It’s always about the past. That’s why Fitzgerald’s Gatsby novel is considered the great American novel. It’s all about a noble but flawed fellow who wants to recapture the past, in the person of his one true love from long ago, the beautiful but shallow and rather dimwitted Daisy, which he thinks he can do if he gets rich enough, because that’s the only thing that has ever moved Daisy, even slightly, out of the vague torpor that is all her life had ever been. Gatsby’s quest is hopeless and heroic, and it’s also quite stupid – and he fails – which is deeply tragic, unless you think about it. Gatsby is a fool – a fool for love, common enough and often considered admirable, but also a fool for an idealized past that he completely misunderstood in the first place. Daisy had always been a useless twit, and she always would be. She was decorative, at best. Even if he won Daisy back from her brute of a husband, by the sheer massiveness of his vast fortune, he would have lost. Gatsby got everything all wrong.
That’s what makes this the great American novel. It gets to the core of our longing for a past that was never all that good in the first place. Maybe money will get it back, or patriotism, or old-time religion or something. That’s what seems to animate the Tea Party movement. They want their country back– which seem to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and the only Hispanics and Asians being the harmless and amusing Ricky Ricardo and Charlie Chan, a world of back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, with Jesus everywhere. Maybe Daisy Buchanan is back there too, but only old resentful white folks want to go back. It wasn’t that nice in the first place. All the civil rights stuff from the 1954 Brown decision desegregating schools to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and all the turmoil of the sixties followed by the women’s right movement in the seventies, happened for a reason. That past had been a cruel and stupid place for far too many people. It was America’s Daisy Buchanan – somewhat beautiful in its way, but shallow and rather dimwitted.
Those who are nostalgic about those days also talk about them as if they were the golden age of self-reliance, the days before the government was always trying to fix things. The government didn’t take all your money and hand it out to those Welfare Queens that Ronald Reagan was always talking about. Neighbors helped neighbors. Churches fed the poor. That’s why using the threat of crippling the economy, or even destroying it, to make sure thirty or forty million Americans don’t gain access to affordable healthcare, has to be about more than healthcare. It’s that forty-seven percent thing, and it’s not just about making it hard for them to buy health insurance, because the parallel effort at the moment is to pretty much end the food stamps program. We’re told that ending that program is necessary too, even if that effort isn’t getting much attention. Healthcare is the main issue, even if, as the Affordable Car Act is finally implemented, a number of private parties are going to make big bucks providing what many desperately need, and even if healthcare costs for everyone will slowly come down, and even if the economy will perk up as those worried sick about getting sick can get back to doing work and getting ahead. Those are fine things, but will they make the working poor better people?
This is an odd view of how things used to be. The working poor were in a bad place all along, and their numbers exploded after the economy collapsed in the final months of the Bush administration. For them, the economy never really recovered. The past was pretty awful, then things got much worse, and now things promise to get no better. Maybe they were better people at some point in the past, or maybe not, but that seems beside the point. They’d like a chance to buy health insurance. The Affordable Car Act makes that possible. Someone else’s strange nostalgia is what’s standing in the way.
Now it has come to an impasse:
The Senate is expected to reject decisively a House bill that would delay the full effect of President Obama’s health care law as a condition for keeping the government running past Monday, as Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, expressed confidence that he had public opinion on his side.
Angering Republicans who lead the House, Mr. Reid kept the Senate shuttered on Sunday in a calculated move to stall action on the House measure until Monday afternoon – just hours before the government’s spending authority runs out at midnight.
Without a complete capitulation by House Republicans, large sections of the government would close, hundreds of thousands of workers would be furloughed without pay, and millions more would be asked to work for no pay.
