The end of politics-5: How Obama sold out on health care reform

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For the previous posts in this series, see here.

Senator Joe Lieberman became the public face of implacable opposition to any meaningful reform and has been the target of much venom. All of it is deserved, because nobody epitomizes sanctimonious, publicity-seeking, self-serving greed like Lieberman, though Obama is coming dangerously close to reaching even the high bar of unctuous hypocrisy that Lieberman has set. But I have strong suspicions that Lieberman was actually advancing Obama’s interests and had Obama’s support. Obama actually told his negotiators to comply with Lieberman’s demands and not threaten him with removing his coveted committee chairmanships. We should not forget that Obama sought out Lieberman as a mentor when he entered the Senate and supported his re-election bid for the senate against the more progressive Connecticut Democratic Party candidate Ned Lamont.

Glenn Greenwald shares my view on how Obama sold out his supporters on health care reform.

[C]ontrary to Obama’s occasional public statements in support of a public option, the White House clearly intended from the start that the final health care reform bill would contain no such provision and was actively and privately participating in efforts to shape a final bill without it. From the start, assuaging the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries was a central preoccupation of the White House — hence the deal negotiated in strict secrecy with Pharma to ban bulk price negotiations and drug reimportation, a blatant violation of both Obama’s campaign positions on those issues and his promise to conduct all negotiations out in the open (on C-SPAN). Indeed, Democrats led the way yesterday in killing drug re-importation, which they endlessly claimed to support back when they couldn’t pass it. The administration wants not only to prevent industry money from funding an anti-health-care-reform campaign, but also wants to ensure that the Democratic Party — rather than the GOP — will continue to be the prime recipient of industry largesse.

The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start — the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry.

Paul Craig Roberts highlights one key feature of the health care “reform” package that is part of the ‘huge boon’ that Greenwald speaks about:

The fate of the health care bill demonstrates the power of private lobbies. What was to be health care for Americans was instantly transformed into 30 million new patients for the private health insurance industry. The “solution” to tens of millions of Americans being unable to afford health care is a law that requires them to purchase a private health care policy or be annually fined. As most of these uninsured Americans cannot afford to purchase a private policy, the plan is for the federal government to use taxpayers’ money to subsidize their purchase of a policy from private companies.

In other words, tax money is being diverted to the pockets of private businesses. This is par for the course in “capitalist” America.

As Digby says about this:

[M]andating that all people pay money to a private interest isn’t even conservative, free market or otherwise. It’s some kind of weird corporatism that’s very hard to square with the common good philosophy that Democrats supposedly espouse.

Nobody’s “getting covered” here. After all, people are already “free” to buy private insurance and one must assume they have reasons for not doing it already. Whether those reasons are good or bad won’t make a difference when they are suddenly forced to write big checks to Aetna or Blue Cross that they previously had decided they couldn’t or didn’t want to write. Indeed, it actually looks like the worst caricature of liberals: taking people’s money against their will, saying it’s for their own good.

Meanwhile, Obama and the Democratic party leadership launch full-scale attacks on their progressive supporters for asking for more while saying nothing against those who purportedly oppose their reform plans, like Joe Lieberman.

So as a result of all these shenanigans, we finally have the policy that the health industry should really like: a mandate for people to have insurance with no public option to compete with. Thus they get more captive customers subsidized by the government. This does not mean that there is nothing worthwhile in the health reform bill. It does offer some marginal improvements. It is just that it could have been so much better if Obama and the Democrats were not such obvious hypocrites.

So why is the health insurance industry now trying to kill even this highly watered-down reform that gives them so much? Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum argue that it is because they see some problems for them down the road even with highly limited reforms of the current bill and have started to feel confident that they can completely kill the reform effort altogether and return to the comfortable status quo. This may be a mistake on their part, a case of hubris. Even though the Democrats desperately want to please the health industry, not passing any health reform at all, their signature issue, would be too much for their supporters to take. So they will pass something, however bad it is, and call it a success.

People who think that Democrats are being thwarted by the filibuster threats of the Republicans are missing the point. The Democrats actually welcome the filibuster to cover their duplicity. I believe that in the mid-term elections to be held this year, the Democrats would like nothing better than to lose some Senate and House seats. The ideal situation for the Democratic Party leadership is not to win big but to win slim majorities in both houses so that they can gain the real prize sought after by both parties, the coveted committee chairmanships. This is where the real power lies, where the legislative agenda is set and where they can control the language of legislation and write the implementation rules. The committee chairs are in the best position to do the bidding of business interests and thus gain campaign contributions and other favors.

Having slim majorities has the benefit of allowing the Democrats to constantly whine that the mean Republicans are preventing them from carrying out policies that favor ordinary people. If they win big majorities they have no excuse for not carrying out the policies they promised. As exemplified in the case of the drug reimportation issue. Democrats love to be in the position of saying they are ‘fighting’ for the issues dear to their supporters as long as there is no danger of winning the fight, if such a win would threaten the interests of their real paymasters.

Matt Taibbi is one of the few journalists who sees the charade for what it is. As he said on Bill Moyers’s show:

And I think, you know, a lot of what the Democrats are doing, they don’t make sense if you look at it from an objective point of view, but if you look at it as a business strategy- if you look at the Democratic Party as a business, and their job is basically to raise campaign funds and to stay in power, what they do makes a lot of sense. They have a consistent strategy which involves negotiating a fine line between sentiment on the left and the interests of the industries that they’re out there to protect. And they’ve always, kind of, taken that fork in the road and gone right down the middle of the line. And they’re doing that with this health care bill and that’s- it’s consistent.

That’s about right.

POST SCRIPT: Book signing and talk

I will be giving a talk and having a book signing on God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom at the Joseph-Beth book store in Legacy Village in Beachwood, Ohio at 7:00 pm today (Wednesday, January 27, 2010).

I would enjoy meeting any readers of this blog who can make it.


  1. says

    It will always be a clash between vested interests and people who think they want/can change the system for the better. The more vested interest wins, the slower innovation/progress will be. For examples look at the IT industry and how Microsoft has slowed down innovation in various sub sectors. Or look at how nations such as Finland or Holland survive in a world where labour intensive production has become uneconomical.

  2. jill says

    At a minimum we should have the ability to shop for health insurance across all states, makes no sense to limit it other then to make sure the big wigs get paid. And get rid of pre-existing conditions.

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