Sunday, April 26, 2009

Degrees of Difficulty
This past week in news was increasingly dominated by the debate over whether the government--not, importantly, "President Obama"--should investigate further into the decisions and actions taken to implement a torture regime during the Bush administration. Putting aside Republican apologists like the endlessly vapid Peggy Noonan who would prefer that we just "keep walking" past the unpleasantness, there are two arguable positions: the one evidently held by the president himself, that a deeper inquiry into what happened and who if anybody should be held accountable would take up too much political oxygen and impose an unacceptable opportunity cost on getting other public business done (as explained, if not necessarily championed, by Marc Ambinder), and that concepts of the rule of law and equal justice under it are so important that national honor demands an investigation. After some ambivalence, I'm now solidly in the second camp with Andrew Sullivan and others. I don't really care if anyone goes to jail--but a full airing of what happened, particularly how prevalent the practice of torture was (how far beyond "name" terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed it went), and whether it was used to try to produce "evidence" that would support the Iraq war, is necessary both to understanding our recent history and to do as much as possible to ensure that mistakes aren't repeated.

I worry, though, that the process of coming clean to ourselves and the world regarding our deplorable and illegal actions will go undone for the same reason that we might not get health care reform or effective environmental legislation or even common-sense regulation of the finance industry: it's too damn hard, and it would impose disadvantage on some powerful people and/or groups. As a culture, it sometimes seems we have come to believe that if a thing isn't easy, it isn't worth trying.

Have we really done anything "politically difficult" in the last forty-plus years? Lyndon Johnson passing Medicare and Medicaid and civil rights legislation in 1965 is the last example that comes to mind. I guess one could make a case for the 1986 tax reforms, which did represent positive change but, as I remember, spread the pain broadly enough and was carried out on enough of a bipartisan basis that nobody really stood out as bearing the brunt of it and no politician obviously lost his job as a result. Bill Clinton's first budget, which passed on a straight party-line vote, was effective as policy--it sent the signal to the financial markets that the administration would be responsible in addressing deficits, and thus helped kick off the boom of the '90s--but it was devastating from a political perspective. The Democrats seem to have learned from that experience that responsible governance was lousy politics, and the experience confirmed the Republicans in the divisive and ideological practices they've trafficked in ever since.

To me and, I think, many other progressives, Obama seemed preferable to Hillary Clinton because he seemed to have the clarity of vision to understand that some fundamental changes were needed to ensure America's continued prosperity, and because unlike the Clintons he wasn't so enmeshed in the status quo, or cowed by the experience of coming under vicious criticism, that he would hesitate to push for those big changes. In the best case scenario, he really will prove to be a "pragmatic visionary" (or visionary pragmatist, I guess) who can create the largest possible coalition for needed changes but then does not hesitate to take on a tough fight. The announcement last week that the Democrats would retain the reconciliation option to get health reform done was a good sign in this respect. But on many small points--the few fiscally responsible measures in the budget proposal, for one--I worry that he's backing off too much. The resolution of the proposed "defense cuts" (which actually amount to a four percent increase in a military budget that's already more than triple what Russia and China spend combined) will be revealing on this question, as will the probably much more consequential battle to appropriately price fossil fuels (about which Tom Friedman has some worthwhile thoughts in today's NYT).

Obama's calm manner and temperamental disinclination to throw sharp elbows has stood him in good stead through his first months in office and probably has had a lot to do with the encouraging movement in "right track/wrong track" polling numbers--a difficult-to-quantify but important measure of public support for a president's approach as well as his policies. But at some point he's going to run into fights, tough ones at that. The importance of his winning them goes beyond the specifics of the issue; we need to remember that Americans still can attempt difficult things, and accomplish them.

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