If I've seemed a bit reclusive on all the recent fuss over the health care bill, town hall meetings, etc., it's because the debate over the current reform package has now entered the phase of American politics that I really don't like. There's an early stage in which ideas are discussed and bills are drafted. People try to put coallitions together, compromises are discussed, and various groups push their policy recommendations. That's the realm I find interesting, and in my small corner of the blogsphere, I enjoy participating, in a strictly informal fashion, in the debate.
But then there's a point when an actual bill (or bills) are on the table, and the democratic melee is let loose. Over the last week I've been reading Alessandro Barbero's The Battle: A New History of Waterloo, and in light of that it strikes me that there's a certain Napoleonic-battle aspect to all this. A month or two ago we were staring at maps and discussing the merits of different formations, but now everything is shrouded in smoke while innumerable combatants in this democratic struggle (most of whom, on both sides, honestly have a fairly rudimentary understanding of the overall debate) slug it out until we find out which side will hold the field and which will break and run.
In a democratic republic, this is a necessary part of our political process. The people have a strong voice in what will eventually happen -- regardless of how many actually understand the issues at state -- and this is the stage where the people fight it out, with the leaders left on the sidelines, trying to affect the ebb and flow by sending couriers with orders into the frey. Color me elitist, but while I think it an important process (and I hope that "my side" wins -- which in this case would mean going back to the drawing board in regards to any health care reform this time around) I don't enjoy following this part in much detail. And it being a free country I don't. (Never watching TV news helps a lot in this -- reading the WSJ when I have time and keeping up with a few of my favorite political blogs at a sporadic level is a more civilized way of watching without getting too spun up about things.)
But a few thoughts on the frey:
- It's darkly amusing to hear progressives doing the "how dare they demagogue issues which aren't relevant to the bill" routine. Remember how you won the public relations war on the Patriot Act and Social Security Reform, guys? Remember back when "congressmen didn't read the Patriot Act" and "this is an unprecedented assault on our Bill of Rights" and "they'll take away your social security and give it to Wall Street" were by-words, and no one in the Democratic Party minded much if they weren't true so long as they served to win the debate? Well, it's not admirable coming from either side, but given that half your own legislators can't describe the issues that are and aren't covered by the current bill clearly, you can hardly be surprised when people float all sorts of things around so long as they work. Clarity and transparancy would be a good defense. How about a shorter bill with clear goals next time?
- Trust is one of the big issues here. The administration tried to deal with the tough issues concerning what would and would not be covered under the regulated plans by saying there would be a "panel of experts" to figure that out later. Well, those people who've been relentlessly mocked as "hicks" and "theo-crats" by progressive writers in recent years naturally assume that this panel of experts appointed by the administration will disagree with them on issues like abortion and euthenasia. Fair enough. Did Democrats ever trust the "trust us to police ourselves" argument from Bush? Really, if intentions were good, how much would it have cost for them to put a clause into the famously long bill pledging not to cover elective abortion or euthenasia? It's called compromise, and it involves giving up something you might otherwise not want to in order to get what you say your main priority is. If health care really is a top priority for progressives, they should be willing to include safeguards in regards to life issues explicitly.
- Something politicians on both sides really need to learn is that people are increasingly uneasy with the complexity of government programs. Sure, big systems have to be complex, but if our democracy is going to survive people are going to have to start putting some work into coming up with structures which are basically intelligable and communicable. Coming up with insanely complex bills and then trying to sell them with simplistic slogans that have little to do with the content destroys trust in democracy.
- Democrats also need to keep in mind that while the majority of Americans voted for Obama, they majority of Americans also don't trust "the government" very much, and think of it as "them" not "us". As such, people are a lot less comfortable with the government deciding what is a legitimate medical need than with having private insurance and demanding that the government require that insurance cover everything. Of course, this means that Americans are to a great extent at the root of their own health care cost problems. But the solution to this which most appeals to progressives (have the government decide fairly how much health care everyone needs) just doesn't fly with most people. Sorry...
I'll close with a prediction: Public support for this bill will fall low enough that it won't pass. Eventually, an even more modest bill will be cobbled together very fast and passed, which will satisfy nobody and cover very few additional people. (And probably help the middle class more than the poor.) But the administration and congress will be desperate enough to pass something before the 2010 elections that they'll insist it is a great first step.