Friday night Bill Moyers hosted a fascinating debate on the Senate’s health care bill between Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect. (The video can be viewed here: Bill Moyers Journal). Taibbi and Kuttner both describe the just-passed health care bill as disastrous. They outline how it is a complete giveaway to the health insurance industry, how it will do nothing to lower costs, and how it will be extremely unpopular to the American public once it’s implemented.
The following highlights some key points in their discussion:
BILL MOYERS: So are you saying that this, what some call a sweetheart deal between the pharmaceutical industry and the White House, done many months ago before this fight really began, was because the drug company money in the Democratic Party?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, it’s two things. Part of it was we need to do whatever it takes to get a bill. Never mind whether it’s a really good bill, let’s get a bill passed so we can claim that we solved health insurance. Secondly, let’s get the drug industry and the insurance industry either supporting us or not actively opposing us. So that there was some skirmishing around the details, but the deal going in was that the administration, drug companies, insurance companies are on the same team. Now, that’s one way to get legislation, it’s not a way to transform the health system. Once the White House made this deal with the insurance companies, the public option was never going to be anything more than a fig leaf. And over the summer and the fall, it got whittled down, whittled down, whittled down to almost nothing and now it’s really nothing.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, and this was Howard Dean’s point this week was that this individual mandate that’s going to force people to become customers of private health insurance companies, the Democrats are going to end up owning that policy and it’s going to be extremely unpopular and it’s going to be theirs for a generation. It’s going to be an albatross around the neck of this party.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Think about it, the difference between social insurance and an individual mandate is this. Social insurance everybody pays for it through their taxes, so you don’t think of Social Security as a compulsory individual mandate. You think of it as a benefit, as a protection that your government provides. But an individual mandate is an order to you to go out and buy some product from some private profit-making company, that in the case of a lot of moderate income people, you can’t afford to buy. And the shell game here is that the affordable policies are either very high deductibles and co-pays, so you can afford the monthly premiums but then when you get sick, you have to pay a small fortune out of pocket before the coverage kicks in. Or if the coverage is decent, the premiums are unaffordable. And so here’s the government doing the bidding of the private industry coercing people to buy profit-making products that maybe they can’t afford and they call it health reform.
As you can see, everyone is on the same page here — they both HATE this horrible insurance industry giveaway — to be awarded off the backs of struggling Americans. Both believe the bill does more harm than good.
And then Moyers asks them this simple question, and you quickly see where the real debate here will lie:
BILL MOYERS: Yes or no. If you were a senator, would you vote for this Senate health care bill?
MATT TAIBBI: No.
BILL MOYERS: Bob?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Yes.
Did you get that? Robert Kuttner would vote for this Senate health care bill that he had just described as disastrous. An astounded Moyers confronts Kuttner:
BILL MOYERS: Why? You just said it’s designed to enhance the fortunes of the industry.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, it’s so far from what I think is necessary that I don’t think it’s a good bill. But I think if it goes down, just because of the optics of the situation and the way the Republicans have framed this as a make or break moment for President Obama, it will make it easier for the Republicans to take control of Congress in 2010. It will make Obama even more gun-shy about promoting reform. It will create even more political paralysis. It will embolden the republicans to block what this President is trying to do, some of which is good, at every turn. So I would hold my nose and vote for it. [...]
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you saying that in order to save the Democratic President and the Democratic Party in 2010 and 2012 you have to have a really rotten health insurance bill?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, when you come down to one pivotal moment where a bill is before Congress and the administration has staked the entire presidency on this bill and you’re a progressive Democrat are you going to vote for it or not? Let me put it this way, if I were literally in the position that Joe Lieberman is in and it was up to me to determine whether this bill live or die, I would hold my nose and vote for it even though I have been a fierce critic of the path this administration has taken. [...]
Matt Taibbi gets it absolutely right in this exchange with Kuttner:
ROBERT KUTTNER: I mean, I was making the same criticisms that you were at the time. But now we’re down to a moment of final passage. And maybe my views are very ambivalent. But I would still vote for it because I think the defeat would be absolutely crushing in terms of the way the press played it, in terms of the way it would give encouragement to the far right in this country that we can block this guy if we just fight hard enough, if we just demagogue it.
MATT TAIBBI: But couldn’t that defeat turn into- that crushing defeat, couldn’t that be good for the Democrats? Couldn’t it teach them a lesson that, you know, maybe they have to pursue a different course in the future?
Kuttner’s mindset is precisely why politicians continue to undermine their constituents at every turn. Politicians believe that their party members and constituents — even those further to the Left (like Kuttner) who routinely criticize their actions — will ultimately hold their noses and walk the party line. It is exactly why Rahm Emanuel confidently asserted to the Wall Street Journal they need not worry about the Left. It is why real meaningful change will never occur in Washington, because politicians — a crafty bunch — are banking that Kuttner’s mentality is prevalent amongst their constituency.
Politicians respond to one very simple and primal motivator: FEAR.
- FEAR that entrenched interests will stop funding their campaigns, and instead will begin to fund their opponents.
- FEAR that their constituency will suddenly turn on them, and vote them out of office.
In a legislative initiative such as health care reform, entrenched interests would have to take a serious hit to their profits in order to stop the needless suffering of the American public. These companies reap incredible profit from their government-protected monopoly/oligopoly status (no competition), and by denying claims and coverage. There is no way around this. Either Obama protects their profits at the expense of the public, or he pushes legislation that harms their profits.
Emanuel and Obama very astutely calculated that entrenched interests would be unforgiving — mercenary, in fact — if their profits were in any way threatened. But they suspected Kuttner’s ‘party line’ mindset would ultimately prevail amongst their liberal colleagues in the House and in the electorate; that they would ultimately walk the party line, given a two party system where choosing between the lesser of two evils is the name of the game.
This ‘party line’ mindset — exemplified perfectly by Kuttner — is one that not only enables the status quo, it guarantees its perpetuity. The entrenched interests’ stranglehold over our government will continue as long as people mechanically support whatever policies their party leaders have decided to push, even if it’s something they themselves believe to be disastrous, a giveaway to interest groups, and harmful to Americans. Kuttner is essentially saying he would support a terrible, harmful policy only for the sake of denying a political victory to the opposition. That’s the entire crux of his explanation.
Kuttner’s message is exactly the wrong one to be sending to our political representatives. It plays right into the strategic calculations these politicians make whenever they must choose between pursuing something exceedingly difficult — like meaningful change — or pursuing something far easier, and more predictable — like status quo. Observing Kuttner’s quick capitulation should help us to better understand why Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama have chosen to serve special interests at the expense of the public interest. They really only FEAR the special interests, because special interests are the only ones certain to hold them to account. After all, the Left — as Kuttner demonstrated — would never do anything that might inadvertently help to put a Republican back in power. Right?
As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it: “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”