Both supporters and critics agree on this: the passage of the health care reform bill was a historic event. What they can’t (or in some cases simply will not) agree on is what it means. Here are some thoughts on the Good News and Bad News about the bill, the process it took to pass, and what it revealed about our polity and our leaders:
THE GOOD NEWS is that the fact that the Democrats were able to make a deal among themselves showed that the party was capable of coalition building. In these days when the dominant faction of each political party seemingly is on the warpath against the “in name only” (RINOS, DINOS), the Democrats — in some cases kicking and screaming all the way — emerged perhaps unhappily as a functioning big tent for factions of the Democratic party. The pro and anti-abortion factions united to pass the bill, despite how they perceived each other.
THE BAD NEWS is that the final vote again showed that bipartisan coalition building is on tough times. No matter what the actual reason is used by partisan and ideological pundits (Did the Democrats exclude Republicans and refuse to consider their views? Did the Republicans simply decide to say “No” to oppose Barack Obama and ensure he couldn’t enact anything so they could paint him as an ineffectual President who can only make a decent speech and then only with a teleprompter?), the fact is that the two parties right now seem incapable of working together for the common good or even agreeing what that common good is.
THE GOOD NEWS is that the bill’s passage shows how American democracy can work, how people can set aside seemingly set in concrete demands to advance on an issue.
THE BAD NEWS is that the process and over the top rhetoric laced with partisan hatred (and in some isolated instances on the part of a few nuts racial slurs and pre-school like spitting) could be seen by some to be poor example for the world. The process and rhetoric, at times (many times in fact) hardly seemed as lofty an image as the Statue of Liberty. You can just see some Iraqi or Afghanistani following the news thinking: “Now wait a minute. They want us to be like THIS? THIS is what George Washington had in mind?” At times the process seemed to be less like “sausage making” than watching the beheadings of chickens.
THE GOOD NEWS is that Obama has shown that he is a President who values consensus – a value that was paramount in the 20th century before talk radio made over the top rhetoric, demonization, non-compromise, and rage vital tools to push hot buttons to rally partisans so that they could get their juices stirred up. The good news is that Obama is seemingly focused on aggregating interests versus aggravating them. In retrospect, Obama’s meeting at a retreat with GOPers and his health care reform summit helped to frame him as someone trying to reach an agreement with people he absolutely could not convince. That probably rallied more disgruntled Democrats to his side and mad them more willing to listen to his pleas for the bill’s passage at the end.
THE BAD NEWS is that Obama showed a willingness to almost lose the initiative on leadership in his attempt to enact his policies using consensus to the point where he risked being a President perceived as having little clout and a seemingly soft spine. That perception now seems outdated.
THE GOOD NEWS for independent voters and others who value consensus and political discussion that doesn’t involve having to hate the other side is that the House vote (which may NOT be the end of this saga since this lady has not sung until the final bill is past the Senate) underscores what we have repeatedly noted on this site: talk radio hosts need to cut off a targetted demographic and deliver it to advertisers as a segment and do so by whipping up partisan and ideological beliefs and resentments. That is not the same as what parties need to do. The GOP’s decision after Obama’s decision to essentially follow the lead of talk show hosts — in essence making them strategists, echoing them and even apologizing to them if it seemed like there was criticism of them — and rejecting trying to work with and legislatively outfox the Democrats now looks like it was a big mistake. Be sure to read former Bush speechwriter David Frum in full: he is on the same wavelength as many posts that have run on TMV. Political parties have kept power by only appealing to true believers, but coalition building which requires some consensus and compromise has proven to be the enduring and politically endearing course (go back and read how Ronald Reagan upset many conservatives: Reagan is categorized as a “moderate” by one historian due to his willingness to work with the opposition and compromise to achieve his broader goals).
THE BAD NEWS is that partisans of both parties more than ever seem locked into what could be a political grudge match that will go on throughout the 21st century. Already GOPers are vowing to campaign to repeal health care reform (before it has even cleared the Senate and becomes law). On CNN last night one Republican was asked about repeal and talked in detail about how a lot of it could be wiped away by a new GOP majority so the issue could then be “revisited” and a new Republican plan was put in place. We seem headed now into a cycle where one dominant party will come into power and use whatever tools it can to enact its agenda..and the other party will become dominant and come in and use whatever tools it can to repeal or greatly gut what the other party did. The cycle may be ENACT/REPEAL.
THE GOOD NEWS is that independent voters (needed and hated by partisans of both parties) will still have some influence — most likely more than ever as independent voter ranks keep growing. Independent voters are not members of a monolithic group, but they keep re-evaluating so they must be wooed. And just talk radio polemics of the right or left won’t do it.
THE BAD NEWS is that there is no sign that mega-partisanship and the tensions between both parties are abating. It may take a major, catastrophic defeat of one party or hugely disappointing election results for some shift to occur where a prime value is working with the other side. Right now, essentially, each side accuses the other of bad faith — but the continued influence of the no-compromise-with-those-devils-on-the-other-side talk radio political culture suggests no shift is due in the immediate future.
THE GOOD NEWS is that health care reform’s passage means that the stage is now set for both sides to begin tinkering with the longer term issue of fixes to the system. Some of this may mean more legislating. Fine tuning can also mean serious fixes, dropping some aspects that don’t work out. The operative word here is “serious” — where the goal is to fix a policy to make it effective, not to rub the other side’s face in political power held at a given moment (a short-sighted approach since American history PROVES that dominant partisan power is provisional).
THE GOOD NEWS is that once again the conventional wisdom as pronounced in news stories, blog posts, TV and cable talking heads proved to be a poor guide to what actually happened. The FACT: politics is UNPREDICTABLE and any number of factors can change a perception or reality. Scott Brown’s election was supposed to have totally killed health care reform. NOT. But beware: the new conventional wisdom seems to be that the bill is now within a hair of becoming reality because in the end it will get throught he Senate. Is yet another strand of emerging conventional wisdom going to prove to be a collection of nice sounding verbal or written phrases in the end?
The OVERALL GOOD NEWS is that you can say “the system worked.”
The OVERALL BAD NEWS is that you can say “well…almost.”
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Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.