The White House is signaling that it will abandon the centerpiece of President Obama's health care program, the so-called "public option" that would allow people to ditch their insurance company for a government-run insurance plan similar to Medicare.
Obama and his surrogates are trying to save face by arguing that a public option wasn't so important after all, that it was a time-wasting liberal litmus test. The reality couldn't be more different, as Obama himself had recognized until now. Without a government option, there will be nothing to keep the health care industry honest. There will be no effective means for the government to control costs. At least 20 million people will remain uninsured. What a joke.
I expect that Congress will pass "health insurance reform," and that the Obama administration will try to put lipstick on that pig. Democrats will support it, and the Republicans will walk away laughing. They will know the truth: The plan will do nothing other than to transfer the blame for America's health care crisis from the healthcare industry that created it, and the Republicans who protected them, to the Democrats who failed to do anything about it.
Why did President Obama and the Democratic Party allow themselves to fall into this trap? What on earth were they thinking?
Is It Congressional Math? Maybe Health Reform Is Unpopular? Try This Instead: Can't Means Won't
To hear congressional Democrats explain it, it's all about the math. There wasn't enough support for actual health care reform, they say. That's absurd on its face. There are 257 Democrats and 178 Republicans in the House, and 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans in the Senate. This wasn't a failure of means, it was a failure of will. The Marine Corps has a slogan that covers it: Can't Means Won't.
It's certainly true that some Democrats are "DINO," or Democrat In Name Only. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is a creature of the health insurance companies that finance his campaigns. So is Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who has declared the death of the public option.
In the House of Representatives, a group of so-called "Blue Dog Democrats" have played the same role, working against actual health care reform. On the surface, therefore, it would seem that we must adjust the math on party affiliation. But I think that's only the beginning of the issue, not the end of it. I lay this failure at the doorstep of President Obama and the institutional Democratic Party, both of whom are failing their principles, and their country, at a time of acute need.
But why? What about these people has made it impossible for them to stand up for what they say they believe, which is that government should step into the breach when the free market has failed? Why such a display of clay-footed cowardice by Democrats recently elected on a promise of change?
Is it that health care reform is too controversial and unpopular, as evidenced by the ragtag disruptions at congressional town hall meetings? Don't be ridiculous!
The Democratic Party has enacted much more controversial programs than a public insurance option, which last spring polled 76% in favor. This is the party, mind you, that enacted the New Deal over vicious and ongoing Republican opposition. The Democratic Party passed a civil rights and Great Society agenda at a time when most of the public opposed major elements of it. And it wasn't only after Democratic sweeps, either: This is the party that started impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon barely a year after he had won biggest landslide in American history.
But now health care reform is too hot to handle? I don't think so!
The Real Reason: Obama Has Been Neutered
So, what in hell is it? Why is the senior leadership of the Democratic Party so afraid of doing something that most of the public supports? I offer this hypothesis: Barack Obama has allowed himself to be neutered, and in doing so he has set the tone for other Democrats to follow.
I was in Washington when Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. were president. I didn't vote for either one of them, but I respected their leadership skills. They didn't get everything they wanted, but no one pushed those men around. In symbolic terms, they stood tall. They lost some votes, especially Bush Sr., but they were rarely, if ever, defeated.
Reagan, in particular, was far more aggressive than currently viewed. The man was relentless, not just on the policy front but on the rhetorical front as well. I saw him give plenty of speeches that no one ever heard about, and the man never lost an opportunity to stick a knife in Jimmy Carter's back and twist it hard. He was amiable, but relentlessly partisan. There was utterly no doubt where he wanted to take the country, and what he was opposed to.
Obama? He's the weakest president since ... hmm, Jimmy Carter. The Republicans have been rolling him since the day he was sworn in. It started with the stimulus package, which was half as large as it should have been, and which included $250 billion worth of Republican tax cuts that did nothing to stimulate the economy. The Republicans were happy to accept Obama's peace offering, before turning right around and biting the hand that fed it to them.
When Obama failed to exact a penalty for that faithless behavior, the Republicans were emboldened. Politics is kindergarten writ large. Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile. The Republican Party has just run a 5K race against Obama, and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, now that it looks like they've defeated health care reform, Obama had better not expect much success on the rest of his "change" agenda.
"Complaisance: The disposition to please or comply"
Last year, I was very attracted by what I perceived as a steadiness within Obama. The man looked to me as if he could walk through a tornado and emerge without so much as a scratch. Nothing seemed to perturb him. Holy Commander-in-Chief, Batman, that's my guy! And he's a frickin' Democrat, for chrissakes! Can you believe our luck?
Alas, the Greeks knew that every heroic character trait contains the seeds of tragedy. With Obama, his calm, consensus-seeking demeanor has turned this "change agent" into an "agreement-seeking missile." That's fine if the differences are minor and there's a stable and civil atmosphere in the land, but when gaps are wide and your opposition has directly proclaimed its wish that you fail, steadiness can easily turn into something very different.
The word I am looking for is complaisance, which Webster's defines as the "disposition to please or comply." What if President Obama's steadiness isn't a byproduct of strength, but of a desperately cautious urge to do nothing that will interfere with a driving need to ingratiate himself with the public?
If that's what we have as our president, then we should all get ready to watch as Barack Obama chases one "compromise" after another with a Republican Party that wants nothing less than to publicly humiliate him and drive him from office amid howls of laughter and derision. And, who knows, at this rate he just might wind up deserving it.
