Saturday, January 16, 2010

Down We Go
As it becomes increasingly likely that the Democrats will suffer a catastrophic loss in the Massachusetts Senate election to fill the remainder of Ted Kennedy's term, I'm not sure that anybody other than perhaps Sullivan fully grasps what's at stake here.

But first a quick word on the race itself. I don't find it "shocking" that Martha Coakley is probably going to lose; by all appearances, she's a mind-blowingly awful candidate. (This gaffe might be the last shovelful of dirt on the coffin of her candidacy; as an unforced error, it's truly hard to believe.) I just don't understand why anyone with no aptitude or appetite for retail politics chooses to run for office; there are certainly enough other routes to ego gratification or "power" in our world. Even in "deep blue" Massachusetts, I don't think it's a shock that a skilled politician, as Scott Brown seems to be, beats an awful one in a special election--which ensures both lower turnout and a closer focus on the personal attributes of the contestants on the part of those who are following the race.

No, the significance is that Brown is going to kill health care reform (for, it should be noted, no evident reason of policy substance--which is not surprising), and when it dies--whatever one thinks of its merits--a lot will go with it.

As I've written here many times, we have huge problems in this country that have festered for a very long time. Health care, complex as it was and is, should have served as a stretching exercise for some of those bigger issues, the most important of which are the country's long-term financial outlook and climate change. We needed the experience of solving a less intractable problem before taking on those tougher ones. Instead, we saw an unprecedentedly nihilist Republican minority solely interested in winning the political fight rather than solving the problem--with one result being that, even if reform still somehow passes, the Republicans kept their own most helpful ideas and priorities, such as tougher cost containment measures and tort reform, on the sideline rather than getting them into the legislation by the accepted path of negotiation. Meanwhile, a Democratic majority first failed to realize the new state of things, wasting months fucking around in the Senate Finance Committee with bad-faith Republicans Grassley and Enzi and Snowe before moving on, and then, at the endgame in December and January, snarled itself in the usual net of venality (the "centrists" in the Senate) and "principled" myopia (historically illiterate House liberals, who will deliver the death blow after Brown's election by accepting the unsustainable status quo over the already-passed Senate version... evidently failing to understand that they can come back to fix some of the problems BEFORE THE BILL GOES INTO EFFECT).

When he set out to do health reform, President Obama had a good idea in isolation--letting Congress, basically castrated during the Bush years, take the lead as it's supposed to do under the Constitution (and as Clinton didn't allow them when Democrats last took this on in 1993-94)--but one that failed to take into full account the realities that we've moved a good ways toward a de facto parliamentary system, or that he was a lot more popular than they were. (Still is, though they're both way down.) First-year presidents make tactical mistakes; as those go, this wasn't an awful one, but it's going to cripple him for the rest of his term.

And it's going to hurt all of us, Democrats and Republicans, in ways we can't yet fully perceive, by striking a potentially mortal blow to public faith in our governance system. That system is complex. It was never supposed to be easy to produce major change. But as the public increasingly expects instant gratification and self-selects into partisan echo chambers, failing to acknowledge that "the other side" might ever have a point--indeed blocks itself off from any information source that might convey a contrary view--frustration with the system's inability to deliver will mount. We already have an incipient proto-fascist movement in this country; I'm beginning to believe that a parallel, though probably smaller, movement will coalesce on the left. With this as backdrop, it might not take more than another terrorist attack, economic crisis, or natural disaster to unleash radical, destabilizing forces that bring us to grief.


The Navigator said...

Barney Frank is a very smart guy and I'm not sure he really meant health care reform would actually die - this may have been a comment for political effect, to dramatize the stakes to Bay State Dems.

David said...

Could be, and Barney is generally pretty hard-headed as well as smart--so hopefully I'm wrong about that.

But the dynamic is reflective of what's going on amongst the teabaggers: the continually self-reinforcing echo chamber that emphasizes everything wrong with the bill and ignores its larger significance, to the point where there really might be forty House liberals who would vote against the Senate bill.

I think the big lesson of the last five years in American politics is that it's so much easier (and more enjoyable--which is part of the problem too) to oppose than to govern.

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