This will cripple the economy, which is weak as it is, but it’s all about bringing back the past, when men were men and women were women and the government didn’t meddle in healthcare at all. The House compromise is a one-year delay, not repeal, which might be seen as a generous concession, but they also added a “conscience clause” – any insurer, or small business buying a policy for its employees through the new health exchanges, can refuse to cover any sort of birth control if they have a religious conviction about the very concept of birth control and family planning. If their religion holds that no women should ever use the pill, and that no woman can be trusted to make decisions about family planning, then their religious freedom must be respected. You cannot make someone provide what their religion tells them is pure evil. Their religious freedom trumps the religious freedom of anyone shopping for health insurance.
This was odd. Hormonal birth control pills were first introduced in 1960 – so this is a bit of nostalgia too. The Griswold decision was 1965 – the Supreme Court held that the government had no business busting into the bedrooms of married couples and arresting them for using contraceptives. That can be changed. It’s an erase-the-sixties thing. Griswold, which established a right to privacy, particularly regarding one’s own body, led directly to the Roe decision legalizing abortion, and to the Supreme Court striking down all sorts of anti-sodomy laws, which probably led to them tentatively supporting the concept of gay marriage. They can bring back the good old days.
Think back to Jay Gatsby. The more one thinks about his noble quest to recapture the ideal past, the more one sees the ditzy and shallow Daisy. Gatsby is not a logical man. He’s not even being sensible, but then there no logic left in Washington:
House Republicans, who insisted that they had passed a compromise over the weekend that would avoid a shutdown if only the Senate would act, blamed Mr. Reid for purposely running out the clock.
“Unlock those doors, I say to Harry Reid,” said Representative Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican who stood on the steps of the empty Senate on Sunday with a dozen of her House colleagues. “Come out and do your job.”
But Mr. Reid sees little incentive or political advantage in bowing to those demands. He has held his 54-member caucus together so far. And because of support from some Senate Republicans who have called it a mistake for House Republicans to try to force changes to the health care law in an unrelated fight over the budget, Mr. Reid’s hand has been strengthened.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine became the latest Republican to criticize her House colleagues, saying on Sunday that an effort to link the health care amendments to the budget was “a strategy that cannot possibly work.”
Of course it won’t work:
Mr. Reid’s plan, which exploits the bypasses and delays available to him in Senate procedure, leaves little time for the House to act before the Tuesday deadline. The Senate on Monday is expected to send back to the House a plain budget bill, stripped of its provisions to delay the full effect of the health care law, repeal a tax on medical devices and allow businesses to opt out of contraception coverage for their employees.
Yeah, the House Republicans also added that repeal of the tax on medical devices, a goody for their political donors, as if it matters. Reid needs fifty-one Democrats to vote with him – not the usual sixty – and he has those votes. The stripped spending bill will go back to the House “in a matter of minutes” – and die there. The government shuts down and the blame-game has already begun:
Senate Democrats plan to emphasize a message that the blame for any shutdown rests squarely with Republicans. “They can decide at that point whether they’ll shut down the government or not,” Mr. Durbin said.
Republicans would then face a difficult choice. Speaker John A. Boehner could risk the ire of his more conservative members and put the Senate bill on the floor for a straight up or down vote, a route that his more moderate members have begun urging him to take. …
There are many Republicans who are convinced that the public would not automatically blame them for a shutdown, and they sought over the weekend to make the case that Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid were slowing the process to score political points. They seized on a pair of images they hoped would resonate with the public: Mr. Obama playing golf on Saturday, and Mr. Reid keeping the Senate dark until Monday.
Mr. Boehner called Mr. Reid’s move “an act of breathtaking arrogance.” …
With the government hurtling closer to a shutdown, the Republicans’ resolve has seemed only to irritate Mr. Reid more. In terms that are exceedingly antagonistic, Mr. Reid has insulted his Republican colleagues as “anarchists” and “rumps” and has called them the “weird caucus.”
