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The failure narratives continue

PH2010012101153.jpgNewsweek's Michael Hirsh:

Someone must have misinformed Barack Obama when he ran for president that the U.S. Constitution allotted him only a one-year term, rather than four years. Otherwise it's difficult to understand why, faced with solving a Depression-size economic crisis, two wars, and global warming to boot, he felt that he also had to grab hold of the third-rail issue of health care during his inaugural year.

It's been a disaster, of course, and may go down as one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern history. For the American public—haunted by too many rounds of layoffs, appalled by Wall Street's government-aided Grand Heist, aghast at the size of federal spending that never seems to find its way into their pockets—health care was simply an intervention too far. Cue the tea partiers—and one freshly minted senator and future Republican rock star, Scott Brown. Lay poor Teddy Kennedy to rest all over again.

There was nothing new about this, of course. It falls into the age-old annals of hubris, the same excess of pride that got Achilles and Agamemnon in trouble with the gods. Obama apparently did buy into the idea that he was a Man of Destiny and, being one, possessed bottomless supplies of political capital. But he really had no more political capital than any first-year president, and he was straining his reserves just dealing with the stimulus and financial reform, much less fixing Afghanistan.

On the one hand, this is just nonsense. If Ted Kennedy hadn't died, or Martha Coakley had run a slightly better campaign, health-care reform would be barreling towards passage and we'd all be looking towards a big Rose Garden ceremony where John Dingell would get a pen and pundits would be talking about Obama's laser-like focus and his smart decision to avoid Clinton's mistakes and not do too much on the issue and let Congress call the shots.

On the other hand, the part of this that was predictable was the press building a narrative around either success or failure. It's Democrats who appear to have chosen -- and I use that word advisedly -- failure rather than success. Though I imagine that if Barack Obama could actually pull the party together and convince Congress to pass the Senate bill with modifications, that would get a fair number of stories about the back-from-the-brink-of-death administration.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 22, 2010; 9:26 AM ET
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"On the one hand, this is just nonsense."

Sorta. Certainly, if Ted Kennedy hadn't died and there hadn't been the Scott Brown victory, the current healthcare reform would have been much more likely to pass. Yet you still would have had the tea parties, Joe Leiberman, Ben Nelson, etc.

At the same time, one could also argue that more modest but useful proposal--a bill that was just a Medicare buy-in, for example--would probably have already passed months ago. It's not just doing this with a floundering economy (yes, a bad idea, generally) and two wars, but trying to accomplish something so large, initially. See Clinton Healthcare for the problems of biting off more than you can chew, re: healthcare reform.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 22, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Well stated, Ezra. The Dem. Congress now seems to have no fear of its own base, that will turn on it with a vengeance if they pass on health care and pretend it doesn't exist after they campaigned on it in 08/

Posted by: cmpnwtr | January 22, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

The line about Achilles and Agamemnon is so over the top it's almost comical, especially in light of the criticism that Obama hasn't spent enough political capital and hasn't been involved enough in shaping Health Care Reform.

HCR was a major issue in the campaign, the Tea Party movement grew in response to HCR, and HCR wouldn't have been so labor intensive had the Republicans not spent so much time and political capital of their own in an effort to obstruct and defeat it.

Posted by: tnoord | January 22, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I think that's the best phrasing I've seen so far: the Democrats choosing failure over success.

Posted by: etdean1 | January 22, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

"health care was simply an intervention too far."
health care a "third rail issue."

how DARE he say that??????
how DARE he sit in his comfortable office, with his lovely health care plan and nice home somewhere, and say that?
mr hirsch, you are the one who is in trouble with the gods for saying that.

just keep a list of all of the people who are abandoning the ship. who are "giving up" on health care, "giving up" on obama after one year, gleefully declaring him a failure, "giving up" on us....pronouncing us all dead out here.
these people are so smug and gleeful in their ivory towers, it makes me sick.

all sitting in comfortable offices with fine jobs..."giving up" on those who need help, those who they hardly ever see in their daily lives.
shame on all of them.
i hope that when these people turn up in emergency rooms, with health insurance) the doctors dont look at their complicated conditions, and decide to "give up" on them.

their gleeful arrogance and pronouncements will revisit them at a later time, to haunt all of them.

Posted by: jkaren | January 22, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

On another note, I can't believe all these pundits lining up to declare Scott Brown a "future Republican rock star" when there's no way he can pass the party's anti-abortion litmus test anywhere outside a liberal state like Mass. He has no future with the base of his party, unless he takes a radical right turn. Then he loses the independents and moderates. He's a poorer, better-looking Romney.

Posted by: cava06 | January 22, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I'm with etdean1 and jkaren. Phuk these arrogant, well-off white males.

And yes, the Dems are choosing to fail, revealing themselves to the public as losers.

