Style makes the man

[This is the second post in a series that looks at how the current Administration has impacted liberal measures for the  country.]

We saw (in the first of several posts on where liberals should come down on the re-election of the President) how Candidate Obama firmly committed himself to a Neo-liberal economic team, and how those center-right advisors fumbled the Administration’s main original response to the once-in-a-lifetime near total collapse of our economic system. It was not just economic malpractice (as we continue to experience with today’s anemic jobs report over three years later), it was also political malfeasance. The former was clearly the fault of a team of careerist political appointees who had signed on to Wall Street’s belief that government was the only obstacle to growth and therefore engineered the very policies that led to the financial bubble and then crash. But the politics of the stimulus and indeed the selection of the advisors was the preference of the man we now clearly see as one more comfortable with Things as They Are than he ever let on.

To the right and left of Change are his advisors: Permanence.

The most surprising feature of the group of economic advisors is that it lacks any serious academic members. If you named a features of the teams behind that two major progressive periods of the Twentieth Century—the Administrations of Franklin Roosevelt  and the combined Administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson—chief among them would be that they included intellectuals from academia. In fact, the right is so afraid of the power of the ideas from universities (where unlike think tanks inquiry is not channelled along partisan orthodoxies) that they routinely train their fire (even abstractly and often pointlessly) at academia. No fear from this Administration. This President is not one to select a Joseph Stiglitz to help handle a crisis that the President has no training in; better to select those who helped create it. Far from selecting the Best and the Brightest, our President was happy to collect the Mediocre and Compromised.

Hats Make the Man by Max Ernst. Gouache, collage, pencil and ink (1920). Ernst’s great Dadaist comment on modern conformity. (MoMA.)

Whatever the internal dynamics of the President and his advisors, the result was uniformly the same. Nothing daring ventured (even at the beginning with a Democratic House and near filibuster-proof Senate). The tepid initiatives of change (hardly desterving a capitalization), like bonus restrictions on bailed out firms, were quickly withdrawn when they met the mild disapproval of the firms the government should have been regulating. Every step of the painful way of any initiative had to be vetted, usually in public, before the Administration would make up its mind on what it would stand behind. We still await the regulations of the banking industry years after the banks inflicted a staggering blow on this country. And this Administration cannot bring itself to restore what was once accepted more-or-less as given. The principles behind Glass-Steagall (which separated risk-taking investment banks from publicly insured commercial banks) protected the country from the very crisis that occurred for 60 years. But we do not return to it. Why? A large reason is that the Mediocre and Compromised were largely behind its repeal.

Style experiment by a young Obama. An uncommon hat is still a hat.

The political style of this President is preemptive compromise followed by benign neglect during which time the initiative takes on water with no attempt by the Administration at bilge control. The Affordable Care Act is the unparalleled example, because it shows all the features of this Administration’s style. Before even beginning to craft the plan, the decision was made to uninvite all leftists. This is typical of all Administrative initiatives. In the case of Health Care Reform, no single-payer plan, of any sort, would be contemplated. Nothing as simple as letting whoever wanted join Medicare could be countenanced. No government-run plan would ever be floated, because this President knew he couldn’t stand up to the fury of the much-reduced GOP, even though his election should have routed them for the near term.

Instead, the plan was to rely on existing insurance companies to distribute health care with a minimum set of coverage requirements. To obviate criticism by big Pharma the President preemptively agreed to reject the import of foreign-made drugs in order to reduce health c0verage costs. States would set up exchanges to encourage (although not mandate) competition among insurance companies in areas little served and for individuals and small groups with little buying power (and no market power). Everyone was required to purchase a qualifying plan (or at least encouraged; the penalty for noncompliance is less than the cost of a plan). Subsidies were provided for low income families as defined in the plan. A limited public option (the “socialized medicine” of Republicans’ nightmares) was provided for a small number of citizens in special circumstances. Illegal immigrants were excluded from the plan.

