Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reconciling Republicans and Democrats on Health-Care Reform

Ideological purists do not believe in reconciliation. Conservatives would rather rely on private acts of kindness than the state to deliver health-care services. Hence their characterization of bureaucrats as cold and remorseless (such as when they're on "death panels"). Liberals, for their part, believe that it is heinous to make a patient in need of care wait for private charity. Hence their tremendous faith in the helping hand of the state. For the conservatives, the market is benign but the state is monstrous; for liberals, the state is virtuous and the market is immoral.

Partisans and political parties, on the other hand, must reconcile themselves to median voters and therefore to each other if they are to have any chance of survival. That is why in their discussion of health-care reform, most Republicans and Democrats have ceded fundamental tenets of their ideology. In their concurrence with the Republicans in addressing a social issue in cost-cutting and job-creating terms and in eschewing a single-payer system, Democrats have proven that they are not really socialist. In reminding seniors of the potential cuts to Medicare should the Democrats try to cover the uninsured, Republicans have shown that they are not pure laissez faire anti-statists either.

It is in this muddied ideological context that we should view the parliamentary measure called Reconciliation which Democrats are bracing to deploy in the weeks to come to pass health-care reform. Reconciliation may be procedurally draconian because it bypasses the Senate filibuster, but it crystallizes the idea shared by Congressional leaders who pushed through the Budget and Impoundment Control Act in 1974 that legislative output (sound or unsound, one might add) is more important than consensus. It is no wonder that Reconciliation has often been used to pass legislation on the divisive issues in American politics which typically straddle the state/market-solution divide. These include health insurance portability (COBRA, 1985), expanded Medicaid eligibility (1987), welfare reform (1996), the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP, 1997), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, 2005). Perhaps the Democrats could have saved themselves a year of trying to make history and a lot of political capital if they had realized that almost every welfare and health-care bill passed in the last three decades was achieved via Reconciliation.

Although Republicans say it is the nuclear option, no real destruction followed after each of the 22 times the measure has been used (with two-thirds of the time by Republicans.) Reconciliation doesn't only reconcile items on the federal budget, but its supporters on either side of the aisle (when it suits them) also believe that the measure also reconciles the Founders' sometimes contradictory commitment to deliberation and debate and their desire for legislative output and government. Reconciliation has been used before, and it will be used again, rather soon.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Health-care Reform is Making a Comeback

After attempting a pivot to jobs, the Obama administation has realized that a hanging cadence on health-care will not do. Perhaps they should never have started it, but closure is what the administration now must have. An encore after the strident audacity of hope on health-care reform was temporarily dashed after the election of Scott Brown to the Senate.

In the immediate aftermath of that election, Democrats were in danger of exchanging over-confidence for excessive humility. After Obama's historic election the year before and Arlen Specter's party switch, Democrats were overtaken by hubris that Obama's tune of change could be used to overturn Washington and to compel it toward a Progresive utopia. But just as Democrats were foolhardy to think that 60 votes in the Senate gave them invincible power, they somehow thought after the Massachussetts Senate election that 59 made them completely impotent. In the media, we hear, conversely, about the conservative comeback in hyperbolic terms. On Saturday, Glenn Beck, not Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney, delivered the keynote speech in the largest annual conservative gathering, the CPAC conference. If Beck's stardom exceeds that of the winner of the CPAC straw poll this year, Ron Paul, it is because the conservative movement, charged as it is, remains a movement in search of a leader. It is also a movement, as Beck's criticism of Progressive Republicans in his speech reveals, which is not exactly in sync with the Republican party - the only machine capable of taking down liberal dreams.

And so a Democratic comeback on health-care reform is afoot. With one vote shy of a fillibuster-proof majority, Senator Harry Reid has opened the door to the Budget Reconciliaton process that more Progressive advocates of health-care reform like Governor Howard Dean have been pushing for a while. While it is not clear that there are 50 votes in the Senate for the public option, assuming that Vice-President Biden will cast the 51st, what is clear is that Democrats are much more likely to push through a liberal bill with the veto pivot sliding to the left by ten Senators.

In the White House too, we see a coordinated move to bring Reconciliation back as an option. Obama used his weekly address on Saturday to lay the ground work when he warned that "in time, we’ll see these skyrocketing health care costs become the single largest driver of our federal deficits." He said this because in order to use Reconciliation, Democrats must show a relationship between health-care reform and balancing the federal budget.

No one in Washington believes that Thursday's Health-care Summit will magically generate a consensus when in the past year there has been nothing but partisan bickering. If so, the President is not being naive, but signalling in his Sunday weekly address that he has made a final, good-faith effort to extend an olive branch and that henceforth, he would be forced to go nuclear. "After debating this issue exhaustively for a year, let’s move forward together. Next week is our chance to finally reform our health insurance system so it works for families and small businesses," the President said. He might just as well have said that next week is our final chance to move forward on a bipartisan basis.

