Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 1, 2009

THE 'GOVERNMENT-IS-BAD PARADIGM' LINGERS.... Following up on an earlier item, the new CBS News poll on health care reform not only shows widespread confusion about the nature of the debate, but also growing fears about the kind of services the government can provide.

Specifically, asked whether the government or private insurers would do a better job providing medical coverage, only 36% sided with the government -- down 14 points since June. What's more, 47% believe government is better at keeping costs down -- down 12 points since June.

Those familiar with the policy details know how wrong this is, but those familiar with our usually-ridiculous public discourse shouldn't be surprised. It's what's led Medicare recipients to argue they don't want government involved in their coverage. The two groups of Americans best served by the status quo are seniors (in a Canadian-style, socialized system) and veterans (in a British-style, government-run system), but Americans have been led to believe the private insurance companies -- the industry that screw over Americans every day -- are the best bet.

Greg Sargent added an important point.

Paul Krugman argued recently that Obama hadn't effectively used the bully pulpit to slay "government-is-bad fundamentalism." This is only one poll, but it's fair to ask whether these numbers bear that out.

Obama's poll slide has prompted some to ask whether his presidency might fall short of the transformative moment many expected. I think it's too early to reach a conclusion on this. If Obama pulls out a health care victory, everything will shift again.

But for a time it seemed like shattering the government-is-bad paradigm was distinctly within Obama's reach. General confidence in the government's ability to secure the public's well being seems like pretty good number to keep an eye on when gaming out the potential for transformation of this moment, and of this presidency.

When many conservatives who oppose health care reform argue that this fight is about more than just the uninsured and consumer protections, this is often what they're referring to. The right doesn't want health care to be a public service, and they're panicky about government intervention in the marketplace -- even a broken, dysfunctional marketplace that literally puts Americans' lives in jeopardy -- precisely because it's government intervention in the marketplace.

It looked, for a while, like the president intended to shift public attitudes on this. In early January, when then-President Elect Obama delivered a speech to unveil his stimulus plan, he offered a rather explicit defense of government: "It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy...."

It was the first hint of a fundamental shift. Reagan told us that government "is the problem." Clinton told us the "era of big government is over." Obama hoped (and still hopes) to show that in many instances, with the kind of crises we're facing, government is the "only" institution that can do what needs to be done.

This continued in February, during his first address to Congress. E. J. Dionne Jr. noted at the time, "President Obama's message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over.... [Obama] has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation."

There was a lot to like. The president, still riding high with a mandate and a huge approval rating, wasn't apologetic about his use of government, it was just a matter of fact. These are times that demand an ambitious federal response and Obama is going to deliver one. We tried pretending that the government is a tool to be mistrusted and used sparingly, and now we're going to try something different.

Rich Lowry argued in February that Obama is "trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation."

That was intended as criticism, but it was a reasonable observation. Given the circumstances, government activism is simple pragmatism.

But the shift that seemed inevitable earlier this year is struggling badly in the face of conservative apoplexy. The more the "government-is-bad paradigm" lingers, the harder it will be do much of anything of value.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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(the right is) panicky about government intervention in the marketplace

That's not true. The right doesn't want government regulation of the marketplace. But they are quite ready to give no-strings subsidies to major industries, pass laws protecting corporations from legal jeopardy, shovel cash into the pockets of preferred lobbyists, create cost-plus no bid contracts and they'd jump at the chance to mandate that all individuals buy insurance from the private market (that would be their version of universal health care).

Posted by: Jinchi on September 1, 2009 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

All this poll does is push the "government take-over" meme by posing the question as government OR private insurers.

How many times do we have to say it?!? PUBLIC OPTION MEANS CHOICE!

Posted by: converse on September 1, 2009 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

It never ceases to amaze me that people who believe that government is the problem keep electing people who agree with them to run that government. If you elect someone like George W Bush to run the government, who is starting out from the assumption that government can't do anything right, one thing you can be certain of is that they will do everything in their power to prove their point.

If you truly believe that govnerment is the problem, but accept that there has to be government, why not elect people who believe that they can make government work better? Seems logical to me.

Posted by: majun on September 1, 2009 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

It takes a lot of very smart people working together to make government work well. It only takes a relatively few idiots to screw everything up. I don't see the way out of this mess other than to educate enough of the public well enough to stop electing idiots.