In short, the Affordable Care Act, consisted of minor insurance reform, regional market regulation, low income subsidies and compulsory enrollment with a tiny government-sponsored plan. None of these things were necessarily bad in themselves (although mandatory enrollment in private insurance schemes smacks more of fascism than socialism), but it was hardly the European-flavored social experiment made out by the right wing. Most of the individual parts of the program were widely popular (and remain so) in polling. But the GOP did not attack the particulars, it simply mischaracterized the scheme (“death panels,” government between you and your doctor, abortion funding, etc.) and set up a howl that would awaken those recently euthanized by the government doctors. The White House never actively promoted the particulars. It was, as with the stimulus, as though the Great Communicator had decided to retire his advantage over the GOP or at least save it for places like Cairo and Berlin.

Worse, the meat parts of this plan were publicly shoved into the intestinal casing while the chairs of various Senate Committee examined each chunk and offered their distaste. Max Baucus (of the Senate Finance Committee) and Ben Nelson (of the Appropriations Committee and the Committee to Re-Elect Ben Nelson) took the lead in strutting about looking at the dying carcass of this legislation with flies circling it during the long hot summer of Democratic discontent. Baucus and Nelson made ill-conceived, sententious, self-congratulatory criticisms while sniffing at each provision. Baucus claimed he was looking to make this already centrist plan “bipartisan.” (If he were truly looking to make it bipartison, he should have been looking for liberal votes for this plan was essentially conceived by the Heritage Foundation and promoted by Bob Dole as the alternative to the Clinton-sponsored health care reform of the 1980s.) In the end he found not one Republican vote. But his long stay in the spotlight of his own self-promotion showed to the rest of us how get-along politicians of Baucus’s ilk make things move in D.C.

Improbably a Senator from Montana, the center of nothing involving the Health Care Industry, became the major player. This is because if you follow the fuel of the modern legislative machinery (money) it all comes from Industry and Pharmacy lobbyists and disproportionately goes to Senator Max Baucus, an otherwise undistinguished legislator.

It turned out the Baucus was second only to one Republican Senator in the amount of money he raked in from Health Care lobbyists. (See Ari Berman, “K Street’s Favorite Democrat,” The Nation, March 19, 2007). Moreover, vastly more of Baucus’s former staffers than ordinary ended up as lobbyists, and indeed after the Baucus show they seemed to specialize in guiding insurance companies and Big Pharma to the feeding trough which our national legislature has become. David Catagnetti and other of Baucus’s ex-staffers now work for Big Pharma and insurance lobbying groups including America’s Helath Inurance Plans In., the Medicare Cost Contractors Alliance, Amgen, AstraZeneca PLC and Merck & Co. Jeff Forbes set up his own lobbying firm to represent the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of American and the the Advanced Medical Technology Association, among other groups (see Wikipedia’s article on Max Baucus.)

It seemed that to White House insiders not enough damage in the public mind by quibbling Democrats had been done. So while the President was in Russia, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, announced that the President was not opposed to the elimination of the public option. A later attempt by the President to walk this back could not save this weak liberal aspect of the plan. By the time the bill was about to be mercifully put to rest we saw the spectacle of having to depend of the publicity-hound Joe Lieberman’s vote. The Senator from Israel used the occasion to show up on TV regularly debating how he would vote. Although in the end the rudiments were stitched together (and to his credit the President at the last moment finally brought his own personal prestige to nailing down a victory through some nifty procedural rules (adroitness that the White House never showed before or since)), the spectacle of the President’s own party killing reform stab-by-stab only reinforced the GOP theme that the bill was a bloated, unnecessary and a good example of Big Government not knowing what it was doing. The popularity of the legislation (but not the individual provisions) plummeted, as did the standing of the Democratic Party and the President, and the disastrous results of the 2010 election can largely be pinned on the spectacle of the summer of Health Care Reform. One can only imagine what LBJ would have done to Baucua and Nelson and Lieberman. A picture of bleeding orifices comes to mind.

In his inaugural address, the President said: “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” But owing to legislative fumbling on stimulus and health care reform, this program as well lay on the scrap heap of pipe dreams. (Photo: Agencias.)

The Administration, mostly AWOL from this process, never had the stomach for another legislative fight. The DREAM Act, Cap-and-Trade, Green Energy initiatives all went into the trash heap of this Administration’s legislative agenda. As candidate, Barack Obama led the charge in our planet’s attempt to save itself from the destruction we imminently face from carbon emissions. Now, along with China we represent the biggest force for the status quo and ignorant self-annihilation.

