Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Third Way?

A shift in rhetorical tactics in the health care reform debate is coming from the White House. Hailing the bi-partisan nature of the effort and focusing on the nuts-and-bolts macroeconomic benefits of reform got the Administration lost in the weeds of its own details. This approach looked all the more languid given the emotional over-reaction to reform from the Right. So Obama is turning his rhetorical battleship around toward his own emotional approach. He cited his grandmother's recent death in swatting down "death panel" rumors. I wouldn't be surprised to hear more soon about his mother's experiences with cancer, which he used readily on the campaign trail but seems to have shelved for some reason this summer.

This question of arguing from head or heart is as old as liberalism. Obama seems most comfortable in the Walter Lippmann mode, who thought it the job of experts to mold public opinion among a populace that may not know what it really wants or what's best for it. This is a bit ironic for someone who, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, campaigned in poetry and not prose.

Let me suggest another track: look to the connection made during the New Deal between citizenship and economic rights. As Gary Gerstle charted in his book American Crucible, Labor leaders during the Depression connected their fight against corporate power to the American tradition of individual rights. Seizing on this political ideal, the Roosevelt Administration began to champion more muscularly the rights of citizens to enjoy a decent standard of living as part of what it meant be American. Through the protection and positive social policies the government could provide, the people could push back against concentrations of wealth and corporate avarice and reassert the American traditions of equality and fair play. In this spirit FDR secured the passage of Social Security and the Wagner Act, reforms much more redistributive in nature than anything Democrats are now proposing.

The Wagner Act is an usual but useful comp here for this iteration of health reform. (This is kind of a rough comp, but stay with me) It made an implicit demand of citizens -- join a union -- in exchange for the state taking on a greater role in preserving individual rights. This health care initiative also asks citizens to do something -- buy health insurance. (Ok, it compels them to buy health insurance.) Participation empowers the state to look after the interests of the little guy against corporate power in ways the little guy couldn't do on his or her own. But the people have to be active in asserting themselves. This spirit of "we're all in it together" spurred union growth and could raise the popularity of health care reform.

At the least it would change the conversation about reform's impact on the rights of citizens, which at this point is being dominated by those who are arguing that reform would represent a government seizure of rights. (let's not even touch Dick Armey's argument that Medicare takes away people's rights). This argument is meaningless because those rights have already been taken away by insurance companies.

I know conservatives have done well for two generations now in swatting down the old New Deal connection between the people's rights, an active government, and the nation's democratic ideals. But this time, how about trying a full frontal assault on that argument. The last eight years certainly opened up enough holes in it to make it worth a try, and those shouting it the loudest are pretty easy to push aside.

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