Democrats should get Machiavellian

This will not be a popular argument for my more conservative and libertarian readers, but in political terms, I think the Democratic party and Barack Obama need to cease their efforts to create bi-partisan health care reform, and instead use their majorities to pass their agenda, and then let the public have a chance to vote them out in 2010 and 2012 if they don’t like it.

Ronald Reagan, the iconic conservative President of the 1980s, made a point of standing on principle, even if it was unpopular.   That earned him respect from even Democrats.  Barack Obama and the Democratic party made health care reform a fundamental part of their campaign, and it gained them considerable support.   Now the Republicans are launching a frontal assault on the plan, with disruption of meetings, false claims of ‘death panels’ and an effort to, as one describes “destroy the Obama Presidency.”   The Republicans have declared political war.   They don’t want to cooperate or compromise on this issue.

At this point, Obama has to consider his options.   He could cave in and drop his efforts to reform health care for now, thereby making it unlikely he’ll get anything passed, and showing himself a weakened President.   That would be politically expedient in the short term, but hurt both him and his party in the longer term.

The Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate, and a considerable majority in the house.   Given the economy, this may be their only opportunity to push the country in a different direction than it has been going.    Obama hoped to unify, but the divisions between the parties remain intense.   The only way the GOP will work with Obama is if he makes it clear that fighting him tooth and nail on everything will only get the Republicans cut out of the picture.  He has to make it in their interest to cooperate.

Consider: if you’re a Republican, you hope that you can rally opposition to force Obama to back down, make him look weak, grab the high ground, and push against the Democratic agenda.    As long as Obama either backs down or is unable to muster the votes in his own party to pass legislation, he looks weak.   That will lose him support from moderates who found him inspirational, turn the left in his own party against him, and demoralize the Democrats who had so much hope a year ago.

So the Republicans right now feel like they are in the drivers’ seat, as long as Obama proves to be a weak opponent.   And he does appear weak — even Jon Stewart is mocking him for not being able to control the message the way Bush did in the run up to the Iraq war.   The Democrats need to decide to stand and govern on principle, pass what they can pass, and let the Republicans rip them while they do it.

Take health care.  Obama needs to make a national address showing how the health care system is in a financial crisis, with the current system unsustainable.   He should make a strong moral argument about the dangers of letting the market control this, noting the corruption and abuse the financial system underwent when market deregulation occurred.   He must point out projections that show that the current system is near collapse, and paint a dire picture of the cost of doing nothing  (perhaps seven times higher than the cost of the current system).   He needs to put this in the context of the current crisis we’re facing and starkly point out that doing nothing is no option.   He needs to then deride the misleading information on the current plans, and say that it is imperative to move forward.

The Democrats can pass a proposal with only 51 Senate votes — if they go to reconciliation, they can avoid a Republican filibuster.   The Republicans have said that would be a “declaration of war,” but it appears they are already at war with Obama.  Moreover, the public tends not to get too excited by procedural controversies, so this won’t really hurt the Democrats in terms of public opinion.

The GOP will respond by targeting legislators and Senators who may be in vulnerable states or districts.  The Democrats need to put on their own information offensive, and hope that time and the fact that their changes are not so odious as right wing claims causes people to shift opinion yet again.   Moreover, a truism in politics is that the public has a short memory.   Whatever issue is in the spotlight in October 2010 will drive the next election, the fights of 2009 will be quickly forgotten.   And, of course, the White House will have a lot of influence over what dominates the news in October 2010.

After health care is passed, Obama should again call for cooperation and compromise on future issues.    At first the Republicans may refuse due to anger over losing on health care.   But ultimately that emotion will give way to the idea that perhaps by being part of the discussion they can better influence legislation moving forward.    If so, Obama should welcome that.    The Democrats have the power to pass a lot without Republican cooperation, but the more they do so, the more dangerous it is that it will backfire.

