A Lack of Savvy
As things stand now, my earlier optimism about getting a good health care reform bill out of this Congress is now gone. Part of that I blame on the inept leadership Democrats suffer from in each chamber. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are exactly the wrong people to be charged with strategic thinking and agenda management, and yet Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel banked the farm on them, and let the Democratic caucuses in each house translate an electoral mandate into significant losses in 2010.
Part of it I blame on what Bush left behind. Just like he left Texas in a mess, Bush left this country in shambles, and had already started on a course of indebtedness and Wall Street bailouts that poisoned the well for the next president’s agenda.
However, it’s also too easy to blame the problems facing Democrats right now on their leadership and the Republicans. A healthy dose of looking in the mirror would help the White House right about now, not that they ever will. Barack Obama owns the paltry and misguided stimulus package, and the fact that we will not get another shot at one before 2010. Barack Obama owns the lack of financial reform to date, and the fact that his own administration is conspiring to work against real reform and continues to this day to be more interested in helping out Goldman Sachs than they are in holding Wall Street accountable. And Barack Obama owns the blown health care debate and legislative approach, which has evolved to a point where a necessary debate about the morality of letting big insurance companies destroy the lives of everyday Americans has been diverted into a debate about abortion, which should have been foreseen months ago as a red state poison pill.
It’s easy for me and others to second-guess the health care reform strategy now, but it should not have been hard for the brains in the White House to see that letting Congress have the keys to this car in the midst of a bad economy and rising concerns about debt and bailouts would lead to this. The White House has made it excessively easy for the GOP to employ their typical tactics. Partly this is because of a flawed strategy from overrated people at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Partly it is because of the naïve “new kind of politics” delusion from the president himself, which reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the forces aligned against him from Day One. And partly it is because you cannot ask Main Street to resist the usual right wing misdirection attempts and ignore the fact that they have gotten nothing so far from the bailouts except more debt, and are now being asked to take more on faith. Once Obama let Tim Geithner and Larry Summers talk down the size of the stimulus while holding no one accountable on Wall Street and Washington for past misdeeds, the cake was baked for a Democratic drubbing in 2010.
With this background, an incremental approach on health care reform that focused initially on market reforms and strong cost controls made more sense, as even conservative Republicans in the House support these measures now. And it pays to remember that at a critical time in 1994, the Clintons had the chance to get a compromise as a down payment on health care reform from Tim Penny and other moderates, but passed and never got another chance. We are now at a similar point where a flawed industry-friendly bill that does nothing to deal with the broken reimbursement incentives for costly care has been married with an individual mandate, a ban on abortion, and lack of real choice of health plan options, the worst of all worlds.
Yet there is no White House or DNC action plan ready to activate which would punish wayward DINOs like Bart Stupak for taking industry cash and turning this debate into an evisceration of Roe v. Wade. There could have been a ready-made political strategy here for local protests to spring up in Stupak’s district and all other DINO’s, complaining about why he and others get quality and affordable health care from the government, yet oppose it for everyone else. There could have been a debate about why the Bart Stupak’s of the world care more about leveraging the uninsured middle class for an abortion debate and taking industry money all the while. Unfortunately, the White House’s takeover of the DNC, and neutering of the vast OFA apparatus so as to not hold Democrats accountable makes this impossible. It also misses the point: if the White House really wanted health care to be the signature issue in 2009, which I think was a tragic mistake given the weakened economy and need to focus on reform, accountability, and recovery first, then why didn’t Pelosi and Emanuel see this coming? Why didn’t Obama set the narrative himself before the August recess and define the debate, putting the arguments of his opponents in context well before the tea bagging stupidity that allowed the Stupak’s of the world to throw 11th-hour grenades?
My cat, in sizing up birds and squirrels each morning, is more adept at strategy and long-range thinking than Rahm Emanuel.
Mr. President, a little less focus on your golf game and overseas travels, and a little more laser-like focus on the economy, strategy, and hard-reality politics would have done you and your party well. As it is, your party will now lose seats in 2010, while you will likely be re-elected because of the GOP’s self-destruction. But things could have been much different and better for Main Street, if only you were smarter and more savvy, and if you had listened to different people. The GOP is about to take the populism that Obama left by the roadside, and turn it against the Democrats.