Friday, August 21, 2009

Krugman on Obama

Paul Krugman offers up an editorial explaining how Obama's disappointing some of his biggest supporters. Krugman has always been skeptical of Obama, but that's no reason to dismiss his observations. It's a crazy time, in which the Republican Party panders to the most extreme, outrageous and misinformed factions of its base, while the Democratic Party marginalizes and alienates some of its most informed and dedicated members.

The best defense of the White House's moves, that there's no clear understanding of what a "public option" would entail, and thus the various people advocating for a public option may have different things in mind, fails as a defense. Why? Because the same criticism applies to any and every part of healthcare reform - and will continue to apply until the bill is in final form. And frankly, if the White House were to get proponents of a public option together and figure out what they had in mind, I believe that there would be broad consensus as to the basic concepts. "Town Hall" hysterics aside, it's really not that difficult to understand.

It appears in terms of reform that the White House viewed compromise as necessary and, having rejected single payer as politically infeasible, viewed the public option as a starting point for negotiations. And then they assumed that everybody would see the logic in this approach, and that negotiating away the public option was inevitable. Which is true if you start your negotiation by telegraphing your goal - "We'll drop the public option if you, more or less, agree to the rest." But it's only true if you let it be true.

Obama didn't understand that his supporters see a public option as more central to healthcare reform than a lot of the reforms he's pushing through. Oddly, he didn't recognize that the nation's insurance companies, in dropping their opposition to his basic set of reforms, feels the same way - a public option means real competition for them, but a mandate with no public option means immensely fattened profits and reduced competition.

Krugman notes that it's possible to have universal healthcare that's neither single payer nor inclusive of a public option, and observes that some of the proponents of a public option "might be willing to forgo it if they had confidence in the overall health care strategy". True, but more than what Krugman says, that "the president’s behavior in office has undermined that confidence," there's been no attempt to explain how we could achieve similar universality under the proposed reform legislation without a public option. I see a law mandating that everybody buy insurance as falling short of that - if the gist of "reform" becomes that everybody has to now buy crappy coverage from a for-profit insurer, reform will be a failure. An unpopular failure.

I think that Obama's problems come from a number of directions, even leaving aside the mess that he inherited. I think he overestimated the Democratic Party's ability to learn from its own mistakes, including the manner in which Congress undermined Clinton during his first two years in office contributed to a loss of the party's credibility and it's Congressional majorities. I think he also overestimated the party's willingness to stand up to corporate interests, put the needs of the country first, and unite behind legislative initiatives that could seriously improve life in this country. But that's a failure to learn from history, where you can take a room filled with several hundred smart men (and, unfortunately, considerably more than a smattering of dumb ones), were "debate" quickly reduces to the level of the lowest common denominator. (Is that a fair description of Congress?)

I am not so much convinced that he underestimated the Republican Party, as much as he overestimated the media. For many years, any time one or two Democrats supported a Republican proposal, the proposal was deemed "bipartisan". Suddenly the definition has shifted, and apparently means that if a majority of Republicans don't support Obama's proposals then they're not "bipartisan". And no matter how badly or outrageously the Republican Party behaves, the media always points the finger at Obama - "See, he promised bipartisanship, but he still can't come into a compromise with people who actively lie, intentionally distort the debate, and have stated that they want to cause him to fail for their own political benefit."

I think Krugman does highlight a very real strategic failure by the White House:
But there’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness, and progressives increasingly feel that the administration is on the wrong side of that line. It seems as if there is nothing Republicans can do that will draw an administration rebuke: Senator Charles E. Grassley feeds the death panel smear, warning that reform will “pull the plug on grandma,” and two days later the White House declares that it’s still committed to working with him.
How did that happen? I believe Obama thought it would be easier to woo enough of the (tiny number of) moderate Republicans to support his reform plan (which he would then call "bipartisan"), than in either cracking the whip on the "Blue Dogs" or giving them the concessions they were demanding. Thanks in no small part to their party's very effective disinformation campaign, those moderate Republicans are disinclined to support any reform bill, and the "Blue Dogs" haven't been brought any closer to supporting the reform package.

Those Blue Dogs? What do they bring to the table. They have no apparent party loyalty. Whatever their motivation - fear of alienating constituents, fear of alienating donors - if they cause Obama to falter it's very likely going to be their seats that switch back to the Republican column. Do they truly feel that they have more to gain here by advancing John Boehner's "make the President fail" agenda, than by working for a reform that will help their President and party, and improve the lives of their constituents? I digress, but if they do make choices that lead to their own marginalization or decimation at the polls, well, choices have consequences.

Meanwhile, while Obama may have underlearned the lessons of history on how his own party behaves when it's in the majority, perhaps he overlearned (or accurately learned) the lessons of G.W. Bush's "I've been reelected, so now I get to trash Social Security" victory tour. If Obama were truly to announce to the country, "Having give up single payer, I am resolute that the healthcare reform bill must include a public option," only to find that (as is presently the case) his own party won't stand behind him, he might experience a fate similar to Bush's. Which would be worse for his credibility? For those who believe he could make strong statements in support of a public option and have Congress fall in line, is that belief based upon anything more than faith? Wishful thinking?

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