Posted by: AZProgressive | January 22, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

open note to:

barack obama, joe biden, michelle obama, david axelrod, claire mccaskill, ron wyden, nancy pelosi, harry reid, hillary and bill clinton, paul krugman,ezra klein kathleen sebelius.....
you are supposed to know the answers and how to get things done, and care about the fate of the american people... go into a room and dont come out til you figure out how to get this bill passed.
do whatever it takes now. if there is a will, there is a way.
this is the last stop on the hope train. right here.

Posted by: jkaren | January 22, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

while healthcare may be a "third rail issue" it has been urgent for the last 5-10 years if not longer (with prices skyrocketing as well as the uninsured ranks). The only thing he could have been excused for resolving first was the economic crisis and jobs (that could have saved healthcare for some) but you can handle both of those things (jobs/economy and healthcare).

Obama was right on two fronts. The status quo is unacceptable (and seems destined to continue) and the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

I think individual states now need to step up (although they have almost no resources to do so) and enact their own reforms. Some have over the years since the 1994 collapse some have gone far like MA and some not far enough and some not at all. If nothing else people that are eligible for Medicaid need to get on it if this doesn't pass and they need to raise the FPL threshold for approval into the program.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 22, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

This is all you need to know:

In the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s victory in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts, the majority of Americans (55%) favor Congress’ putting the brakes on its current healthcare reform efforts and considering alternatives that can obtain more Republican support. Four in 10 Americans (39%) would rather have House and Senate Democrats continue to try to pass the bill currently being negotiated in conference committee…

The majority of political independents, whose support has been crucial to recent Republican election victories in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey, would also prefer to see the reform efforts put on hold rather than moved forward.

Posted by: obrier2 | January 22, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Thing is he was only guaranteed one year to do anything. In 2010 Congress will spend much of the year campaigning and the chances that Obama would lose seats no matter what in 2010 was always really high (putting forth a bad stimulus bill helped that along of course).

Posted by: endaround | January 22, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

to @obrier2:

And? Someone once said: "History is written by the winners".

If democrats had passed a bill (any bill) they could have argued about the postives on the bill, and pivoted immediately to jobs, jobs, and let see... jobs.

Now they're acting like total losers, and history is being written by the winners, the republicans.

6 months ago it was the republicans who were ruderless. I think this whole fiasco shows the democrats lack a rudder as well. Or, as I like to put it, a spine.

Republicans passed Medicare Part D, HUGE Tax Cuts, and No Child Left Behind while they had smaller majorities in both chambers.

Now that democrats are in charge, they're showing how they can't pass the most critical item for the base for the past, what is it? 70-100 years? when they were less than a yard to the goal line.

I want a party filled with republicans (who get things done) that supports progressive goals. Right now democrats are a party filled with weak-kneed pansies who scare at the sound of loud clapping.

Posted by: JERiv | January 22, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

@cava06:I think you misread the Republican party. Scott Brown can indeed be a rockstar, if continues to behave and speak as he did in his campaign against Coakley. The litmus test is less about abortion and more about whether or not a given Republican is generally conservative.

If Scott Brown signs on to a second stimulus package and tax hikes, then, no, he will not be a Republican rock star. If he's opposed to abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother, 95% of conservatives won't have a problem with him. And, frankly, that 5% of the base that demand 100% purity and a devotion to overturning Roe V. Wade almost never like anybody in any party. Those folks don't have a lot of rock stars.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 22, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Not that I particularly believe Newsweek can speak for all Americans (usually, when someone does that without electoral evidence, I think they're full of it), but if Americans really don't understand the need to do HCR this year, that's on them.

Look at history- HCR is always hard to pass, and it always takes its toll on a President's political capital. So when else COULD Obama have started it? In 2010, when his Honeymoon would've been over and Congressmen would be worried about the midterms? AFTER the midterms, when he probably wouldn't have 60 votes in the Senate (no matter how optimistic we were in early 2009)? After reelection, when he'd be a lame duck and god-only-knows what outside issues would crowd the agenda?

Maybe he just shouldn't have addressed it at all, huh? But of course he couldn't. That's 20 or 30 or 40 million Americans who have to wait ANOTHER 8 years before having a chance at health care. That's countless deaths and accidents and examples of human suffering that COULD have been avoided, but weren't, just so Obama's team could make a better showing in an election- and of course, OF COURSE, if they're not going to do something for those millions of people, why should we CARE what kind of showing they make in the election?

None of this is to take away from the genuine mistakes Obama made in pushing this issue. But Newsweek's argument seems to be that he shouldn't have brought it up AT ALL, and that's just insane. The reality is, this issue had to be addressed soon. The political reality is, now was (and is! I haven't heard the bell yet...) the best time to do it.

Posted by: colby1983 | January 22, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Keep in mind, Republicans passed No Child Left Behind (a bill mostly authored by Ted Kennedy, and it shows) and Medicare Part D (and this applies especially to Medicare Part D) with very little support from the base on these issues. Conservative punditry was queasy about No Child Left Behind and actively hostile to Medicare Part D.