Maybe they are the weird caucus, but Jay Gatsby, using all his shady money to bring back the past, was the hero of the Fitzgerald novel – or he was a fool. The New York Times’ Bill Keller puts it this way:
The right-wing campaign to sabotage the Affordable Care Act has driven a lot of normally temperate people past the edge of exasperation. Pundits have described the crusade as crazy, stupid, arrogant, dishonest, cynical, ridiculous and politically suicidal. And that’s not just liberals talking. Jennifer Rubin – who blogs from the right for The Washington Post – says, of the defunding obsessives, they “have absolutely no idea what they are doing.” Fox News seems perplexed, and eyes are rolling at The Weekly Standard. Big Business is appalled. Elders of the Republican right, like Karl Rove, are harrumphing their disapproval.
And yet the zealots press on, threatening to hold the rest of the government hostage to kill a health care reform that (a) is the law and (b) shows every sign of being a good thing for the country.
Keller has a theory about this:
The Republicans are finally having their ’60s. Half a century after the American left experienced its days of rage, its repudiation of the political establishment, conservatives are having their own political catharsis. Ted Cruz is their spotlight-seeking Abbie Hoffman. (The Texas senator’s faux filibuster last week reminded me of Hoffman’s vow to “levitate” the Pentagon using psychic energy.) The Tea Party is their manifesto-brandishing Students for a Democratic Society. Threatening to blow up America’s credit rating is their version of civil disobedience. And Obamacare is their Vietnam.
Keller is not impressed:
To those of us who lived through the actual ’60s, the conservative sequel may seem more like an adolescent tantrum than a revolution. For obvious starters, their mobilizing cause is not putting an end to an indecent war that cost three million lives, but defunding a law that promises to save lives by expanding access to insurance. Printing up unofficial “Obamacare Cards” and urging people to burn them is a silly parody of the protest that raged 50 years ago. But bear with me.
At the heart of the ’60s radical zeitgeist was a sense that the government had forfeited its legitimacy, and that the liberal establishment had sold out or lost its nerve. At the heart of the right-wing uprising is a similar sense of betrayal: the president is not just an adversary but an alien; the Republican leadership has lost its principles; the old rules don’t apply.
It’s just not the same thing:
Indeed, despite the caricatures disseminated by Republicans, the Democratic Party was never taken over by leftist insurgents. With some notable exceptions, the political left of the ’60s, hostile to hierarchy and compromise, spurned the Democratic Party and mainstream politics in general. Leftists of the ’60s migrated instead to single-issue causes, or to Hollywood and academia. The partisans of the right, instead, fought their way to influence at the Republican primary level. The right never got a foothold in the popular culture – it has produced no Bob Dylan or Neil Young, no Ken Kesey or Kurt Vonnegut – but it has become the tail that wags the House of Representatives.
In short, nostalgia isn’t revolution, and even the most conventional of journalists knows that:
David Gregory grilled Senator Ted Cruz on his opposition to Obamacare on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”
Cruz appeared on the show days after he spoke against Obamacare on the Senate floor for 21 hours. Gregory pointed out that the legislation has been “tested” by the political system and that Mitt Romney ran on repealing Obamacare and lost. He asked Cruz for evidence that his efforts have resulted in a change of public opinion.
Cruz proceeded to hammer the legislation, saying unions are rejecting Obamacare.
Gregory interjected. “I asked you a specific question based on the facts on the ground,” he said. “You’ve made all these arguments. My goodness, you went and spoke for 21 hours to make these arguments. You haven’t moved anyone.”
Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum, has a few things to say about the happy endings the Republicans see here:
The president blinks. He’s blinked before after all – notably when he agreed to sequestration in 2011 – and who knows? He might blink again.
This time though, “blinking” means blowing up the president’s most important legacy – his healthcare plan. That’s more than a blink. He might as well hand in his resignation after that.
Then there’s this:
The country blames the Democrats for the shutdown. After all, the GOP is only asking for the president to negotiate. It’s the president who refuses to yield.
That’s not going to happen:
Republicans actually shut down the government in 1995. They took the country to the brink of debt default in 2011. Their caucus is reacting to this shutdown with enthusiasm, not regret. It’s going to be hard to sell the claim that it’s the Democrats who brought about this latest outcome when Republicans come out of caucus looking so happy about it.
