Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Childish Nature of American Politics

My, how American loves leadership. The country loved George W. Bush when he "led" us into two completely unfunded wars, costing in the $trillions. The seniors loved George W. Bush for his "leadership" on Medicare, giving them another unfunded benefit projected to cost about 3/4 of another $trillion over the next decade. The nation, most notably the wealthiest 3% of the nation, is angry that G.W.'s unfunded tax cuts might not be extended - who cares about the unfunded $trillions lost to the tax cut, or that the cuts were scheduled by Bush to expire as part of the maneuverings to ram them through Congress without adequate funding or consideration of the future. That is leadership, American style, and the Republicans had his back.

Meanwhile, three items on our national budget prevent us from having any reasonable expectation of a balanced budget in the short- or longer term: Military spending, Medicare and Social Security. Bush, a self-described war president who had launched those two unfunded wars, was interested in increasing military spending. And he just got through making Medicare less sustainable, so he wasn't about to send the contradictory message that it was a pressing financial priority. So he picked the easiest of the three, and a long-term thorn in the side of the Republican Party, and announced a partial privatization plan for Social Security.

The question at this point is not whether Bush's plan was a good idea. It was poorly conceived - or, I suppose, well-conceived if you would have been among the money managers who received a government license to skim a percentage off of people's private accounts as "compensation" for your services. The question is not whether private accounts would have produced a greater return than treasury bonds. If you weren't already aware that it's foolish to believe that the stock market only goes up, the financial industry collapse and current recession should have set you straight. The question is, what price will the public pay for reform? What happened when the Grandpa Simpsons of the nation (that is, all of them except this one) got wind of the notion that somebody might be trying to cut their Social Security, the Republicans who had been so happy to push through Bush's $trillions in unfunded tax cuts and expenditures scurried for cover.

Some cynicism is appropriate here. Had Bush been serious about Social Security reform, in the sense of making the books balance for the indefinite future, he could have found enough Democrats to support reform. It's been done before - some minor tweaks to contributions, payouts, and the age at which you are eligible for partial or full benefits, and suddenly the program is projected to be sound for another century. Bush preferred to keep the system in a state of crisis, or more correctly something that could be misrepresented as a state of crisis, to make people believe that change must occur, and that it must occur quickly. Because it appears that about the only time you can get the public behind something that might involve even slight sacrifice is when you are dealing with imminent catastrophe. Bush's goal was not to fix the Social Security system, it was to undermine and privatize that system.

But what happened to any sense that you can lead a society toward an improved long-term outcome through some modest, short term shared sacrifice or adjustment, rather than waiting for that crisis? Absurd? Take a look at Ruth Marcus:
I write this from a perspective of sympathy with Obama's aims and overall support for his performance over the past two years. But Obama's dismissive analysis omits the non-emergency choices he made - primarily to press for and, in the end, muscle through the passage of health-care reform - and the ensuing discomfort of voters.

Discomfort that is entirely understandable, even to those of us who supported health-care reform.
Marcus speaks of how various Obama Administration ideas created "perceptions of intrusive government", but elides any mention of the intentional distortions that fueled those misperceptions. The health care reform plan that she sees as "too much" for the American people to take, of course, is similar to the Republican counter-proposal to the Clinton plan from twenty years ago, and is almost identical to the plan implemented for Massachusetts by once and future Republican Presidential contender Mitt Romney. "Cap and trade" was similarly a Republican idea, once championed by John McCain and supported in the tentative Democratic legislation by Lindsey Graham. The auto bailout started under the Bush Administration, and the larger financial industry bailout was also a continuation of Bush policies. By the time of the election, anybody paying attention was aware that the auto industry "takeover" had turned out to be a remarkable success.

So Marcus appears to be saying that as long as there are groups willing to play off of the public's fears and insecurities, even if it means portraying as frightening the very policies they once endorsed, and even if it means refusing to work for better solutions in order to obstruct reforms they concede are necessary, it's best to do nothing. The Obama Administration was not acting like G.W. on Social Security reform. It repeatedly reached out to and included Republicans in the drafting of its legislation, and to entice Republican support and contribution. It's possible that had the Republican Party been less interested in obstructionism, something they correctly anticipated would help them in the 2010 election, and more interested in forming good policy, we would have passed a better healthcare reform bill without the public misconception that this is a big government bill that's going to destroy health insurance as we know it.

If you look at the few Republicans who are willing to articulate a healthcare policy, you tend to see the Newt Gingrich brand of reform - eliminate comprehensive health insurance in favor of catastrophic coverage and health savings accounts. If you come down with cancer, you're covered. If you develop a chronic health condition, you had better either be born rich or keep your job because you're going to pay for that out of your "savings". What if your salary is to meager to allow for any appreciable contribution to your health savings account? Well, that would be your problem, wouldn't it. And do you know how we get to that system from the one we have? By forcing a crisis. The bad news for the Republican Party arising from the modest healthcare reform bill is that it forestalls catastrophe, and creates a framework through which an alternative to the Gingrich-style system can evolve without the current system first reaching the point of catastrophic failure. So yes, they ginned up hysterical opposition to a center-right reform bill and are screeching about repeal. But in the view of Ruth Marcus, all of that is President Obama's fault - it's too scary when the government tries to act in a grown-up manner and prevent things from reaching a crisis point.

Fareed Zakaria was on Real Time last week, and reminded Adrian Fenty that it's better to serve one term in office with real accomplishments than to serve multiple terms with little to show for it. Even though he's among the first to trumpet his own accomplishments, Fenty didn't seem comfortable with that idea. (What's the first thing a politician thinks of when he wakes up in the morning? How to get reelected.) But Zakaria's point is valid, and it's one I wish our political leaders were mature enough to internalize. It would also be helpful if our political press weren't so happy to cover the horse race instead of the issues and, after egging on the mud-slinging and "objectively" refusing to separate fact from fiction, weren't so quick to blame the politicians who try to show actual leadership, make tough decisions, and prevent crises for getting ahead of the American people.

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