Which just goes to show, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans do what the base wants. Except the Republicans did do tax cuts.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 22, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

@Kevin_Willis: "And, frankly, that 5% of the base that demand 100% purity and a devotion to overturning Roe V. Wade almost never like anybody in any party. Those folks don't have a lot of rock stars."

No rock stars? I keep hearing about some former governor they like. Tara Pailing? Farrah Hailin? Oh right--Sarah Palin! She represents their issues, but you're probably right--she doesn't quite have the rock star/telegenic qualities a strong primiary candidate needs to really fire up the base.

Anyway, I dispute your idea that the rabid anti-abortion lobby represents only 5% of the republican base. Especially the base that votes in primaries. The far-right wing of the republican party is fired up and organized right now. They want ideological purity. Just ask Crist down in Florida. The conventional wisdom from the right was that John McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough. So I don't see much of a future for a moderate northern republican on the national scene unless he moves to the right, which brings its own problems.

Posted by: cava06 | January 22, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Klein persists in blaming Coakley for being a weak candidate. Scapegoating is never an admirable way to explain failure.

A health care reform bill could have been passed had Obama shown more assertive leadership and tried harder to get some Republicans to support a bill. He should have included tort reform in a health care bill, but Democrats are so beholden to trial lawyers, they can not offend one of their special interest groups.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | January 22, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

So, in essence, Hirsh isn't blaming Obama for failing, but for trying at all. Past presidents, faced with the same impending health-care crisis, apparently score points for kicking it down the road.

Posted by: dpurp | January 22, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

There are three important things I'd like to note:

1) If Republicans were in an analogous situation, say all they had to do was pass a Senate bill for a multi-trillion dollar tax cut for millionaires and billionaires, they would do it in a second. They'd do it if they suddenly lost 20 special elections in the Senate.

2) If the Democrats did pass the Senate bill, any public upset would be long forgotten in a few years when the public saw firsthand how much better life was with universal health insurance, and how false the Republican propaganda was.

3) If you keep the filibuster, then you are saying we should only get great positive change every say 50 – 100+ years, because that's about how often you will have the rare convergence of skill, luck, and favorable circumstances to get it by a ruthless and disciplined Republican party whose strategy is to stop anything good and do maximum harm to the country to make Democrats look bad when they are the majority. Now, what do you seriously risk if you wait another 50 –100+ years for strong anti climate change action? Are you finally ready to abolish the filibuster Democrats? It only takes 50 Senators and the V.P.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 22, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse


Do you think Sarah Palin is electable to national office? Possibly Senator from Alaska, I suppose. I'd vote for Sarah Palin, but I don't the majority of the country would in a presidential election. I expect she wouldn't even win a primary battle. But, okay, she's a rock star. I said the "against abortion all the time always" crowd didn't have a lot of rock stars. They have a few. Still, the point remains that the majority of the base has no problem with a pro-life conservative who thinks abortion is acceptable in specific circumstances (rape, incest, life of the mother).

"They want ideological purity. Just ask Crist down in Florida. The conventional wisdom from the right was that John McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough."

McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough, he didn't present himself well, and he ran against a great orator, and he ran as a Republican after 8 years of Dubya. Lots of factors, there.

And yes, they want ideological solidity--meaning that an actively pro-choice Republican isn't going to go anywhere. But McCain was against Bush's original tax cuts. He authored Campaign Finance Reform. He was frequently in opposition to Bush and most of his party. And he won the primary.

Even Bush was a Big Government "conservative"--he signed off on CFR, Medicare Part D (actively lobbied for it!), No Child Left Behind (unprecedented federal meddling in state education) and decided to conduct a pre-emptive war with Iraq, which is arguably the antithesis of conservatism. Bush won in the primary talking about "compassionate conservatism", a term that makes most conservatives squirm. That would be like a Democrat talking about how they didn't actually hate America as much as people might think. Bush would not pass the ideological purity test. He probably wouldn't even come close.

I think the reality is, the Republican base does not want what they perceive to be "Democrat-lite" or some sort of rudderless centrism. They want significantly right-of-center candidates, and ones that can articulate their position well. Thus, I'm prone to agree that, right now, Scott Brown is a Republican "rock star". Scott Brown may have voted for healthcare reform in Massachusetts, but Ronald Reagan signed on to a number of liberal initiatives in California (tax hikes and no-fault divorce come to mind), and he was loved by the base, and won the presidency in two consecutive landslides.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 25, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

@cava06 (continued):

With the base, it's not all about abortion. McCain failed to attract enough of the base to the polls to even make it close in most states, and McCain is and has remained largely ideologically pure on abortion. McCain had numerous other weaknesses (not the least of which were speaking, campaigning, stumping and debating) that helped him lose.

And, after 4 or 8 years of Obama, and even after 2 years of the Democrats controlling both the executive and legislative branch, I think you'll find even the rabid anti-abortion base may be forgiving of less-than-pure candidates, as long as they perceive them to be better than the politician they will be replacing.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 25, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

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