Friday, March 5, 2010

Vicious-Circle Politics

It was interesting to hear Indiana Senator Evan Bayh talk to Charlie Rose about his decision to not run again. As a former governor, Bayh explained, he actually got to govern on a daily basis--to get things done, make decisions, and make a difference. In Congress, not so much. Bayh had previously said elsewhere that he'd rather have a root canal than work there--but he did have dazzling things to say about Obama, and what a fantastic president he is.

Congress was definitely under the gun this past week. It's gridlocked failure to function was the lament and refrain on all the talk shows, the topic having been kicked off by a cover story in Time magazine that posed the question "why is Washington tied up in knots?" I found Peter Beinart's answer the most enlightening. Beinart unwinds the current extreme polarization in American politics by tracing its history over several decades, putting into plain English exactly why discontent with government is now at its highest levels ever.

He shows that this is not, by any means, a brand new story. Partisan divides have always been there: we can trace their progression. Back in 1856, for instance, a South Carolina congressman beat a Massachusetts Senator half to death in the Senate Chamber and received dozens of new canes from fans. (Today he would receive millions of campaign dollars on his website over night.)

Polarization in politics, as Beinart (a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a forthcoming book that sounds really interesting, "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris") explains, has always been part of the American narrative, but even so, it used to be routine to cross party lines in Washington to resolve disputes. Not any more. These days, party discipline is maintained by Republicans to the point where any cooperation with Democrats or any show of bipartisanship is deemed treasonous to the larger goal of "stopping Obama in his tracks." The constant threat to retract party support and withdraw financial backing for future campaigns, along with threats to run a more conservative GOP candidate instead, are the methods used to intimidate members into maintaining lockstep conformity within the party. If they don't conform, their photos are removed from the wall at the offices of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. In short, they get ex-communicated.

Beinart believes that serious, non-negotiable, partisan divide first began to show itself over civil rights, abortion rights, and environmental issues during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but it wasn't until the Clinton era that congressional Republicans realized they could use political polarization to actually stymie government--and then use government failure to win elections. Under Clinton, when the GOP no longer controlled the White House, "a new breed of aggressive Republicans (Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Trent Lott) raised their strategy for discrediting both the President and government itself to an art form. They learned the secrets of what Beinart aptly calls "vicious-circle politics:"

Vicious-circle politics works like this: above all, keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you're the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win. Republicans have used this rising disgust with government to cripple health-care reform in the hopes of derailing all subsequent Obama initiatives. At its core, vicious-circle politics isn't an assault on liberal solutions to hard problems, says Beinart. It is an assault on any solutions to hard problems. God help us.

Something has to end the stalemate. I often wonder why Democrats don't talk more about the impossibility of governing when the opposition is committed to "no" as a bloc. I personally think Democrats in Congress should walk around with Jim DeMint's statement "If we're able to stop Obama on health care it will be his Waterloo. It will break him" inscribed on their palms, a la Sarah Palin. That way, maybe they would remember to repeat the comment over and over again, out loud, every time a media interviewer wants to know what's wrong with Washington. But this is not Obama's way. Obama believes you catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. So he continues to reach out to the GOP on the health-care bill, even though he knows it is a lost cause.

In his most recent letter to congressional leaders, he offered to include four GOP ideas (medical malpractice pilot programs, expanding HSAs, cracking down on fraud, and increasing Medicaid payments to doctors). But Republican leaders predictably dismissed the offer: “There is no reason to lump sensible proposals into a fundamentally flawed 2,000-page bill,” John Boehner said. These disingenuous popinjays, behaving like parrots on a pole, never pass up an opportunity to not oblige. This is not merely a philosophical difference; it is a political calculation. Meanwhile Obama has vowed to press on with reform: both parties “should agree that it's just not an option to walk away from the millions of American families and business owners counting on reform."

The President's last and final overture having fallen yet again on dead ears, he is now proceeding to launch the "final push" for legislation on his own, making the case for giving up on the GOP and moving on to passage without them. Fundamentally, he argues on policy grounds, the Republicans don't have a practical plan for expanding and improving coverage. These are his arguments:

"Now, despite all that we agree on and all the Republican ideas we’ve incorporated, many Republicans in Congress just have a fundamental disagreement over whether we should have more or less oversight of insurance companies. And if they truly believe that less regulation would lead to higher quality, more affordable health insurance, then they should vote against the proposal I’ve put forward.

Some also believe that we should instead pursue a piecemeal approach to health insurance reform, where we just tinker around the edges of this challenge for the next few years. Even those who acknowledge the problem of the uninsured say that we can’t afford to help them – which is why the Republican proposal only covers three million uninsured Americans while we cover over 31 million. But the problem with that approach is that unless everyone has access to affordable coverage, you can’t prevent insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions; you can’t limit the amount families are forced to pay out of their own pockets; and you don’t do anything about the fact that taxpayers end up subsidizing the uninsured when they’re forced to go to the Emergency Room for care. The fact is, health reform only works if you take care of all these problems at once.

Both during and after last week’s summit, Republicans in Congress insisted that the only acceptable course on health care reform is to start over. But given these honest and substantial differences between the parties about the need to regulate the insurance industry and the need to help millions of middle-class families get insurance, I do not see how another year of negotiations would help. Moreover, the insurance companies aren’t starting over. They are continuing to raise premiums and deny coverage as we speak. For us to start over now could simply lead to delay that could last for another decade or even more. The American people, and the U.S. economy, just can’t wait that long." (Hat tip: Ben Smith/

Hopefully, Obama's perseverance, tenacity, and unflagging efforts will win the day. Maybe he can still swim through fire and water to the bitter end--where actual accomplishment will succeed in "de-spookifying" the weird messages in which Republicans have marinated this bill. By refusing to cooperate with Obama, and then accusing him of partisanship, they plan to kill off all his initiatives, and brand him as ineffective. Prevent improvement in people's lives, and then point out that their lives are still unimproved. To break this cycle Republicans have set in motion, health-care reform absolutely must pass--or America will become the total forever slave of successful vicious-circle politics. Having made a pact with the devil, these Faustian men will not stop until they have bashed the bushes, gagged the rocks, and drained all flow of meaning right off the planet.

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