Why I don’t think this “split” will amount to much by Valentine’s Day
I suspect the main reason Republicans continued to use obstructionist tactics to stall the vote, even after it was a done deal, was that they were hoping that forcing Robert Byrd to come to the Senate every day to suffer through procedural shit in ill health would result in him being too sick to vote, or worse, dead. They failed; this morning, Byrd voted for the health care bill and touchingly dedicated his vote to Ted Kennedy. But I think that the Republicans also realized that delaying tactics bought them time to increase the acrimony on the left. Every day this dragged out, the more rooted the narrative about the Crazy Left vs. the Reasonable Liberals took hold—the same narrative that was established during the Iraq War run-up. The problem with that is that it’s dangerous—pre-existing roles to snap into discourage people from looking at the facts and making their decisions that way. And every day that this process drags out, the more entrenched the “sides” get, and the more they look to the unique times when their “side” was right—kill the bill people are claiming the left and taking moral authority from debacles like Iraq and NAFTA, people who say that the Senate bill is far from great but needs to be passed are referencing Ralph Nader, who is making this all worse by running around doing kill the bill stuff using racist language.
This entrenchment has resulted in nothing but digestion problems. Jonathan Chait is crowing triumphantly to see The Left get egg on their face by being wrong on this issue. But it’s really not that simple. Many of us with pretty radical politics on the whole are not engaged in this “kill the bill” rhetoric. I’ve been a little cowardly and not posting too much on the actual Senate bill because I don’t want to deal with the “kill the bill” crowd—or worse, people starting to talk third parties and other such nonsense—but I have been tweeting in support of getting through this process with our wits about ourselves, including reminding people that, contrary to mainstream media insinuations to the contrary, the House does matter. The continued dismissal of Nancy Pelosi’s power has left me really uneasy, because I detect more than a whiff of unintentional sexism to it, though part of the reason that people overlook Pelosi is that she’s a publicly unassuming person. That, and there’s also the way that the House is treated like the rabble compared to the Senate. Anyway, the point is that I’m The Left—I hate corporate sellouts, I think the war in Afghanistan is a bad idea, I’ve got big time socialist leanings—and I’m far more into the “eh, we’re not going to get anything better by killing it, and killing it would be criminally negligent, so let’s calm down” camp.
The reason is that I read arguments like this or this or this and think that they make their case, full stop. One of our bloggers at Pandagon—Auguste—has written before about how he pays 19% of his income to an insurance company, and so the anger that you may have to pay 8% of your income to an insurance company rings a little hollow to me as a complaint. That would be a massive cost savings to Auguste, should he be able to benefit. (Right now, this is mostly aimed at the uninsured, so people who are going through employers have a different shakeout.) I agree with the defenders that we have to work with the Senate we have, and not the Senate we want. I also agree that it’s premature to blame “The Democrats” for this, which unfairly punishes the majority of Democrats who were pushing for a way more progressive bill but were stymied by conservatives. Howard Dean is playing gadfly on this, but I have to point out that he was a cheerleader for increasing the rolls of Democratic politicians by recruiting conservatives. Well, conservatives are going to be conservative.
If we want better legislation, we need better politicians. And if you think health care is a daunting task, then fighting for better politicians is going to defeat your patience at every turn. The netroots has only been around for like 6 or 7 years, and only really been a player for 4. Taking over a party takes longer than that, and that’s all there is to it. I think there’s a tendency to fight for scorched earth tactics designed to get a lot of results in a very short period of time, and a defeatism when that doesn’t work. I’ll admit that impetus baffles me, because a lot of us are into politics because we love the game, and so we should have the disposition for a long term fight. And by “long term”, I mean taking a truly radical stance, which is that political means alone will not get us where we need to go, but that we have to change society itself. We shouldn’t despair of this task; we have had remarkable achievements in a short period of time, which is why Obama got to be President in the first place. But we need to understand that there will never be a time to rest on our laurels, and therefore it’s not some sort of betrayal of our deeply held beliefs to allow that “better than nothing” is better than nothing.
That said, I think that the tendency of defenders of the Senate bill has been to scold instead of understand, and that’s also worrisome. The links I provided do try to rein it in, arguing on points and not resorting to the DFH intimations, and that’s because Ezra and Sir Charles certainly count themselves in the DFH fold, as people who think that there’s a moral argument for social welfare and that the DFHs were 100% right on Iraq. But unfortunately, as I noted above, some people are absolutely ecstatic at an opportunity to take a giant piss all over the DFHs, even though a lot of us are far from being “kill the bill” sorts. (But I’d say that we may even be scarier DFHs to the cluck-clucking “moderate” crowd, because we’re not happy with how conservative the U.S. in general is, and are looking for massive social change to get our way.) This is only going to entrench the anger of people who want to kill the bill, and make them more suspicious of the motivations of those of us who are generally on their side, but think killing the bill is a bad idea.
