Its old news now, of course, but I was just listening to Ted Kennedy's memorial service. I was lifted up by his family's clear intention to describe, defend, and carry on his work by naming it and by claiming it. And I was cast down by President Obama's workmanlike, polite, tepid, “your name here” memorialization of the late Senator as all around nice guy. I thought at the time that we could assume that the threat of Republican hysterics over the politicization of the funeral bore fruit. There was no rabble rousing, no call to arms. No call to win the fight—hell, on Obama's part there was barely a call to continue the fight. For me the crowning disappointment was when Obama chose to emphasize Kennedy's imagined history as a “compromiser” over his history as a principled, partisan, idealist. Since it was well know that the funeral itself, the orations, and Kennedy's legacy were going to be the next battlefield in the republican war on Health Care I can't excuse Obama for refusing to attack just this point—Kennedy fought for principle and compromise was just one tool in his arsenal, not the focus of his life's work.
Because of Obama's refusal to “play politics” with Kennedy's eulogy we were then treated to the unedifying spectacle of Kennedy's Republican “friends” sobbing all over national TV because they don't have Kennedy to surrender to them anymore. This kind of rhetorical capitulation to right wing aggression and right wing frames is still happening—it happened with Van Jones's absurd resignation for the non crime of being an avowed “communist,” and it happened last weekend when Obama started actually pushing for his own signature legislation at the Labor Day Picnic.
Does it matter? No Drama Obama and his team, eyes focused firmly on the goal of "some health care reform now" would say it doesn't--but I think it does. I think it does because it fails to meet the voters where they are, it fails to educate them about progressive goals and values, and it cedes the floor to the enemies of progressive goals and values. It wasn't a one off failure, either--Here's Obama doing it again: (Your mileage may vary, of course, and Steve Benen waxes enthusiastic about Obama “going off script” with this remark:
“Obama said, “I've got a question for all these folks who say, you know, we're going to pull the plug on Grandma, and this is all about illegal immigrants—you've heard all the lies. I've got a question for all those folks: What are you doing to do? What's your answer? What's your solution? And you know what? They don't have one.”
Who is Obama talking to here? This is what I'm talking about. This is not a ringing defense of anything. It converts no one, it convinces no one, and it doesn't advance any legislative goals. (In fact, its an implicit admission that “doing something” might include, say, pulling the plug on Grandma. ) Does Obama think that he can put the Republican opposition in check by rhetorically demanding that they come up with a plan? Well, he can't. First of all, they don't care what he says. Second of all, their voters don't care what he says. And third of all, his own voters don't care what he says. Its not enough to be outraged by the do nothing nihilism of the opposition—you've got to explain what you are doing in a way that both your supporters and your opposition voters can understand and, eventually, support.
Obama and the Dems seem to have the entire process broken down into legislators, with the power and "the voters" who are, variously, ignorant and excitable (left) and ignorant and excitable (right). This is a fundamental misreading of the problem, and it leads to a flawed process of negotiating the very real shoals in the reform process.
The problem is that there are (at least) three parties who need to have their needs met, or who need to be overthrown, in our current system--that is, three parties who can be convinced of the need for progressive action. There are progressive voters, Obama's own supporters. They have a pretty good grasp of what they want the president to do and they want him to do it. Some of them want him to do it with a battleaxe, some of them want him to do it quietly, but we all want true HRC reform that takes health care out of the hands of for profit insurance companies, spreads the risk, and secures both health care and financial security for the greatest number of Americans. Then there are the Republican voters. They would be helped by Obama passing the best Health Care Reform package he can but they don't know it, yet, and, furthermore, they won't believe it until after it has passed. They don't know it, yet, because they get most of their information from the third party in this negotiation—the Republican leadership and its corporate masters. And they don't know it yet because their world view doesn't include progressive values and history—it includes only the strong suspicion that everyone outside their own party, clan, race, religion is out to get them. These voters can't be appealed to in the same language as Obama's voters, they must be appealed to using the language of self interest and selfishness that they use to talk to each other. Every time Obama gets on the stump and *doesn't* appeal to them in language they can understand he loses the leverage that those voters could bring him. The third party for reform is, of course, progressive legislators.
