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How Obama Punted Away Real Health Reform

Monday, December 21st, 2009

ObamaHealthCareUpdate: Today’s Calbuzzer comments reflect a contentious debate raging in the blogosphere about the virtues, or lack thereof, of the Senate bill. While Calbuzz is triangulating like crazy – it’s a lousy bill but pass it anyway ‘cuz somethin’s better than nothin’ – others are whacking deep into the weeds on this.

If you care to join them, here’s a guide to the best arguments string: Jane Hamsher, founder of Fire Dog Lake, posted 10 reasons why the Senate bill should be killed, and was promptly attacked by the Washpost’s Ezra Klein,world’s leading authority on practically everything. Then Jon Walker of FDL attacked Klein’s attack, and we give the final world to Nate Silver,the smartest person in the world, who attacked Walker’s attack of Klein’s attack of Hamsher.

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In a case of life imitating art, comic blogger Andy Borowitz provided the most accurate and trenchant commentary about the Democrat’s misadventure on health care reform, as he offered a look at  details of his own, newly unveiled,  “CompromiseCare™” program“:

– Under CompromiseCare™, people with no coverage will be allowed to keep their current plan.
– Medicare will be extended to 55-year-olds as soon as they turn 65…
– A patient will be considered “pre-existing” if he or she already exists…
– You’ll be free to choose between medications and heating fuel…
– You will be entitled to natural remedies, such as death
.

And so on. The Borowitz Plan would be a riot if it didn’t come to so close to the truth.

The sad fact is that Barack Obama’s wimp-out on his signature issue has resulted in a legislative end game defined by a default bill in the Senate that’s godawful. Riddled with half-measures, the bill is framed and defined by the institutionalized transfer of hundreds of billions of public dollars to the same, rapacious private insurance industry that shaped the dysfunctional system supposedly being transformed.

Even its worthwhile nods to reform – efforts to end the industry’s disgraceful practices on pre-existing conditions, rescissions and lifetime benefit caps – are largely dependent upon regulatory enforcement by the states, woefully over-matched by the legal firepower of insurance companies, as David Dayen  argues most persuasively at Fire Dog Lake.

So now, Obama will be left holding the bag on weak, compromise legislation repellent to Democratic advocates on the left and Republican opponents on the right.

Worse, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that less than one-third of Americans say that the stinky cheese that Obama now supports as “reform” is a good idea – a number that has steadily eroded since he jettisoned his support for the public option. Worse, more people, by 44-41%, say it would be better to do nothing than to pass the measures before Congress.

Yes we can!bidensmirk

The strongest argument for nose-holding passage of the health bill in its current form is made in a NYT op-ed by Vice President Joe Biden. But Biden’s take-whatever-we-can-get-and-declare-victory stance avoids the hard fact that the White House made one fundamental strategic error, followed by a series of tactical blunders.

Strategically, Mr. Smartypants Rahm Emanuel and the geniuses in the White House political shop should have counted noses at the start to determine if there was a threshold of support for a public option – which also should have called something more politically palatable, like “health insurance competition” or “consumer choice” – or an expansion of Medicare. If they couldn’t see a way to put the votes together, they should have taken on some other signature issue — jobs would have been a good one.

Instead:

–Obama frittered away his mandate. After stomping John McCain and leading the way to Democratic domination of both houses of congress, he retreated to a passive posture in which he uttered Yoda-like platitudes about reform while letting the food fight in congress shape the legislation.

–Obama quickly signaled the special interests were still in charge. About the only substantive moves by the White House were a) to dump, before they even got started, the progressive’s goal of a single payer system and b) to break his campaign promise of transparency by cutting an early, backroom deal to minimize the impact of any bill on the pharmaceutical industry.

–Obama shined on his political base in the name of pursuing “bipartisan” harmony with people whose only interest was sticking it to him. Back in August, when Obama began backing away from support for a public option, we warned that he was setting himself up for failure with his fetish Fairy_largefor fairy tale bipartisanship.

In the political fight of his life, Obama has been putting his energy and emphasis almost exclusively on the can’t-we-all-just-get along aspect of his message, in a desperate bid to pass a bill – any bill – that he can spin as an alleged victory, even if represents right-center policies and politics.

With Democrats in the rare position of controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, however, he needs to stop singing kumbaya and start busting some heads by fighting fiercely for the populist – and, yes, partisan – principles that led millions to support the progressive promises of his campaign. And that means taking on, not just the other party, but some of the obstructionist Senators in his own party…

Obama’s we’re-all-in-it-together action, in place of a principled fight, has simultaneously succeeded in emboldening his Republican enemies and alienating his progressive base, in the name of imaginary bipartisanship and placating the self-absorbed Lieberman-Nelson-Snowe “centrist” axis, whose members keep dumping on him from a great height for his trouble.

What’s even more troubling is the suspicion that Obama’s kumbaya strategy was timid by design, aimed at avoiding any effort to make real change in the status quo, viewing process as more important than  policy. As Rep. Anthony Wiener, the most articulate  champion of substantive health reform, told Politico:

This has been a fairly transactional presidency, and the president did nothing to insulate himself from the compromises — which were inevitable — by making it clear at the outset what his values were on some of these important issues. While being transactional may help you get through the days in Washington and get things on the scoreboard, it creates a weird disconnect that most people in the country don’t know what you want and don’t feel they should rally to your side.

In a pair of must-read pieces, here and here, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald makes the case that, after the massive Wall Street bail-outs, abdicating to Goldman Sachs and wimping out on credit card reform, Obama with health care has now fully revealed hiobamapostermself as a triangulating advocate of corporate power,  his soaring populist rhetoric be damned.

As was painfully predictable all along, the final bill will not have any form of public option, nor will it include the wildly popular expansion of Medicare coverage. Obama supporters are eager to depict the White House as nothing more than a helpless victim in all of this — the President so deeply wanted a more progressive bill but was sadly thwarted in his noble efforts by those inhumane, corrupt Congressional “centrists.”

Right. The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start — the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry.

So whether by incompetence or design, the White House has left health reform advocates (boy is Ted Kennedy missed) with little choice but to support badly flawed legislation, an argument summed up in Biden’s op-ed: “I share the frustration of other progressives that the Senate bill does not include a public option. But I’ve been around a long time, and I know that in Washington big changes never emerge in perfect form.”

Not exactly change we can believe in.