Sunday, March 21, 2010

Playing an all-or-nothing game

***** Update ******

Don't take my word for it. Former Bush speechwriter, David Frum.

"In this debate, the Republicans have listened to the most radical voices in the compromise, hand the president his Waterloo. If this turns out to be our Waterloo today, then there has to be an accountability moment. This is going to be a much worse outcome than we could have got if we had negotiated early. And we are going to have to do some self criticism there. There are those who said there is a deal to be done that there are a lot of parts of this bill that look familiar, that look like Mitt Romney’s plan, that look like plans Republicans proposed in 1993 and 1994, they look like things that were drafted at the Heritage foundation in 1990 and 1991, we can work with this, there are things we don’t like, President Obama will pay a lot maybe for 20 or 30 Republican votes, let’s deal — that was shouted down, we went the radical way, looking for Waterloo, and it looks like we arrived at Waterloo."

This is what happens when you play an all-or-nothing game. If you lose, you get nothing. Conservatives are worse off because of the GOP strategy to refuse to negotiate. America is worse off because of it, as people will be more polarized than we would have been had a bipartisan bill been crafted. Conservatives should blame the Republicans for refusing to deal, not Democrats for going forward without them.

***** End Update *****

The health care debate has been raging for the last year, and congress looks poised to pass Obama's bill without any Republican support. Bipartisanship has failed - the question is, why? To partially answer that question, I will reiterate some of the things that Republicans have said and done regarding Obama's health care bill.

-Republicans whipped up false hysteria about "death panels". The truth is that end of life care is enormously expensive, often accounting for 80% of health care spending for some individuals. Many people wouldn't want expensive and often futile measures to be undertaken only to extend life a few weeks. This is a serious conservation that we should be having, but Republicans saw a political opportunity instead.

-The bill has been called a socialist government takeover of health care, even though there is no public option.

-One Republican promised to defend her constituents from the horrors of government-run health care, and promised to defend medicare, in the same 15 second advertisement. This is obviously a staggering contradiction.

-Tea Party protesters at town hall meetings were planted and advised by corporate-sponsored conservative organizations. They were advised to shout at and intimidate congressmen, and they helped to prevent a reasonable, honest discussion about health care reform.

-Just today some Tea Party protesters lobbed the N-word at some black congressmen on the way to the vote. This would be an isolated incident by a few crazy individuals, but then Republican Devin Nune's response justified their words. "When you use totalitarian tactics, people begin to act crazy", according to Nune. The "totalitarian tactic" in question is the use of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a legitimate parliamentarian tactic that is only being used in this case because the Republicans have abused the filibuster. Indeed, the Republicans have prevented the Senate from functioning as a majority-rule institution as the Founding Fathers intended. There is nothing totalitarian about an up-or-down vote in the Senate.

-The bill has been called "an abortion", and pro-lifers have erroneously claimed that the bill provides federal funding for abortion. As so often happens in American politics, the abortion issue was brought up in an attempt to kill reform, because abortion is an issue sure to divide the people and elicit strong emotions on both sides. The accusations are and always were more or less baseless. Catholic organizations have already come out and said as much.

This paints a pretty convincing picture: Republicans have not been arguing policy - they've been arguing politics. Their criticisms of Obama's bill are not factual or even logical in most cases. Rather, their attacks appeal to emotions and fears. Instead of having an honest debate on the topic, repetition, soundbytes, and talking points have been the Republican strategy for the health care debate. Contrast this to Obama, who I think has approached the issue with logic and reason. He has held summits, and done Q&A sessions with congressional Republicans. Obama has appealed to our reasonable nature for the most part, his populist railings against insurance companies aside. When one side is appealing to our intellect, and the other side is appealing to our fears, who is being more honest? Based on this calculus, I lay the blame for the failure of bipartisanship at the feet of the Republicans.

Republicans have played an all-or-nothing game in an attempt to kill health care reform and sink the Obama presidency. This is not a secret - it has been Mitch McConnell's strategy since day one. From a purely political point of view, I don't think it was a terrible strategy; indeed it almost worked. Yet, the GOP ultimately lost this gambit and when you play an all-or-nothing game and lose, you get nothing. Had the GOP negotiated in good faith, I think Obama would have been willing to give up a lot in order to secure 5-10 Republican votes for his bill. Obama is a census-seeking person, and Republicans could have taken advantage and really helped play a positive role in the writing of this health care bill. Instead, we got false arguments, phoney debate, and obstructionism.

When conservatives start looking for someone to blame, perhaps they should look inward. The Republican strategy rested on the absolute legislative obstruction of a Democratic Party that had 59 senators, the house, and the Presidency. Republicans could have instead opted to negotiate and play a part in building a new compromise for the future. They could have chosen a constructive path rather than a destructive one. They didn't, and conservatives are now worse off because of it. Even if the GOP does take back congress in 2010, they have the precedent of shameless obstructionism and filibustering that they set to look forward to.

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