Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ezra Klein writes

The Liberal Revolt

Monday was the day of the liberal revolt on health-care reform. If you want a nice round-up of the commentary, see Mike Allen. What's been striking, however, is the implicit argument that this is somehow a simple failure of liberal will. Rachel Maddow called it "a collapse of political ambition." The problem, she said, is that "Democrats are too scared of their own shadow to use the majority the American people elected them to in November to actually pass something they said they favored.” The question, writes Chris Bowers, is whether Obama is "more willing and able to pressure the Progressive Block in the House or the Conservadem Block in the Senate." Ed Schultz said the president needs to "start doing some arm-twisting with some folks that aren’t listening to him.”

The unifying idea here is that someone can just go into a back room and torture Max Baucus and Kent Conrad. But how? Rahm Emanuel isn't a shrinking violet. Neither was Clinton or Carter or Nixon or Truman or FDR. But none of them managed to get health-care reform past the Congress. There's not really a record of presidents being able to bend committee chairmen and wavering centrists to their will. Even LBJ, the master of this stuff, decided to go for Medicare rather than full reform. He thought the latter too ambitious. The history of health-care reform is the history of health-care reform failing. If there was some workable presidential strategy, or foolproof negotiating lever, presumably someone would have used it by now, or at least mentioned it in public.

The problem, I think, is that there is a tendency to understand heath-care reform as an equal negotiation in which all sides want a deal, and you can game out various bargaining stratagems. But health-care reform is not a negotiation. It's a campaign. Reformers wants a deal, even as some differ on its precise shape. The opposition wants to kill the deal entirely. And that gives the opponents a lot more power to say "no." "No" isn't their fallback position. It's their position. The supporters -- if they're not sociopaths of some sort -- actually do want to extend health-care coverage to 40 million people and regulate the insurance industry and create out-of-pocket caps and make life better for millions and millions of people. That makes it hard to say "no." Being a decent person turns out to be a terrible weakness. And the pressure is even greater because the history of this stuff is that you don't get a deal at the end of the day. Failure isn't an unlikely outcome. It's the default.

The reason, crudely speaking, is that time runs out. With every week, and every month, that drags by, health-care reform becomes a bit less popular. At this point, disapproval of the president's plan -- if not of his plan's ideas -- outpolls approval. That's a function of the legislative process. Of stories about congressional infighting and of anti-change campaigns mounted by the opposition and of the risk aversion of members of Congress. Almost all major domestic legislation follows the same path of public approval giving way to public disapproval.

That makes it even easier for conservative Democrats and the mythical moderate Republicans to abandon the effort. And thus the effort gets abandoned. What usually happens next is that the opposition wins the following election and reformers spend the next 15 years lamenting all the deals they didn't take, and the country ends up with 10 million more uninsured, and 100,000 more needlessly dead, and so on.

That's not to say people shouldn't push on the public option. They should! But the strategy needs to be appropriate to the context. This is a campaign for the public option, not a negotiation. Winning it will require persuading the key votes to change their mind, either by offering them other inducements in the bill or applying direct and aggressive political pressure (identifying a lot of viable primary challengers and creating a credible promise of funds, for instance). Trying to say "no" for longer than they can will simply result in reformers losing everything they want, and opponents getting exactly what they demanded.

I mostly agree with Klein, but his argument is based on an equivocation.

He claims that Obama can't bend Conrad, Baucus, Nelson, Lieberman, Landrieu, Lincoln, Snowe, Collins and the blue dogs to his will, because the non Mainer Republicans want to block all reform and make health care Obama's Waterloo. The people with whom Obama is bargaining are different people than the people against whom he is campaigning.

Klein effectively assumes that there are only two federal elected officials so the one which is not Obama is either a supporter of modest reform or an opponent of all reform.

If there is a blocking coalition which wants no reform, there will be no reform. If there are 60 senators and 218 representatives who want some reform then, depending on how much they want it, Obama can bend those who want modest reform to his will by threatening them with no reform at all.

I think it is clear that Obama can bend the senior blue dogs to his will. They are vulnerable if and only if there is a Republican wave so they are the ones whose personal job prospects depend most on there being some reform.

The senators are not vulnerable and are senators which means they are used to being approached on bended knee. However, they definitely want there to be some health care reform.

Rachel Maddow et al are not proposing a refusal to compromise with Grassley and Boehner. They are proposing a refusal to compromise with Baucus, Conrad and Snowe about whether to try to compromise with Grassley.

Klein's position is, roughly, the revolting liberals are wrong, because they don't understand that time is not on their side. However, a large part of the liberal revolt is the argument that Democrats should stop trying to compromise with Republicans from states other than Maine.

Basically Klein is blaming Rachel Maddow for the fact that Max Baucus let Charles Grassley play him for a fool.

Klein's proposal as that the Democrats take what they can get (presumably reform without a public option) now. To implement that proposal he would have to be able to take Max Baucus and Kent Conrad to a back room and torture them. Their disagreement with Maddow et al is not just over the public option, it is over whether to pretend to believe Grassley is negotiating in good faith.

Rachel Maddow is not the reason that Baucus has not brought a proposal with no public option up in the finance committee. Baucus could have done that and liberals didn't stop him. He chose to waste months searching for mythical moderate Republicans. Blaming Rachel Maddow, who, technically, is not even a senator, for the fact that senators have wasted months is not reasonable.

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