Sunday, September 06, 2009

True but False

Steve Benen argues that its not all about Obama--the House and Senate have a role to play in Health Care. This is so true but false, so utterly right and so totally wrong, that I don't know where to start. Health Care Reform was a major plank in Obama's campaign--to the extent we even have a party structure and a party platform as a result of the Presidential campaign and its promises he leads the party and he owns the plan. Secondly, or B, or II, or some other madly waving a tentacle to indicate my next point: staying above the fray and not saying what "must be in the plan" was only ever a stupid, politicians, dodge. It wasn't really real. Obama and his team have been heavily involved from the get go: making separate deals with big pharma, making threatening phone calls to "the left" and to the progressives, making fund raising gestures for Baucus, making polite noises to the Republicans. These are all actual acts that affected the negotiations, perhaps fatally, at the Congressional level.

Its obvious that this has to be so. Obama and his team care about what goes into the bill because they care about the political knock on effect and they have to worry about how its going to be paid for. They turned the matter over to Congress as a matter of law (because Congress drafts legislation) and as a matter of political expedience: because they thought that by making congress write the individual bills they would get both compliance from supporters and buy in from waverers. They thought that going through congress would mean that little teensy objections and issues would be ironed out in advance of the final vote and a pretty good product would emerge. And they also thought they could have their cake and eat it too, by making off the books agreements with the major stakeholders while forcing Congress to do the showy, difficult work of actually trying to pay for the bill.

That is to say that Obama's people told him to *stay above the fray* and not to *waste political capital* and also not to undercut his winning streak by aligning himself with any single initiative or part of the bill that might end up being cut during the horsetrading. They wanted him to be able to sail in at the last moment, after all the dirty sausage making was done, and sign a pretty good product that would have his name and the Democratic party's name on it.

That didn't work out for reasons that are as transparently obvious as the original calculation. Because Obama and his team muffed the part of the double plus super secret plan that required him to only *pretend* to stay above the fray but actually required him to manage the process so the House and Senate weren't derailed by Obama's own, personal, enemies and the enemies of all progressive policies and programs. Not only was Presidential power and authority required to whip wavering Democrats into line but Presidential power and authority were always going to be at the heart of the resistance to the plan. You can't have Democratic Health Care Reform without the Democratic President fighting for it, tooth and nail, because the battle over Health Care Reform is only a proxy for a battle over his own legitimacy as President. The attacks on the details of Health Care policy were only tangentially or contingently on rational things like coverage, or cost. They were always going to be about massive right wing distrust of, and detestation of, this President and this moment in American history.

With that fact firmly in mind I have to say that even when Obama was pretending to draw back from the negotiations he was, or should have understood himself to be, at the center of the negotiations. And because the Republican side was really using the entire debate as a form of refighting the election campaign he (and his advisors) should have realized it was a zero sum game. If the President and his plan wins the Republicans have to be understood to have lost. If the Republicans win--on any level, no matter how small (van Jones?) the Democrats lose. They lose face, and they lose their historic chance to fix the broken system.

Obama may have figured this out too late. Frankly, I doubt he's figured it out at all. (John Aravoisis has a good post up about how this is exactly what happened in the campaign. Obama's people think that slow and steady wins the race but you have to counterpunch, too.) But whether or not Obama has figured out that "face" and "authority" are not things you can delegate to Congress the moment is fast approaching when reality hits face. And its not going to be pretty.

No comments: