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Political courage

Matthew Yglesias has a good post on the strange concept of political courage.

Sometimes political change really does take courage. To march in Selma, Alabama and have state troopers beat you up takes courage. To take to the streets in Iran and risk beatings or sniper fire takes courage. What happens if you take risky congressional votes? Well, you might lose. You might wind up like Nancy Boyda, pictured to the right. She won an election in 2006 to represent Kansas in the US House of Representatives. In 2008, she lost. And now she’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for manpower and personnel.

I can imagine worse fates. Steve Chabot, a Republican, lost his seat in 2008 and now he’s running again in 2010. After Max Cleland lost his Senate seat, he was on the board of the Export-Import Bank and now he has a gig with the American Battle Monuments Commission. Of course lots of former members of congress work in lobbying or for trade associations. You could always go get a real job. And lots of these people are old. Average age in the House is 56 and it’s 62 in the Senate. Congressional pensions are generous, you can always retire and hang out with your grandkids.

To make a related point, what's particularly appalling about Democrats who voted for the health-care bill abandoning it in the face of electoral danger is that they know, or at least have acted as if they know, the stakes, and that makes their decision morally shocking.

Sen. Jon Kyl believes this to be a bad bill that will do more harm than good. We disagree on that point. But most of the Democrats who voted for this bill do not believe it to be a bad bill. They believes that it is a good, if imperfect, bill that will do basically what it says: Cover more than 30 million people at an acceptable cost, preventing the attendant unnecessary deaths, infirmity, chronic pain, medical bankruptcies and so forth. Which makes abandoning it because it might -- or might not -- slightly reduce their chances of reelection a terrible act.

I always wonder how honest members of Congress are in this internal calculus. Exactly how many lives would a bill need to save, over how many years, and at what cost, for a given senator or representative to judge it worth losing their seat in order to pass it?

By Ezra Klein  |  January 20, 2010; 4:35 PM ET
 
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Comments

Well, Ezra, I agree with you, but it appears that the train has well and truly left the station; Obama is adopting Webb's position:
http://abcnews.go.com/print?id=9611222

Posted by: wendellbell | January 20, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

There's nothing in that news article cited in the previous comment to indicate that the train has left the station. The only action that Obama rules out is passing a bill through the Senate before Brown is seated, which wasn't feasible anyway.

Posted by: kluhman | January 20, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

So, they should vote against thier constituents wishes? What if the bill is voted down and a new, better bill is brought up?

"Exactly how many lives would a bill need to save, over how many years, and at what cost, for a given senator or representative to judge it worth losing their seat in order to pass it?"

Could this not refer to almost every single bill? It is called a "cost vs. benefit" analysis and it is basically why we elect people - to get the biggest benefit at the least cost.

"most of the Democrats who voted for this bill do not believe it to be a bad bill."

What about most Americans? Do they think it a bad bill? Or are we too stupid like Sen. Jon Kyl. If every republican and "some" democrats think the bill is bad - what does that mean?

Posted by: Holla26 | January 20, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

You sure you're right about that? I mean, the other day you reached the conclusion that a Brown victory wouldn't really affect the health-care reform efforts. Meanwhile, any independent-minded person who passed grade school could recognize that a Democratic defeat in Massachusetts would send moderate Dems running for the hills. If you can't foresee those kind of basic developments, why in God's name should anyone listen to your opinions on the consequences of the health-care bill???

You've been cheerleading for something, anything, called "health-care reform" since this thing began. It is impossible to distinguish your wishful thinking from your "analysis." The Post should fire you, and Pearlstein, and get someone who won't try to spoon-feed blatant spin to the readers on a daily basis. The Post is better than this.

Posted by: acronon | January 20, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

There are no number of lives they can save, no amount of good they could do, that would be worth their seat.

Duh.

Posted by: AZProgressive | January 20, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, probably a dumb question, but if a bill passes the Senate, can it later be taken up by the House in future sessions (similar to the Equal Rights Amendment)?

Posted by: Chris_ | January 20, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

There's been a lack of courage all the way down the line. We haven't fought like tigers for our own lives.

I worked with OFA on this cause and I liked my group but they were politically soft, and the leadership was also.