On the right, many may want to keep up a war against Obama rather than cooperate and compromise for similar reasons.   Many on the left would prefer to just push through as much as possible and not even try to cooperate.  But these folks over-estimate the support a hard core message on the left or the right generates.    Obama and the Democrats need to make clear they want substantive cooperation and compromise, but if the Republicans refuse, they will use their votes to get legislation passed.   If the GOP responds positively, Obama must also not fear real compromise, even if the left wing of his party gets upset.

In 2010 the country will be someplace else.   In 2012, when Obama runs for re-election, the issues that dominate will no doubt be quite different than those today, we can only speculate.    In 1994 nobody thought Clinton would have a chance at re-election in 1996, but he won easily.   In 1982 Reagan looked weak, but he rebounded.   Obama and the Democrats can’t let fear of public reaction stop them from doing what they campaigned to do, and what they have the votes to accomplish.

Obama was elected because people wanted change, and he inspired hope.   If he thought that good will would last more than a month or so into his Presidency, he was wrong.    The Presidency is not a marketing campaign.   He needs to lead, even if it means ruffling some feathers or getting people upset.   He needs to recognize that his role requires he do what he thinks best for the country, even if it might threaten his re-election in 2012.   Obama is being tested.   To pass, he needs to lead.

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  1. #1 by helenl on August 19, 2009 - 6:53 pm

    I agree. We didn’t stand and shout, “YES, WE CAN,” to see Obama tip-toe around Republicans before passing health care legislation. We need it now. The Democrats won for nothing if they don’t pass laws that make for CHANGE. Pass it, and if it really destroys the earth, well, we were wrong. But this way, we’ll never know.

  2. #2 by classicliberal2 on August 19, 2009 - 9:44 pm

    “Obama and the Democrats can’t let fear of public reaction stop them from doing what they campaigned to do, and what they have the votes to accomplish.”

    It’s not a fear of public reaction causing the problem–it’s fear of offending their industry paymasters. The public is has been with Obama on this one from the beginning.

    I write a blog on public policy matters. I opened it immediately after Obama’s election, as a successor to a website covering the same subjects which I’ve maintained since the day after the terror attacks on the U.S. back in 2001. I’ve railed against Obama’s Rodney-King-ist politics from the beginning. Instead of adopting a position of strength and fighting from it, he says “can’t we all just get along?” He begins by giving all sorts of concessions to the other side right up front in the hope that this will bring them over to his side. In a world in which there existed a reasonable, responsible opposition party, this sort of thing may inspire that opposition to be magnanimous and work toward a compromise. No such reasonable, responsible opposition exists in the real world. If the Clinton years taught the Demos anything, it should have taught them that. Obama is a Democrat. If he was to adopt outright Republican policies (as did Clinton), they’d still try not just to beat him but to destroy him (as they did with Clinton).

    Obama spoke of Dr. King, but adopted Rodney-King-ism. It has all but destroyed his administration. It wrecked the “stimulus” bill. He gave nearly half of that up in wasteful, less stimulative tax cuts in the hope of getting Republican votes. At a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, he got two such votes. And he didn’t learn from that. He’s continued this practice, and it has done him in time and time again. It has, in all likelihood, done him in on health-care.

    The Repubs are quite Machiavellian on the matter–with a Rodney-King-ist, they can afford to be. With Obama’s help, they’ve set it up so they win either way. Here’s what they want to happen next:

    a) Nothing at all, which is their preference, or
    b) for something to pass that’s watered down, industry-dictated crap that does nothing to control costs, and will only make the situation many time worse, but that will be labeled “health care reform.” It will fail, and the right will blame its failure on government.

    Obama’s Rodney-King-ism has been the single subject I’ve covered more than any other in my blog and in my other writing about his administration. One old post I wrote about how liberal democracy is supposed to work points the way to what could have happened with health care. Obama could have come out in favor of single payer. The public sent a Democratic supermajority to congress last year, and it could be passed without a single Republican vote. If the damned paid-off “blue dog” Demos wanted to make a fight of it, you begin by schmoozing with them, cutting deals, granting favors–offer a carrot. Next, you telling them their pork-barrel projects are going to come under the knife when the budget comes up if they don’t get in line. Finally, if, after all that, any of them want to get tough, you tell them every one who doesn’t get with the program will be facing primary challenges next year, generously funded by the DNC and Democratic campaign committees. You tell them they may be able to survive those challenges, but it may well cost the party the majority, and that you’re willing to see it done even if that does happen, because there’s no point in having a majority if they’re just going to behave like Repubs.