Leadership and the Alpha Male: Lead, Don't Plead
It is said that the Republicans act as America's stern father, while the Democrats act as our soft-hearted mother. Funny, that's not something I ever recall hearing about Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson. I only ran across that characterization during and after the Jimmy Carter years, which were characterized by a whining, pessimistic vacillation that virtually begged for a tough guy to step into the breach.
After nominating two beta males in a row -- Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis -- the Democrats seemed to learn their lesson when they gave us the amiable yet steely Bill Clinton. Then, they reverted to post-Nixon type, offering us Al Gore and John Kerry, one too weak to stick to his persona, and the other too weak to stand up to attacks on his war record. Last year, Obama looked like a throwback to JFK, but this year he's looking more like a cross between Bill Cosby and Jimmy Carter. You'd love to have them as neighbors, anyway.
In the health care debate, or what passes for one, Obama has been pleading, not leading. He has been attacked by mobs of nutcases funded by Republicans and corporate interests. Rather than calling them on the carpet for their outrageous statements and tactics, he has actually tried to flatter the whackjob fringe that will never respect him -- and which, in any case, is serving as nothing more than a pawn for corporate lobbying interests.
When that handful of Democratic leaders who do have a backbone, such as Nancy Pelosi, tried to fight back by counterattacking the Republican "town hall" tantrums, the White House cut them off at the knees. When Democratic "net roots" activists offered to crank up efforts to put pressure on Blue Dogs and other clay-feet, the White House told them to go away. Now, Obama stands alone, his reform plan undefended, as wolves rip away the last hunks of flesh.
Americans Don't Respect Weak Leaders
Any appearances to the contrary, I have a great appreciation for those who sublimate their egos and draw the meaning in their lives through service to others. They are often very appealing people, usually ignored and often mocked, yet they do some of our most valuable things. The meek shall inherit the earth. I really believe that. But for now, the meek are not going to run America. They never have. That power accrues to a different sort: the firm, the determined, the clear-eyed. These are not necessarily the nicest guys in the room, but they get things done.
It might have been noble for Jimmy Carter, in 1979 when Iranian students held Americans in Tehran with the support of that country's revolutionary government, to declare that the lives of the hostages were paramount and that he would do anything possible to avoid endangering them. But it was an unforgivably stupid position for a leader to take, because there are times when leaders need to engender some fear in their opposition.
It might be noble for Barack Obama to rise above racist taunts, and signs comparing him to Adolf Hitler, and corporate-funded mobs of Republicans who have invaded public meetings to shout down elected officials and other citizens. But it's not very smart, because it has made Democrats look weak and vacillating. And now that Obama is responding by cutting the guts out of his plan, he can be certain that future initiatives will be met by the same unruly mob tactics.
The end result: Change stopped dead in its tracks at a time when we need it very badly. Make no mistake: The Republicans didn't do this, Obama's weakness did. And while Americans grew tired of George W. Bush's recklessness, we detest weakness in our leaders.
Bottom Line: Obama, Grow A Pair
From the looks of things, it's probably too late. I'll be surprised if President Obama's health care plan survives in anything but name only. If he does intend to resuscitate it, Obama had better toughen up, and fast. Especially within his own party. He'd better lay it on the line to his "Blue Dogs" and to the corporate Democrats in the Senate, and vividly lay out the specific costs to them of crossing this president on his most important priority.
President Obama, and the Democrats, retain a key advantage here: The math. Regardless of what anyone might say, they can pass any health care legislation they want to with or without Republican help. If Democrats get together, the Republicans and their opposition will be nothing but a stain on the highway where some luckless raccoon kissed the bumper of a passing Cadillac late one night. But they have to want to do it. The Democrats that is. Pass health care reform, not kiss the bumper of a passing Cadillac. You have to wonder.
Obama, now's the time to find out what this steadiness of yours really is. Are you going to grow a pair, or will you be our dear friend who never should have gone off to that vicious city in the first place?
By the Way: Is Obama's Race A Factor Here?
I've asked myself whether Obama's weakness is partly a function of the tenuous position of black men in American society. It's an odd question, given that we've supposedly "overcome" our prejudices and put a black man into the most powerful job we've got. How "tenuous" can it be when we're willing to put a black finger on the nuclear trigger, anyhow?
Consider this, though: When Obama criticized a badge-heavy cop in Cambridge, Massachusetts for his unwarranted arrest of a black Harvard professor for nothing other than acting in an obnoxious, condescending, and rather stupid manner, some elements in this country went crazy. So did the media, which ignored W.'s opposition for years but now seems to just loooooooove the wingnuts, and as a result Obama's approval rating dropped by 5 points in one week.
We're okay with black men, or so we think. As long as they're polite, non-threatening, and don't rock the boat. Tell me, if there had been a dozen black men carrying guns outside of a George W. Bush speech on Social Security reform four years ago, rather than a dozen white men carrying guns outside of an Obama speech on health care, would you have "gun rights advocates" on CNN lining up to defend their second amendment rights? Be honest. Especially my white readers.
I want Barack Obama to toughen up, grow a pair, kick some ass in Congress, and save his health care plan. If he granted my wish, how long would it take until we began hearing about the "angry black man" in the White House?