Health-care reform has certainly become Obama's Iraq. The question now is whether the surge which will begin in earnest next week will work.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Bad News for Dems in 2010 could be Good News for the President

On this Presidents Day, it would appear that everyone but the President's rivals for public affection are doing well in the polls.

Hillary Clinton has shed the image that she is a soft liberal and she is well poised to say, "I told you so," about her erstwhile charge that Barack Obama lacks experience and fortitude. Even Dick Cheney is doing well, with the public behind him and against civilian trials for terrorist suspects. And we just found out that Evan Bayh is bowing out, probably to escape the anti-incumbency wave on the horizon even though recent polls put him 20 points ahead of his competitors. Given that Bayh left his party less than a week to scramble to collect 4,500 signatures for a viable candidate for his Senate seat, he appears to be setting himself up for a future run as a centrist Democrat who stands up to party apparatchiks. (And here's another clue: "I am an executive at heart," Bayh told reporters on Monday.)

The only people doing worse than Obama are Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic Congress as a whole. As Evan Bayh put it, "I do not love Congress." The atmosphere now in Washington is toxic and the poison is leaking down Pennsylvania Avenue and inundating the White House. That is why I am wondering if White House strategists are secretly hoping to lose Democratic control of Congress this year.

The conventional wisdom is that whatever the President proposes, Congress delivers. But not only has this not happened, the failure of Congress to act collectively to pass legislation (especially on healthcare reform) has tarnished the name of the Democratic Party of which the President is titular head. As a result of the seeming asset of unified Democratic control of all branches of government, Barack Obama could not do what Reagan did when he too suffered from bad poll numbers in his first years in office as a result of recession - blame the other branch. The American people love to hate Congress, and unified Democratic control of all the elected federal branches has merely reinforced Americans' instinctive fear of consolidated power as the Tea Party Movement most viscerally represents. The American Presidency thrives on blame avoidance and freedom from party ties, not single-party government.

Because Washington moves so slowly no matter who is in power and when it does it invariably creates a program so sullied with pork-barrel compromises, it is often better to be able to blame someone else for failing to deliver than to have delivered anything at all. Lyndon Johnson doesn't get high marks from historians for creating Medicare. And FDR's fame did not come from the Social Security Act. If we do not judge presidential success by legislative achievements, then presidents are better off when they act unilaterally against a recalcitrant Congress. Better still if this Congress is controlled by another party because presidential unilateralism can be executed without dilemma. Barack Obama would then be free to descend from the law professor's lectern, as Sarah Palin put it, and move, as Publius recommended, with "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ronald Reagan v. the Tea Party Movement

In 1966, Ronald Reagan won his first political campaign in a landslide victory against the two-term Democratic Governor of California, Edmund Brown. What is sometimes forgotten is that the preceding Republican primary had been a highly contested one. According to Reagan, it was "very bitter at times, largely because of the lingering split between conservatives and moderates in the state party." The intra-party attacks became so heated that state Republican chairman, Gaylord Parkinson, proposed the Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican," a rule that Ronald Reagan obeyed ever since because the intra-party strife he experienced in his first political contest left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. Henceforth, his political career was dedicated to building coalitions and fitting as many people as he could squeeze under the Republican tent.

Forty years later, on the day on which Reagan would have celebrated his 99th birthday, Sarah Palin called on his memory when she delivered the keynote address at the first National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, TN, rehearsing a litany of bumper sticker lines that the Old Gipper would have approved. But Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan.

While like Palin, Reagan exuded charm and a common touch; unlike Sarah Palin and the general tenor of the Tea Party movement, he was not categorically, viscerally, or paradoxically anti-estabishment. While Sarah Palin has admitted to being a pittbull with lipstick, Ronald Reagan was no pittbull. He was as mellow and as measured as politicians came. He didn't feel dispossessed or victimized. And if he felt it, he never showed the one sentiment - even if it had been legitimate - that permeates the Tea Party Movement: anger. Red, hot, seething, Glenn Beck Fury.

Most illustratively, Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers do not believe in the 11th Commandment. Next week, Palin is off to campaign for Texas Governor Rick Perry against his primary challenger, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Palin has already campaigned against Dede Scoozzafava running for election in NY 23, where she had supported Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman because he had "not been anointed by any political machine." At Nashville, she reiterated her support for intra-party competition: "Despite what the pundits want you to think, contested primaries aren't civil war. They're democracy at work, and that's beautiful."

Democracy at work - grassroots movements without the backbone of a machine - has too often, in a dominant two-party system such as the US is, meant politicians out of a job. To survive after the surge of populist disaffection at a recession has subsided and to be more than a spoiler in elections, the Tea Party Movement must, paradoxically, go mainstream. And it should take it from a icon they have wrongly called their own. Ronald Reagan pulled the various factions of the Right together under a large, fusionist electoral tent that delivered him to victory. Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers are trying to do the reverse and (perhaps inadvertently) break this tent up in a battle for ideological purity. If Reagan helped to turn a movement into a winning electoral coalition for three decades, the Tea Partiers are exerting a centrifugal force on the Right that may well counter-balance the considerable anti-Democratic bias going into the 2010 elections.