On the other side are people who can't be convinced of the need for reform--these are large corporations, their lobbyists and their proxies in Congress the Republican and Blue Dog legislators. As for the Republican hierarchy, whose opinions only matter at the level of the legislative moment? These people can't be shamed into dealing with Obama and the Dems. They aren't paid to listen to reason, or to public attacks. They are paid to rabble rouse, to get votes to stay in power, and once in power to prevent Democratic/progressive initiatives. There is no point addressing these people at all in public except in the form of a dumb show, a Punch and Judy puppet drama. They have shown over and over again that they will not work with the Dems in any capacity that will help the country because anything the Dems get done will hurt the Republican party and its corporate masters by making their party less able to recapture power. Every time Obama wastes time trying to educate, or accommodate, the Republican leadership he wastes time and loses power because they can't be reasoned with, or bargained with--they can only be stepped over.
So who was Obama talking to at the Picnic? Obama's remarks at the Picnic were implicitly aimed at some kind of undifferentiated mass who, he thinks, can be convinced by sweet reason to back reform. If he was talking to Michael Steele, or Grassley, or Snowe he was wasting his breath. If he's talking to his supporters we don't need to be convinced, we need to be shown the money, honey. If he's talking to the opposition voter, the imaginary centrist or Republican voter, he should have addressed their real fears which are that any change will be bad because Democratic initiatives are death panel, communistic, meanspirited. In that case he should have done what Democrats keep refusing to do—admit that our policies are of course self interested but that our self interest is, oddly enough, identical to the real interests of the average voter. He should have said something that fits the world view of the disaffected right wing and independent voter like this:
“I have a question for you—what kind of politician plans to kill his own voters? Or his own potential voters? I know there are lots of crazy rumors flying around that we want to put some kind of National Health Care in place to “take your money” and give it to someone else—or to “kill Grandma” or to deny care to someone to give care to someone else. Well, ask yourself on what planet does that make sense? Let me let you in on a little secret—The Democrats are moving heaven and earth to fix real world problems facing all Americans because we want you all to become Democratic voters for all your long and healthy lives. Yes, we hope to reap quite an electoral harvest for years to come. We hope every young worker, and every elderly retiree who is relieved of the crushing burden of health care costs is going to end up choosing to vote democratic. The Republican party knows it. That's why they won't put their hand to the plow to make reform better, or faster, or easier, or more cost effective. Because they know that they won't have their party's name on something that is going to be incredibly popular. They had their shot at making grandma and grandpa safe and happy with Social Security and with Medicare and they voted against those Democratic initiatives time and again. They had their chance over the last eight years of pleasing the electorate and solving their problems and they blew it onwe, women, and wars. Because of Republican failures, and nothing else, this administration was elected and put into power to govern and to govern well and wisely. Where the Republicans failed we hope to use the govenrment to proect grandma, and the grandkids, from illness and misfortune. That's because we are your neighbors and friends, banded together to elect a government we think will be more representative of your needs and wants than the previous one. We are going to do what Democracies do best—see a problem and band together, as a people, to do something to fix the problem for all our citizens. Its in our interest as a people and as a party to do so. So oppose reform if you want because you think you won't need your neighbor's help when you get sick but don't oppose it because you think your neighbor wants to kill grandma. Grandma and the grandkids are safe in our hands not because we are nicer than other people but because we want happy, healthy, voters.”
This is obvious because it is true, and true because it is obvious. So it will be believed even by right wing voters who are predisposed to fear Obama and all Democratic initiatives. It won't convince them to support Obama's HRC, but it opens the door to them as rational beings. And that is what Obama and the Dems needed to do vis a vis the voters. The best proponents of a populist plan are--the populace. We believe HRC would be good for *all Americans* because we believe that regardless of your party identification or your ideological bent all Americans need safe, secure, comprehensive medical care. For us, an educated populace is an activist one is a supportive one for progressive causes. For the Republicans an uneducated, frightened, paranoid populace is an activist one. The Republicans recognize that, why don't the Dems?