Friday, December 25, 2009

A Dose of Christmas Humbug

Today's Boston Globe reads, "Health Win in Hand." You can almost feel the exclamation point coming off the page. It follows with the caution, "Hurdles Ahead." Noting that the healthcare bill still faces the challenge of reconciling the two substantively different bills passed by both houses of Congress, not to mention Constitutional challenges and whatever other dirty tricks the Senate Republicans can muster between now and the passage of the reconciled bill, the Globe has a side article usefully informing its readers that this bill may still not become law because the coalition supporting the bill is so fragile it may come apart during the usually perfunctory reconciliation phase. That said, assuming that no 11th hour roadblocks are raised, universal health care is going to become law in the US. Our President has put a happy face on things, saying he got "95 percent of what I want."

On this Christmas Day, allow me to honor a ghost of Christmas past (and doing so as a virtually-atheist Jew, no less) by saying...HUMBUG!

Paul Krugman--not normally a man predisposed to cheery pronouncements just for the sake of feeling good--writes in the NYT that the bill, despite a number of flaws, really is a major accomplishment and will lead to improvement in the lives of Americans in the coming years. But he does provide an analysis of why so many people are so unhappy:

So why are so many people complaining? First, there’s the crazy right, the tea party and death panel people — a lunatic fringe that is no longer a fringe but has moved into the heart of the Republican Party. In the past, there was a general understanding, a sort of implicit clause in the rules of American politics, that major parties would at least pretend to distance themselves from irrational extremists. But those rules are no longer operative. No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause...Finally, there has been opposition from some progressives who are unhappy with the bill’s limitations. Some would settle for nothing less than a full, Medicare-type, single-payer system. Others had their hearts set on the creation of a public option to compete with private insurers. And there are complaints that the subsidies are inadequate, that many families will still have trouble paying for medical care...Unlike the tea partiers and the humbuggers, disappointed progressives have valid complaints. But those complaints don’t add up to a reason to reject the bill. Yes, it’s a hackneyed phrase, but politics is the art of the possible. [my emphasis]

So what's a disappointed progressive to do?

Let me go out on a limb here--very, very far out on a limb--and suggest that maybe the nutso wing of the Republican party (which is now the de-facto leadership of the Republican party) has the right strategy, and maybe it is time for progressives to take a page from their playbook. The phrase that's been bandied about over the past year in relation to the tea-partiers is that they demand of their representatives that they "pass a political litmus test" demonstrating a level of ideological purity. We saw this most clearly in evidence in the New York 23rd Congressional race this November, where so-called "liberal" Republican Dede Scozzafava was abandoned by the Republican base in favor of 3rd-party candidate Douglas Hoffman, allowing Democrat Bill Owens to win in an overwhelmingly Republican district. The conventional wisdom of that election was that the far right had become so crazy that they would rather be out of power than have an electable candidate who wasn't absolutely ideologically pure. My own sense is that the Tea-Party choice, Hoffman, very nearly won the election (he lost by just over 3,000 votes out of 140,000 cast), and almost certainly would have won had he had an additional few months to gain momentum.

So while the strategy of demanding ideological purity failed the far right on the political equivalent of a broken play, I suspect it will pay long-term dividends. Even in marginal districts, potential Republican party candidates are going to be very careful not to run afoul of this very determined, apparently reasonably well-organized group. Yes, in the short run they may have some setbacks as they had in the NY 23rd. But next year I am willing to bet that Owens will be out and he will be replaced by someone approved of by "the base," maybe Hoffman himself.

Might it not be time to demand this from Democrats? Particularly Democrats running for Senate seats? Or even President of the United States? I am not suggesting that an ideological litmus test need to be applied to every single issue that faces us. But demanding support for the Public Option (which, after all, was the compromise position that progressives had decided to live with instead of a Medicare-For-All, single-payer system that would represent real change) would have been a starting point.

Anyway, perhaps Krugman is right and the reasons to be unhappy with the bill are not reasons enough to walk away from it. But I do note that Krugman's view is not universal among progressives, and I'm quite sympathetic to their viewpoint. Here is a great summary in an editorial for CNN online by the mightily courageous Congressional representative from the NY 28th district, Louise Slaughter. She has one line, nicely summarizing the critical difference between the House and Senate versions of the health care bill, that captures it all for me: "I do not want to subsidize the private insurance market; the whole point of creating a government option is to bring prices down." I have yet to hear anything from the leadership of the Democratic party that lucid. Perhaps it is time to think about withholding our support from leaders who do not speak or act as clearly as Congresswoman Slaughter.

1 comment:

  1. Not sure if becoming more extreme will have healthy long-term effects. The problem in a system with non-linear feedback is that reactions can reinforce each other to the point where they tear the system apart.

    I think that another answer is for more moderate citizens to support canditates who run against extreme ones. Essentially passing the extremist "litmus test" would give the opposing candidate access to financial resources from a national organization.