Posted by: Mike on September 1, 2009 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

More accurately the right doesn't want health care reform because it will be a successful program like Social Security or Medicare. People will like it. It will also give workers considerable leverage in dealing with their employers. One of the great conservative triumphs has been to diminish the power of unions and collective bargaining in the US economy. If you remove an employer's power over the healthcare needs of a worker's entire family, then that employer has less leverage over the employee. Reforming healthcare would be a transfomative event on the scale of the Roosevelt presidency. Healthcare reform would put the lie to the bulk of the conservative agenda. It would doom the GOP to a future as a regional political party obsessed with bizarre social minutiae.

Posted by: rk on September 1, 2009 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

How can the same people who pronounce the U.S. to be "the greatest nation on earth" so flatly deny that its government—of, by, and for the people—could have anything to do with it?

Oh yeah. They're Republicans. That's how.

Posted by: chrenson on September 1, 2009 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Ignorant savages aren't going away until we make them go away.

And they won't go away until they have somewhere to go.

Posted by: cld on September 1, 2009 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Keep on eye on Waxman. When he has all the info he requested from insurers, he can potentially change the debate. When the public begins to understand where their money is going to when they pay for health care, public opinion may shift back quickly.

Posted by: Jason on September 1, 2009 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

The GOP is the party of oligarchy and plutocracy, plain and simple. It does not matter how many studies or how much data might show that a government-financed health care system would be superior to the balkanized system we currently have that allows insurers with monopoly market power to prey upon helpless policy-holders for profit. Republicans would still oppose it on principle and because their whole reason for being has become empowering a private oligarchy to take control of this country's economic and social policy instead of a democratically-elected government.

Therefore, from the GOP's perspective, the current health care debate is not a debate about health care at all but about the future of the Republican Party as defenders of America's vested interests.

The Republican position has a certain amount of traction throughout the country with those who buy into the conservative economic argument that the private sector can always provide a service cheaply and more efficiently. But the conservative anti-government message really plays well only in the South where Southerners have their own historic and cultural reasons for hating the federal government as representative of the larger union they want no part of, as evidenced by the neo-Confederates Southern Nationalists who showed up yesterday on the steps of the Texas State Capitol to urge Texas secceed from the Union.

Posted by: Ted Frier on September 1, 2009 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

i know i am a one-note-johnny these days, but, my friends, ronnie rayguns turned this country completely over to the corporate interests when he secured that the mantra in this country would be "government is the problem."

not too many people know this, but ronnie rayguns was the anti-christ...

Posted by: neill on September 1, 2009 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

No time to read all the comments, but it's not too much of a stretch to understand a skepticism about government. Every one of us has had at least one run-in with some sort of un-civil servant, whether at the local or higher level. The sheer stupidity of some of them in dealing with the simplest request is mind-boggling.

You don't have to be a conservative to know that government workers often don't, and that the best-intentioned plans and programs are too often f*cked up by the evil stupidity of bureaucrats who can't handle power. I've worked in large organizations, so I count myself among the offenders. But I've also tried to get service, and have been stiffed more than once. There's a reason congressperson's biggest service is constituent services, which mainly consists of advocating for a constituent who didn't get something from the government that they deserved.

I'm just sayin....

Posted by: Hemmingplay on September 1, 2009 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

On the 70th anniversary of WWll today, I listened to the BBC radio 'world have your say' and people remembered how during the war we cared for each other in the UK, how we would give up our weekly egg to someone in need, or our weekly 2 ozs of sugar, and at the end of the war we started our NHS, for everyone's health. I really wonder where we have gone, to this day the politicians work for the corporations against the people, and even convince them that National Health care is bad, all the time they know people are dying for lack of care and tens of thousands of Americans face bankruptcy from health care costs. I think we have come to a really bad place.

Posted by: JS on September 1, 2009 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Obama has had his transformative moment: A majority of American voters were willing to vote for a black man, a not insignificant thing. The rest of Obama's legacy will be that an incompetent corporatist black politician can screw things up just as badly as a white one.

Posted by: elbrucce on September 1, 2009 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

"Canadian-style, socialized system)"
I wouldn't call it socialized- ie the govt doesn't directly run the health care system, "single payer" is a more accurate description, our provincial governments pay for the medical care as an insurance company that couldn't preselect its patients or approve/ disapprove specific treatments would have to pay.