For example, I suggested we do 'die-ins' where we could all fall down dead in large numbers around the houses or offices of representatives who were opposing reform, to dramatize the stakes in way that anyone, even a reporter, could understand.

They just did not understand what I was talking about. This was too dramatic and extreme for them. They chose to do supportive action, like helping out the Food Bank, to spread vague, generic good will.

And so what happened? The direct and dramatic expression of principal was ceded to the right - from Obama on down.

And who had 'die-ins'? The right! Yes, they had the nerve, in a country where 45K die every year because they don't have health insurance, to stage 'die-ins' to protest bringing health insurance to all. I was not surprised. It was the grim ugly truth about how politically pathetic the Dem party is, and it shows the shocking depth of right wing hatred of Americans, which liberals could capitalize one. But 'liberals are wimpy' is right. Maybe we need the threat of death to get what the stakes are.

Get it? You are threated with death. Look at it deeply and seriously and let yourself be changed by it. The death threat of lack of health insurance is now. Happened to several people I know, I mean, they're dead.

A terrible tragedy, really and truly, if this reform is lost.
Think of the poor souls who will die or go bankrupt.
Oh, it just makes me cry.

Posted by: mminka | January 20, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

for how many long, unmitigated months has health care reform been before congress...and the american people?
there has been time to campaign on it, write it, even read it by now, change it, vote on it, teabag it, demonstrate for and against it, debate it ...townhall it..
and...
and now,they dont want to "hastily" rush anything, or ram anything in a hurry, down the throats of the american people?

why do anything in a hurry?
why repair louisiana? infrastructure? the environment? health care? we have all the time in the world to save lives.

Posted by: jkaren | January 20, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

*For example, I suggested we do 'die-ins' where we could all fall down dead in large numbers around the houses or offices of representatives who were opposing reform, to dramatize the stakes in way that anyone, even a reporter, could understand.*

Die ins are stupid and make their practitioners look foolish, but they're popular among anti-war protestors who want something to make them feel better about "doing something." It's not "dramatic." It's silly.

Posted by: constans | January 20, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

The concept of political courage may be overblown, but political cowardice is certainly easy enough to identify. Hopefully we're not about to see a sickeningly abject display of it.

Posted by: bean3 | January 20, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

barney frank sure managed to get the money to financial institutions in a big hurry....but i guess sick, uninsured people arent in as much of a hurry.

Posted by: jkaren | January 20, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

barney frank sure managed to get the money to financial institutions in a big hurry....but i guess sick, uninsured people arent in as much of a hurry.

Posted by: jkaren | January 20, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, any idea what the White House is thinking? Progressive blogs today are full of despair, but no one is bothering to say what's going on behind the scenes.

Surely some people in the administration realize that abandoning the bill here would be like the Allies abandoning their tanks when they reached the Rhine. I've supported Obama through thick and thin, but how can I support, or trust, a president or a party that isn't willing to vote for their own ideas?

Posted by: WHSTCL | January 20, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I've always wondered the same thing (RE your last paragraph).

I've also wondered how sick a mind it would take to make such calculations. I would clearly not rise to such a level in politics, because I would not have the stomach to throw enough people under the bus for self-gains.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | January 20, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand what either you or Yglesia's are trying to say. True political courage would have been to start with a principled bill from the beginning and rejected all the cronyism that characterized January - June. Both the House and the Senate could have financed reform by insisting on allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.

There have been innumerable times when Democrats could have displayed political courage and now you and Yglesias claim that courage would be to hang our heads and take whatever we can get?

Give me a break!

Posted by: Athena_news | January 20, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

A U.S. House Representatives job is to represent the interests of his or her constituents. Maybe at one time those moderate Dems who voted for Obamacare could justify that vote by telling themselves that's what their constituents really want or that they'd come around to loving it once the nirvana of Obamacare had at last been reached. But a lot of things have happened the past few months, Republican getting voted in as governor of Virginia and New Jersey and a Republican getting voted into Ted Kennedy's (aka the People's) old senate seat, to indicate that the American people aren't going to become happy to live in the land of Obamacare. Not only are they becoming very unhappy with Obamacare they are becoming very unhappy with their Democratic Representatives who voted for it and will probably boot them out in the 2010 midterms if Obamacare becomes the law of the land. So it't very logical for some of the Democrats, especially those who represent moderate to conservative districts, to now vote against Obamacare. Times have changed. Ezra, you might find that craven but thats just because you can taste that big goverment healthcare and believe that a few (or more) Democratic losses in the upcoming elections is a small price to pay. But then again it's not your job on the line.

