Something Happened

Sunday, March 21, 2010 – the day change was in the air, everywhere:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party suffered a comprehensive defeat in regional elections on Sunday, but pledged to push on with reform plans before the 2012 presidential race.

Early results showed that the Socialist party and its allies won 52 percent of the vote at a national level, the center-right 35 percent and the far-right National Front 10 percent.

The UMP held on to power in the eastern region of Alsace and in the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, but all of the remaining 24 regions looked set to go to the left after one of the worst defeats for the center-right in decades.

Wait, wait, wait – didn’t Sarkozy want to turn the French into Americans, promising to shake up all that old-Europe decadence? He had said France’s high health and welfare costs were economically unsustainable and that he admired that American-dream mindset or whatever, where it’s every man for himself and any policy that is collective and social-democratic is second-rate and for losers. And the French gave it a try – maybe he had a point. But it seems that as much as the French love American things – the most popular chewing gum in France is named Hollywood and you used to get French pop songs like this – they have decided that what Sarkozy was trying to do just wasn’t them. He may want to push on with his reform plans, but that may be futile. And as much as the French loved Jerry Lewis, in their half-ironic way, it’s unlikely they’d like Glenn Beck flying over to tell them that community and social justice were code words for Nazism and communism – that’s what collective action is, you see – and even any talk of such things would mean the end of everything, and total oppression and slavery and severe dandruff or whatever. They’d probably prefer the former clown, Lewis, to the latter clown, Beck. And anyway they already have Jean-Marie Le Pen – and thus no real need to import political clowns.

But few Americans follow French politics. Why would they? On the other hand, there was something in the air. On this side of the Atlantic, in spite of months of Republicans like Jim DeMint saying healthcare reform would be Obama’s Waterloo – there we go with French references again – and its failure would break Obama and sweep the Republicans back to power (although DeMint was silent on the prospect of exile to Elba) and end all this nonsense of helping lazy people who didn’t deserve any such thing, late on the same day comprehensive healthcare reform legislation was passed by Congress and things will change:

Congress gave final approval on Sunday to legislation that would provide medical coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and remake the nation’s health care system along the lines proposed by President Obama.

By a vote of 219 to 212, the House passed the bill after a day of tumultuous debate that echoed the epic struggle of the last year. The action sent the bill to President Obama, whose crusade for such legislation has been a hallmark of his presidency.

Minutes later, the House passed a package of changes to the bill and sent it to the Senate. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has promised House Democrats that the Senate would quickly take up the reconciliation bill with the changes in it, and that he had secured the votes to pass it.

And that was that. There may be a fierce floor fight in the Senate over the reconciliation measure, but when the House passed the original Senate bill things were set up so the reconciliation bill, which cannot be filibustered, while it might change in some details, it is what it is. And Senate Republicans “were quickly faced with a need to recalibrate their message from one aimed at stopping the legislation to one focused on winning back a sufficient number of seats in Congress to repeal it.”

Good luck with that:

The health care bill would require most Americans to have health insurance, would add 16 million people to the Medicaid rolls and would subsidize private coverage for low- and middle-income people, at a cost to the government of $938 billion over 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office said.

The bill would require many employers to offer coverage to employees or pay a penalty. Each state would set up a marketplace, or exchange, where consumers without such coverage could shop for insurance meeting federal standards.

And health insurers now could not deny coverage to children with medical problems, or suddenly drop coverage for people who become ill and expensive to them. And insurers must allow children to stay on their parents’ policies up to their twenty-sixth birthday. And small businesses could obtain tax credits to help them buy insurance.

Nancy Pelosi said the bill would free people to pursue their dreams without having to worry about being bankrupted by medical bills or losing health insurance when they switch jobs – “It’s liberating legislation. It’s to free Americans to live their passion, reach their aspirations without being job-locked because they have to have health care, especially if they have someone in their family with a pre-existing condition.”

Do you want to run on repealing that? Yeah, right.

But Republicans said Democrats would pay a price for defying public opinion on the bill:

“Are you so arrogant that you know what’s best for the American people?” Representative Paul Broun, Republican of Georgia, asked the Democrats. “Are you so ignorant to be oblivious to the wishes of the American people?”

