Thursday, December 17, 2009

To Howard Dean: It is 2009, not 1965

The year is 1964, the high watermark of Liberalism. Lyndon Johnson takes 61.1 percent of the popular vote in his election contest against Barry Goldwater, an electoral feat that was bigger than Franklin Roosevelt's 60.8 percent in 1936 and one that has not been surpassed in the years since. The Democratic tsunami sweeps down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where Democrats would out-number Republicans two to one in the 89th Congress, and in the Senate they take 68 seats - the biggest supermajority held by any party to this day. The era of Liberalism had entered its Golden Age.

Unified by the inspiring memory of John Kennedy, Democrats were able to enact health-care legislation that even Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern Liberalism did not have the stomach to attempt as part of his New Deal. It would be Lyndon Johnson, not Harry Truman, not FDR, and not his counsin, Theodore Roosevelt (running as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912) who would enact the single biggest health-care legislation in US history, offering single-payer, comprehensive health-care benefits to seniors over the age of 65 (Medicare) and an option for states to finance the health-care of the indigent (Medicaid) in the Social Security Act of 1965.

We remember the New Deal, and perhaps the Fair Deal, but it is the Great Society that is the apotheosis of 20th century Liberalism. And if 1965 is Liberalism’s high water-mark, then those who would stymie health-care reform today because of the lack of a robust (or indeed, any) public option have gravely gotten their decades mixed up.

There was a time when Liberals did not have to call themselves “Progressives.” That was four decades ago, when Lyndon Johnson attacked Barry Goldwater for wanting to roll back social security and openly campaigned for a further expansion of the welfare state. Times have changed. Today’s Progressives must cagily wrap their Liberal agenda with talk of choice, competition, and bending cost curves. And if the era of Liberalism as FDR, Truman, and Johnson knew it is over, The Age of Reagan lingers on in the Tea Party Movement. Despite his aspiration to build an even Greater Society than Johnson, Barack Obama’s electoral mandate is 18 percent short of what Johnson possessed in 1965; the Democratic majority is the House is much smaller; and, despite the new cloture rules post-1975 in the Senate which has reduced the fraction of votes needed to end debate from 2/3 to 3/5, Joe Lieberman et al remind us every day that the Senate is anything but filibuster-proof.

To Governor Dean and his compatriots, it is 2009, not 1965.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Assessing Obama's Nobel Acceptance Speech

By saluting "citizens of America" before "citizens of the world," President Barack Obama's Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was addressed to the conservative side of his domestic audience, who have waited and waited and finally heard him say what they wanted to hear, "For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world." No surprises then, that even though this speech contained a good number of potential appplause lines, it generated much less applause from his audience at Oslo City Hall than it did back home. Obama wasn't trying to flatter his immediate audience.

In this speech, Obama was justifying his war in Afghanistan to a European audience, but he did it so artfully that to a domestic audience, he sounded like he was indicting the Europeans for their arm-chair theories of peace. Thus the first paragraph of his speech delivered Obama's dual-pronged opening shot:

"I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations - that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice." If the end goal of our time on earth is justice, then even peace must give way to a just war, which is of course the theme of Obama's speech. A justfication of war and an ode to justice at the same time.

A complex rhetorical two-step well played, if anything because Obama will need the slight bump he's gotten in the polls if he hopes to complete the final lap of health-care reform(which, unlike foreign policy, requires partisan savvy more than bi-partisan equipoise).

But I would like to think that Obama's reasons were more than strategic. If Obama's receipt of the Peace Prize was premature, so are emerging theories about the Obama Doctrine in foreign policy. There is no Obama Doctrine, for saying that he is neither a pure realist nor a pure idealist does not make him self-consciously both. Our search for a presidential doctrine reveals our implicit inversion of the meaning of democracy so that presidents rule and set the formula for policy, while citizens follow. In fact, all President Obama did at Oslo was to represent not only Democrats, which he has done for most of his presidency, but also Republicans, who are also his fellow countrymen even if they did not vote for him. In mirroring the full diversity of opinion of his fellow citizens, he did not articulate an Obama Doctrine but represented an American one. And this is why Bill Kristol, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingerich have given the speech their nods of approval.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Understanding "Broad Partisan Support" for Health-care Reform

By most accounts, President Barack Obama's proposed surge in Afghanistan has won broad bipartisan support from both parties. It might be worth examining this elusive idea to determine the conditions for it, and why it is, as a goal for health-care reform, an unachievable contradiction in terms.

Let’s start with “partisanship.” It is clear that the purists on either side of the political aisle are not pleased with Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan for 18 months. The anti-war wing in the Democratic Party does not approve of an escalation in Afghanistan, while the neo-conservative hawks in the Republican Party do not like the fact that the president set a timeline for troop withdrawal. What is important to note here is that Obama has achieved bipartisanship by making some friends angry, and making some foes happy. Both ends of the ideological extreme had to be spurned in order that “broad bipartisan support” be found. Bipartisanship, traditionally understood, captures our intuition about fairness that no side should ever asymmetrically receive the short end of the stick.

If the president managed to find broad bipartisan support for his Afghanistan strategy, it is nearly impossible that he will achieve the same in health-care reform, because he and Senator Harry Reid seem quite determined not to have to resort to the Reconciliation tactic (which requires only 51 Democratic votes in the Senate) to pass health-care reform. So they must contend with a potential Senate filibuster. A switch from majority to supermajority decision-making changes everything, even the meaning of "bipartisanship."

Unlike the decision to send in more troops in Afghanistan where the political center is the median voter or the 50th Senator (assuming the Vice-president casts the tie-breaking vote), the center of the political spectrum for health-care reform is the 60th Senator who could potentially break a Republican filibuster. In other words, unless the Democrats use Reconciliation, which will restore the applicability of the normal spatial metaphor governed by the median voter / politician, bipartisanship as traditionally understood will not deliver health-care reform. It’ll only get Democrats 5/6th of the way there.

In part because majorities have become an elusive thing in Washington, we have tended to conflate “broad support” with “bipartisan support,” as exemplified in the well-worn phrase, “broad bipartisan support.” But the two can be very distinct in certain circumstances. The rules of the Senate, and by extension of the Constitution, dictate that a preference for supermajority decision-making is necessarily a bias against bipartisanship. In practice, if a supermajority is ever to be found in the Senate, at least one end of the ideological extreme must always be on board. That means that our traditional understanding of bipartisanship that no one side should be forced to receive the short end of the stick becomes a road-block to finding a supermajority. (Notice that this is not the case for the “broad bipartisan support” for Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, where extremists on both sides were symmetrically spurned and so the President could find a way to walk a tight-rope.)

There’s no way to walk a tight-rope toward the public option, so either Obama must give it up or he must forget about or redefine “bipartisanship” as traditionally understood as symmetrically exacting on both Democratic or Republican partisans. If he wants a pure public option, the President must get off the tight-rope and walk on the left side of the rope to reach his destination, with the help of a few moderates like Olympia Snowe and Mary Landrieu. In doing so he would be taking sides, as indeed he already has, and the opposition, who will have to be asymmetrically spurned for the mathematics to work out, will cry foul. And that is why we no longer hear much aspirational talk about “broad partisan support” for health-care reform. All this might seem obvious, but amazingly, it has taken the President a long time - including an agenda-distracting summer of health-care town halls - to realize this basic insuperable decision-making fact of the august body from which he only recently departed.