You should be studying Germany/Switzerland/Holland to see how private regulated insurance companies accomplish universal care -aren't they closer to the reform model the US is considering than UK or even Canada?

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on September 1, 2009 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Hey neill, You're wrong when you say that not to many Americans know that Ronnie Raygun was the anti-Christ.

Posted by: anonymous on September 1, 2009 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

@elbrucce

If your prediction for failure comes true, just know that it's people like you--those who are ready to quit before the fight is over--that allowed it to happen.

Posted by: converse on September 1, 2009 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

Bullshit. On policy after policy, Obama continues Bush/Cheney policies. Fisa. Guantanamo. Insane corporate giveaways and tax cuts trying to get Republicans to sing Kumbaya. DADT. Afghanistan. Failure to purge Bush appointees. trying to get hacks like Gregg and Daschle into his administration. Defending Bushies in court. Stonewalling war-crimes investigations. Secret giveaways to BigPharma/Insurance as part of his health-care sellout. Etc., etc., etc. Con't blame me. Blame the Obots.

Posted by: elbrucce on September 1, 2009 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

We need to ignore the ignorant no matter how loudly and hysterically they scream.

Health care reform has to be passed by people who deal with fact-based reality not partisan delusions. Once a decent health care bill is passed--preferably with a public option--opinion will turn back to Obama quickly. The American public is remarkably fickle.

But Obama's inexperience is really showing right now. Did he really think he could work with Republicans? It's sad to see "Yes, we can" morph into "Maybe, we'll see."

Posted by: PTate in MN on September 1, 2009 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

Hemmingplay

You make a fair point, and there are always good reasons to hold government's feet to the fire to do a better job providing services and using taxpayer dollars wisely.

But I don't think these reactionary attacks against government are about surly bureaucrats and bloated, inefficient programs. These attacks go way beyond that. They are instead an assault on the very idea of the democratic state itself. Without a government -- without a state -- that can put into effect the public's will democracy is nothing more than pretty words and high-minded aspirations.

The Right Wing is perfectly happy with this. Conservatives all throughout history have preferred societies organized according to some hierarchy with approved authorities given near absolute power to govern according to their own discretion and judgment. And conversely, conservatives have always had a rather ambivilent relationship with genuine political democracy -- sometimes equating it with mob rule, often contrasting it their preferred term, "republic," and frequently qualifying democracy's reach by using weasle words like "ordered" that conservatives quietly slip in front of democratic values like "liberty" to to make an entirely new and more conservatively acceptable principle called "ordered liberty" -- which essentially means that the People have the freedom to act exactly like conservatives want them to act.

Conservatives have no problem with a corporate oligarchy in charge of the nation's economic policy -- the FREE MARKET RULES !!! after all, even when a wealthy plutocracy writes all the rules. The Right also thinks separation of church and state is a myth and that we would all be better off if respected religious leaders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson had more say and way over the laws that govern our personal behavior. Conservatives from the South are als among the first to attack "Big Government" because for them the federal government is the only thing standing between them and leading their lives exactly as they see fit, no matter who gets hurt, not matter how many are exploited, no matter what groups get marginalized.

Freedom to them means the freedom to discriminate. And they consider it an inalianable right granted by the Creator and guaranteed by a twisted and tortured reading of our Constitution.

Posted by: Ted Frier on September 1, 2009 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

You have this exactly right. For much of the right, this is not a matter of reason, it is not even ideology, it is a matter of God's revealed wisdom from Saint Reagan himself that government is always less efficient that private industry.

They find that eternal truth alone enough of a reason to oppose any rational health care plan. That's why talk of negotiation is pointless, it's like asking a Christian Fundamentalist to negotiate away one of the Trinity.

Posted by: Tom O on September 1, 2009 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

The shift in a changed view of government's role in solving domestic issues came with Rahm Emanuel...who lacks any real ideology and views issues only in terms of how much money it will garner for dems to continue to get reelected. Gov. is bad only when it regulates the activities of the wealthy or their multi-international corporations. Bankrupting the nation on defense spending is acceptable but not on HC reform...but as long as private ins and big pharma can profiteer then it's a-ok.

