It’s pretty clear that our national conversation, our national debate is broken – as Al Gore persuasively argued in The Assault on Reason. On health care – for example – we’re arguing over distractions and barely touching on the issues at stake.
When Barack Obama ran for office, he won in a large part because he convinced Americans he could change the debate – that he didn’t have a stake in the Baby Boomer arguments that had dominated our political debate since the 1980 election – that he would tackle the long-term festering issues these Baby Boomer debates had put off. This was the promise of Barack Obama, the source of people’s hope, the attraction he had for the young and indeed for the aging Baby Boomers themselves.
During his election campaign, he proved at least once that he could rise above the vitriol of base politics that had accustomed the people to expect Clintons and Bushes to exchange presidencies in dirty campaigns. He broke the cycle that threatened to destroy his candidacy with his speech on race. In the end, he also prevailed over the forces of xenophobia, of racism, of bigotry. The fact that he won was extraordinary and proved something else – that not only was Obama able to raise the level of the national conversation – but that he could inspire a majority of the country to give his new approach a chance. For those who supported him, his failure to change this conversation is the root of their disappointment in him. I still think it’s early – but it has become clear that if Obama cannot fix our national conversation, he will not be able to accomplish most of what he has set out to do.
On health care, Paul Krugman has been gloating that he predicted this – that he knew the right wing would throw everything they had at Obama and at every one of his policies. But Obama never promised to stop people from throwing stuff at him. His promise was to rise above it.
This is what is the base issue at stake in this health care fight – more profound than our unsustainably increasing costs or the thousands who die each year because they are without coverage.
Fareed Zakaria pointed out that in a crisis our system proved it could act. But the financial crisis did not prove our system could handle a crisis; instead, it proved that we were lucky to have individuals in place who appropriated whatever power they needed. And it was the least accountable person in the room – Ben Bernanke – who had the most power and used it the most. Congress, responding to popular pressure, almost destroyed the whole process.
Obama – if he is to tackle any issues after health care – must break this budding idiocracy that derails every attempt to have an adult conversation; he must deflate the growing fears. I can see only one way he can do this – or at least begin to: He has to take the health care bill – and get it through with a strong public option and with end of life counseling. He has to call, “Bullshit.” Explain to the country again the point of these programs and what they will do – and ask anyone who experiences otherwise to contact the White House.
They called Medicare and Social Security and the entire New Deal “socialism” and “tyranny” too. And now they are broadly popular and considered key components of our market-based system. To break these idiocratic forces, Obama needs to force these controversial measures through and allow the Republicans opposing it to demagogue it in every way possible. Then make sure there are strong transparency measures in place. And then let those who predicted a Holocaust look foolish. It’s the first step to discrediting their methods and reforming our national conversation.
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