Sunday, August 09, 2009


In a column entitled "Is Obama Punking Us?," Frank Rich runs down the evidence that the Obama administration isn't delivering on its promises because it's making too many compromises with vested interests. Rich then writes something I agree with only partially:

It's in this context that Obama can't afford a defeat on health care. A bill will pass in a Democrat-controlled Congress. What matters is what's in it. The final result will be a CAT scan of those powerful Washington interests he campaigned against, revealing which have been removed from the body politic (or at least reduced) and which continue to metastasize.

I don't agree that he can't afford a defeat on health care. The best outcome that's still conceivable is the passage of a genuine reform plan -- but the second-best (or second-least-bad) outcome would be losing the fight altogether. Rich is absolutely right when he says, "What matters is what's in it" -- it's going to be worse for Obama if something passes that can be framed by Obama-haters as a big bureaucratic boondoggle and that really doesn't make health care more affordable for more people.

Rich goes on to say:

The best political news for the president remains the Republicans. It's a measure of how out of touch G.O.P. leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are that they keep trying to scare voters by calling Obama a socialist. They have it backward. The larger fear is that Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be all for the common guy.

That's the larger fear among people like us, maybe -- people who get it. But if the plan is ineffective in making health care affordable because Obama caved to business interests, Republicans will blame the failure on liberalism, not on lack of liberalism -- and a great deal of the public will actually accept that argument.

Look at the stimulus. The right howls that it's a big-government, socialist failure. In fact, it's a disappointment for precisely the reasons we said it would be a disappointment, back when it was going through the sausage-making process (with Republicans and Blue Dogs as the principal sausage-makers):

... even supporters of the stimulus program say its contribution to a recovery so far has been smaller than White House officials had estimated.

... Much of the money so far has gone to people in the form of tax cuts and tax rebates, and consumers have tended to save that money rather than spend it.

... Administration officials acknowledged that tax cuts deliver less bang for the buck than direct government spending. But tax cuts ... are ... politically popular with Republicans and Democrats alike....

Plus, we on the left said the stimulus was too small overall. But now it's being slammed as a huge big-government-liberal waste of money -- and that's the critique that's mainsream in the public at large.

The same goes for bailouts. The administration hasn't wanted to be left-wing -- hasn't, in other words, wanted to stick it to the fat cats -- and yet the right-wing critique of the bailouts has been hypocritically folded into a message of jackbooted government taking over businesses run by heroic Randian capitalists. (They're evil when they take big bonuses, but it's more evil that the liberal/fascist/socialist Obama is giving them big money.) Progressives calling for more regulation of fat cats are barely heard, while rightists arguing semi-coherently against both fat cats and liberlism (but mostly the latter) are dominating the debate.

This is what's going to happen if we get a bad health care bill. The dominant meme won't be "It's a corporate sellout." The dominant meme will be "It's too socialist." It won't matter that the former is the real problem with the bill.

So it would be far better if nothing passes than if we get something that fails because it's too right-wing and can be portrayed as failing because it's too left-wing.

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