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Commented: Don't let the achievable be the enemy of the perfect

Commenter Burndtdan wasn't impressed with my post this morning arguing that you can't confused fantasy plans with realistic legislation.

Although I don't support the measures in Ryan's budget, I have to firmly disagree with your entire framing.

A bill that works best in theory is what should be strived for. Passing it might require you to reframe the debate, to shift the Overton window to one direction or the other, and that takes time. But ultimately, the result is a solution that works, rather than a solution that could pass.

Real solutions take leadership. Leadership is not bending yourself to political reality, it is bending political reality to yourself. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I don't agree with Ryan's budget, but I do respect it for it's audacity. I believe it was you who said roughly the same thing here a week or so ago. We are facing increasingly radical problems in this nation, and we've spent the entire last generation taking advice like yours, worrying about what will pass, rather than what will work. It's why our Congress hasn't passed a major piece of legislation since the '60s.

It's time to stop worrying about finding the lowest common denominator to a passing cloture vote, and instead time to start picking some fight and bloodying some noses. The American people need big solutions to the big problems, and all you need to do is look at the Democratic poll trends to see what they think about leaders who think that tinkering around the edges is enough.

I actually agree with much of this, which is why I tried hard to highlight Ryan's proposal and why I spent so much time talking about Wyden-Bennett. But I don't agree that it's time to stop worrying about figuring out what can pass. A lot of people need a lot of help right now, and even if we can't do enough, we need to do what we can. The trick of that is you somehow need to communicate that your bill is good, but not sufficient, and that's very hard to do when you're trying to sell it to the American people. One of the problems with the health-care reform bill, I think, is that it's been oversold. It's a big achievement, but it's not nearly so big as people think.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 9, 2010; 5:26 PM ET
 
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Comments

Burndtdan was wrong about one point. Most of the environmental laws which have significantly reduced pollution in this country were passed in the 1970s. Many under Nixon. Auto emissions, for example, have been reduced by 95%, and mileage is much better. Water pollution has been significantly reduced, especially acid rain in the East. These laws, taken together, were a monumental achievement that made life liveable today. This is something we should think about as we try to confront global warming.

Small thinking came along with the triumph of the anti-government thinking of Ronald Reagan.

Posted by: Mimikatz | February 9, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

"It's a big achievement, but it's not nearly so big as people think."

now there will are two achievements...
the bill itself, and getting it passed.
in this political climate, it seems now that almost anything will be an achievement, and getting it passed will be another hallmark achievement.
the daily drama of health care reform is replacing the soaps.
with a fair number of people in this country thinking that sarah palin is as qualified as barack obama, and that she could actually be considered as a president, it is a miracle if we still have the will and consensus to pass anything, including a plate.
i think that any democrat who is watching sarah palin and her scary band of teabaggers should be doing everything they can to support and encourage passage of this bill, and temper their criticism in this environment.
does anyone in their right mind actually think that things cant get worse.
anything can happen.
one day, we could be sorely pining for the good old days of 2010.

Posted by: jkaren | February 9, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I've been following your column almost since it began, and I'm flabbergasted that you have never made a reference to a concept as nifty as the Overton window. I know because when your commenter used it, I had never heard of it and had to Google it. Super nifty.

Posted by: ctnickel | February 9, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Its a balance between legislative realism and policy leadership. Its hard to see where one could argue that Obama struck the right balance.

I'd also question patting yourself on the back for Wyden-Bennett. There have been a couple of posts here and there, and you've mentioned that as a proposal its superior to what's actually on the table. But in terms of using your role as journalist to push the debate in that direction? There hasn't been one post on exactly why the Obama didn't actually pursue legislation closer to this model. The answer, of course, is that he completely followed the Democratic establishment's view on reform rather than lead-- even when leading could have borrowed heavily from a plan that actually existed beyond a purely fantasy idea with Congressional support. I've yet to see any evidence that Wyden-Bennett was pure fantasy.

Posted by: wisewon | February 9, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

PS I just read the interview with Lamar. Great interview, his responses are clearly frustrating. It'd be good to see you do those with Obama et al or the Democratic leadership. It would've been even better if you did that a year ago. As you noted, Lamar was supporting W-B last July. I'm still not clear why W-B couldn't have worked if it was the starting point. There was clearly some additional heavy lifting-- but that's the point here-- that's what SOME leadership should do. Obama din't provide any and instead immediately resorted to a less helpful plan. So I guess I'm waiting for the interview/data on why W-B wasn't even worth entertaining.

