Friday, October 18, 2013

It ain't over.

Once more unto the brink dear friends, once more unto the brink. 

I trust those who uphold the Bard's bright light will forgive the lift.  In his day after State Dining Room talk President Obama declared, "...let's be clear. There are no winners here."  As to the immediate battle, that might not be entirely true.  On an individual basis, the President himself has to be considered a winner.  Unlike some previous showdowns, he stood fast from start to finish so that those who brought us to the brink walked away empty handed.  That's good for both his and other presidencies and for all of us. 

Tom Foley, who died earlier today, saw himself as Speaker of the whole House.  That can't be said of John Boehner, especially during this crisis.  Nonetheless he might be called a winner with the far right of his caucus.  He surely wasn't able to control them, but they ended up giving him high marks — I guess for that lack of assertive leadership.  And the same very narrow partisan win can be given to Ted Cruz who took a huge gamble and came out the hero of his own natural constituency outflanking Rand Paul who had been their darling.  For these two, it seemed that self-interest (in the Speaker's case self-preservation) was paramount.  Their personal victories came at a very high cost to the nation.  That doesn't mean that they will be held accountable, though their party's historically low approval rating (28%) should give them some pause, especially relative to national politics and 2016.  In that sense, theirs may have been pyrrhic victories.

Opponents who chose the wrong issue (more on that later) and seemed to have had no real battle plan essentially handed Obama his victory in this ugly mess.  Since coming to the House as self-assured renegades, the Teas have exercised their legislative responsibility largely by saying and voting no.  It isn't that they don't stand for something, but rather that they have largely been unable to put their views forward in any positive manner.  The current miscalculation was that they assumed saying no would work when the stakes were really high — a government shut down and threatening the full faith and credit of nation. 

It's unclear whether they will learn anything from this, but it might help them to remember that America has built its strength on saying yes rather than no.  We have always been a positive, can-do, nation.  "No" goes contrary to our basic instincts, if not to our genetic makeup.  That's also true in politics.  Perhaps being against everything — especially in a time of rough waters — can get you elected early on, but at some point voters want to know what you are for.  Recent polls suggest that beyond the GOP having lost favor, the Tea Party has lost major ground in and out of their party.  Of course, with heavily gerrymandered districts made up of the like-minded the usual rules may not apply, at least not now.

Just as Obama held fast, the Democrats on both sides of the Hill displayed a unity not usually associated with their party.  So, perhaps you can call them winners as well.  The same can be said for the Senate that, Cruz and his cronies aside, actually took on the adult role envisioned for it by the Constitution.  And speaking of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Republican's dealmaker may be considered a winner, though in his Rand Paul state that may translate into an even stronger primary challenge from his right.

Politically Obama was right not to claim a win for himself and in a larger sense his assertion that there "are no winners here" is absolutely correct.  We the people may have dodged the biggest bullet, but there is no doubt that we were not winners in this battle nor have we been winners in a very long time.  The disarray and dysfunction of our government hurts us badly and is as much our problem as theirs, perhaps more so.  When the divide is so deep that nothing gets done, we all fall further behind.

Perhaps the so-called establishment Republicans learned something from these past weeks, including how little sway they have over the party they once ran.  But it's unlikely that the House Teas view what happened as anything more than a bump on the road.  It isn't only that they occupy relatively safe seats but that they know discontent abounds across the land.  So they will wait for another day and another destructive, or they would say disruptive, fight.  Their hate for Obama has not abated and in fact is probably greater in the face of his having prevailed.  Their focus especially on the Affordable Care Act will continue.  That is something about which he and we should think.

It was already too late when the President's opponents realized that they had made a major tactical error at the start of their fight.  Defunding or even delaying Affordable Care was a non-starter, destined to fail.  Had they instead focused on its problematic signup epitomized by a disastrous website execution, the story might have been quite different.  Without question the Act's passage, albeit far short of what should have been, was and remains a great accomplishment.  But is also the administration's potentially worst vulnerability.  From the start Obama and his team have done an abysmally poor job of explaining and then selling it to the American public.  That has opened the way for a systematic campaign of misinformation.  Opponents have also leveraged the public's general mistrust of government to their advantage focusing on mandates as a symbol of intrusion.  Concerns about NSA surveillance, while comparing apples to oranges, have only reinforced the public's unease in that regard.  Thus far, both the misunderstanding the signup glitch remain in place.

Were it not for the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, heads would be rolling at HHS, including that of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  Ironically the Teas and others who are her harshest critics are saving her job.  The last thing the President wants or can afford is a nomination fight over a new Secretary.  And perhaps it's a good thing that her job is not on the line, that she can't be made the scapegoat.  In truth the failure here must be laid right at the Oval Office's doorstep.  Considering that this legislation might be Obama's principal legacy, it's astounding that he didn't make sure that the program's critical launch execution point was ready for prime time.  Now that what he rightly calls the manufactured crisis is temporarily over, one would hope this matter would rise to the top burner.

It was sheer luck and perhaps a sign of inexperience that the Teas made their tactical error.  It's unlikely to happen again.  That alone should give some urgency to the task of correcting what's gone wrong on the path to getting millions of Americans insured.  I understand the President's interest in pursuing immigration and tax reform, but letting the Affordable Care vulnerability go on will only weaken his presidency.  It is a problem that must be solved if for no other reason than what has happened in the last few week is likely only a beginning.  It ain't over and these vulnerabilities won't help during the next battle.

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