Let's Look At The Politics

by digby

There's a lot of discussion around the beltway comparing the 1994 health care battle to today. It's certainly worth looking back, it was recent enough to have some relevance. But the political stakes are actually quite different and one of Washington's most fatal pitfalls is always fighting the last war.

In July of 1993 conservatives were on the rise, the mandate-less, plurality president was under siege in a series of scandals and dealing with a press corps as hostile as any in American history so early in a president's term.This article came out on June 7,1993, less than five months into his term:

At that moment, almost exactly 16 years ago today, Clinton hit the lowest point in his presidency with a 43% approval rating.

When people say that it was Hillary's health care plan that propelled the Republicans to victory in 1994, I can't help but laugh out loud. They didn't even introduce it until September of 1993, months after he had already hit bottom. Clinton's majority was on the rocks from the minute he took office for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the successful GOP propaganda campaign to portray the government as being in chaos and the Democrats failing to govern. The health care plan was just one of many bullet points used by Republicans to win their majority.

But the conventional wisdom imparted from that debacle was, as always, that the Democrats had been too liberal, just as Newtie and Arthur Finkelstein and all the other wingnut strategists intended. But it was true nonetheless that the conservative movement was on the march and it's time had come, so in at least the political sense, if not the policy sense, they were right.

Today, the situation is very different. We have a president with a mandate and an approval rating in the high 50s, a couple of big successful pieces of legislation already under his belt, and an opposition party that is a national joke. The only thing standing in his way is health industry money and Village conventional wisdom about the liberal boogeyman, both of which are very politically potent.

But there are some small cracks appearing in the CW that may just break this open. For instance, Mrs Greenspan interviewed Ron Brownstein today and predictably began by quoting David Brooks' pathetic little schoolyard taunt from this morning's NY Times:

"Machiavelli said a leader should be feared as well as loved. Obama is loved by the Dem chairmen, but he is not feared. On health care, Obama has emphasized cost control. the Chairmen flouted his priorities because they don't fear him."

First of all, Brooks is lying. The chairmen of the House committees wrote a bill that will be deficit neutral when you put all the legislation together. People know this, but they want to pretend that the CBO scoring incomplete plans is somehow meaningful. Brooks is simply following the Republican strategy to make health care reform Obama's Waterloo and he's doing his part here by portraying Obama as a wimp. Nothing unusual about any that. It's the oldest story in the book.

While the Republicans are starting to engage in the crudest way possible (and to the administration's advantage) the fact remains that it's the conservative Democrats who present the biggest hurdle and who hold the power to tank this reform effort.

I believe that Brownstein got it right in his reply to Mitchell:

Brownstein: I don't know if Obama is feared, but I think the period in the wilderness is feared. And what Obama has increasingly argued in private to democrats is that the lesson of Bill Clinton's first two years is that no matter how fast you row or no matter hard you try to separate yourself from me, if I fail you will be the ones to pay the cost in these 2010 elections. And I think that argument does have some sway.

The paradox we're in is that in many ways, the moderate Democrats who are most resistant, especially in the House but also in the Senate, to some of the things Obama wants to do, first on cap and trade now potentially on health care, have the most to fear if his support crumbles because they will be the first ones taken away by a backlash in 2010. I'm sure that is one of the arguments, he has raised that argument before, I would not be surprised if he makes an argument like it again.

He has said in public in the last 48 hours, using Jim DeMint as a sort of pushing off, from the Republican senator, that Republicans are going to use health care to precipitate the same kind of downward spiral that ultimately took Democrats out of control in 1994 and I think that that again is an argument, whether or not they fear him, they certainly fear a repeat of that experience.

Mitchell(speaking for an aghast Village): Well some might say that they are taking a different lesson from that. That they are taking the lesson that to take the risk of going for either the taxes or the employer benefit taxation that any of these measures on health care could lead to those who are in marginal districts losing...

Brownstein: And that really is the fundamental question. Is inaction or action riskier? I think that the lesson of 94 is that failing to govern is the greatest risk. That ultimately, in 1994 Democrats made that calculation that it was too tough to vote for health care and it was too tough to vote for the crime bill and by trying to separate themselves from Clinton they kind of cut out the floor from the entire caucus. This time Obama has the opportunity for something different. He has to hold them for some very difficult votes.

Mitchell: And one of the ways he's trying to hold them is to put pressure on them. This is an example of the new media. the president in a conference call with liberal bloggers, let's listen to what he had to say last night.

