Thursday, June 18, 2009


It's widely assumed that health care reform is in trouble -- Ezra Klein and The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn say it's because of the cost estimates for the plans that have put forward, while Sam Stein at the Huffington Post thinks it might have been a mistake for the White House to defer to Congress on the details (even though not deferring to Congress is said to be what sunk the Clinton plan).

But really, wasn't this always going to be an extreme long shot? Democrats were always going to be craven; Republicans were always going to socialist-bait any plan that emerged; vested interests were always going to fight like cornered rats. And why on earth did two consecutive Democratic presidents think the best possible time to attempt health care reform was when people were still feeling the sting of a recession?

On the latter question, I think I know the thought process of the wonky Clinton and the wonky Obama: The American people are hurting, so let's free them from some big fears by developing this swell new addition to the economic safety net. It's the perfect time to do it. People will be so grateful. And we can get it done because it's early in my term and I'm quite popular.

Now, here's the reality: Clinton introduced his plan when the Poppy Bush recession and the S&L crisis were still fresh in everyone's memory; Obama is proceeding while we're still in a horrible economic mess. In each case, the public got stuck with the bill because of greed and deceit the government failed to detect. And then a Democratic president came along and said, in effect, I'm from the government and I'm here to help ... you get health care. Oh, and it's OK that the plan is going to be complex and costly ... even though complexity, large amounts of money, and government oversight were just what, in each case, Americans had just experienced in damaging financial scandals.

Health care reform is just too easy a target -- especially in tough times. This is why the opponents of real reform seem so ready for a brawl right now and the proponents (and people who should be proponents, like centrist Democrats) don't, and seem desperate to make compromises: the anti crowd knows it can persuade the public again that this is a huge, nasty ripoff, in effect the next financial scandal, the next parasite on the public's wallet. The anti crowd doesn't even need an alternative -- it just needs to shout "Government control!" and "Deficits!" and support will erode among people who now associate complexity-plus-government with gazillion-dollar, recession-inducing fraud.

Yeah, I know -- it's different this time. Obama is more popular than Clinton was; polls say the public really wants a government-run plan this time around.

Look, I'm not getting my hopes up. There's a reason all Republicans and far too many Democrats are resisting health care reform: it's ridiculously easy to liberal-bait. They know the American people have no class consciousness, and that no politician has ever been punished at the polls for failing to deliver on this issue.

I'm not sure America will ever see serious health care reform -- but I think if it ever happens, it'll be because it was attempted in flush times, not lean times. Maybe I'm wrong and it can be done now -- but it's going to be the hardest fight Obama's ever fought or will ever fight, and much harder than he thought it would be. It's going to take more of a selling job than even he seems prepared to undertake. Because America just doesn't want this enough -- especially now.


UPDATE: From Politico, here's the self-fulfilling conventional wisdom, and it pretty much tracks what I posted above:

President Obama's campaign for health care reform by this fall, once considered highly likely to succeed, suddenly appears in real jeopardy....

Business groups, which had embraced the idea of reform and have been meeting quietly with Democrats for months in an effort to shape the legislation, now talk of spending millions of dollars to oppose the latest proposals out of Capitol Hill. And Democrats themselves are not united, with leading party figures making contradictory declarations about how far they should go to overhaul the system when deficits are soaring and prospects for an economic recovery remain cloudy.

And top Democratic officials tell POLITICO they are increasingly pessimistic about getting any more Republican votes than they did on the stimulus package....

Public anxiety about red ink ... has come roaring back, with a Gallup Poll showing deficits and spending as the only issues where more people disapprove of Obama’s performance than approve of it.

Republicans think the “borrow and spend” issue may be the biggest single vulnerability for Obama and the Democrats in the midterm congressional elections of 2010 and the presidential year of 2012. The president’s own advisers privately agree....

If it we were about to pursue, oh, say, a huge war of choice under a Republican president against a foe we were being told was the new Hitler and whose continued rule meant we were all going to die, budget concerns would not mean a thing and everyone would get on board. But pols, especially Democratic pols, know that voters can be sent into a tizzy about government spending whenever something other than war is involved -- and will never be sent into a tizzy if pols fail to deliver on health care.

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