Friday, January 22, 2010

If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail

So, what's the plan, Stan? For every thing, from baking a cake to waging a war, there's some kind of plan. I told my daughters today that if I were the head of my own party, and I wanted to propose a party platform of sending pink unicorns to settle the moon, I'd have a plan to do just that. It might not work, but by Cthulu I'd have a plan to at least start breeding Pink Unicorns. So, what's Obama, Reid, and Pelosi's plan for getting Health Care Reform through the House and Senate and onto Obama's desk?

There is no plan. No master plan, no goal, no path, no forethought. Over at Balloon Juice an ordinary commenter, "Emily" just another schmoe like the rest of us, asks the congressional staffers in Pelosi's office a very simple question:

I figured I might as well ask what I could do for them, since I’ve already called and told them exactly what they can do for me and the country, in no uncertain terms. “How can I and other democrats help? Who are the holdouts so we can call them? What do you guys need organizationally that motivated democratic citizens can help provide?” I asked.
“Um,” said the CA rep, “I think maybe there are Web sites organizing stuff. We aren’t set up for any kind of large campaign.” She had no idea who the holdouts were, no advice on who to call. Referred me to Healthcare for America Now.
“I have no clue who the holdouts are, actually. There is a Web site, I think, but I forgot the name of it, and they are organizing to call each congressperson. I bet if you go on the Internet you’ll find it,” said the tired guy at the DC office.
When I expressed my disbelief about how disorganized the effort seemed, they both agreed and said variations of, let’s hope this wasn’t all for nothing.
“The speaker probably knows who to call,” the CA woman said.
I said I hoped she was on the phone right now. I asked the man in the DC office if he thought making calls helped—since he seemed so unable to assist, I assumed he didn’t—and he said, “Well, you’ll be one of thousands calling on the same issue.” When I said, “My point exactly, doesn’t that have influence at all?”, he explained that he was not sure.

This is basically what we are all hearing when we call our reps. There is no master plan, the congressional representatives are waiting for direction from the Speaker, or from Obama. And when you do get to talk to a staffer who seems to know what the hold up is it turns out that from the point of view of the House, or of individual congressmen, there is no particular sense of urgency. People are surprised that voters are calling and asking them to pass the Senate Bill. But that bill is flawed, they tell us, as though we didn't know. But if you ask them how delay and presenting the intransigent, corrupt, backwards Senate with a new bill, or new sets of amendments, will miraculously produce a final "good bill" they fall silent. They have less of an idea that the ordinary, panicky, Kos diarist. They seem to have less grasp of the structural roadblocks ahead than the bloggosphere does. And that's pretty scary.

The entire Health Care "debate" has turned into a massively badly structured game of prisoner's dilemma. Each individual congressman appears to have been left with the impression that what the party really needs and wants is an individual decision, on the merits of the bill, about whether to move forward or not. Capuano's office thinks that there's some deadly provision in the Senate bill that says, if the House accepted it, we will all die tomorrow. Not really. Just kidding. What they claim is that on page 1005 there is a provision that says "nothing in our bill can ever be tampered with by any later congress and we ourselves can't amend any part without a 3/5's vote of the Senate. So fuck you, house dems." This seems improbable, unconstitutional, and essentially meaningless but its what Capuano's office thinks. But in any event they also told me that the leadership--Pelosi, Hoyer, etc... have not asked them officially to take the Senate Bill and ram it through. So they appear to be under the impression that there's no big hurry on this and that there's plenty of time left to tinker with things around the margins and make them better for one state, or worse for the other. The House is acting as though there's no problem in the Senate and that there can be some sort of business as usual give and take there.

Why is this like Prisoner's Dilemma? The comparison isn't exact: among other things our criminal co-conspirators don't seem to have bothered to get together to commit the crime of legislation and aren't sure what they are being asked to confess to. Our representatives are closer to the three stooges than criminals or terrorists. They appear to have found themselves locked in separate rooms, with interrogators (or voters) demanding they make hard choices to give up parts of their scheme (health care reform) without having planned what they would do in the event that they can't communicate with each other and reach some kind of agreement. And, apparently, they can't communicate with each other and leadership isn't bothering. If you ask them, they tell you outright that there is no leadership plan to pass anything. Everything is still up in the air, still negotiable. So when you call your representative they have no idea what "the party" would like. This bill? The Senate Bill? Some hypothetical imaginary bill inthe far future? They've simply never thought about it. And they don't seem to have the faintest idea that there might be some impediment, something like an utterly failed and undemocratic Senate, that will prevent any further progress if we don't seize the moment and pass the flawed Senate bill before our enemies can regroup.

Hidden behind this rudderless hysteria is something unspoken but very real. When you ask your representative if they would vote for something to be amended later they pretty clearly either haven't thought about it, or don't think, realistically, that the bills will be amended in a good way. What does that mean? To me it means that no one can trust Pelosi, Reid, Obama or the Caucuses they represent to ram the flawed Senate bill through and then force improvements through reconciliation. I mean, that's obvious, isn't it? Right now the caucus exists in name only: it doesn't think, act, or plan like a caucus. No individual member can rely on the others to back up the Democrats' play--now or in the future. And why is that? Because Reid and Obama and Pelosi consistently let the most dangerous, least committed, most conservative members of their own caucus betray them, insult them, and attack the bill without any consequences at all. The progressive House Dems have no reason to believe Reid, or Obama, if they offer to negotiate a better bill after passing the Senate version. And they are right not to believe them. If they couldn't control Nelson, Baucus, Landrieu, Lincoln etc... before they won't be able to next time. If they couldn't bribe or bludgeon Stupak and the blue dog dems in the House we face the same issue of bad faith there. And what's worse, they've shown no inclination to try. The bad money of the bad faith Senate Negotiations has driven out the good money of current House negotiations. If I were Capuano I wouldn't believe a word Obama or Reid said, at this point.

But this doesn't excuse the house dems for not having the wit to grasp that its now or never for health care reform--and its now or never for public opinion on this matter. If they Democrats can't show they can work together to get something done they will simply lose their own voters. There's no question about that. People can stand any amount of failure--look how loved the Red Sox or the Cubs were during their own losing streaks? --but they can't stand quitters and losers who never try. Right now each representative seems to be under the impression that their individual choices matter and that they will be judged as individuals by their own constituents. Maybe that's so--Capuano certainly can be pretty sure he won't be turfed out over this failure--but for the party nationally? This is a mammoth clusterfuck. Obama can't rescue the party, and the party can't rescue Obama, from this utter failure to get anything done.

I was surfing the net a few days ago for a different post and I found this marvellously apt observation from Napoleon:

"Strategy is the art of making use of time and space.
I am less concerned about the latter than the former.
Space we can recover, lost time never."

Space, speaking metaphorically, is the legislation and its amendments. We can change them, we can repeal them, we can alter them once they come into being. But we can never recover the time the Democrats have lost, and the good opinion of the voters without a strategy.

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