Posted by: Jeff | August 17, 2009

Giving Matt Taibbi (and Rachel Maddow) Some (More) Grief

Rachel Maddow just interviewed Matt Taibbi about his new article on health care reform in Rolling Stone. (As far as I can tell, the article is not yet available online.) In some ways it’s a good bit. It certainly presents a powerful picture of how bizarre and self-defeating the Democrats’ quest for bipartisan political cover has become. But both Maddow and her guest also raise several gripes which, continuing a theme from my previous health care post, I think demonstrate how poorly many progressives and liberals actually understand the boundaries of the possible on this issue.

We’ll start with Taibbi’s suggestion that if Democrats wind up passing the health care reform compromise that looks ready to emerge from the Senate, it will be a “debacle” and “an albatross around the neck” of the party in the same manner the Iraq war was for Republicans. I don’t buy it.

The Iraq war was a very easy narrative for the American public to understand. It was conceived, championed and lead by a Republican administration and authorized by a Republican dominated Congress. In spite of the relatively bipartisan nature of the authorization for war (certainly a far more bipartisan vote than any on health care will be) the Republicans owned the war politically. And the American public had a very simple goal: Win the war, do it competently, and with dispatch. When that didn’t happen, the public knew exactly who to blame. Thus, the albatross around the neck of the Republican party.

None of this applies to health care. The American public does not understand the narrative of health care. They know the system in this country is a mess, and they have a vague notion that its long term cost curve is unsustainable, but they don’t really know why, or how we got here, or who’s to blame, or what to do about it.

But they do know they want to keep the health insurance they have, which is one of the central paradoxes of health care reform. Rather like the paradox of how they view Congress – they tend to be disgusted with the legislature as a whole, but like their individual Congressmen just fine, thank you – Americans are fed up with the health care system, but really like and want to keep their particular insurance plan. They don’t like the status quo of the country, but they do like their individual piece of the status quo.

Politically, this makes meaningful reform a nightmare, because there’s no realistic way to institute major change without upending that status quo for large portions of the American populace. It’s why Obama has been repeating until he’s blue in the face that, under his plan, you can keep the insurance you have now if you wish. It’s why this round of reform has been a giant three ring circus of deal-cutting, dissembling, and manic ball-juggling. It’s all an attempt to thread the impossible needle of the American public’s expectations. Someone might want to tell Rachel Maddow this is why single-payer was taken off the table right from the start. No matter how big a fan of the idea you may be (and I’m a very big fan) there is no way on God’s Green Earth it would have ever passed.

The only thing the public will punish on this issue is inaction. Whether or not the action taken is all that effective is largely beside the point. And believe me, the Democrats (and the Republicans) in Washington know that. In the end, neither party really owns health care in the eyes of Americans, and the public is just looking for someone, anyone, to do something.

And the Democrats will do something. They’ll almost certainly pass reform of some kind.* It may not be terribly pretty, or ambitious, or have a public option. But frankly the public won’t really know the difference. So long as something gets passed, and things improve even a bit (and at this point there’s really no where to go but up) the Democrats will earn themselves some points. It’s not as if the average American citizen has a specific policy goal laid out in their heads, including a public option, and they’re just waiting for the Democratic party to catch up. Yet Taibbi (and to a lesser extent, Maddow herself) talks as if that’s the case. It’s weird.

As I said previously, I realize that perhaps I shouldn’t look to Maddow for intelligent discussion, but rather for red meat to keep the liberal base fired up. Keeping that base fired up is important. It’s probably the surest way to still pull an optimal result out of this bloody mess. But still. I can’t help thinking it would do liberals a lot of good to direct less anger at the Obama Administration and the Democrats, and more anger at the Republicans and, frankly, their fellow citizens.

*If nothing gets passed as a result of this push, it will probably be because the left-leaning representatives in the House refuse to vote for reform without the public option, as Maddow and Taibbi point out. I don’t necessarily think that threat is a bad thing. If it comes to it – if the only option is to soldier forward without the Republicans or face revolt from the party’s left – I think Obama and the Democratic leadership will decide to force through a public option.

It’s a game of political chicken, and my guess is it would work. But what if it doesn’t? That’s what makes a game of chicken dangerous. What if the public option gets ditched, the Democrats lose the left, and nothing gets passed? Remember what I said about inaction. That’s a failure the Democrats probably would own in the eyes of the public, because it would be easy to understand. It’s possible that Americans would end up blaming the Republicans, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Democrats had their majority, pushed for reform and couldn’t get their shit together.

That would be the albatross. And that’s a scenario that really could be catastrophic for the long term prospects of health care reform.


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