Thursday, January 21, 2010

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

It may be premature to write the obituary of health care reform today, but it’s hard to deny that it is bleeding, panting and prone. Who was responsible for what may be its mortal wounds?

It wasn’t Martha Coakley or Scott Brown. It isn’t her fault that she’s an awful candidate, or his fault that he’s a talented one. No, the bulk of the blame belongs to others. With deference to one of our honorees, let’s call these… the worst persons in the world!

This debacle wasn’t all these guys’ doing. But each of them represent in a perfect way the three groups that dimmed the dream of health care for (nearly) all. 

Republicans. Richard Nixon proposed a health care plan that was very similar to the current proposal. Mitt Romney signed a plan in Massachusetts that was also a close analogue, but failed to address costs. A proposal like this one has been well within the Republican mainstream before, yet still Republicans have maintained the fiction that this was a far-out government takeover of health care. It is hard to conceive of how a plan could do more to minimize government intervention and still broaden coverage significantly. 

The Republicans calculated that they had more to gain from a Democratic failure than from a bi-partisan success – and of course, they were right. But if they ever regain a Congressional majority, they will have to live with the culture they have created... drink the soup they've peed on, if you will. They’ve not only proven that obstruction is a winning formula, they have facilitated the means. 60 votes in the Senate, a super-majority that Republicans have not enjoyed since 1922, is now necessary for -- not just controversial -- but any significant bit of business. They might be able to lower taxes and drive us into penury through reconciliation, but anything needed and significant (like controlling Medicare costs) will be out of their reach. We are well on the way to Californiazation: a labyrinth of gridlock with Debt as the Minotaur.

Democratic Centrists. If Max Baucus had not dawdled for months in the foolish hope of getting a Republican to sign on and thus make it a little easier for his centrist buddies to cast a tough vote, this bill would already have been signed. If Lieberman had not killed Medicare expansion, a lot of support from the left would have been saved. If Nelson hadn’t held out for a Nebraska freebie, the Republicans’ best talking point would have been averted. All these guys, but particularly Baucus, share responsibility for the bill’s predicament.

Look, all sides face political pressure. And it is perfectly legitimate for legislators to fight for their interests. But politics is a team sport. It is better to score fewer points on a winning side than be the losing side’s big scorer. These guys thought they were covering their hide, but all of them will be in electoral trouble anyway; it’s impossible to defend a losing bill you voted for. When they get sent home, they won’t be able to say they saved many families from bankruptcy, or got medical care to those who needed it. They lacked circumspection and a sense of proportion about the stakes at play. They valued their place in office more than their place in history.  

Democratic Lefties. Let’s not pretend this bill’s death-knell came solely from the moderates. In fact, some timely reporting seems to indicate that it is the progressives who are setting up the roadblock in Congress. Who are these people led by? Olbermann in the media, Kucinich in Congress, Jane Hamsher in the blogosphere. They decided to draw their line in the sand at a bridge too far: the public option, a proposal that never came close to having 60 votes. Even after the public option was diluted beyond significance, they kept at it as a matter of pride. What was the effect of this? Here, why don’t I show you.
Given that so many are dissatisfied with the bill because it doesn’t go far enough, it’s safe to say that if the proposal had maintained the support from the left the bill would enjoy a comfortable plurality of approval in polls and the narrative that it is unpopular would never have taken root. Lefties were angry that centrists were using their leverage in full, and they wanted to have an equivalent amount of leverage. The only way to do this was to convince others (and themselves) that they were willing to walk away too. The natural effect of that was for people, on the left and in the middle, to say… “well, it must not be a very good bill then.”  

I’ve been flabbergasted at the epic ennui that so-called progressives have shown regarding the biggest progressive proposal in decades… the political dream of our lifetimes. They have placed the proposal in a murderous crossfire. Throughout, I’ve been stunned at how difficult it’s been to convince them that our most important priority should be extending coverage to the uninsured, something that I would think would be a basic assumption for them. Instead I’ve heard concern about cost controls being insufficient (as if the status quo were better), concern that the most effective form of cost control is included in the proposal, concern about the Democratic brand, concern about corporate profits, concern about ‘regressive’ taxation (on plans that cost what many would consider a healthy wage.) Really… does any of that stack up against the insuring 30 million people? Does it stack up against letting a whole lot of sick people get medical help? 

I’ll say it again… politics is a team sport. It does not help the progressive cause to destroy a Democratic Presidency that could have (and still might) launch a decades-long majority.

And how has Obama done? I think his strategy was sound, but he is on the verge of a big mistake, if we take his morning talk seriously. Kevin Drum is absolutely right: going back to the Senate would be very foolish. If Obama tries to negotiate a new bill with Snowe and the Republicans, they will do the exact thing they did in 2009. String him along for months but leave him stranded well before a roll call is called. The preferable option is for the House to pass the Senate bill with a reconciliation sidecar. If it can’t do that, then they should pass a (by necessity) more modest bill with reconciliation. Ezra Klein suggest Medicare buy-in, Medicaid expansion, and taxes on the rich to pay for it.

If Obama does choose to go back and grovel to the Republicans, he will have lost this faithful supporter. As the former President Bush once sagely said: "Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice… won’t get fooled again."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fiscal Infantilism

My major beef against the GOP is that it is the major purveyor of fiscal infantilism in our country. What's the standard line?

"Obama has run up a $1.2 trillion deficit! We need to cut spending to bring down that deficit, and cut taxes to get our economy going again."

But won't cutting taxes hurt our deficit?

"No! Cutting taxes pays for itself by spurring the economy."

Even among conservative economists, the only ones who believe this last claim are hacks like Larry Kudlow who are willing to deceive themselves on the historical evidence. Look at this graph:

The Republican tax cuts of the early 80s and early aughts both raised the deficit, even as a percentage of GDP. Reputable conservative economists like Gregory Mankiw readily admit that tax cuts cost money.

But for the sake of argument, let's imagine unicorns exist and tax cuts pay for themselves. Can we balance the budget by spending cuts alone? Well, how much is the deficit projected to be next year again? $1.258 trillion. And how much is discretionary spending for next year, including defense? $1.250 trillion. You could literally cut ALL of government except for Medicare and Social Security and still not be able to balance the budget. (And of course, we know from the current health care debate that Republicans would NEVER cut Medicare spending.)

The smart conservatives all know that they can't make these promises and be fiscally responsible, but they wink at each other and say "hey, tax cuts have been pretty good for getting us elected in the last 30 years. Why change a winning formula?"

Because you can't govern responsibly by getting elected on this platform.

And why do the talking heads, who often profess to be intensely concerned with matters of fiscal rectitude, why are they unable to ask a Republican a tough follow-up when they propose mathematically impossible remedies for our country's problems?

Honest disagreements are possible in politics, but this is surely a question of character. The numbers are inescapable. If a politician is willing to run on the standard Republican platform, he is either a stone-cold idiot or someone who cares more about power than their country.