    You could even start by proposing a full-scale single-payer plan, then “compromise” for the benefit of recalcitrant Dems and Repubs by going for a gradually adopted single-payer plan. You write up a bill with the new limitations on private insurance Obama has proposed–no more pre-existing conditions, no more dropping people when they get sick, etc.–then you make the single-payer plan the “public option,” one open to anyone, but one which automatically covers anyone without private insurance. Eventually, everyone will move into that plan, because the private insurance companies are going to react to the new laws governing them by jacking up everyone’s rates, reducing coverage, and otherwise making it impossible for people to get coverage. That’s exactly what’s going to happen with Obama’s “plan,” too, except, without any “public option,” there isn’t going to be a fall-back option for people.

    (There are plenty of other reforms, as well. The pharmaceutical industry needs gelded with a very dull and rusty instrument, among a great many other things.)

    This isn’t just a speculative scenario–it would have worked. But it required some backbone, and the will to see it through. A little Machiavelli would have helped.

  3. #3 by Josh on August 20, 2009 - 3:13 am

    I think there is a lot of hypocrisy on both sides right now. Republicans thought it was horrific when folks compared Bush to Hitler, but now they are doing the same thing with our current President. Also, they were the ones upset when Democrats didn’t go with Bush’s plans. Now, Republicans are the ones unwilling to cooperate.

    At the same time if the Democrats in Congress now force their plans through, then they can’t complain again when the other side obtains power and dominates policy (like they did when Bush was in office).

    Man, I WISH we had mathematicians in Congress right now. I think some razor sharp logic skills would make C-SPAN much easier to watch.

    About the town hall meetings:
    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think these meetings show that there is no real Democratic or Republican majority in America. Our country is still split.
    It’s hard to tell whether this is a good or a bad thing right now, but I tend to respect these people (left or right) more than those in office.

    • #4 by John H. on August 20, 2009 - 4:18 am

      Josh,
      With respect to town hall meetings, I’d respect the protests a little more if they weren’t following talking points to the letter. It’s manufactured outrage, which is just foolish.
      Respectfully,
      John

      • #5 by Josh on August 20, 2009 - 7:06 pm

        I see what you mean John. I think much of it is pretty foolish, too. While their methods of debate are annoying, these folks still have beliefs they feel strongly about, and I don’t think I am willing to label them all as brainwashed.

      • #6 by classicliberal2 on August 20, 2009 - 8:04 pm

        “While their methods of debate are annoying, these folks still have beliefs they feel strongly about, and I don’t think I am willing to label them all as brainwashed.”

        Their “beliefs”–the things about which they feel so strongly–is that Obama is a socialist Nazi (a concept which, alone, suggests serious intellectual breakdown) who wants to kill old people and the disabled. That’s the thing around which they’ve rallied, and by interests who openly avow they want NO reform of ANY kind. “Brainwashed” is a perfect description.

      • #7 by Josh on August 20, 2009 - 11:58 pm

        classicliberal2,

        I’ve watched some of the town hall meetings on C-SPAN. Many of the folks who spoke out against the Democratic politicians said nothing about “deathcamps” or Hitler. They had legitimate concerns.

        I do agree, however, that the Hitler comparison is pretty ridiculous.

      • #8 by Josh on August 21, 2009 - 11:07 am

        Ahem… I meant to say “death panels” not “deathcamps”. Sorry about that.