What are the wishes of the American people? We will soon find out. As Obama said in his remarks when the legislation passed, this is what change looks like. But, but, but – everything will change! Yes, that was the idea. That’s what the last election was all about. What did you expect?

And there were some odd dynamics involved. Ezra Klein looked at what was happening and decided the left was wrong all along, and big business doesn’t really have that much power after all:

This year, the Obama administration succeeded at neutralizing every single industry. Pharma supports the bill. Insurers are incoherent on it, but there’s not a ferocious and united campaign to kill the proposal. The American Medical Association has endorsed the Senate bill. The hospitals have endorsed the bill… [But] it’s been almost meaningless when it’s come to Republican support. For all that liberals think the GOP is owned by insurers and pharmaceutical companies, this battle has been proof positive that they are owned by their base and they represent industry only when convenient. Imagine the concessions Pharma or the hospitals could have gotten by bringing three Republican senators onto the bill. They could’ve written the thing. But no such luck. Partisan incentives proved far stronger than industry interests.

Matt Yglesias sees it another way:

What happened in the health care debate is that interest groups were able to get their way on most key points without needing to seriously attempt to deliver votes in exchange. The AMA is supporting the bill, but it’s not running ads against opponents. Pharmaceutical companies and insurers haven’t dropped out of the ferociously anti-reform Chamber of Commerce. No interest group that I’m aware of is cutting off the flow of funds to Chuck Grassley to punish him for his role in sabotaging health reform. Nobody is hitting Olympia Snowe for her bait-and-switch. I haven’t read a single story about a single Republican being “in trouble” with supporters for his or her opposition to reform.

And Kevin Drum says Obama was Threading the Healthcare Needle:

Obama had three basic choices when it came to dealing with the big industry groups:

1993 Redux: Push for the best possible bill and plan on a knock-down-drag-out fight with every interest group out there.

Total Cave-In: Give the interest groups everything they could dream of in an effort to buy their active and enthusiastic support.

Centrist Wankerism: Buy off the big interest groups just enough to ensure that they wouldn’t actively sabotage reform – at least, not sabotage it too hard, anyway – but nothing more.

He says the first option was obviously impossible and the second never in the cards, as public revulsion would have killed it, so it had to be the third option:

But what that means is that industry groups were pretty much indifferent. They didn’t spend a lot of time and energy fighting the bill, but neither did they spend a lot of time and energy trying to persuade their favorite Republican senators to support it. This doesn’t mean that industry groups have lost their influence over Republicans (or Democrats) or that their power is so awesome that they get everything they want with barely an effort.

Obviously you can question whether Obama and Senate Dems made the right deal. Could they have pushed a little harder and still kept the big industry groups neutral? Could they have given in on a few small things and earned enough support to have passed the bill months ago with a few Republican votes? Beats me. But from where I sit three thousand miles away, it looks to me like Obama played the game pretty well. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room on either side.

And then there is Newt Gingrich, whom Drums calls the inner id of the conservative movement:

Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill “the most radical social experiment … in modern times,” Gingrich said: “They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

Gingrich seems to be saying all these civil rights laws weren’t worth the political price, but Drum thinks this is absurd thinking:

…the problem here isn’t that Gingrich is some kind of stone racist (though he’s certainly racially tone deaf), it’s that Gingrich is an idiot. The old Democratic Party got torn apart in the sixties when racist southern congressmen abandoned it in favor of a Republican Party that was more tolerant of their views.

But who exactly does Gingrich think is going to leave the party today over healthcare? Bart Stupak? Aside from abortion, Stupak would be a pariah in the Republican Party. Ditto for virtually everyone else in the Democratic caucus. If Dems lose even two members over healthcare, I’ll personally buy Gingrich a beer and let him write my blog for a day. As for the public at large, passing healthcare will make the party more popular in the fairly near future. Gingrich knows this perfectly well, which is why healthcare reform terrifies him so.

