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The Fake Health-Care Debate

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On Monday night, Ben Smith moderated a debate between Betsy McCaughey and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). Reflecting on the night, Smith said that McCaughey is "nowhere near the player she was in 1994 -- in part perhaps because she's seen as a partisan, not an honest broker, and that's due in no small part to the relentless, effective assault from the left, a refighting of the last war that ensures they won't lose that battle, at least."

On Monday, I argued that McCaughey's prominence is a structural, rather than personal, phenomenon. So too with her humiliation. When McCaughey published her famous smear job on the Clinton effort, there was little for the administration to do in return. They released a document countering her lies, and James Fallows wrote an article, but this was before the rise of the Internet, of the Daily Show, or even of the modern version of cable news. McCaughey was picked up by those who found her lies useful -- talk radio and conservative columnists, mainly -- and largely ignored by those opposed to her inanities.

It's different this year. There are blogs, and Countdown With Keith Olbermann, and the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo and PolitiFact. There's YouTube and Twitter and Facebook. There are, in other words, plenty of people with an incentive to combat McCaughey, the time and space to do so, and the distribution architecture to ensure that their responses matter. McCaughey has thus been polarized, pushed to the edge of the debate, forced to sputter ever more incredible claims before ever more skeptical audiences. She's become the Orly Taitz of health care.

But it's not just McCaughey. Everything got polarized. The claims of supporters and opponents. Death panels and public plans. Baucus and Grassley. Insurers and tea partiers. Everything entered the swirl of claims and counter-claims, blog posts and rebuttals, columns and fact checks, speeches and heckles. This hasn't been a debate. It's been two sets of marchers shouting at each other. The country has become confused, rather than convinced.

In the absence of anything approaching an actual deliberative process, health-care reform became a question of partisan fundamentals: How many votes did the Democrats have in the House and the Senate? In the House, the answer was "more than enough." As that would suggest, the bills have progressed smoothly. In the Senate, the answer was "just barely enough, if no one defects." As that would suggest, the process has been slow and delicate, but it's moving forward.

The fact that the past few months were relentlessly polarized and sensationalized meant that the ensuing "process" was effectively unable to change any actual minds. That was probably good for Democrats. After months of mania and protesting and organizing, the conservative movement has not managed to turn a single prominent Democrat against the effort. After months of organizing and calling and pressuring, the White House and its allies have not managed to assure themselves a single unexpected Republican vote. If there were 56 Democrats, there would be no health-care reform, at least not without the reconciliation process. But as it is, there are 60 Democrats, and the experience of August clarified the importance of holding together.

What stands between Democrats and success is not, at this juncture, Republicans. It's whether they can manage the compromises within their own base. They had the votes in the beginning. The question is whether they can keep them together at the end. That is all that has ever mattered, or really been possible. Everything else is just noise, and the players who matter appear to have ignored it entirely.

Photo credit: By Charles Dharapak — Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  October 6, 2009; 5:15 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: Party Like It's 1994

Comments

Methinks you're placing entirely too much faith in Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln.

Posted by: scarlota | October 6, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

This explains exactly why it's important to pass healthcare reform this year...and climate change legislation early next (most likely). It's beginning to look very possible (even probable) that the Dems may have fewer than 60 votes in 2011.

Which is fine for doing things like deficit reduction or budgets. Just not enacting a longterm liberal agenda. That's gotta happen now. We can tweak the results in future years with much smaller majorities.

Posted by: dailykos2 | October 6, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Now that this is off of your chest Ezra, you can turn to your regular 'programming' and will not get 'distracted' by commercials called - bipartisanship.

As said by 'dailykos2' hence it is imperative that whatever Dems want to pass, it needs to be now in this year only.

Dems need to live with consequences - good or bad. What all they need to do is get all of them together and pass it.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 6, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

This is a really appalling post in which Ezra places himself spang-dab at the center of "all that really matters". As satisfying as that may be for him, it hardly reflects reality.

Is he disappointed that not many minds were changed? Perhaps he should be thankful that the great barometer of public opinion is not lurching drunkenly from one end of the scale to another.

As for the "two sets of marchers shouting at each other", most people who go on a march find more value in meeting like-minded people than in believing they have somehow changed somebody's mind. And sometimes shouting is fun!

And don't believe for a minute that Senator Cantwell would not have sold out the public option if it weren't for electoral pressure.

I have appreciated Ezra's explanations of the terms and thoughts of the health care reform. In the end, though, most of these details have simply been red herring, intended to distract and confuse, and destined to be discarded as unhelpful in the final stretch-or enacted into law and then discarded as unhelpful.

Yes, the players on the screen matter, but they are representatives of the mood of the nation, which can hardly be expected to turn on a dime. It's a mystery, related to voting, which doesn't make any sense at all if you think about it, but which you must do if you want to create democracy.

Of course, it's also possible we are ruled by a corrupt and senile oligarchy 'leading' us to ruin. Only time will tell.

Posted by: serialcatowner | October 6, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

"Everything got polarized.... This hasn't been a debate. It's been two sets of marchers shouting at each other."

Actually the difference between now and back then -- as one might correctly infer from your homage to the Internet -- is that back then there was only one set of marchers shouting. The other set -- namely us -- had no way of responding at the same level.

In a way, we have Net Neutrality and broadband access to thank for health care reform, assuming we're successful.

Posted by: leoklein | October 6, 2009 11:29 PM | Report abuse

leoklein,


actually a large part of the "media presence" can be pointed to the administration's purchse of Pharma's vote and their 150 million dollars in reform ads that have hit the airwaves by negotiating a weak deal with Pharma whose profits are in the double digits annually. And ironically I wonder if its Republican's (like Jindal, Schwarzenagger, Bloomberg (ya I know he's technically an independent) that may push reform over the finish line in whatever form it takes.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 7, 2009 8:07 AM | Report abuse

and its amazing to me that some Democrats haven't learned their lesson in incrementalism from 1994. They over-reached to what the American public wanted as a whole in the last reform debate and they ended up out of meaningful power for 10+ years. If they got all their points in this reform effort how long would they be out of power this time???

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 7, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I'm thinking not at all, visionbrkr.

August is over. Dems offered incrementalism which resulted in a Republican tantrum, and now the Republicans find themselves shut out of the process completely and less popular than when they started.

In retrospect, I think it will turn out to be Sarah Palin's and Chuck Grassley's "death panels" which killed the Republican health reform "brand." Not only did it make the Republicans and Betsy McCaughey eminently mockable, but it put Schwarzennegger and Bloomberg running over to the pro-reform side in order not to be associated with those crazies.

Posted by: constans | October 7, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

constans,

It all depends on your perspective. If (by example) the public option is incrementalism as opposed to single payer then we'll agree to disagree (although most on here disagree with me and I'm fine with that). Many in America consider the end to pre-ex as the incrementalism ideal that would cover all Americans.

well we certainly know where you stand on the issue don't we. Time will tell. Oh and I'll be glad to agree that the Republican party is filled with idiots and you've mentioned two of the biggest ones. To me if they had someone who had a clue as opposed to the Palin's and McConnell's leading them they'd have a much better shot at taking a big bite out of the Democratic majority in 2010 and then (as long as immigration reform is on hold) a shot at the Presidency in 2012. Again they'd need a still un-named person to step up and no one has. Romney, ah maybe. Huckabee, no. Palin, GOD NO. The Republican's need center right candidates to step forward and lead their party. If not you may be right and Democrats may continue in power. As i said before time will tell.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 7, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

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