Posted by: mutantpoodle | December 17, 2009

Myths about Toughness

I have vowed to stay away from the more hysterical of the progressive blogs today, and perhaps for several days.  On the one hand, I understand the rage and pain. With a freshly minted progressive Democratic President, apparently dominant majorities in both houses of Congress, an opposition party that had the debating vocabulary of a 2-year old, you’d hope the Democrats could at least bring their own legislation to a vote. On the other hand, wasn’t this the entirely predictable outcome of the process?

“Hope is a dangerous thing,” Red told Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. “Hope can drive a man insane.”

This is, after all, the Democratic party we’re talking about. As one sane lefty writer – I think it was Matthew Yglesias – pointed out, in another country, what is today’s Democratic Party in Congress would be three or four parties. (Unsaid: today’s GOP would be two parties: the reactionary purists who dominate, and 2-3 old-school Rockefeller Republicans.)

Anyway, folks on the left got their hopes up, because several versions of health care reform were fairly robust, mostly because they included a public option to compete with private insurance companies (the best – so-called “Medicare +5% – didn’t even make it out of the House).

Barack Obama has come in for his fair share of criticism (and then some), the latest meme being he didn’t fight hard enough for the Public Option, or the late entry, the Medicare buy-in. Or that he didn’t push strongly the threat of reconciliation. (For why reconciliation was not an ideal alternative, go here.) One could argue – and many have – that not starting with a single payer bill made the Public Option the element to be negotiated away, instead of the compromise that sealed the deal.  And much as I think single payer should have been on the table – because in a sane world, you look at ALL the options- I am convinced that the Lieberman/Conrad/Nelson caucus would have held out until the Senate bill got to pretty much where it is today.

But back to Obama “doing more” and “fighting harder”. I’m curious as to what that looks like. Does anyone seriously believe that Barack Obama has ANY leverage over an embittered Joe Lieberman, especially when Lieberman is the magical 60th vote in the Senate? Or Ben Nelson, whose state, remember, Obama lost to McCain by over 15%? It seems people just wanted Obama to be more strident.

Last fall, I wrote about Obama’s zen-like approach to politics. He didn’t get ruffled, didn’t respond to every feint, but kept on his course. Just curious – how’d that work out for him?

In that piece, I quoted Dave Lowry, a writer and martial artist, on toughness. Toughness, he noted, wasn’t the ability to mete out punishment – it was the ability to absorb it:

It was Clyde Kimura, from Kauai, who spoke with a final authority. The toughest individuals he’d ever encountered, he said, were kendoka. “The old ones,” he said. “A kendo man who’s in his mid-sixties, been training about 50 years,” Kimura said firmly, “he can take an incredible amount of abuse.”

I have often reflected on Kimura-san’s words. Interesting, isn’t it, that his concept of toughness was not in how much one could dish out, but in how much one can take?

Well, by that standard, Obama is one tough dude, because he’s getting pummeled from all sides.

I think the fairest criticism of Obama is this: his apparent unwillingness to take on Wall Street burned enough of his progressive credibility that he is unable, now, to convince the left that what is left of health care reform is still worth doing. (That is Matt Yglesias’s take, and he suggests that, were he alive, that is what Ted Kennedy would be doing right now.)

But – and this is a big but – what has been revealed over the last months is that Joe Lieberman is a petty prima donna who would have preened and held out until he got to exactly this place: the place where the left that had the audacity to challenge him three years ago is angry and divided. No amount of toughness, or “fighting” by Barack Obama, would have changed that dynamic.

As a side note, does anyone remember that it was Obama, seemingly alone among Democrats on the national stage this past August, going from town to town in support of health care reform?  That he was the sane voice in opposition to the tea party crazies and the death panel nonsense? And that his veto threat was not related to the Public Option, but to deficit neutrality?

As I pointed out a few days ago, the dynamic of this process wasn’t a negotiation between two parties that want to make a deal.  You had one group who wanted a deal badly, and another group that wanted, at all costs, no deal at all (the GOP), or, at best, didn’t really care whether a bill made it or not (Joe Lieberman). So tell me, those of you in the “Obama didn’t fight hard enough” camp – what levers did he have to pull? What kind of “fighting” would have generated a better result?