Posted by: wisewon | February 9, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

It might be true that all progress is attributable to unreasonable people -- although I note that in nature, the most common designation for organisms that fails to adapt is "extinct." But even taking Shaw's quote at face value in no way ensures that all unreasonable behavior results in progress. In fact in my experience, unreasonable people can often be downright destructive.

Posted by: CalD | February 9, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Actually, I think it was Kevin_Willis who said that.


Juuuuust kidding.

Posted by: dpurp | February 9, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

The irony is that the oversell has largely been made by the opposition.

The propaganda about how the bills are a "government takeover" of "1/6 of the economy" (along with all of the wacky "death panels" talk) creates the mis-impression that HCR creates some kind of major disruption within the coverage that most people already have.

I am now very optimistic that Obama's summmit strategy will result in passage of the Senate bill with a sidecar budget reconciliation patch. But even if I am right about the final outcome, I think that political scientists will long study how the opposition to this bill managed to manipulate public opinion to their advantage along the way, by creating a completely false impression of the magnitude of the reform package, its actual net costs, and the impact it has on anyone who already is insured.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 10, 2010 4:13 AM | Report abuse

Wow, what a way to start my morning.

I doubt it needs to be said but I wouldn't bother commenting or making arguments for/against what you say if I didn't think this blog was a great place to see honest and thought-provoking policy positions.

Now I will sit back and watch my opinion be put through the meat grinder.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 10, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

I always thought single-payer and the public option were good ways to move the Overton Window - I think they worked until the election in Mass. The problem is that hiding policies with politics only works for so long - and when the people figure out what you have been doing...the approval tanks.

Posted by: Holla26 | February 10, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I would also say that I can see your point about this particular bill being oversold for what it is, but I also think the major problem isn't that the bill is too big (or that perception), but that people want a real, fundamental change and aren't getting it.

Messaging is a tactical problem that exists, but there is a strategic problem that also exists. People didn't vote to reform the current system so much as they voted to implement a new system in it's place (or at least concurrent to it). Many pundits have pointed out that FDR famously said that he welcomed the hatred of those who stood against him, and it's time for the Democrats to make some people in the health care industry hate them, and welcome their hatred.

For the meantime, and with the current set of circumstances, I agree that passing the Senate bill (probably with sidecar reconciliation) might be the best choice. But I think that we've gotten to the point where that is the best choice was through a comedy of errors where setting the goal as finding something that "will pass" was the most common mistake, and ultimately a futile effort anyways as it has yet to actually pass.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 10, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Kevin, I considered that point about "Democratic filibusters are more democratic" to be more an interesting illustration than a serious reform proposal.

Posted by: tyromania | February 10, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I would also say that I can see your point about this particular bill being oversold for what it is, but I also think the major problem isn't that the bill is too big (or that perception), but that people want a real, fundamental change and aren't getting it.

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Define Change? Some want to cover an additional 30 million by raising taxes on almost everyone. Some want the cost of healthcare and thier corresponding premium to go down. The problem is that the bill and/or political promoters are trying to say the bill does both. When 80% of people are happy with the current system - they might not want "fundamental" change but more of an "updated" change.

Posted by: Holla26 | February 10, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Define Change? Some want to cover an additional 30 million by raising taxes on almost everyone. Some want the cost of healthcare and thier corresponding premium to go down. The problem is that the bill and/or political promoters are trying to say the bill does both. When 80% of people are happy with the current system - they might not want "fundamental" change but more of an "updated" change.

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

That's a false choice. Yes, moving to a public system would raise taxes, but mostly because it would shift money being spent already out of the bracket of "premiums" and into the bracket of "taxes".

And single-payer systems are categorically cheaper than what we have. That isn't an opinion, that's a fact, borne out by myriad international examples. Of course, other systems are also possible, and they're also much cheaper.

Real world data shows rather conclusively that we have the worst of both worlds, and that it is both possible to cover more people and to do so for less money.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 10, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

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