Saturday, January 23, 2010


In the left blogosphere, there are two permissible opinions on health care reform -- but I don't agree with either one.

One is that the bill is fatally flawed and needs to be either thoroughly overhauled or strangled in its bed, because as it stands it's worse than nothing. I don't agree. I think it's lousy, but I've come around to the opinion that it's a step forward and a possible foundation for further improvements.

The other opinion is that a bill absolutely has to be passed right now, and that doing so will (as Steve Benen puts it) "save the Democratic Party" and prevent "a fiasco for the ages."

Maybe that would have been true if the bill had been written and sold in a way that would have brought it broad popular support. But it doesn't have that. And it isn't going to get broad popular support during the long, long stretch of time when most of its provisions have yet to take effect. It's just going to spun even more by Republican pols, right-wing media voices, and hysterical teabaggers as the worst bill ever passed in the history of the Republic. And if the few provisions that take effect immediately win favor, the message will be: OK, fine -- but why do we need the rest of this monstrosity?

Because there's no evidence that the Democrats will suddenly develop the message machine necessary to keep selling the bill (which is what they'll need to do) in the (very long) time between passage and full implementation. One Sarah Palin Facebbok post in that stretch will probably have more impact on the debate than the entire Democratic messaging effort.

(Yes, I know that David Axelrod has said that if the bill fails, a caricature of it will hurt the Democrats who voted for it. But he's wrong that it won't be caricatured if it does pass. It will. And a caricature of a bill that's on the books will hurt Democrats much more than a caricature of a bill that isn't.)

The broad public has no clue what's in this bill, but the broad public thinks it stinks. So passing it is -- and yes, it kills me to agree with middle-ground pundits here -- going to seem arrogant. It wouldn't if Democrats suddenly developed the ability to take every argument made against the bill (it's going to bankrupt us, it's full of sleazy back-room deals) and shoot them down one by one, right now, while clearly, in a vivid and simple way, explaining what the benefits are. And no, I don't understand why they can't do that, because they're allegedly led by the most silver-tongued politician of our age. But somehow they can't.

You know what would save the Democratic Party? Passing anything -- or even trying very, very hard to pass anything -- that would address the economic concerns of Americans. The economic-populist course President Obama is on now is good, and I just hope the hell it's not all talk. Politically, passing real financial reform and the Volcker rule and Cash for Caulkers could easily make up for not passing health care reform. It would demonstrate responsiveness. It would please some of the current crop of protest voters while exposing the others as pathetic Randians with schoolgirl crushes on plutocracy.

I know, I know: I'm not thinking about the people who die or go bankrupt for lack of insurance. Well, this is a democracy. Democrats failed to sell this reform effort as a hedge against those calamities. If they find a way to undo the results of that sin of omission, if they can move public opinion back in the other direction, then they should move forward vigorously. But, absent that, I'm not sure it's worth it. The public doesn't want to be saved from these horrible outcomes. If the bill sets up a structure that will save the public from these horrible outcomes, the public won't believe it -- certainly not for the next couple of electoral cycles, as the bill gradually kicks in.

Maybe the solution is to pass the damn bill and move on to less tainted measures. But in either case, it's what else Democrats do that's going to save them, or not. Passing health care is not going to save them.

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