Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I'm supposed to be furious at Chuck Schumer for what he just said, but I'm sorry, he has a point:
Democrats made a mistake by passing President Barack Obama's health-care law in 2010 instead of first focusing more directly on helping the middle class, third-ranking U.S. Senate Democrat Charles Schumer said today.

"Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them" in electing Obama and a Democratic Congress in 2008 amid a recession, Schumer of New York said in a speech in Washington. "We took their mandate and put all our focus on the wrong problem -- health care reform."

Schumer said Democrats should have addressed issues aiding the middle class to build confidence among voters before turning to revamping the health-care system. He said he opposed the timing of the health-care vote and was overruled by other party members.

"Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them."

"The plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships created by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed," the senator said. "But it wasn't the change we were hired to make" in the 2008 election....
You can say the bill was a great progressive victory -- but what Schumer says is the truth:
"We were in the middle of a recession. People were hurting and saying, 'What about me? I'm losing my job. It's not health care that bothers me. What about me?' ... About 85 percent of all Americans were fine with their health care in 2009, mainly because it was paid for by either the government or their employer, private sector. So they weren't clamoring. The average middle-class voter, they weren't opposed to doing health care when it started out, but it wasn't at the top of the agenda."
What was at the top of the agenda was avoiding a huge hit from the economic meltdown. And far too many people did take a hit. The jobs programs were inadequate. The mortgage relief programs were abysmal.

Dave Weigel understands that this is a progressive argument, although he thinks it's absurd:
... the "shouldn't have done it first" critique is actually rooted on the left. The theory goes like this: Just as Franklin Roosevelt used his first two years in power to regulate big finance and engage in wild, stimulative deficit spending, Obama should have spent two years on banker-thrashing and redistribution. Roosevelt's 1934 midterm wins -- the last midterm wins for an incumbent president until 1998 -- allowed the party to become more ambitious in the second half of his first term, and to pass the Social Security Act.

There's an alternative history of the Obama years in which the administration, like some time traveller sent back to fight Skynet, prevented the Tea Party from ever being born. It governed from the populist left; it owned the fight against "Wall Street" and denied the right the ability to side with the proles by opposing TARP. It's a widely held belief on the left that this really could have been done, with smarter hires and less concern for the financial world that was going to turn against Obama anyway. Obama could have, like FDR, "welcomed their hatred."

The small problem with this argument is that it's bonkers. The Republican opposition to the new Obama presidency did not begin with the ACA. It began with the economic stimulus bill, which Democrats had hoped to get as many as 80 Senate votes for, and ended up scraping through with only three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House.... There was just no evidence that the Republicans could be cowed, no matter how populist the Obama policy....
But Obama, even after the stimulus fight and the rise of the tea party, had enough juice to get the health care bill passed, because that's what he'd saved the rest of his political capital for. That was the make-or-break agenda item for him.

And of course he was going to prioritize that rather than a larger stimulus -- he was an ambitious president with an eye to the history books. A bigger stimulus wasn't going to be the accomplishment that made his name as a president -- for that he needed a big piece of legislation.

Except that what Obama is going to be known for is failing to help the middle class enough in the wake of the crash. I favor the health care law, but it's porous -- it doesn't help enough people, and there are many people it doesn't help at all.

What if stimulus and debt relief had gotten the make-or-break treatment from the White House? Weigel says the administration couldn't get more stimulus past the GOP, which put up tremendous resistance, but the GOP put up massive resistance to the health care law, and the White House pushed it through.

Would the health care law eventually have passed? Possibly not. But Obama would nevertheless be a president who'd delivered for a broad swath of the 99% -- a broader swath than those who've benefited from the health care law. I think it would have been a worthwhile tradeoff.


Ken_L said...

I guess alternative histories are amusing ways to pass the time, but too often they're just an excuse to refight old battles and engage in pointless recriminations.

I don't have a dog in the fight, but from my perspective if the Dems had kicked health care down the road in 2009, despite having the numbers in both houses and despite having Obama in the White House, their credibility would have been shattered completely. Why would anyone ever bother to go vote for them again?

The mistakes made with the ACA, and they were huge, were errors of implementation. Virtually every aspect, from Obama's promises that could never be kept to amendments by executive action to Pelosi's stupidity to the friggin' website that didn't work, were handled atrociously. If these had been managed with any kind of basic competency, it's likely the ACA would by now be pretty much a non-issue.