I also think it's important to keep the pressure on members of congress because what happens is that there's a default position of inertia here in Washington and pushing against that making sure that people feel the desperation that ordinary families fell across the country every day, whether they can pay their premiums or not or a loss of insurance when they lose their job, people have to feel that in a visceral way and you guys can help deliver that better than just about anybody.

Mitchell: That tells you everything you need to know about where his focus is and the tools that they're using to rally ...

Brownstein: I really feel that fits in with a lot of other things we've seen in the last 48 hours, where Obama seems to be trying to steel congressional Democrats to move ahead on health care without significant Republican participation if necessary.

Yesterday his message on a day when the insurance industry began running ads that were more positive than negative about reform,certainly, Obama went out and sharply criticized the insurance companies. The column by EJ Dionne which seemed to have some high level assistance, again, making the argument that Democrats had to govern, resurfacing, in that call with bloggers, resurfacing the idea that reconciliation as a fallback in the Senate with only 51 votes, warning, as I said that Republicans see this as a chance to undo a Democratic majority, this all seems designed to get Democrats in a place, to use your frame, where they will view inaction as more dangerous than action.

Mitchell (still clinging to stale 20 year old village CW like it's the last piece of driftwood from the sinking Titanic) ... but getting back to David Brooks, is the White House blowing it by not dealing with cost containment, by moving too far to the left on what they're willing to support, by not going to the middle and not crafting something that has real cost containment.

Brownstein: Yeah, yeah. I think the administration clearly believes that the bills so far from the more liberal committees have not gone as far in cost containment as the president proposed. We are at the point in health care reform that could have been scripted by Samuel Becket. We're waiting for Baucus. I thought the most interesting thing said today was by some of the Blue Dogs in the House, Mike Ross, Allen Boys, others who said "we don't necessarily want to go forward and vote until we know where the Senate is going" and that means everyone is waiting for some word from the finance committee until this really crystallizes...

Mitchell: They don't want to go out on a limb and have it cut out from under them ...

Brownstien:... unless they know what's going to come out of the Senate. Again, they're focused on the finance committee just as in 1994, it becomes a critical fulcrum of whether health care can move forward or whether it going to go off the rails.

Mitchell: As Yogi Berra would say, deja vu all over again...

As far as she's concerned anyway.

Brownstein is advancing an alternative view of the Clinton health care debacle as well as the current CW as expressed by David Brooks and the the villagers. That's significant. He's not some DFH who Andrea can safely dismiss as some sort of irrelevance.

Brownstein is seeing the politics of this on a bigger scale than the village magpies and it's useful. Regardless of the merits of the plan itself, which I'm sure will be the subject of arguments for decades to come, the political stakes of everyone concerned will rest on whether or not the Democrats were able to pass a much needed reform when they had the power to do it. This is what Democrats say they want to do and the people said, go forth and get it done --- here's a popular president, a large majority and 0 Senate votes. If they can't do it now, they will have lost all credibility and the Republicans will be handed an undeserved chance to recover prematurely.

Now, I have no doubt that certain Blue Dogs and Democratic wingnuts think they can personally benefit by distancing themselves from Democratic initiatives. They are stupid. If Obama goes down in flames, as Brownstien says, those in conservative districts will get creamed by a Republican challenger in 2010, regardless of whether they voted against the health care bill. They are the ones who will pay the price for Obama's failure, not him and not the liberals who voted for it.

Any Blue Dog from a swing district who is listening to little Republican birdies whispering in his ear telling them that he has to vote against Obama's agenda or risk losing in 2010 is a useful idiot who is engineering his own defeat. This isn't 1994 and it isn't 2004, and if these guys don't see that the only thing that can defeat them at this point is a widespread belief in Democratic failure, then they probably need to go back to the private sector and stand in the unemployment line like everyone else. The glory days of self-serving bipartisan backstabbing and double dealing are no longer operative. They will be the first ones to drown if the Democratic ship goes down. This is party politics now whether they like it or not.

Update: Sirota rightfully points out that the incentives for conservatives in the "swing" districts are skewed by the fact that they need to raise boatlaods of cash to win and so become corporate whores for industry. There's that too and it lies at the heart of our sick, corrupt system.

But I think they'll lose anyway this time. The big picture politics are going to have a bigger effect this time because of all the expectations that were raised and the depth of the problems individuals are facing. No matter how slick the ads, I think incumbent Dems are going to face a very angry electorate if health care fails and those in swing districts will pay the price.

