Friday, August 21, 2009

Putting the Genie Back Into the Bottle: Mr. Obama Speaks of Health Care as Moral Imperative

And speaking of the health care situation, I highly recommend Glenn Greenwald’s incisive analysis at Salon earlier this week. It’s the best comprehensive overview I’ve yet seen, exposing precisely how powerful economic interest groups that have gained considerable control of the American political process in several decades of neoconservative dominance will not relinquish that control. And how and why the Democratic party continues to cave in to those groups.

Greenwald notes that the Democratic party’s excuses for its collective failures continue unabated. Now that the Democrats have the White House, a filibuster-proof majority, a huge margin in the House, and a broad popular voters’ mandate for progressive reform, we’re being told that the president is at the mercy of forces he can’t control even in his own party, when it comes to progressive reform. Greenwald’s respose:

I'm really surprised that there's anyone, especially Matt [Yglesias at Think Progress], who actually believes this -- that the Obama White House is merely an impotent, passive observer of what the Democrats in Congress do and can't be expected to do anything to secure votes for approval of the health care bill it favors. As the leader of his party, the President commands a vast infrastructure on which incumbent members of Congress rely for re-election. His popularity among Democrats vests him numerous options to punish non-compliant Democrats. And Rahm Emanuel built his career on controlling the machinations within Congress. The very idea that Obama, Emanuel and company are just sitting back, helplessly watching as Max Baucus, Kent Conrad and the Blue Dogs (Rahm's creation) destroy their health care legislation, is absurd on its face.

Greenwald notes that the White House’s ability to control is very much in evidence in its response to the progressive wing of the Democratic party. If progressives buck the party line dictated by the White House, they are quickly threatened. But blue dog Democrats and “centrists” who refuse to adhere to mandates from party leaders are protected.

In Greenwald’s view, in the back-and-forth of “bipartisan” deliberation over health care reform—deliberation engineered in many ways by Democratic party strategists, right from the top—we see a cynical game being played out. We’re led to think that the Democrats are forced to compromise because the Republicans just won’t come on board to support health care reform.

This is a pretext for watering the final bill down. And it has been the game plan of party strategists all along. Greenwald’s conclusion:

This is how things always work. The industry interests which own and control our government always get their way. When is the last time they didn't? The "public option" was something that was designed to excite and placate progressives (who gave up from the start on a single-payer approach) -- and the vast, vast majority of progressives (all but the most loyal Obama supporters) who are invested in this issue have been emphatic about how central a public option is to their support for health care reform. But it seems clear that the White House and key Democrats were always planning on negotiating it away in exchange for industry support. Isn't that how it always works in Washington? No matter how many Democrats are elected, no matter which party controls the levers of government, the same set of narrow monied interests and right-wing values dictate outcomes, even if it means running roughshod over the interests of ordinary citizens (securing lower costs and expanding coverage) and/or what large majorities want.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has finally been willing to talk—faintly and unconvincingly, particularly after the secret deal the White House has cut with the pharmaceutical industries—about health care as a “moral obligation” .*

And this necessary turn—a turn that has been necessary for the administration’s success from the outset—may well be too late. As Paul Krugman notes in today’s New York Times, Mr. Obama has now created a very serious trust problem for himself as a leader, and his progressive base is in strong reaction to his failure of leadership:

On the issue of health care itself, the inspiring figure progressives thought they had elected comes across, far too often, as a dry technocrat who talks of “bending the curve” but has only recently begun to make the moral case for reform. Mr. Obama’s explanations of his plan have gotten clearer, but he still seems unable to settle on a simple, pithy formula; his speeches and op-eds still read as if they were written by a committee.

And I’m not sure that trust can be rebuilt, frankly. There has been an awful lot of water under the bridge, with the reneging on the promise to end DADT, the atrocious DOMA brief (though I applaud the recent clearer statements that the White House regards the Defense of Marriage Act as discriminatory), the back-stepping on truth commissions to deal with our legacy of torture in the last administration, the movement away from transparency in this administration, and, last but not least, the health care debacle.

This administration is not what many of us voted for. It is, above all, not what we hoped desperately to see, after the Bush administration. How do you re-enchant folks who are thoroughly disenchanted, I wonder, now that the scales have fallen from our eyes?

* For more on health care for all as a moral imperative, and on the failure of this administration to build its platform for change on such moral imperatives, click the label “moral imperative” at the link to which I have just pointed.