There is a third way this could be good thing:
Even if the president does not blink, and even if Democrats don’t get blamed, perhaps Republican activists will be so motivated and mobilized by the shutdown that their excitement will loft the party to big wins in the 2014 races.
Dream on, because all that’s coming is Republican retreat:
Party activists will be demotivated – and may waste their energy recriminating against their own leadership rather than organizing to fight Democrats.
Nothing good will come of this, because of what Frum sees as a breakdown in the party’s ability to govern itself:
It can’t think strategically. Even when pressed to do something overwhelmingly likely to end in disaster, as this shutdown looks likely to do for Republicans, the party has no way to stop itself. It stumbles into fights it cannot win, gets mad, and then in its anger lurches into yet another fight that ends in yet another loss.
Republicans who want to fight smarter are called squishes; Republicans who wish to fight less are called RINOs – and both have been hunted pretty near to extinction. Instead of effective opposition, we see those doomed spasms. And out of these spasms, Obamacare looks sturdier than ever – and any hope of negotiating to fix its worst elements seemingly further out of reach than ever.
Nostalgia leads nowhere good. Gatsby ends up dead, shot by a guy for something Gatsby didn’t even do. Nostalgia can kill you, but, as Atul Gawande notes in the New Yorker, this has been going on for some time now:
In 1946, Senator Robert Taft denounced President Harry Truman’s plan for national health insurance as “the most socialistic measure this Congress has ever had before it.” Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan argued that, if Medicare were to be enacted, “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” And now comes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell describing the Affordable Care Act as a “monstrosity,” “a disaster,” and the “single worst piece of legislation passed in the last fifty years.”
This time, however, the states were involved, in stages:
The first is a refusal by some states to accept federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs. Under the law, the funds cover a hundred per cent of state costs for three years and no less than ninety per cent thereafter. Every calculation shows substantial savings for state budgets and millions more people covered. Nonetheless, twenty-five states are turning down the assistance. The second is a refusal to operate a state health exchange that would provide individuals with insurance options. In effect, conservatives are choosing to make Washington set up the insurance market, and then complaining about a government takeover. The third form of obstructionism is outright sabotage. Conservative groups are campaigning to persuade young people, in particular, that going without insurance is “better for you” – advice that no responsible parent would ever give to a child. Congress has also tied up funding for the Web site, making delays and snags that much more inevitable.
Add this too:
Some states are going further, passing measures to make it difficult for people to enroll. The health-care-reform act enables local health centers and other organizations to provide “navigators” to help those who have difficulties enrolling, because they are ill, or disabled, or simply overwhelmed by the choices. Medicare has a virtually identical program to help senior citizens sort through their coverage options. No one has had a problem with Medicare navigators. But more than a dozen states have passed measures subjecting health-exchange navigators to strict requirements: licensing exams, heavy licensing fees, insurance bonds. Florida has attempted to ban them from county health departments, where large numbers of uninsured people go for care. Tennessee recently adopted an emergency rule declaring that anyone who could be described as an “enrollment assister” must undergo a criminal background check, fingerprinting, and twelve hours of course work. The hurdles would hamper hospital financial counselors in the state – and, by some interpretations, ordinary good Samaritans – from simply helping someone get insurance.
This is new, and it isn’t:
After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, Virginia shut down schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County rather than accept black children in white schools. When the courts forced the schools to open, the governor followed a number of other Southern states in instituting hurdles such as “pupil placement” reviews, “freedom of choice” plans that provided nothing of the sort, and incessant legal delays. While in some states meaningful progress occurred rapidly, in others it took many years.
It’s happening again, so everything old is new again, even when it shouldn’t be.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” No one quite understands what Fitzgerald was getting at when he ended his novel with that line, even if it sounds as if it’s full of deep inner meaning. It isn’t. There’s no reason to be borne back ceaselessly into the past. That’s for chumps. Simply move on.