Friday, August 7, 2009

Perils of Bipartisanship: the Dark Side

It may not yet be too late to salvage something decent out of the mess that “health care reform” has become, but time is running short, and the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress are still up to their old, bipartisan tricks. It is becoming increasingly clear that this bipartisanship of theirs is putting more than just health care reform in peril.

Obama won the presidency in large part because it had become clear to a majority of voters that the Cheney/Bush administration had been flagrantly god awful. It helped too that John McCain was uncharismatic, and that he picked a cartoon character for a running-mate. In those circumstances, all Obama had to do to win large sectors of the electorate over was to position himself towards the center of our rightward-skewed political spectrum. Then, as in judo, he was able to turn his opponents’ attacks into instruments of their own undoing – in a way that even ill-informed, clueless, apolitical “swing voters” could appreciate. But that was then, and this is now. Now it’s legislators, not the people they purport to represent, who must be won over. These are not people who can be persuaded by compelling arguments; they’re too busy paying the piper. The judo maneuvering that won the election for Obama is therefore powerless against them; especially not while health care profiteers are busily stuffing their pockets.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party had long ago turned itself over to its useful idiots, the folks who appeal to the Fox News/right-wing talk radio demographic. While shamelessly playing to this “base” in the 2008 election, John McCain at least had enough decency to reign in the looniest of his supporters when the mood at some of his rallies turned ugly (and, in a not very disguised way, racist). But nowadays, there is no one in charge, and the Republican leadership, such as it is, only wants to obstruct. Being outnumbered in Congress and vastly outnumbered in the general population, they have therefore hit upon the strategy that worked for their German and Italian counterparts in the 1920s and 30s. They have taken to stirring up the furies.

The first inklings of this strategy were the “tea parties,” organized, not very surreptitiously, by Fox News and like-minded (and funded) public relations firms. The tea parties were a joke, but the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina for the Supreme Court, nevertheless breathed new life into “the movement.” As per the conventional wisdom, it unleashed the anxieties of the most “left behind” segments of the still (barely) majority white community, and incited the pent up rage of those who feel most in jeopardy. Then came the Gates affair and Obama’s indisputably correct (but nevertheless rescinded) remark that Gates’s arrest and shackling in his own home was “stupid.” After that, it all went viral, as the corporate media – including its “liberal” wing -- desperate for ratings, took the bait, showering derisory publicity on each and every lunacy the far-right can conjure up. But even bad publicity has been good for changing the terms of the debate – even farther to the right.

Thus even the so called “birther movement” has become a factor in our politics. These are the folks who insist that Barack Obama is not a “natural born” citizen, and is therefore not “really” the President. No matter that they have made a cause of a delusion – an expression of a wish in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Their dumb obstreperousness has given them a mainstream hearing.

The crowds turning out to disrupt town hall meetings on health care reform are cut from the same cloth – and are often the same people. They too are impervious to rational argument, oblivious to the facts –and, in this instance especially, militantly opposed to their own best interests. Evidence is mounting too that their “spontaneous” demonstrations are supported financially by public relations operatives in the pay of the insurance industry and other health care profiteers. This is diligently reported and exposed. But, no matter: right-wing obstreperousness, shading off into threats of violence, has helped put even Obama’s milquetoast reform proposals on the defensive.

For this, Obama and his advisors are largely to blame. The problem isn’t just that, wanting to avoid the mistakes the Clintons made a generation ago, they erred in the opposite direction, turning much of the task of fashioning health care legislation over to lobbyists for the so-called stakeholders (the health industry profiteers) and to legislators who do their bidding. That misdeed explains why reform is still a work in progress, and why what will finally emerge becomes worse with each passing day. But it doesn’t, by itself, explain the reemergence of the dark side. That is a consequence of a more far-reaching mistake on Obama’s part -- his dogged insistence on going bipartisan; in other words, in this instance, on taking seriously the views and desires of a morally and intellectually bankrupt, but nevertheless semi-“institutionalized,” political party that has been taken over by its loonies.

No doubt, in the end, Obama will score some kind of “victory” on health-care reform. But, increasingly, it seems that any bill that passes will do little more than mandate a few worthwhile insurance reforms. At this point, it is even still up in the air whether the proposals that Congress will finally enact will include a “public option” worth having, or will permit states to institute worthwhile public options on their own.

In a saner environment, private, not public, options would be in jeopardy. After all, single-payer trumps all the other contenders: it alone makes health care a right, not a commodity; and it alone promises to cut costs without diminishing the quality of care. But despite widespread popular support for making health care a right, and despite significant Congressional support as well, single-payer is, for all practical purposes, “off the table.” Even proponents of Obama’s “public option” now have to fight to keep that pale approximation of a solution alive. Thus, in recent weeks, we have witnessed the evolution of a “debate” between those who want much too little change and those who want no change at all – while proponents of genuine change, “change we can believe in,” are cast into the margins.

This sad state of affairs is a consequence of Obama’s unrequited but determined “bipartisanship,” and of the Democratic Party leadership’s determination to “win” at all costs -- even to the point of sponsoring and supporting Democrats who might as well be Republicans. The result is plain: right-wing, aka “Blue Dog,” Democrats and two or three “moderate” (not flagrantly obdurate) Republicans have become the “swing voters” who hold the fate of health care reform in their bought and paid for hands, while a newly empowered Right drags our political culture ever more deeply into the realm of the irrational and the vicious.

The empowerment of the Republican mob is arguably even more to be regretted than yet again missing an opportunity for bringing America’s health care system into the mid-twentieth century. Sensing victory, the health care profiteers and their functionaries in the media and the public relations industry have taken it upon themselves to do whatever is necessary to keep their income flows intact. The result is already ugly and it is likely, in the weeks ahead, to become even uglier.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had Obama and Company not gone for a vague and indefensible mishmash intended to bring Republicans along, but instead opted from the outset for a coherent and defensible plan – for a single-payer system or some close facsimile -- they would have encountered no more virulent opposition than they have already. Indeed, they would now stand a better chance for success, if only because they’d be promoting a plan that makes sense. But instead they went the “bipartisan” route.

In doing so, they empowered the Fox News/talk radio audience even more than Republican plutocrats had done previously – breathing new life into the most morally and intellectually retrograde currents of our political culture. In this way, Obama’s bipartisanship has put even more than health care reform in peril.

1 comment:

troutsky said...

Well put. There is a uniquely American pathology that no one wants to acknowledge, like the crazy aunt in the attic,and those who will lynch and torture their way through a hate filled life while the collective We turns away.

My fervent hope is this healthcare loss, along with EFCA, will be the last straw for many so called "progressives" , radicalizing them into direct action.

By the way, is this the Andrew Levine who wrote Rethinking Liberal Equality? If so, I am thrilled to have found it, brilliant argument.