Ironically, what people on the left seem to want is the pseudo-toughness of George Bush – the George Bush who inherited a country much feared, militarily, because the threat of our military action was so grave. Bush, by overplaying that card (in Iraq) and doing so incompetently, made that threat less, well, threatening. Obama had NO cards to play against Lieberman, and while it would have been psychically satisfying for him to call out Holy Joe for his preening hypocrisy, that course would have left us with a summer and fall of inflamed passions and nothing else.

Belligerence crowds out reason, and while it appears tough to be intransigent, it is tougher still to put small defeats aside in the service of larger victories. I laid out my four reasons to move forward, even without the public option, or Medicare buy-in, here. They are, in sum:

  1. It won’t get easier next time, and next time could be a very long way off. Plus, if history is a guide, what you get the next time will be worse than where we are now.
  2. Passing what is left of health care gets regulatory reform on the books that can’t be had through reconciliation.
  3. The bill, de facto, establishes health care as a right. That is HUGE.
  4. If the left kills the bill they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

We’re not where we are today on health care because Barack Obama isn’t tough. We’re where we are because he’s a grown-up, lots of other folks in the sandbox aren’t, and he’s willing to take a lot of hits to push this humongous boulder uphill.

If you’re wondering what toughness looks like, look no further.



  1. This is an excellent read… Thank you for making this HC bill debate much clearer! I still support President Obama and will promote #ObamaFriday again which is everyone changing their Twitter avatars to one of the President! Thank you.

  2. Awesome piece as usual John. You do great work putting things in the proper perspective.

  3. Outstanding read as always John. I don’t find myself agreeing always on your assessment of Obama, but you challenge me. I will just comment in response to this:

    >>So tell me, those of you in the “Obama didn’t fight hard enough” camp – what levers did he have to pull? What kind of “fighting” would have generated a better result?

    Your argument focuses on Obama fought as hard as possible and got what he could from Congress. You’re probably right. Disciplining Congress is difficult for any President. And I agree that we have to press forward with what we have.

    But as I said when I last saw you, I think that Obama’s biggest failure (town halls or no), was in not setting the terms of the debate.

    Republicans are masters at this. They have repeatedly shown that if you define the terms of the debate, you win the debate. Whatever you say about health care–or anything really–doesn’t have to be true, it just has to stick. Socialism, a financial boondoggle, the specter of dirty illegals benefiting from our hard earned tax dollars — it doesn’t matter. Whatever works.

    But the President has the ability to reach people, and on this issue he has singularly failed. Is it because he is not capable? No, he showed during the campaign that he is plenty capable. He gave a good speech in September. Poll numbers suggested that there was majority support for a public option. So why don’t we have one? You say Congress and the vested interests supporting them would never have accepted one. I say the people who favored one were not sufficiently mobilized. Obama could have cut through the B.S. with his words. With the right arguments, and the right–yes–marketing, health care could have been made into a universal issue… even a Christian issue. And that would have budged even Congresspeople, because staying in power is their primary concern. I don’t think Obama really tried. I think he chose the course of getting whatever he can get from the outset, instead of more forcefully defining what it is he wanted, and then campaigning to get it.

  4. Great blog! I’ve bookmarked you.

    For me Obama’s biggest failure isn’t not getting tough with the likes of Joe Lieberman. It’s the apparent failure to realize that congressional republicans, all of them to a person, won’t play “fair” no matter what. To my way of thinking that reality presents an opening to do what’s really needed, and to force them to say “no” over and over and over again on the things it’s pretty clear the public wants, like health care reform. What’s happening instead is progressive democrats having to compromise their principles over and over and over again. So who ends up looking weak and silly?

  5. I’m not sure how to respond the the “Obama didn’t set the terms of the debate” charge.

    He had a town hall on national TV. He did numerous town halls over the summer. He gave a speech to congress in the fall.

    Unfortunately, he isn’t acting in a vacuum, and the opposition has a fucking network! Not only that, but the other, “mainstream” media outlets got pulled into the talking points promulgated by the GOP and Fox News. Again – I don’t know what he could have done to frame it better than he did – he’s just facing incredibly powerful obstacles and he doesn’t have a good bench of Democrats to help him out.

    And I actually do think Obama knew that the GOP was going to be nearly monolithic in opposition. I believe part of his strategy, short and long term, is to let them demonstrate their unwillingness to partner with him – even on things about which they largely agree.

    And progressive democrats are compromising because failure is unacceptable. The GOP isn’t because they don’t want a deal at all. Lieberman and Nelson don’t care. That’s why this was predictable long ago.

