Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Health Care Reform and Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Making the Connections--Moral Imperatives and (Non-Existent) Leadership

I’ve been holding onto bits and pieces of commentary for some days now. Today, I want to post these in a series of interconnected postings. What binds these disparate postings together is that most of them follow up on issues about which I’ve posted previously at Bilgrimage. Several of the new items I’ll be posting today bring some of my previous stories up to date.

First, the ongoing health care . . . well, what to call it . . . except a debacle? As I see it, the American people are being held hostage. A significant majority of us want decisive, unambiguous health care reform including a plan to cover every citizen, particularly those who cannot afford basic care. We’re being held hostage by Republicans intent on blocking health care reform, because they know that if the administration succeeds in providing us with a sensible health care plan that covers all of us, they will decisively lose their grip on the nation.

But we’re also being held hostage by a group of blue dog Democrats from places like my home state of Arkansas, who have sold their hearts, souls, and hides to special interest groups (the medical and the insurance industries, for instance). These elephants in donkey disguise want in every way possible to act as a ball and chain on any progressive reform promoted by the new administration. This group has made the rest of us hostages to the wealthy special-interest elites they serve, and to the benighted constituents who elect them, who resist progressive change because it conflicts with their ideological and religious outlook.

I know these folks. They're my folks. I come from a state run by blue dog Democrats, who would rather be hog-tied and horse-whipped than admit that a gay human being is a human being. One just like them. With the same level of humanity, deserving the same human rights they enjoy.

I know, too, that even while they tout their profound commitment to God and the bible and moral values, they are utterly tone-deaf to the moral implications of health care. Health care as a human right? Not in their moral playbook. Morality is about bared breasts on television and barring the sale of beer on Sundays. It's not about health care. Not about children needing regular check-ups and good nutrition so that they can succeed in school and become productive adult citizens.

That's not in the bible. And don't get me started on the fact that many of those children denied basic health care under our present system are black. Because race is not in the bible, either. The bible's about breasts and beer. And gays. About keeping the gays down and out as long as possible. Because God tells us to do that, in the name of Christian love.

To these blue dogs, Steve Hildebrand issues a challenge:

Stop holding Americans hostage. Stop placing the economic interests of wealthy elites before the well-being of the nation, and ahead of the mandate you have received in the last election to change things substantially. Stop treating the entire nation like you treat members of the benighted constituencies that elect you. We don’t all share the peculiar reactionary views of your constituents about human rights issues.

Begin acting like Democrats for a change. Be leaders for a change.

And in my view, that challenge applies as well to the Obama administration itself. Lead. Stop the b.s. about pragmatism and bipartisan inclusion of every possible “idea” before we finally struggle to do what's clearly right. As Maxine Waters tells Carlos Watson at MSNBC, the reason the blue dog Democrats now have a death grip on the nation, through the health care reform process, is quite simple: pragmatist-in-chief Rahm Emanuel has given them that power.

They’re in the control seat, these folks whose primary goal is thwarting change we can believe in, because the new administration has put them in the control seat—in the name of pragmatic consensus-building and bringing every “idea” to the table, as if every idea is morally and rationally equal to every other idea. In the health care debacle, we’re seeing the consequences of the president’s penchant for pragmatism and amorphous bipartisan “consensus” playing themselves out. We're seeing his refusal to exert clear leadership playing itself out.

With very unhappy consequences for the nation. What we’re likely to get, when we finally get health care “reform” (and we’re the very last developed nation in the world to consider offering access to fundamental health care to all citizens as a basic human right) is a watered-down, bewildering, patched-together mess that will serve the economic interests of the medical and insurance industries before it serves the needs of citizens.

As Andrew Sullivan notes, the president’s messaging job on health care is his worst messaging job in a long time. Nobody knows what he wants or intends with health care reform:

It's the worst selling job he's done in a long time. I can't tell what's in it, not in it, what he's for, what he's against.

I can’t tell what’s in it, not in it, what he’s for, what he’s against. Precisely as with don’t ask, don’t tell. As I have noted in posting after posting on this blog that predicted the muddle this administration was headed into because it refuses to honor its moral imperatives and exercise leadership based on those moral imperatives, no one now knows what the president wants, intends, or will do with don’t ask, don’t tell.

And this despite the fact that he promised, as Candidate Obama, to end a policy he himself regards as unjust. As unethical. As morally indefensible.

Just as he promised to reform health care and provide access to basic health care to all citizens. Because it’s a moral imperative. Because it’s the right thing to do.

Because leaders do what is right rather than what is expedient. Even when they pay a price.

The grand irony of this moment in the history of the Obama administration, however, is that polls show a huge majority of Americans favoring the abolition of don’t ask, don’t tell. And they show a strong majority favoring the kind of health care reform—centered on access to basic care for all citizens—the administration is permitting Republicans and blue dog Democrats to block.

This is a moment in the honeymoon period of this presidency when these progressive changes—when these promises made by Candidate Obama as part of the change we can all believe in—could have easily been enacted without the deal-cutting folderol we see going on with both DADT and health care reform. Without the compromises and stasis. Without the mixed messages and refusal to stand on promises that reflect moral imperatives.

Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida has just announced he’s withdrawing a defense spending bill that would have challenged DADT. He's withdrawing the bill because of pressure from colleagues and the White House. And the White House: the same White House that, prior to Mr. Obama’s election, promised a speedy end to this unjust and immoral policy preventing the military service of openly gay soldiers.

Commenting on the story, Rachel Maddow, notes that we really do want the administration to ask. And to tell. Do ask. And do tell.

Ask us what we want, and listen when you ask. And tell us what you intend, what you want, what your strategy is. Don’t make promises us to us that you yourself tell us are based on moral imperatives, on the fundamental canons of justice and decency that govern our democracy, and then waffle on those promises. Not when you now have the power to change things. To make your words mean something.

To do more than talk about change we can believe in. You have the power to make change we can believe in.

Why, then, do you keep inviting the lions to the table of the lambs, in the name of bogus inclusion and pragmatism? Please lead, for a change. For God’s sake. It’s what we elected you to do.