And as with Sarkozy in France, it wasn’t a good day for that side, or so says Slate’s John Dickerson:

No matter what happens next, passage of this legislation is a turning point in the Obama presidency. This is his project. Unlike the bailout of the auto companies or the stimulus package, health care reform was not a response to an emergency. Whether the Obama presidency is a diptych, triptych, or something even more complex, the first hinge will mark the time before health care and the time after health care.

Obama didn’t just work harder to clear this hurdle. He worked deeper, making his final pitch to provide insurance to 32 million people on moral grounds in a more focused way than he has in the last year of debate.

And the focus had to do with quoting Teddy Roosevelt – “Aggressively fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.” And there was Lincoln on doing the right thing despite the odds – “I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.” And there was when Obama spoke to House Democrats:

He was not just reaching for rhetorical tricks. He spoke in personal terms and at length about their collective moral obligation. He talked about the impulse that moved them all to get into politics and that made them become Democrats. “Something inspired you to get involved, and something inspired you to be a Democrat instead of running as a Republican,” he said. “Because somewhere deep in your heart you said to yourself, ‘I believe in an America in which we don’t just look out for ourselves, that we don’t just tell people you’re on your own.'”

So there you have it. Believe Glenn Beck, or trust your heart. Yes, the legislation, as the public understands it, is unpopular. Voters also say Obama’s handling of the whole thing was rather awful and his overall disapproval rating is higher than his approval rating for the first time in his presidency. Dickerson grants all that, but suggests that is as it should be:

Given that grim landscape, Obama and Congressional Democrats are making the purest test of whether voters want what they say they do – politicians who follow their conviction no matter what the consequences. That was a key promise of Obama’s campaign though so too was a new era of bi-partisanship that is nowhere in evidence.

When the Democrats hit 216 votes in the House they chanted “Yes we can!”

Something happened. And Andrew Sprung sees how it was the way this was done matters as much as the fact that it was done at all, and that’s all to Obama’s advantage:

The flip side of Obama’s perhaps naive belief that he can win Republicans over is his ability to show them up. Americans are confused about the plan, but they are not confused about the man. By large margins they trust Obama more than they do the Republicans to produce rational solutions to the country’s problems. In the past month, he exploited his mastery of policy detail, his pragmatism, his focus on effectively alleviating the suffering he spotlighted, and his willingness to stake his political future on getting this bill passed to the utmost. The full eloquence and passion of the campaign came back to his lips in forum after forum and speech after speech.

To Democratic legislators, his message was that this bill epitomized why they had sought public office and why they were Democrats; it was the raison d’être for their careers; in effect, passing it was worth their careers (and would make or break his own).

And he argued it was worth risking all:

In the bipartisan summit, he framed a core contrast: the Democrats would rein in the health insurers’ worst practices; the Republicans would further enable them by weakening existing regulations. In rallies, he emphasized human suffering caused by leaving people uninsured and underinsured and enumerated the bill’s benefits for ordinary people. As noted before, too, he presented the effort as a litmus test as to whether the Federal government was capable of taking meaningful action to solve national problems. He moved the needle of public opinion enough to move enough House Democrats to “yes.”

The process may have been frustrating, and long, and ugly, as Obama told the crowd at George Mason on Friday. But it was also glorious.

And James Fallows adds what must drive the Republicans crazy:

For now, the significance of the vote is moving the United States FROM a system in which people can assume they will have health coverage IF they are old enough (Medicare), poor enough (Medicaid), fortunate enough (working for an employer that offers coverage, or able themselves to bear expenses), or in some other way specially positioned (veterans; elected officials)… TOWARD a system in which people can assume they will have health-care coverage. Period.

So let them argue that the old ways were better. And that dynamic leads Jonathan Chait to say this:

Let me offer a ludicrously premature opinion: Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import. We don’t know what will follow in his presidency, and it’s quite possible that some future event–a war, a scandal–will define his presidency. But we do know that he has put his imprint on the structure of American government in a way that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has.

And there was the disgruntled Republican David Frum:

If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleep Number Beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it is mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it is Waterloo all right: ours.

