Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The Big Picture: Fired Up and Ready to Go!
The passage of health care reform is most important substantively. Excellent articles by Tara Siegel Bernard in yesterday's New York Times and in the last couple days by Ezra Klein explain just what the bill will mean to each category of consumer. For me, the most important point is who it helps. While the federal budget, the health care system, and the health care of people who don't desperately need it now will steadily but not wildly improve, but the health care of people who really need it, who will die without it, or go bankrupt - that fundamental insecurity, dependent totally on bad luck, or on having earned just a little too much income to quality for Medicaid, or not quite old enough to be on Medicare, that will be gone within the next few years. That represents enormous, life-altering positive changes for millions of people, and peace of mind for all of us, because there but for the grace of God - an unexpected pink slip or cancer diagnosis - go us all. This accomplishment is especially remarkable because unlike in the Civil Rights Movement, or with Social Security, the people mostly benefiting - the uninsured and underinsured - did not organize into a political movement. This came down to some very privileged people - Obama, Pelosi, Congressmen and Congresswomen from swing districts - risking their power and reputation to benefit people who represent no organized interest, don't donate money, barely even vote. Especially following Scott Brown's victory, with support for health care reform low and all the political analysts saying that pursuing health care reform would cost the Democratic Party dearly, this came down to conviction and empathy for the powerless, rather than self-interest and self-preservation, and rather even than ideology (Pelosi and I suspect Obama would far prefer a single-payer solution rather than taking basically a moderate Republican plan). How often have we ever seen that? It restores some of my faith in politics, activism, working for the greater good, which had been sorely tested this winter.
Obama's performance in the past few weeks finally reached the level of his best stretches of the Presidential campaign. He finally made the problems with the status quo REAL, striking an emotional chord, hitting people where they lived. He finally boiled down what the bill would do for people into clear, digestible nuggets. And, he appealed to our better angels, to our common sense of purpose as Democrats and as Americans, that we have to come together to solve problems rather than fearfully succumbing our own worst fears. For liberalism to succeed, the case must be made with those three components: emotional wallop of the status quo, clear concrete steps to make it better, and an inspiring purposefulness. His drastic improvement is a major reason that liberals are so much more excited about the bill passing the House now, than they were when the exact same bill passed the Senate in December.
The other major reason liberals are excited is that success now vindicated a completely different approach to Obama's Presidency. The way the bill succeeded in the fall seemed to endorse the the Rahm Emanuel approach, of compromise after compromise, playing the inside game, being cautious in the messaging so you don't risk appearing like a dreaded "unreconstructed liberal" who, gasp, might actually be doing this for moral reasons, or "lower the Presidency" to actually full-throated campaign-style advocacy. But that approach was really discredited because it led to combination of liberals being depressed and independents turning away, even as conservatives grew emboldened. The Scott Brown victory was the final verdict on the Rahm approach (which in fairness to Emanuel, is as much reflective of a certain inherent cautiousness, prudence, reticence to be overtly partisan, ideological, to play on emotion in a demagogic way, in Obama's political personality. It's good for a President to have these qualities to be an effective manager; but if he intends to change the status quo, then he needs to balance it with passion, persuasiveness, and yes even some demagoguery.) But even if the Democrats had hung on in Massachussetts, and the House and Senate combined their bills and Obama signed them, it would have been substantively equivalent but strategically very disturbing for liberalism. The lesson would have been: compromise, stick with the conventional process approaches and same mainstream understanding that government is bad, apologize for anything liberal. It would have been: ignore the liberal base, don't worry about persuading public opinion, just pander to it, give in to the process demands of hostage-taking centrist Democrats and the ideological demands of the hard-right, to the conventional wisdom demands of the media punditocracy.
The alternative approach, represented by David Plouffe, was a return to what made Obama so extraordinarily successful in the primary and general election campaigns, not so coincidentally managed by Mr. Plouffe. The previous choice had been to compromise, "pick your battles", to prioritize political prudence above all over risking success and political standing for principle and conviction; Plouffe's approach was the opposite, to go counter to all the punditocracy, to what vulnerable Democratic congressmen saw as their short-term interest, and instead say "when will we have this chance again?" and actually use these historic Democratic majorities to accomplish the top Democratic Party priority. In the endless strategic dispute between principled policy accomplishments and apparent political expediency to maintain power, Obama decisively chose the former in the last month. And it worked. He won. And now the bill, Obama, and the Democrats are gaining significantly in popularity, according to the latest polls. Obama won by refusing to bend to the warnings of electoral apocalypse, refusing to cower before the Republican lies and fear-mongering, refusing to enable Democrats to fulfill their own prophecy.
This last is a crucial point: sometime last fall and winter, the centrist Democrats who hold (held!) veto power over Obama's agenda prophesied that they were likely to lose their seats this November. Their insane response had been to curl up in a ball, do nothing other than repeat right-wing talking points against Obama's agenda while voting against it, so the Democrats accomplish nothing and turn public opinion against the Democrats ... somehow they thought all this would make it more likely they would hang onto their seats, even though it seems extraordinarily clear that their fear of losing caused such irrational behavior that made losing inevitable. The only way for Democrats to defy history and keep their big majorities this fall is to actually accomplish things that deliver for the American people, and to persuade, with conviction, that Democrats have a better approach to the country's problems than the Republicans - not the exact opposite as they had been doing. This health care victory has hopefully ended the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Era as well as the Rahm Era.
Obama and the Congressional Democrats need to recognize that the only way to both enact major reform and then win elections in a tough environment is to do the opposite of the conventional wisdom, and instead to be bold, passionate, unapologetic, and most of all, successful in delivering what people need. Obama needs to build off his message to Dennis Kucinich "It's about time the government did something for ordinary people", repeat it again and again to become the mantra of his Presidency and the Democratic Party, and advocate clear, common-sense, populist measures that would deliver for people like the Consumer Protection Agency, home mortgage relief, job creation, Wall Street to Main Street transfers, and continue to play up the health care bill, the stimulus, and the student loan package embedded in the reconciliation bill the Senate is about to sign. Build off this momentum, rally the base, rally the Congressional troops, and get to work. RIGHT NOW.
As our good friend Small Town Roots says, "Strike while the iron is hot." House Majority Whip James Clyburn gets it:
There will be a strong temptation to rest after all this effort, but that would be the exact wrong approach. If Obama and the Democrats don't keep pushing forward, they will lose most of the advantage they got from this victory. The lesson of the Obama Presidency (as it was during his primary campaign against Hillary): If you're not moving forward, you're moving backward. If you're not piling up victories, you're losing. Liberals and insurgents are always playing from behind. The clock is the enemy. As Roots says, at this point it's unambiguously clear that Obama is only successful when he's out there in campaign mode, in his shirtsleeves, speaking passionately and from the heart, taking big risks, defying conventional wisdom, inspiring the base, refusing to accept the status quo and the typical approaches. The "Presidential mode" Obama of November 5, 2008 to this February was not very effective and declined radically in popularity among both the base and among independents. The earlier version of "Campaign mode" Obama came from nowhere to have 70 million people elect him a black liberal President, and that version's return successfully resurrected the most important expansion of the social safety net in over four decades. Don't let up. The time is now. We're fired up and ready to go.