I was overly optimistic that the cynicism of many on the left wouldn’t just start blaming Obama to the degree that they’d start making Naderite noises about giving the country back to Republicans as punishment. That sort of thinking scares me. But I want to take a moment to defend liberal cynicism from those who are getting really angry right now. Cynicism is an emotional strategy to protect you from heartbreak. There’s a long historical debate about how effective it is, and I can’t say either way on that front, but I think the urge to be cynical is one that is so strong in the human spirit that it should be respected. Cynicism also has a valuable role to play. Cynics are more willing than others to call out their allies, and keep them honest. There was an appalling lack of cynicism in the 90s that gave Clinton a lot of room to do neoliberal corporate protectionist stuff that hurt people, like passing NAFTA. If it weren’t for cynicism, many on the left would have no energy to offer a counterbalance to the sea of lobbyist money that pulls Democrats to the right, and history shows this. And cynicism has played a role in this debate. I’m sure peace-making Democrats like Harry Reid would have bargained away everything but a mandate if there wasn’t a non-stop pressure campaign from the left, and many of the folks involved have to draw their energy from cynicism. That’s just all there is to it.
And they aren’t wrong to be suspicious. It’s absolutely true that the Democrats have made protecting insurance profits a priority throughout this process, and that goes a long way to explaining why they often seem surprisingly indifferent to basic concerns about how the voters will see this. And at the base of all this is the fundamental fucked-up-ness of making health care provision a capitalist enterprise that puts profits before people. The reason is that every capitalist interaction between a consumer and a corporation is inherently adversarial. We are both trying to maximize our resources from an interaction, and there’s only so much money to go around. From that, it’s reasonable to conclude that anything that’s going to make the insurance companies a lot of money is going to do so by taking something from the people. So, the knee-jerk hostility to corporate profits is far from childish; it’s a lot more reasonable than “reasonable” moderates suggesting that there’s a way to create a capitalist market that doesn’t trend towards picking people’s pockets, at least without heavy regulation that basically forces companies to limit how far they’re willing to go.
The lack of controls in the bill suggests that insurance companies have figured out how to game the system. The problem is that none of us know yet if that’s true or not, because it’s really hard to see how that would work. But it seems impossible to the cynic that they haven’t figured it out, because if insurance companies really did lose this battle, then how is it that their stocks are rising? Marcy Wheeler’s piece is getting a lot of guff because it’s poorly reasoned, but what she’s doing is more of what defenders need to be doing, which is looking for the ways that insurance companies gamed this bill so that they can pick our pockets. Because it is 100% true that they tried, and it’s 100% true that Democrats took their attempts seriously and many gave insurance company concerns more air time than public concerns about affordable health care. We ignore these facts at our own risk.
This is why there is so much acrimony right now: we are in a space of waiting and uncertainty. And until this thing is final, we’re not going to really know what’s next. We can guess, but that’s ultimately what we’re doing. The problem is that everyone who is at odds with each other is working with correct information. People who support the bill have evidence that it’s going to save people a lot of money. But people who see this as an insurance company giveaway at the expense of the people are correct that this is what the insurance companies want and have fought for—and that insurance companies have legions of bean counters who would totally be able to write legislation that favors their profits-through-pick-pocketing strategy without looking like that is what it will do. Everyone has a real point, and things have only gotten bad in the past few days because we’ve had nothing to do but stew and get more and more entrenched.
But now the bill has passed and things will be moving forward. And instead of spinning our wheels with “the scorched earth vs. reasonable people narrative”—a false narrative that makes everyone look bad—we can move back towards pressuring Congress to reconcile this bill into the most progressive one possible. And now it’s inevitable that a bill will pass, and everyone will start shifting, starting today, into wait and see mode. And while that might seem like it amps up the uncertainty principle, it actually doesn’t, because one thing is certain, which is that once it passes, it’s out of our hands. And our certainty in that will calm everyone down, and we’ll be able to move on. And I think that there’s enough respect to go around that everyone will be able to put this week behind us, even though Republicans did their best to draw it out.