Monday, November 9, 2009

On narrowing options

As the Democrats made more and more compromises and sellouts -- more and more mistakes -- their options narrowed. At one point, fresh from an historic election, flush with good will, and in the midst of a serious economic crisis, Barack Obama had the opportunity to make a serious difference in the economy. Instead, he compromised with the banking industry and Wall street. Part of his campaign was the slogan: "You cannot use the same people and expect to get a different result." In a wonderful interview on the Daily Show,
Jon Stewart asked Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe why, given this statement, Obama seems to rely on the advice of Timothy Geitner (Treasury) and Henry Paulson [I would have added Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin as well] -- people with strong ties to the Wall Street firms that were largely responsible for the crisis. Plouffe had no answer except to say, basically, trust Obama. In any case, it shows that Stewart can ask the tough questions, unlike network news which was disgracing itself (once again) with its mindless coverage of the recent election.

By passing up the opportunity to institute meaningful control over investment banking and executive compensation (rewards for largely asocial or antisocial behavior), Obama missed the chance of picking up real public support. This gave the Glenn Beck crowd an opening to sound positively populist This was yet another missed opportunity for the Dems, who seem to be in thrall to the rich and slick-talking banking crowd. (This in spite of repeated and very public warnings from Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and others.) The moment has passed and their options are correspondingly limited since banks are now calling the shots again. Bank profits and executive compensation are up, many are paying back their bailouts, and they are once again trotting out their still-unregulated and poisonous financial "instruments" as well as usurious credit rates. All while refusing to help the businesses that desperately need loans.

The same is happening with healthcare reform, but at least something may be salvaged. Which brings me to Dennis Kucinich, who, on principle at least, is once again 100% correct. He was one of the few Democrats to vote No on the House healthcare bill. I am sure that he had counted the votes and knew quite well that the bill would pass by a slim margin without him. A number of people asked how a "liberal" could vote against the bill, but his reasons are no secret: he posted them on his website. The House bill -- like the Senate bill -- is a giveaway to the insurance industry, granting them enormous profits by requiring healthcare for many millions of people, while allowing a public option for only a small number -- not enough to provide real competition. He did propose a successful amendment which would have allowed states to set up their own "public options"; however, this was stripped away in the final version, presumably with the nod from the administration.

As I said, Kucinich is correct in principle. However, at this point, as in the banking situation, the options have dwindled. Had the Dems made real reform -- single-payer or a very strong public option -- truly the centerpiece, and had they effectively propagandized ("Medicare For All"), they might had made an effective first-strike in public opinion. But that didn't happen, at least partially due to a weak message from Obama. However, the "Public Option" isn't really necessary for true reform; not every country with effective universal healthcare has single-payer or even public option coverage. What is needed is effective regulation of the healthcare insurance industry, especially the rates it charges. This can be achieved through a threat of the public option, as in Reid's bill, or Olympia Snowe's idea of a "trigger" option. At this point the Dems must work with what they have, which includes Snowe. They should try to neutralize Lieberman in private -- perhaps brought around to Reid's bill with a little pressure; if that is impossible, he should be jettisoned in favor of Snowe. Later, he can be purged as the Stalinists used to say.

The point now is for the Dems to get something passed. Like the mainstream media, the public has a memory of about 48 hours -- they've already forgotten that it was the GOP, with its de-regulation and tax-breaks for the rich, that got us into the mess we're in. They have forgotten -- if they ever realized -- that the dependence on workplace health insurance has contributed to the competitive weakness of most American industries (with the exception of insurance providers of course). If the Dems can pass some sort of healthcare bill now, it can be corrected in the future; if they fail, it will be another disaster for them.

When your options have been limited, and the consequences of inaction are dire, you have to go with what is legislatively possible -- Kucinich take note -- and hope that there will be another day to correct things.

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