants than Aetna/Cigna/BlueCross bureaucrats already do for the rest of us. He should have made it crystal clear that Americans already pay much more to hospitals and insurers, in order to offset the unpaid costs of treatment for the uninsured, than they would to the government even under Congress’ woefully flawed bills. He should have devoted a portion of the “You Lie!” speech to a rundown of insurance-lobby contributions to reform opponents, both Republican and Democrat.

He should have visited every Remote Area Medical clinic with the White House press corps in tow, and should have trotted out an endless parade of uninsured, laid-off factory workers from every state … not to mention, say, a passel of breast-cancer survivors (good Christians all) who are afraid to change jobs because of their pre-existing conditions. And he should have repeatedly devoted the loftiest of his lofty rhetoric to decrying the immorality of 45,000 Americans dying every year because of insufficient access to health care – over 10 times more folks in a single year than have ever been killed in terrorist attacks targeting our people.

That’s what a leader does in the media age – he campaigns relentlessly to get the facts (or, in Bush’s case, the pseudo-facts) out on the legislation he’s pushing. Instead, Obama’s near-silence created a communications vacuum that allowed opponents of reform – and, even more grotesquely, Republicans who might have joined a more bipartisan reform effort if it hadn’t meant handing a victory to another party’s president – to define the terms of debate once again, and to again turn Americans against their own interests. That’s what led, more than anything else, to the rabid jackals at the town halls; that’s what led to the god-awful bills in the House and Senate; and that’s what has led to Scott Brown – despite the fact that many Brown voters told exit polls they approve of Obama, and despite the fact that a vast majority of Massachusetts voters are pleased as punch with their own state’s expansive health-reform efforts.

Now that the 60-vote majority is history and Pelosi has written off the Senate bill, it’s difficult to guess how health care will shake out – whether Obama will try to shrink the bill down to those elements that might draw bipartisan support (excuse me while I finish cackling), whether a revived Medicare-expansion plan will go through reconciliation, or whether the whole thing will die an ignominious death. What’s easy to guess is that Democrats in Congress probably will spend the rest of this year walking a tightrope, on health care and numerous other issues, to ensure they lose as few additional seats as possible in November. Obama will propose a few populist measures, and Dems will try to embarrass Republicans by forcing votes on popular, if insubstantial issues. There will be much renewed rhetoric from Obama about compromise, but few concrete attempts in the backrooms on Capitol Hill – election years are a time for sharpening differences, not blurring them. And then the GOP will rout the Dems anyway.

If the Democrats had any balls, they would continue pressing an ambitious agenda of job creation and deficit reduction, while making a strong case for the economic benefits of health-care and climate-change legislation. Republicans are going to filibuster everything, anyway – Democrats should give them a real domestic program to oppose, then let the voters decide who’s right or wrong (and whether the tyranny of the filibuster is anti-American). But that’s not likely; instead, the Dems will be content to leave the voters with an unconscionable choice. Is it worse to stand, as the Republicans do, for nothing – that is, in opposition to everything? Or is it worse to stand, as way too many Democrats already did and even more will now, for nothing but your own political survival? Dems have played that game before, most recently in 1994 and 2002 — and if a Republican can compete on those terms and win Ted Kennedy’s seat in January, an electoral catastrophe is coming in November.