During Obama’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly promised that he would “change the culture of Washington” by fostering an attitude of shared legislative labor across party lines. And in the early months of his presidency, Obama has made a well-meaning, Lincoln-inspired effort to incorporate Republicans into his cabinet and to seek the counsel of moderate conservatives on pressing issues of international significance, like the war in Afghanistan and the handling of the financial crisis.
Bipartisanship is a noble goal – especially appealing during a hope-and-change-filled election year – and bipartisan efforts in Congress can be crucial to creating passable legislation. But bipartisanship is only useful if it actually creates results, if it leads to the enactment of meaningful laws.
Obama and the Democratic leadership in Washington have indicated that they are ready to abandon bipartisanship and to push ahead with a comprehensive plan to reform health care. They are right to do so.
In the past weeks, the public debate on health care has been dominated by the obviously pleasurable release of anger exhibited at town hall meetings by well-organized, corporate-sponsored groups of conservatives across the nation. The images of enraged individuals screaming, wide-eyed, at their suited representatives are electrifying: it’s like the confrontation with power that you fantasize about while driving in your car, listening to talk radio (oops, you were talking to yourself again…). But the protests at the town hall meetings, despite their visceral and theatrical force, are worse than useless. If the angry mobs get their way, 50 million uninsured Americans will continue to live without health insurance. Indeed, many members of those mobs are doubtlessly among the un- or underinsured who would directly benefit from reform.
The tone of the backlash against health care reform suggests that conservatives may have finally found a cause that can unify their (temporarily) broken movement. The conservative tactic seems to be to kill Obama’s health care plan and, by causing him to fail, permanently limit the scope of his power over the legislative branch. The model for this is Bill Clinton’s failure to reform health care in his first term, which empowered the congressional Republicans and weakened the president. But of course, the true victims of that failure were not the Clintons but the massive body of people who do not have access to affordable health care. Health care reform is a battle of political wills, but its ramifications are personal, immediate, and human.
The shrill tone of the town hall meetings was parroted, lamely, by Iowa’s comical/quotable Senator Charles “Uncle Chuck” Grassley. Grassley, the powerful head of the Senate Finance Committee, has been the Republicans’ primary negotiator with the Obama administration, lobbying for conservative-friendly compromises on reform, like omitting a public insurance option. But at a town hall-style gathering in Iowa, Grassley played to the anger and rumor-mongering of his crowd and, coining a malicious phrase, said that the government ought not decide when to “pull the plug on grandma.”
A remark like this is jarring on its own. But it is particularly unsettling in the context of the Obama administration’s suggestions that they would be willing to make a compromise with Republicans and drop the public option if that were necessary to pass health care reform. But it really is NOT necessary for the president to go so far out of his way to try to make concessions, especially when the Republicans have exhibited so much obstructionism, shrillness and anger at the expense of reform; and especially when the American people have so overwhelmingly voted to populate Congress and the White House with Democrats. It will be better to abandon Republican support than to abandon a public option.
If the goal of reform is to bring down the price of health care to a universally affordable level by creating competition with the private insurance sector, then there must be a government insurance plan that can provide that competition. And if achieving that plan means that Obama and the congressional Democrats will have to pass legislation without bipartisan support, then so be it: pull the plug on compromise.