The health care debate pitted the current administration against some familiar feeling foes. Though President Obama doesn’t seem to have expected it, the Republican-attack machine that distracted and embarrassed the Clinton administration is up to its old tricks. Using minute and displaced facts as well as fishing-boat whoppers to dissuade and disillusion an already frighted public, conservative lawmakers challenge this administration to fight back in kind–or risk losing the battle altogether.
Cynicism versus democracy the battle continues almost every day during the Obama Presidency. There was a serious debate to have on economic policy and health care reform, for example. There was a broad consensus that aggressive government action was necessary at the height of the financial crisis. Even the leading conservative economists understood that aggressive action was necessary. (link) But there have been reasonable debates about the shape of the action, (link) and after its success, there has been a debate about what actions should follow. (link) Yet, the tone of the opposition has not generally followed this course of criticism and opposition. Instead there have been the accusations of socialism and fascism.
On health care reform, there were crazy assertions of death panels and even a Republican senator who was engaged in a bipartisan effort at reform, warned about “pulling the plug on Grandma.” And thus serious conservatives wanting to engage in a serious debate about the issue found it impossible to do so. (link)
In the face of this gap, Obama actively acted as if he had faced a reasonable opposition for a long time, despite the evidence to the contrary, to the consternation of many of his supporters. He has faced the same sort of Republican attack machine that the Clintons did, and he has not prepared to meet it head on. As Paul Krugman put it “So far, at least, the Obama administration’s response to the outpouring of hate on the right has had a deer-in-the-headlights quality. It’s as if officials still can’t wrap their minds around the fact that things like this can happen to people who aren’t named Clinton, as if they keep expecting the nonsense to just go away.” (link)
But Krugman and many others who voice similar criticisms don’t recognize that there is a political cultural dilemma here. If Obama and his supporters respond in kind, they may win the substantive battle, while weakening the power of civil discussion and careful reasoned argument in public life in the process (one of his strong points). But if they time the response adequately, showing that all efforts were made to sustain bi partisanship without compromising principle, making clear reasonable arguments for their positions, and patiently questioning the factual truth of their critics more outrageous assertions, they could win both the substantive battle and the formal one.
They could battle and present a clear alternative to modern cynical politics. Thus the contrast between the Obama Town Hall meetings about health care reform and the behavior of his critics in the Town Hall meeting of Congress members may in the end persuade the political leadership and the general public both on the issue and on the way to best do politics. But this is far from certain. An empowered opposition emerged, utilizing a new base of power. There is the Tea Party and its use of what I call the politics of small things. More about this in future posts.