Friday, March 12, 2010

Betting the Ranch on ObamaCare

Say what you want about the ideological timidity of the Democratic Party, but there’s no denying that its leaders are ready to march it off an electoral cliff to pass ObamaCare. A few of them, like Harry Reid, are even putting their own seats on the line. We expect incumbent politicians to concentrate most of their energy on getting reelected. So it’s remarkable how many rank-and-file Democrats from Republican-leaning districts are ready to disregard Patrick Caddell and Doug Schoen's warning that voting for ObamaCare will end their political careers.

Responding to Schoen and Caddell, Matthew Yglesias is particularly good at describing the admirable ideological impulse that’s moving so many Democratic politicians to throw caution to the wind (emphasis in the original):

“If reform passes and is signed into law, then immediately Barack Obama’s position in history is secured. When people look back from 2060 on the creation of the American welfare state, they’ll say that FDR, LBJ, and BHO were its main architects, with Roosevelt enshrining the principle of universal social insurance into law and Obama completing the initial promise of the New Deal. Members of congress who helped him do that will have a place in history. Nobody’s going to be very interested in a story like 'Mike Ross served a bunch of years in Congress and people were impressed with his ability to win a relatively conservative district; he didn’t achieve very much and one day he wasn’t in Congress anymore.'

“Which is just to say that nobody lasts in office forever, no congressional majority lasts forever, and no party controls the White House forever. But the measure of a political coalition isn’t how long it lasted, but what it achieved.”
If you're a liberal, these are inspiring words.  They've inspired these two observations:

First, there’s at least one respect in which today’s “pass-the-damn-bill” liberals aren’t emulating the New Dealers and the LBJ liberals. They thought, in the words of FDR’s Second Inaugural Address, that they were making “the exercise of all power more democratic . . . [by] bring[ing] private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government.” The liberals who spearheaded the passage of the Social Security Act and Medicare, thought of themselves as unheroic democratic politicians representing a stable governing coalition. If they thought that those  progressive reforms were irreversible, it was because they couldn’t imagine that future democratic majorities would ever stand for their being reversed. It would never have occurred to New Dealers or LBJ liberals that they were seizing a fleeting “historic” opportunity.

Second, if passing ObamaCare is something that can only happen under ephemeral electoral circumstances, you have to ask whether liberals are thinking clearly about the filibuster. If all it takes to make social policy in the Senate is 51 votes, what’s to keep future legislative majorities--maybe even the majorities installed by the next election--from summarily depriving unemployed liberal politicians of their historic achievement? If liberals really are committed to securing a “place in history” by passing ObamaCare in the face of majoritarian pressures, shouldn’t they be the last people opposing the filibuster?

2 comments:

margaret.paternek@ucsf.edu said...

It is so good to once again hear the voice of Ron Replogle...

Anonymous said...

As a Canadian, I live with a three-party electoral system in which the constraints on and opportunities for government initiatives are regularly made apparent. Our politics in the Great White North also tend to occupy an ideological band that is leftward of the American span of discourse, without thereby being very much on the traditional left. Thus, it is hard not to be bemused and perplexed by the self-torturing nature of American debate over Obama's health care proposals.

What we have learned here is that universal coverage is both a wonderful accomplishment and a bulwark against many narrowly-motivated efforts to undo medicare. Canadians - who probably were just as divided as Americans about the abstract wisdom of medicare before its implementation - have embraced universality to a heart-warming degree and can be counted on regularly to defend it against this or that so-called reformer with a plan to skim off desirable slices of the insured pool to get rich selling privately-run insurance schemes.

The other thing medicare does, although imperfectly, is transform debates between haves and have-nots into debates between groups within the pool of insured citizens. On the one hand, this makes it easier to achieve incremental gains in scope of coverage or value of benefits. On the other, it makes it hard to make qualitiative expansions, as the means is much more akin to a general tax increase than an improvement in the benefit that the dominant group is "giving" to the deserving poor - if you'll forgive an Elizabethan reference.

In any event, the key thing is to get it done. The benefits of being able to enjoy (and defend) a part loaf by far outweigh those associated with reaching agreement on what kind of a loaf one would hope to enjoy one day, if we could only finish mixing the batter and getting it into the oven. Come on, America, it's time to catch up with the rest of the world.

- Chuck Rachlis, Toronto (crachlis@sympatico.ca)