Thursday, September 03, 2009

Obama's speech before Congress next week

At TMP Cafe today, Robert Reich has a piece on what Obama should say too Congress next week.  All evidence seems to indicate that this is not even close to what Obama will in fact say, that said, I was more intrigued by this comment by wyt to Reich's post than I was by what Reich said.

You don't need compassion to sell health care and the public option. You need to pitch to self-interest and build up hatred and distrust of the insurance companies. The far right can't understand a world without evil in it. Obama fairly enough sees all in shades of gray. But it's time to speak to the nuts in way that looks true through their polarized glasses - which primarily polarize not along left-right but along good-evil.

Obama needs to highlight the true evil in the current system, and launch a crusade against it. The hard left - which also like a polarized view - will rejoice. And the hard right, which includes many who have life experiences that make it easy to hate the insurance firms, will join in.

Without portraying the insurers as evil (which in large part they are), there's no "bipartisan" way to promote the alternative, which is a public option.

I think wyt hits the issue right on its head, with one caveat.  Compassion can be expressed by stirring up hatred of insurance companies, the message ought to fundamentally be, "look at these greedy insurance companies and their insane profits, look how they exploit the health of ordinary Americans all in the name of making money."  By so doing Obama would appeal to self interest by appealing to most people's frustrations with private insurance as it now conducts its business as well as the self interest of 75 million Americans who are uninsured and underinsured.  He could appeal to compassion by emphasizing our responsibilities to others and demonstrating how the behavior of insurance companies undermines our moral commitments to one another.  The commenter is dead on, the approach from the start here should have been to build up hatred of insurance companies, demonize the crap out of them.  That kind of a moral tirade, wyt calls it a "crusade," that works too, is effectively what Brown University Political Scientist James Morone argues in Hellfire Nation is the fundamental principle of American politics dating all the way back to John Winthrop's "City on the Hill" speech.  Roosevelt was a master of this, as Morone writes:

At the heart of Roosevelt's moral talk lay his utopian picture of shared community.  Roosevelt constantly pounded the selfish individual.  He closed his first, hard-fought reelection campaign by wearily telling supporters, "I should like to have it said of my first administration that the forces of selfishness... met their match."  Instead, he extolled mutual responsibility.  During his second term, he urged the cleargy to "return to the religion as exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount"- the ultimate statement of what we owe one another, culminating in the Bible's most lyrical call to alms."

Eventually, Roosevelt's little sermons took a predictable form, almost a formula.  First invoke religion; in the next breath, turn to social conditions.  Faith sets up economics.  "we have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals," Roosevelt said in his second inaugural address.  "We know now that it is bad economics."  Again, cheering his own first term: "The greatest change... has been the change in the moral climate of America."  With this change came "our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order."

I had a chance to meet Morone in class a few years ago after reading his book, and he started off talking to our class about the Clinton health care reform effort in 1994.  He walked into class and asked us, "why did health care reform die in 1993?"  I raised my hand and said, "you guys got hammered by a very well organized and well financed insurance lobby that was ready to scare the crap out of the public to kill reform."  Professor Morone looked at me for a moment and said, "I've asked that question to a lot of people including those who were involved in that battle in the Clinton Administration and that's about the most clear and coherent answer I've heard."  Morone then continued to talk about how the debate was framed almost entirely by the right's ability to frame the issue around the morality of the uninsured with no clear moral response coming from the left.  Clinton needed to engage in moral warfare against the insurance industry in order to pass reform, otherwise the moral argument about the lazy poor was bound to win the debate, as it did.

Clinton made the problem worse by delivering speeches about how, "the age of big government is over," and caving in to the Republicans on welfare reform (a year after the failure of health care reform admittedly), this all propagated the moral line that poor people are poor because of their own lack of morality, and therefore there's no public need to help them.  While it is certainly not 1993 and the social dynamics are very different than they were then, the right has succeeded in framing health care along the same lines they did in 1993.  Spread lies to scare the crap out of people and convince them that reform will hurt them, then convince the public of the lack of morality of those who lack insurance, this removes the uninsured from the debate, and makes it about self interest along lines that have nothing to do with the actual proposal.  Once the debate is set on these terms 45 million who lack health insurance and 25 million who are under-insured get taken out of the debate.

I recognize that Obama wanted to kill the "private insurance is more efficient than government" meme by setting this conversation in terms of market efficiency and the public cost of health care.  The cost of focusing on that was an unnecessary ceding of the moral ground.  Obama has become the demon because in the minds of many Americans he's trying to kill grandma and steal my money, when there was an easy and obvious demon in this debate, supporters of health care reform just ignored the demon.  The health insurance industry is the perfect demon, and Obama should (but again, I'm sure won't) recognize that in his speech before Congress next week.  Rather than running towards compromise Obama should rediscover his inner Roosevelt and reclaim the moral ground in this debate that is so easily attainable for those of us who want universal health care.  As I laid out yesterday, abandoning the public option is just about the worst idea imaginable, we have reached a critical point at which one of two paths must be followed, all out war for health care reform, or capitulation to a minority that has no interest in compromise or supporting any reform package.  The former is the far superior path, but I fear the decision has already been made.

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