  4. #9 by Mike Lovell on August 20, 2009 - 2:49 pm

    “Take health care. Obama needs to make a national address showing how the health care system is in a financial crisis, with the current system unsustainable. He should make a strong moral argument about the dangers of letting the market control this, noting the corruption and abuse the financial system underwent when market deregulation occurred. He must point out projections that show that the current system is near collapse, and paint a dire picture of the cost of doing nothing (perhaps seven times higher than the cost of the current system). He needs to put this in the context of the current crisis we’re facing and starkly point out that doing nothing is no option.”

    Would Obama then be intellectually honest and point to the complete inefficiencies of the Medicare system, the fact that its costs have gone up at higher rates than expected on a road to complete insolvency despite paying lower costs to doctors and hospitals?

    Also, doing nothing is no option, but doing something downright fiscally stupid, especially given our current predicament economically speaking, could actually be worse. I mean hey it MIGHT end up better, but if it doesn’t, how much time and money did we waste for essentially nothing, instead of looking for sound policies that cover the maximum persons while being fiscally responsible in the process?

    And don’t get me wrong, the Republicans wasted a (naughtyword)storm’s worth of money, and often on nothing of great value (if any value at all), but is returning the exact same favor from the opposite side in the name of politics really a smart thing to do?

    • #10 by classicliberal2 on August 20, 2009 - 6:00 pm

      “Would Obama then be intellectually honest and point to the complete inefficiencies of the Medicare system, the fact that its costs have gone up at higher rates than expected on a road to complete insolvency despite paying lower costs to doctors and hospitals?”

      In the real world, Medicare is one of the most efficient government programs ever created, and kicks the private sector’s tail all over the place. Administrative costs of Medicare are about 2% of the cost of claims. The comparable figure, in the private sector, is 20-28%.

      The escalating cost of Medicare is a consequence of the escalating cost of health care generally, which is a function of astronomically increasing greed from that for-profit private sector (and the layer upon layer of bureaucracy that private sector demands).

      • #11 by Mike Lovell on August 20, 2009 - 6:52 pm

        Administrative costs may be lower, I’ll grant you that, but the overall numbers show a very dire number that no organization in the world can say that the program hasnt been driven towards insolvency. Administrative costs are a variable form that can’t be the sole blame, as some companies (in general, not just healthcare) can have high administrative while beating out competition in their market that has lower admin costs. Part of that factor is the number of people supporting the system versus those drawing from it.

        Do I agree that the system needs some reformation? Yes. Is government takeover the answer? No.
        The bigger question I have when it comes to helathcare reform, while all can benefit from reform, is if the current problem of insurability lies with a minority of the population, then why not address the minorities needs instead of saying the entire populace must change?

      • #12 by classicliberal2 on August 20, 2009 - 8:14 pm

        “The bigger question I have when it comes to helathcare reform, while all can benefit from reform, is if the current problem of insurability lies with a minority of the population, then why not address the minorities needs instead of saying the entire populace must change?”

        Because the problem doesn’t lie with the minority of uninsured; it’s with the health care system itself. The number of people who die for lack of insurance in a year is in the tens-of-thousands. The number of people supposedly insured who, nevertheless, end up killed and injured because of insurance company behavior would be many times that. Insurance companies do everything they can to avoid paying on a claim, including inventing things like “prudent person pre-existing conditions” (look it up), and even investigating one’s genetic history (looking back on one’s ancestors). People are dropped if they become ill, or their rates are raised to exorbitant levels. The #1 cause of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. is medical costs–the number per years is in the millions, and those are mostly among those who are supposedly insured.

        And that’s just some of the insurance-related problems, before getting into anything else.

        The problem is the system itself, as it now exists.

    • #13 by Scott Erb on August 21, 2009 - 12:44 am

      We spend the highest amount of money in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP on health care than anywhere in the industrialized world (twice what many industrialized countries pay). I think the reform has to be to reign in out of control costs, learning from how other countries do it. I think the problems with Medicare are one of the reasons the whole thing has to be reformed. How to do it well? I don’t know. I would hope that they learn from other countries and recognize, for instance, that Germany’s system works better than Great Britains.

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