Yastreblyansky said...

I don't even get what Schumer is talking about, as if it was a zero-one situation, you either do the ACA or you do some other needful thing, without specifying what that other thing was. The problem wasn't that they didn't do stimulus and mortgage relief but that they did a bad job, and leaving aside bad cabinet members like Geithner and refractory congressional Republicans and Blue Dogs, Schumer as Our Man in the Banking Industry bears a lot of responsibility--especially on mortgage relief, where he was the key person in passing legislation that didn't work. But the ACA has nothing to do with it.

Victor said...

The Republicans were prepared to fight the new Democratic President and Congress tooth-and-nail.

They wanted one of their own to win the Presidency in 2012 - with a Republican Congress - and the best way to do that was to keep the economy depressed, and stop the health care initiative.

We got nothin' more after that inadequate Stimulus, and the Republicans made Obamacare a rallying-cry for 2010 and 2012.

They batted .500.
Not bad...
For them.
Sucks, for us.

RAM said...

Not sure why the economic recovery component of the ACA seems to have gone down the memory hole. One of the act's big selling points was its likelihood to reduce the deficit and provide stimulus by allowing people to start their own businesses without worrying about losing their healthcare. From what I've read, it seems to be doing both those things, although you'd never know it from listening to what's said on the Net and on the TV machine.

I keep wondering why people insist on ignoring this aspect of the ACA, especially those who ought to be aggressively using it to refute grasping morons like Schumer.

Danp said...

The idea that political capital is a fungible currency is lunacy. Imagine what could have been done if Franken had been in the Senate earlier, Kennedy were healthy, Lieberman had lost to the Democrat and Byrd had retired before his brain died. We might not be taling about either/or.

mlbxxxxxx said...

Ditto what RAM says.

Coulda been done a lot better (single payer, etc.) but reforming health care is a huge economic benefit to the middle class that will pay dividends well into the future long after bridge construction jobs would have faded.

Now, nobody really made that point and a great sin of Obama, imo, is the failure to sell his agenda after the election. He never should have left campaign mode. Americans look at universal health care only in terms of cost -- they need education to understand the benefit and that education was sorely lacking.

And, of course, implementation sucked donkey's balls so...

aimai said...

He's an asshole, this is the wrong time for this kind of crap, and he's wrong on top of it. So yes, I'm angry. The Democrats had, in fact, promised to fix health care--its right there in our mission statement. Nothing Obama could have done would have had the impact that fixing health care has had, and anything that he did would have been as attacked and crippled as the ACA has been since the Republicans would have attacked it and defanged it as well. Viz: the closing of Guantanamo.

Unknown said...

Schumer's meta point - that helping the middle class was better optics - is surely true. But he offers no actual vision for how the Democrats could have actually done a better job. And Chuck Schumer, D-Wall Street, is hardly a credible messenger for that argument.

The two biggest errors the administration made, in my estimation, were 1) to allow Romer and Bernstein to publicly predict where the unemployment would go with and without the stimulus, and to make this prediction well before they had complete information about how badly the economy was faltering; and 2) to wait until after health care to pass a financial reform bill.

On 1), the premature and sadly mistaken predictions gift-wrapped the GOP their "failed stimulus" and "where are the jobs?" faux-outrage parade, and the Dems never, to this day really, have successfully refuted it. On 2), obviously this is counterfactual wankery on my part, but I think there would have been essentially no political cost to pushing an aggressive "Fuck Wall Street" bill through Congress in mid-2009. Populist anger was hot and there was an opportunity to mobilize some of that, rather than letting Dick Armey and his merry band of assholes astroturf it into the Teabagger Dolts for America and steer the broader conversation, inexplicably, towards fear of deficits eating our children. The GOP would have had an awfully hard time opposing a financial reform bill with a straight face at that point, and it would have been popular. I think that could have gotten done fairly quickly, and without imperiling the prospects of passing health care reform.

I do think, given that Dems didn't have the 60 seat majority yet and weren't able to fight the normalization of the "60 votes or you lose" Senate, the stimulus was about as big as it could have been. I just wish the Democrats could have slipped a provision in there (and past the Maine ladies) which would allow the federal government to keep shoveling money out to the states indefinitely until some benchmark of improved economic health was reached. At least that way, all those teachers, first responders, and other public servants could have avoided the mass layoffs to come. Would have been good PR and probably pushed the unemployment rate down a touch.