Monday, March 29, 2010

That Hopey-Changey Stuff

I move onward, the only direction.
Can't be scared to fail, searchin' perfection.
- Shawn Carter

Today, mainstream American politics no longer seems framed as a struggle between two competing visions of change. Rather, due at least in part to the battle lines that were drawn in the healthcare debate, it has become a struggle between the proponents of change and the defenders of the status quo. The dialogue, such as it is, has not been about what form change should take, but whether things ought to change at all. John McCain announced that the Democrats should not expect cooperation on anything after healthcare. Seriously - no cooperation, at all, on anything? That is a bold statement, and it reflects a huge amount of apparently unconditional attachment to the status quo.

But America has never been about accepting the status quo. Generation after generation, this country has been built by ambitious immigrants and visionaries, enabled by a social and political system that eschewed rigid class and heredity privilege in favor of socioeconomic mobility and meritocracy. The dead hand of the past can only hold us back as much as we allow it to. By and large, our historical narrative is one of choosing positive change over the status quo, of believing that we, collectively, have the power, the wisdom, and the resources to build a better future, rather than accept a flawed present. It is an optimistic vision of the future, and I would argue that it has driven much of American history.

Westward expansion, the commitments we've made to maintaining global security in the past century, the space race, the struggles for civil rights at home - the United States of America has accomplished some truly great things. And we've done so by moving forward, even when doing so presented immense challenges, confident that collectively we've had the power to build the better world that we envision. In the past, we haven't shirked our responsibility to each other, to ourselves, and to future generations of Americans when faced with these challenges. It's imperative that we not to do so now.

Sarah Palin has been rallying her supporters to "take back our country." To her, I would say that this is not, nor has this ever been "your" country, at least not in the sense that the statement implies. America has never chosen fear over hope, intolerance over acceptance, complacency over action, nor anger over compassion. America has always harnessed its collective energies to move forward, not back.

If you want to pretend you're living in the early 19th century, that is of course your right as an American. But if you think you're going to take the entire country there with you, I suspect you're in for an unpleasant surprise. History shows that Americans are remarkably attached to "that hopey-changey stuff" for which you've shown such contempt - except we call it "optimism." And, to answer your question, history shows that it tends to work out pretty well for us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Whose Waterloo?

Recently, Republicans have spent a lot of time talking about how passing healthcare reform would kill the Democrats in November. But would it?

I feel more comfortable saying that passing healthcare reform would be potentially terrible news for the Republicans. Whatever he was saying last fall, Obama and his advisors probably knew that the Republicans were going to fight this thing tooth and nail. And so they did, constantly falling back to new arguments as they lost ground. First they went the morality route (death panels, killing grandma, etc.). When that failed, they went the fiscal responsibility route. When the CBO's estimates came out and shot that one down, they fell back to arguing about procedure instead of substance - as though political horsetrading, reconciliation, deem and pass, etc., were odious things that they'd never heard of and would certainly never dream of doing.

We're still hearing echoes of all these arguments today, but now Boehner and the rest are basically just trying to intimidate Democrats out of voting for it by saying they'll lose in the midterms. Some Dems have stepped up - courageously, I would say - and addressed that explicitly, saying they're willing to take that risk. Good for them. Sometimes doing the right thing and doing the safe thing are miles apart.

But I'm not sure that the Democrats are going to lose big in November, the way the Republicans are predicting. People have short memories. If healthcare reform passes, the world will not end immediately. Government stormtroopers will not break into homes to drag senior citizens off to face death panels while forcing their family members at gunpoint to change doctors. Congress will move on to address other issues, like the economy and financial reform, and the populist rage that the Republicans have been fueling will subside (for the record, it's not even clear that healthcare reform is unpopular among the majority of Americans - most of the polling numbers suggest that people aren't so much unhappy about the bill as they are unhappy that the Democrats have taken so long getting it through, and success will change that).

So, while the Democrats and voters move on, the Congressional Republicans will have a "now what?" moment. As some of them have threatened, they can continue to act like petulant children and oppose literally everything the Democrats put forward. But I doubt that anything else on the legislative agenda will be as contentious as healthcare. Even the teabaggers, crazy as they may be, are furious at Wall Street, and I suspect that the GOP can ill-afford to alienate them by bringing government to a halt again to protect multi-million dollar bonuses for the people who wrecked the economy. And Boehner and McConnell will have a very hard time going on national television and explaining why job creation for unemployed Americans is a bad thing. If the obstructionism continues, it's going to be the Republicans who face an uncertain future in November, not the Democrats.

Boehner has warned that the Democrats will suffer in the midterm elections for this. And maybe they will, at least this year. But after the healthcare scare is over, whether that's this November or somewhat further down the road, the Republicans are going to find that whatever gains they made by scaremongering were only temporary. Ultimately, I suspect the congressmen who egged on an angry mob that waved Confederate flags and spat on and hurled racial and homophobic epithets at elected officials will end up looking worse than the ones who risked their political future to do what they felt was right. (I'm aware that these were isolated instances, and not everybody in the mob did it, but that's the thing about forming an angry mob - if you're part of it, you tend to be held accountable for its actions, whether you personally did it or not.)

Alternately, congressional Republicans could try a change of tack and only open their mouths when they have something constructive to add to the debate. But either way, they will have lost whatever initiative they ever had, and it may be a long time before they're in a comparable position to threaten the Democrats' agenda.

Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said that healthcare was going to be Obama's Waterloo. And maybe he was right, although not in the sense that he meant. Is healthcare reform Waterloo? Could be. But right now, the Republican Party is looking a lot like Napoleon (small, with an inferiority complex). And the Democrats are looking a lot like the Duke of Wellington.

(And he's the guy who won.)