    Obama’s big promise was to change the tone in DC, and that may sound naive, but he’s given it a shot. He doesn’t call people names and he does listen. But he is, above all, a pragmatist, and I can’t imagine any path that gets you a materially better bill than what we’re going to wind up with.

  6. Obama may have known he’d face monolithic GOP opposition but I can’t find it in my heart to believe it’s better to rope-adope them that to force them to vote no on popular, clear progressive legislation. It’s a serious error to compromise our values so we can get Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and Olympia effing Snowe to agree to watered down reform. If, as you say, Obama’s strategy is to let the GOP look as bad as they are then why not force them to say “no” time after time after time, on the record?

    I loved Obama the a candidate and I support passing this health care bill, but I think the White House has mismanaged the process for months now and under-estimated the GOP’s willingness to play the rules against reform. I hope the White House learns from this and get better as they go along because Obama is at risk of losing his base.

    IMHO tone takes a back seat to actually governing — doing what you were elected to do.

  7. I think the biggest TACTICAL error of the HCR process was Max Baucus’s “Gang of Six” fiasco, where his bill was watered down and still only got one vote out of committee. But I think you’re confusing two issues here. The GOP’s intransigence, and the rules of the Senate, make every single Senator in the Democratic caucus critical. It means small, grandstanding men like Nelson and Lieberman can hijack the process.

    I’m not getting what you think Obama should have done to deal with Lieberman and Nelson, other than what they did do: keep calm, and pull them over the finish line. remember: Nelson gains nothing from being perceived as an ally of Obama (quite the opposite) – his political interests are served by saying he got critical elements out of the bill. Lieberman seemed motivated to go far enough to make the progressive wing of the Democratic party unhappy, and he succeeded.

    This game will go on and on, because the GOP won’t change. If there were no filibuster, we’d have a different bill, a better bill, and it would have been long ago done. But that’s not the world we live in.

  8. One other thought, for Carlo, about setting the terms of the debate. I think the real problem is that arguments for complex, progressive legislation are nuanced, and GOP opposition is not. So as much as you try to set terms, there’s a simple (albeit often mendacious) argument to oppose it. And broadcast media dos not do nuance well; ergo, the simplistic, black and white arguments crash through the nuanced ones.

  9. The world we live in is of our own making. You’re right about the Senate. It’s undemocratic, more than it has ever been. I guess I’d prefer to expose the whole ridiculous charade. Step out of the current paradigm. Introduce legislation that better resembles the democratic/progressive agenda and let the chips fall whewre they may. Maybe that way the status quo gets exposed for the ridiculous conundrum that it is. Maybe people will get angry, demand change and we’ll actually get real reform. Maybe.

    Pipe dream? Probably. But is what we have now tenable over the long term? I think not. I think the longer we tolerate what we now have the more entrenched monied interests become. Look at what has happened just this year. We are a corporate nation. Banks and isurance companies win, people lose. Big corporate media wins, people lose.

  10. I think you’re more hopeful about the world we live in than I am. I think failing at legislation over and over to prove a point would lead, not to a more progressive congress, but the conviction that Progressives can’t govern.

    Also, your strategy sacrifices real people now in the hope that maybe, later, we can do better. I just think the best chance to do more good later is to do some good today.

    But I do understand your frustration. There are many days I wish we lived in a Parliamentary Democracy.

  11. I’d rather create a situatoin where millions can thrive than one in which millions are handed bon mots of “reform” over and over again. The former can transform us, the latter might keep us content but can’t really change the game. I believe we need to change the game.

    Still, I do want to pass this particular legislation to, ahem, “reform” health insurance, and then see what effect the passage has on other areas of progressive politics. Looks like we’re almost there according the White House and Harry Reid (I’m not going to hold my breath just yet). What I fear is that we’ll continue to eek out liittle improvements over time, be satisfued with smaller and smaller gains, and all the while large corporate interests will continue to entrench. There are imes when you have to do some really hard work, some truly revolutionary change. But I grew up in the 1960’s.

    The Big Three

    – campaign finance reform
    – election reform
    – lobbying as it is known today must go

    Second Tier:

    – bust up big media conglomerates
    – a corporation is NOT a person

    Hey, maybe I’m really a conservative, ’cause if we could go back to what we had in about 1975, pre-Reagan, we’d be much better off 😉

  12. I had no idea Paul Krugman would agree with me in his column this morning:


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