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Friday, September 11, 2009

Thoughts on the speech

It was certainly an excellent speech, did some important things, certainly with its feistiness helped galvanize and buck up Democrats, but I thought some opportunities to put Republicans and Blue Dogs on a hotter seat may have been missed:

*Though many disagree, I thought he handled the public option just about right. He did not draw a line in the sand on the “public option” per se -- however it might be defined, although Obama clarified his concept as a non-profit that would have to compete operating solely from premiums and not from general tax revenue. However, in signaling openness to other approaches – some would call it “caving” but I disagree -- he explained its purpose to restrain costs very clearly, expressed the general idea that it is unfair to mandate a universal obligation to obtain coverage without a guarantee of the most affordable coverage possible by way of a Federally-sponsored non-profit entity -- i.e., not leaving those who need to get insurance through the "exchange" absolutely to the mercy of private insurers -- and he did draw the line in the sand in demanding something that will perform that function as well as the public option. That also left himself cover for reverting to an outright demand for a public option later, when other alternatives are discussed and found not to meet the target he laid out. I'm sure, too, that by focusing on the objective and explaining it carefully, he moved moderate opinion of the public option somewhat more favorably.

*I was somewhat disappointed that he did not explicitly demand that opponents justify their opposition to a choice Americans say they would like (when they understand it's only a choice among many plans). That is a powerful hurdle that the Blue Dogs and the tiny sane contingent of the GOP have been spared so far. Only the proponents of the public option have been on the defensive to say how unfair it is to describe it as a "government takeover" and to explain why it is important.

However, by laying down the marker for what must be accomplished, he established the groundwork for shifting that burden of persuasion. So far, the Blue Dogs have been allowed to rely on the circular argument that they are against it because it won't pass. When the opponents start stammering to explain why they are siding with insurance company demands for maximum profits and CEO salaries at the expense of Americans who may be out of work and need the most affordable choices possible, public opinion will start to shift and provide cover for the Blue Dogs. But our side must articulate and pound on the media to demand those justifications.

*Stronger wording in the bill against use of tax revenues and reinforcement of the need to operate independently like any other non-profit will provide the Blue Dogs with the fig-leaf they need to claim that their adherence to principle made an acceptable solution possible. After all, they do not oppose it on policy grounds, but only on political grounds arising from their conservative electorates that to a great extent have been brainwashed against a “government takeover.” Over time for a debate, with opponents unable to justify their opposition on policy grounds, some of that brainwashing will wear off.

*I would like to have seen him try to shift the ground on the real liars by putting them on the spot to do something constructive. Simply saying that certain things are lies would not undercut those, like Rep. Wilson, who think he's lying about that. It leaves the conflict where it was: "You're lying." No, you're the one who's lying." It has been widely observed that when you start winning the arguments on the facts, the opponents refuse to concede and simply shift to another outrage. People in the middle are caught watching a tennis match with no end in sight.

*I think a clever strategem could have broken the logjam a bit with independents. Roughly, this is how it would go, possibly using one of the outbursts (including Wilson's “You lie!” exclamation) for a statement like this:

[Long pause after shout, with several second stare-down at the shouter] “Let me go at this another way. I have been accused of lying about the bills when I say there are no “death panels” or assistance to illegal aliens or reduction in Medicare benefits or forced end-of-life consultations. Those who are making such claims, or others, are pulling out words from the various bills and saying certain words contradict what I am saying – like that lady who keeps saying seniors would be forced into making end-of-life declarations no matter how much people who understand the language explain carefully why the language does not mean that. In fact, it is merely a way of defining what kind of consultation will qualify for payment by Medicare. Or the Representative here who accuses me of lying because I say the reform I am proposing will not be used to assist illegal immigrants. [See him squirm in front of all the cameras.]

But here is what I can say absolutely. We are trying to solve some problems that everyone – everyone, Democrats, Republicans, independents and the medical community alike – agrees exist. In the reform I am trying to accomplish, I have no intention whatsoever – let me repeat that, I – I have no intention -- to create “death panels,” or to force seniors to make living wills when they don't want to, or to allow any assistance for purchasing insurance to go to illegal immigrants. I am certain nobody else favoring reform has any of these intentions, either. There is no reduction whatsoever intended in Medicare benefits, but only ways to save money so that it will be easier in the future to assure we can keep paying adequate benefits. The people who are trying to scare people by calling the “non-profit public choice plan” a “government takeover of healthcare,” or “socialism” or “Nazism,” are being incredibly cynical because they know perfectly well this very modest proposal simply to assure that people who need it have an affordable choice is none of those things. But we can always argue over language – whether it seems to say something we don't intend it to say. If you think there are words in any bill that does any of those things, or anything else that almost anyone would find objectionable, we welcome your proposals to revise the language to avoid such an interpretation. Please explain to us how you would like to change the bill without taking the benefits for the American people that we are trying to build into it.”

*I wish I had seen a challenge to the mainstream media to follow up on all the charges and keep tabs on who has actually suggested constructive changes to avoid the interpretations we all agree we don't want. Sometime, this administration is going to have to start moving the goalposts in the mainstream media to reduce the indefensible deference given to the extreme right-wing.

*I would like to see all liberal politicians connect the dots between the deficiency of confidence in the future arising from the danger of complete financial disaster if a job is lost and the need for people to feel such confidence for the economy to reach its potential no matter how much better "mechanics" of economic analysis -- like more tax revenue, deficit reduction, etc. -- are put into place.

*I wish I had seen the Republicans squirm by being told something they never would have bothered to know on their own -- that the truly socialistic UK National Health Service, which nobody is proposing, was championed by their No. 2 hero behind Reagan, the ardent Tory Winston Churchill. Or that Conservative Margaret Thatcher made it into office by promising not to touch the NHS.

* * * * *

Of course, there is the unmovable 25%. None of this is aimed at them. You just want to isolate them as much as possible by letting independents and moderates see how truly crazy they are. Wilson and the other Republicans sitting sullenly having nothing to offer to the debate themselves by their demeanor did quite a bit of isolating of the GOP. We need to keep whittling it down to 15%, and then to 5%, and then to remote camps in the mountains of Idaho.


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