An increased population = bigger government. Gov is as big as it needs to be to deal with its citizens needs and desires. The problem is now, and always has been, efficiency. Gov. is only as good or bad as we allow it to be...but it must be as big as the institutions and corporations that operate within it or these same corps will dominate and control it...which is exactly what "corporate personhood" is attempting to do.

In order to control the marketplace a corporatocracy must control the institutions of government...and this is where we are heading as long as corporations have "personhood" and are free to buy up our government or eliminate opposition with their tremendous wealth.

No matter what issue it is, if a corporation stands to profiteer massively from it and it is not regulated and taxed proportionately it becomes destructive to a democracy.
Short form: greed must be regulated from without or it will devour everything in its path (derivatives).

A Corporatocracy would have the statue of Liberty removed and discarded.

Posted by: bjobotts on September 1, 2009 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

Ted Frier: "conservatives have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with genuine political democracy "

Amen, brother!

An orderly, well-run government is the only way to secure equality and ensure the common welfare in a complex, multi-cultural society. But the liberty that we gain through such self-government has a price: As individuals we are not free to enrich ourselves by exploiting others.

But greed, selfishness and a lack of empathy are the DNA of the modern conservative. While they like the stability and prosperity that a well-run government provides, it drives them crazy (crazier???) that they are expected to play by the same rules as everyone else. Since a well-run democratic government limits their ability to exploit people less rich and less powerful than them, government is a problem. It must go.

It amazes me that so many Americans have bought into the anti-government sentiment. I keep thinking, Somalia--now there's a country with no government. To conservatives, evidently, the more the US is like Somalia, the better it would be.

Posted by: PTate in MN on September 1, 2009 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

As Thomas Frank so aptly documented in "The Wrecking Crew," the basic Republican strategy is to prevent government from providing good, functional service, and then, when government fails, screaming that this proves their thesis about ineffective government. Pretty much everything they have done since Obama took office has been right in line with this strategy - for example, doing all they can to delay or kill key appointments.

Posted by: Virginia on September 1, 2009 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

PTate

You are exactly right. When I listen to conservatives I can't help thinking that their primary aim is the empowerment of an entire Predator class that is basically free to take whatever they want and can get away with. That is exactly what the oil barons of Texas want -- absolute freedom to rape the land, pollute the air and exploit workers because it's all "good for business."

They love people like Sarah Palin because they know she'd be nothing more than a figurehead, the curtin behind which they could rule.

But another name for de-regulation in my view is "lawless." And that is basically what we've had under right wing rule -- a lawless predatory state of the strong against the weak, where the moral obligations of government to protect the public has been turned over to private mercenaries who exploit them instead, and all of this justified by some insane theories about absolutist laissez faire free market fundamentalism and social Darwinian survival of the fittest.

These people have been trying to cripple our government so that they can exploit us -- trying to convince us that government isn't our protector, it's our tormentor instead -- and all of this being done in the name of "freedom."

Posted by: Ted Frier on September 1, 2009 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Unfortunately, the modern Republican party has elevated Reagan ideology to cult status. Reagan's "government is the problem not the solution" mantra is still taken as an article of faith. Of course it was George W. Bush, a Republican, who spent 8 years proving that the Government could fail spectacularly. However, those on the right are going to be inclined to take those disasters (Iraq, Katrina, etc.) as general failings of government rather than the specific failings of the Bush Presidency or Republican ideology.

Dr. Paul C. Light at NYU and Brookings has done some very good work identifying what the federal government does well, what it doesn't - and what makes the difference between success and failure.

"HIGH PERFORMANCE GOVERNMENT" and "Governments Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century" are two good references. - Bob

http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG256.pdf

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/2000/11governance_light/rw02.pdf


Posted by: Bob on September 1, 2009 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

Here's a compromise: give states the right to opt out of allowing the public option to be made available to their residents. Let the fight be localized. Blue States will still have a public option available -- and so in the end will Red States, because the local fight will make it clear what the public option is and is not. Nobody will have the guts to deny the choice to the state's residents.

Posted by: urban legend on September 1, 2009 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

It seems to me that this would be a good time for Barack Obama to take "Yes we can" out of retirement.

Posted by: AndrewBW on September 2, 2009 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK
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