These may seem like minor matters to some, compared to things like Social Security and Medicare. And others will point out the Mitt Romney will be vastly worse and still kill Social Security and Medicare. As to the second point, let’s agree to deal with Romney in a later part of this series. We are now discussing whether the left ought to associate itself with Obama’s re-election.

On the first point—that at least the President will preserve the essence of New Deal and Great Society achievements—we need only to look at the President’s Grand Bargain for debt reduction. But before that, we have to see how he managed to preserve the centerpiece of the GOP’s strangle-hold on modern government, the Bush Tax Cuts.

Those seeking credit as Guardians of Plutocracy crowd round George W. Bush as he signs the $1.35 trillion tax cut on June 7, 2001, at the White House. (AP/Ron Edmonds.)

The signal achievement of the George W. Bush Administration for Republicans (at the expense of the country) is undoubtedly the 2001 regressive and massive tax cuts. Almost everything else achieved by that Administration, including TARP and the Medicare drug plan, is easily dismissed, criticized,  forgotten or attributed to Obama by the Republican faithful. But the Bush Tax Cuts is the gift that keeps on giving. In an era of money controlling politics, largely now abetted by the Bush-dominated Supreme Court, the Bush Tax Cuts not only show on whom the filthy rich can depend, it also gives them a little extra spending money that can be kicked back to their dependable guardians in government.

The Dickensian face of greed whose displeasure haunts the nightmares of elected Republicans: Grover Norquist. (Photo: AP.)

Republicans are often wrongly accused of not believing in anything. It is true that their anarchist rhetoric, their anti-intellectual blather, their contempt for science and history make them the first real Know Nothing Party in this country. But deep down, every elected Republican holds sacred one thing: The Bush Tax Cuts. The regressiveness of the tax cuts satisfies the genuine meanness of GOP attitudes toward the poor and helpless. Its effect on the federal budget makes any meaningful social program near impossible. It is easily enforced on Republicans through Grover Norquist’s mindless No Tax Increase pledge, taken as a catechism by the GOP. It contains a small tax relief to the middle class, so any attempt to repeal it or let it lapse will raise the howls from the right that Democrats are increasing taxes on honest Americans (even though the net result of the Tax Cuts is to burden honest Americans with greater taxes or debt). It is, in fact, the key to the New Republican Ascendency. More so that anything Ronald Reagan ever did, this malicious wrench in good government is the very heart of the modern Republican view of the world.

After the beating administered to the Democrats in the 2012 election (where Obama lost a Democratic Congress two years into his term; much as Bill Clinton did at the same point in his Administration) the one trump card Obama had was the expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts. Letting this bonanza get away was the greatest fear of the rich. The monied class so desired this break that they put pressure on even relatively liberal Democrats like Greenwich, Connecticut’s Jim Himes to publicly condemn the position of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. If Jim Hmes felt the heat, imagine what was threatened to the leadership (such as it is) of the party that dances to the beat of money and its owners in this country. If there was one thing that Obama could do to rescue the declining fortunes of the Democratic Party, it was to make a solid deal for an extension of the Bush Tax Cuts or drop the bomb on Republicans, let the cuts expire and watch the party of privilege scramble in public. Of course the latter was never seriously considered by a politician long shown to be adverse to taking risks, even if the risks were all on the side of the GOP. So what did Obama extract from a deal? He negotiated a 2 year extension of the cuts (and the trillions of lost revenue they represented) in exchange for an 18 month extension on long-term unemployment benefits.

So what, you say. He regularly gets taken to the cleaners when he tries to deal with Republicans. Besides, he was not getting a Great Society-style program out of them, you rightly observe. But couldn’t the President’s team have seen the mischief the Republican Party could engage in once the only thing they cherished was guaranteed for a time? And around the corner was the debt ceiling issue. Surely, the President did not want to have to negotiate with the crazies again? That might imperil some key Democratic victories won hard against difficult odds over the past 70 years. He wouldn’t want anything to happen to them, right? Well, that is for the next part of this story.

  1. July 6th, 2012

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