Posted by: RobT1 | January 20, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand what either you or Yglesia's are trying to say. True political courage would have been to start with a principled bill from the beginning and rejected all the cronyism that characterized January - June. Both the House and the Senate could have financed reform by insisting on allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.

But could that have passed?


Posted by: y2josh_us | January 20, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

"What about most Americans? Do they think it a bad bill? Or are we too stupid like Sen. Jon Kyl. If every republican and "some" democrats think the bill is bad - what does that mean?"

It doesn't mean anything unless it's backed by good argument and evidence. Why do they think it's bad? Is it bad electorally (Republicans)? Is it bad due to ideological considerations? Is it bad based upon empirical analysis of potential outcomes? Is it bad based on an understanding of the bill that can charitably be called incomplete? Just saying someone thinks something is bad is a meaningless statement.

Posted by: y2josh_us | January 20, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

""What about most Americans? Do they think it a bad bill? Or are we too stupid like Sen. Jon Kyl. If every republican and "some" democrats think the bill is bad - what does that mean?"

It doesn't mean anything unless it's backed by good argument and evidence. Why do they think it's bad? Is it bad electorally (Republicans)? Is it bad due to ideological considerations? Is it bad based upon empirical analysis of potential outcomes? Is it bad based on an understanding of the bill that can charitably be called incomplete? Just saying someone thinks something is bad is a meaningless statement. "

------------------------------------------

I guess I will use Ezra's definition of "it does more harm than good." I will argue all day why I personally think it is bad. But in the end, it doesn't really matter what I think. What should matter is what the people think - and people elect representatives and representatives vote. So if the majority of reps think its bad AND the majority of the public thinks its bad - then I guess its bad based on all of the factors you mentioned. Good evidence for something proposed that has never happened before and relies on 10 year projections based on todays figures is a tough sell. That is why it is ideologically being rejected.

Posted by: Holla26 | January 20, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,
You are kind of a hypocrite here, calling for political courage after counseling mostly timidity and "pragmatism" by members of Congress, etc. for most of the healthcare debate.

Courage would have been for the President to stand up and define the terms of the debate and stand up to already unpopular industries like the insurance industry. You are suddenly switching horses here at the last moment and asking for legislators not to be timid and pragmatic.

constans,
You are so far out to lunch in terms of how social change occurs I don't know where to start. Die-ins, protest if it were insistent enough and widespread enough would have made the deaths due to lack of insurance a part of the media discussion. Being afraid to "look stupid" is a part of political and moral cowardice, if you are arguing with reason and facts when you do your protests or other attention getting activity.

Nothing is going to change in this country unless people are willing to break with their routines and start voting with their feet.

Posted by: michaelterra | January 20, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

*What should matter is what the people think *

As discussed in the previous thread, only Democrats seem concerned about that.

Posted by: constans | January 20, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

*Being afraid to "look stupid" is a part of political and moral cowardice, if you are arguing with reason and facts when you do your protests or other attention getting activity.

Nothing is going to change in this country unless people are willing to break with their routines*

Die-ins, along with paper-mache puppets, are a well entrenched part of public "routines." It's something annoying college kids do because they think it's dramatic. To them, I guess.

Posted by: constans | January 20, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

It is surprising that Democratic pundits do not separate the specific bills in Congress from the goal of health care reform.

Most of the public in Massachusetts and in the US support reform. They do not support the Senate or House bills before Congress.

For many reasons, the electorate does not see the two proposed laws as positive reform. The public sees special favors, unrealistic cost savings estimates, uncertain cost savings promises without assurances and few if any benefits to their own health care.

Passage of a health care law derived from a compromise of the two bills will not change that perception.