Update II:

And here we have the Zen Master of the status quo, the Village Magus with the word from on high:

Democrats Must Settle For Half A Loaf

By Charlie Cook
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Whether or not you agree with the substance of President Obama's and congressional Democrats' health care reform and climate change packages, it's hard to deny their ambition or intentions. They are trying to address enormous, consequential and long-neglected problems that our country, sooner or later, must face.

The magnitude is, to borrow somewhat from one of Obama's books, "audacious," to say the least.

But no matter how sincere their intentions and bold their efforts, it is increasingly clear their grasp is exceeding their reach on these two issues. While the Obama White House has always said compromise would be necessary, the cold realities of the state of the economy, budgets and deficits, and, for members of Congress, re-election are going to force a significant scaling down of the health and climate proposals. They find themselves in a situation in which compromising a quarter or a third of their original packages is not nearly enough. Their choice is either half a loaf or no loaf at all.

Perhaps if the recession had not been so deep, or if they had inherited a smaller deficit, the budgetary and political climate would have been such that they could have held out for more ambitious versions of these two proposals.

But the reality is that Americans have been hit by sticker shock. They fear that mounting deficits will rob them and their children of a prosperous future. The fact that the economy fell harder than virtually any economist expected and is rebounding more sluggishly than anticipated has created doubts that have shaken confidence in this government.

While it may well have been unrealistic to expect the economic stimulus package to have worked miracles this soon, and Obama warned that the economy would not rebound overnight, public expectations of a rebound were too high and now their disappointment is great.

In an era of immediate gratification, when the public sees massive amounts of money being shoveled into the economy, they expect immediate results, whether it is realistic or not. CBO's finding of no savings in the emerging Senate Democratic health proposal was the nail in the coffin for those holding out for a full loaf there.

Most Americans still like Obama a great deal. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Pew Research polls show high personal favorability ratings and his overall job approval ratings remain good as well, according to ABC News/Washington Post and Gallup tracking polls.

Americans want him to succeed, but the unrealistic sense among many that he is a cross between a miracle worker and a magician, capable of pulling off the impossible, has been shaken.

Making things perhaps the most difficult have been moderate members of Congress, particularly in the Senate, who have raised the most concerns about the climate bill's proposed cap-and-trade emissions program, and a proposal to create a public health insurance option in the health package.

The White House and congressional Democrats must find a way to climb back off the end of the limb. They need to scale back their health care and climate change ambitions, and find middle-ground proposals that will do some good. They must get the ball rolling in the right direction on both fronts with proposals that neither cost as much, nor raise the hackles of swing state members who simply can't go for anything like what is being contemplated today.

The failure to do that will result in the president and Congress coming up empty-handed on either or both, failing in their top two signature issues. One can almost see the buzzards circling if they decide not to do this. The risk is that the special aura that has surrounded Obama since his Iowa caucus win will be stripped away. The potential of his presidency will be stunted, and talk resurrected of another crippled president or failed presidency, just a few months into the new administration.

The White House and Democratic congressional leaders need to figure out how to actually deliver solid packages on health care and climate change that do some good, can get passed, and that the public will perceive as down payments in trying to address these twin gargantuan problems.

Fixing our health care system, reversing climate change and achieving some measure of energy self-sufficiency are long-term journeys, not immediately achievable destinations. Expectations among Democrats on the left were great. Now they have to find exit strategies that are not interpreted as failures. This is one of those situations when the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, and some friends of the president and Democratic leaders can become, in effect, their worst enemies. They can guarantee that a fall-back strategy will be interpreted as failure.

Utter, fucking bullshit. But I'm quite sure that Mrs Greenspan got very, very overheated and excited when she read it. Cokie's down at the beauty parlor telling all the gals that it's all over and they are breathing a sigh of relief over their mani-pedis.

But let's not kids ourselves. People do not care about government deficits more than they care about whether or not they will go bankrupt if they are unlucky enough to get cancer. They just don't. "Deficit" is a term that has no real meaning to people. It's an empty vessel that carries whatever fears people have, which is then used as a weapon by the protectors of the status quo to stop any kind of progress for actual human beings. People are scared of a lot of things right now and rightfully so, but a future government debt 20 years from now that may or may not actually happen would be far down the list if they had the whole picture. It's demagogic gibberish.

If the ruling class gets away with using some abstract nonsense term to convince people that it's better to stay in the car as it goes over the cliff than risk jumping out of it, then I suppose we get what we deserve.