And in the Atlantic, see Abraham Verghese:

I have been trying to explain to my youngest why this is such an exciting moment: front line soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq take personal risks, put their lives on the line. But so few politicians put their careers on the line, even though they make decisions that have an impact on soldiers. President Obama (and to some degree every Democrat who supports this bill) is putting his political career on the line. The idea that you might do what you think is right and pay a penalty has been so foreign to politics that it surprises us when we see it. I think my son is surprised to hear all this. He assumes at 12 years of age that people, especially people we elect, go to Washington to do the right thing.

And there was Andrew Samwick here:

I don’t think anyone will hold up the bill that will pass as exemplary, but it does reflect elements of health care reform that Democrats campaigned on and won on in 2008. So I have a hard time seeing this as doing violence to the will of the people as it is typically expressed in our electoral system. Elections matter. This is how they matter.

Who knew? And see Jonathan Bernstein:

The oddest thing about the health care debate, at least in my view, is that Republicans basically did not engage on the actual substance of the bill. Lots of stuff about death panels, and lots of stuff about procedure, lots of stuff about backroom deals (most of which will be gone after reconciliation) but shockingly little about the individual mandate – or, as Tim Noah points out, about the actual taxes that really are being raised for this. The only real substantive complaint they highlighted was Medicare, where they argued against their own position.

And Daniel Larison here takes on William Kristol and the Weekly Standard predicting a popular uprising right now:

Large-scale change naturally provokes anxiety, uncertainty, fear and resistance, which is inevitable and as it should be. It does not follow that the later backlash against large-scale change will be great enough to undo the change. The Medicare prescription drug benefit was not passed by large margins in the House, and its eventual passage was the product of some significant arm-twisting, maneuvering and vote-buying. It was also unfunded and therefore incredibly fiscally irresponsible! It was phenomenally bad policy! That doesn’t mean that there has been a groundswell of outraged voters ready to support its repeal. As far as I know, no one on the mainstream right, least of all the editor of the magazine that once championed big-government conservatism, has even proposed repealing it. After all, it is their monstrosity. It has become part of the structure of our unsustainable, disastrous entitlement system, and no politician with any self-preservation instinct would so much as suggest eliminating a benefit that millions of likely voters enjoy receiving.

And there’s Josh Marshall:

The Democrats won that battle because they said to themselves and the country: on this ground we’re willing to lose. And in addition to all the hard work and everything else in their favor, that commitment stiffened their spines and made them credible to the public at large. It made the political victory possible.

A genuine willingness to lose means just that: you might lose. You might lose big. And the dynamics of a mid-term election, amidst crippling unemployment and an energized right, have certain unavoidable implications. But I suspect the effect for the Democrats of actual passing this legislation will be considerably more positive than people realize.

And there is Ari Kelman:

I’ve been saying for many months that if healthcare reform passes, I believe that Obama, for all of his myriad flaws, will be the best President of my lifetime and one of the ten best in the nation’s history.

Matthew Yglesias concurs:

Now that it’s done, Barack Obama will go down in history as one of America’s finest presidents. It’s always possible of course that, like LBJ, he’ll get involved in some unrelated fiasco that mars his reputation. But fundamentally, he’s reshaped the policy landscape in a way that no progressive politician has done in decades.

And there is E. D. Kain:

In the end, perhaps the greatest thing going for this bill is the possibility that it will open future avenues for better reforms down the road. That is not a very compelling argument, of course, but who knows? It may in fact be the most important argument of them all. The future will demand reform, and we may as well begin the process.

Hey, why not? It seemed like a good day for it. Something was in the air, even in France.

Maybe change was in the air – along with all those words about how no one, not a soul, wants anything to change, really – and how a victory for the folks advocating change will make sure those victorious folks will never win an election ever again. But of course when things change, and the world doesn’t end, or even gets a bit better, there’s a new world. And, if it’s not so bad, those who had been screaming STOP, and continue to do so, become curiosities, and then kind of tiresome, and then become wholly irrelevant. It happens.

And now we have that new world, at least a small sliver of it – and certainly not perfect, but we’ll live with it. Everything else is the buzzing of flies, in the distance. Or maybe it’s Glenn Beck.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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