The two biggest benefits cited was the prohibition against using a pre-existing condition to deny health insurance coverage and coverage for the uninsured. The public understood that to make that happen all Congress needed to pass was a simple law making it illegal to use pre-existing conditions and an increase in the coverage of either Medicare or Medicaid for the uninsured. There was no need for deals, pork, promises about uncertain future outcomes, etc.

The bills are icebergs. Most of their provisions and future effects were not above water and visible to the public. The public was suspicious and angry about the special favors for select groups.

The Democrats do not seem to be able to separate their need to pass health care reform law from the quality of the law they want to pass. They are willing to pass a bad law because it is called health care reform. The public is not so enamored of the title and instead wants substantive, useful, helpful, positive change passed. Unfortunately, the President assured a Democratic loss of Senate control and that the bill as is would not pass when he sent signals (deal with the unions, etc) that he was willing to agree to almost anything to get a law called health care reform passed.

Posted by: MiltonRecht | January 20, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I know comparisons to '93- '94 are limited at best, but it seems to me the Democrats are drawing exactly the same lessons and are about to yield the same results.

"We went too far."

That is not the position of courage. It is the fetal position.

What they should do now should be to write -- by action -- the ads they intend to run on this fall.

What are they going to promise this time, a public option?

Posted by: pmcgann | January 20, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Why are die-ins appropriate?

Because 45K people die every year because they lack health insurance. Try it: you could to. Just get sick and laid off. Then die. It's so silly, I know. Only college kids get upset about being put in that position.

(Actually I think middle aged folks are more likely to get upset, because they know they are mortal and they know they can get laid off.)

A die-in gives organizers a chance to write flyers about lots of horrible tragic stories that happen every day in our own communities and then pass those flyers out to citizens and the press. It lets people who are upset about the situation describe the scope of the real problem as it effects real people in our own communities.

The fact that it is a good tactic is shown in that you are so provoked you can't stop posting about it. It causes people to get upset: that's appropriate. This is an upsetting situation. Getting people to confront the horrible reality of it is part of getting to a solution.

Posted by: mminka | January 20, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

"Most of the public in Massachusetts and in the US support reform. They do not support the Senate or House bills before Congress."

This is silly. The national reform is closely modeled on the Massachusetts reform.

If you disagree, be specific. You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts.

The national reform is a very moderate, centrist approach. It is likely that anything more progressive would fail also.

Those who support the demise of this legislation bear some responsibility for the consequences, in tens of thousands of deaths EVERY YEAR and a rising tide of bankruptcies and the rest. I hope you sleep well. NOT.

Posted by: mminka | January 20, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

mminka, I starting to get swayed by the possibility that people lying on the ground might be "dramatic," but I feel like paper mache puppets might be the thing that helps push me over the edge into realizing the seriousness of the situation. Because that stuff totally worked during the Iraq war!

Seriously, you guys are embarrassing.

The system didn't fail because of insufficient numbers of die-ins. It failed because the leadership had no interest in driving the public narrative and spent its time afraid of its shadow. They were looking for the public narrative to determine their convictions rather than using their convictions to drive the public narrative.

Posted by: constans | January 20, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein, you and another columnist, I cannot remember his name, perhaps Mr. Kristof, have eloquently written about how the lack of health care insurance results in the needless deaths of tens of thousands of persons each year. Unfortunately the health care bills passed by the House and especially Senate would have only somewhat mitigated this tragedy. Twenty million or more people would have been uninsured ten years from now, so tens of thousands would continue to needlessly die indefinitely into the future.

This should have been morally unacceptable to anyone who claims to have ethical values. Obama, his advisors, Representatives and Senators have their generous health care benefits, paid for by the people of this country. Most of them just do not care about those who would be left behind.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | January 20, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

I think staging "die-ins" is a great idea. To help conservatives look like the more rational and balanced side of the political spectrum. So please. Proceed.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 20, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

178,000 Americans die from medical or hospital error every year. Why are we not demanding better education or health CARE rather than insurance.

Posted by: Holla26 | January 21, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

"It failed because the leadership had no interest in driving the public narrative and spent its time afraid of its shadow. They were looking for the public narrative to determine their convictions rather than using their convictions to drive the public narrative." - constans

Exactly.

Posted by: Athena_news | January 21, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

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