Will the ‘Don’t-Blame-Me’ Democrats Take Responsibility and Fix Health Reform?

Richard Eskow

It hurts to lose a Senate seat but, hey – setbacks happen in politics. What’s really discouraging is the sight of Democrats, from the White House on down, refusing to accept responsibility for their own part in this loss. That, more than the loss itself, is reason for grave concern about health reform – and the party’s future.

Aren’t people who have participated in a failure supposed to look at their part in the problem, then step up and take responsibility for it? Watching the Democrats, those thoughts feel like relics from an archaic age. In old Britain, chivalric values required a Lady or Gentleman who let their side down to go into their study with a pistol and “do the right thing.” Not these folks: They’re too busy taking pot shots at each other.

It is, as Daffy Duck might observe, “an exathperatin’ development.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Nate Silver’s conclusions about what went wrong are smart and incisive. His back-of-the-envelope appraisal suggests that the seat would have remained Democratic if not for either one of two factors: Martha Coakley’s terrible campaign, and a national environment that’s turned toxic for Democrats. That means that the Coakley campaign and those responsible for the national environment (i.e. the Party leadership) are both responsible.

Forget the Coakley people for now, since they’ve had their shot: What are party leaders saying? Everybody’s grandstanding, pushing their own agendas. Evan Bayh, for example, insists the problem is that Democrats haven’t followed his centrist agenda. And let’s review Joe Lieberman’s recent comments … Ah, let’s not. The guy already gets too much press.

Both Lieberman and Bayh are wrong, anyway. Here are the first results from after-vote polling in Massachusetts: By a 3 to 2 margin, Obama voters who voted for Brown thought that Obama’s reform bill “doesn’t go far enough.” And those Obama voters who didn’t bother voting felt that way by a 6 to 1 margin. 82% of Obama voters who went for Brown (and 86% of those who stayed home) support a public option. And 57% of Brown voters said that Obama is “not delivering enough” on change.

Are you listening, Democrats? Or do the voices of the Lieberman/Bayh do-nothing caucus ring louder in your ears? We hear what we want to hear, after all. Case in point: Before the first vote was even cast, Rahm Emanuel was already blaming Coakley – and Coakley alone – for the loss of the seat. And David Axelrod was insisting that the unpopularity of the health reform bill was due the “caricature” its opponents had painted. Is the problem only caricature, and even a little content ? Besides, who’s responsible for messaging around there?

Bill Scher asks a logical question: How could Massachusetts voters who like their own reform (58% are in favor) oppose a national health initiative that looks so similar? One answer is clear from the polling: 61% believe the government can’t afford to pay for it, even though reform could reduce the deficit. Another sign comes from the same poll that showed 58% support: People who have been directly affected by the law like it less.

The unpopularity of national reform in Massachusetts wouldn’t have been a surprise if Democrats had been more willing to look at the data there: While a whopping 79% of Massachusetts residents wanted to keep their reform, according to a Boston Globe/Harvard School of Public Health poll from last September, they “were nearly evenly split on whether Massachusetts could afford to continue with the law.” Why? Because that state’s reform hasn’t done enough to contain costs – and neither would the President’s. That poll was an overlooked warning sign.

Obama’s let-Congress-do-it process also hurt. It cast a spotlight on the Senate, giving the public a front-row seat as concession after concession was made to the insurance industry. Even if the end result resembles Massachusetts’, the unseemly spectacle tainted it – and its architects.

As Massachusetts voters cried out for meaningful cost containment, the White House decided to emphasize the “Cadillac tax” as its solution. But that tax unfairly targets people based on demographics and won’t contain costs. (More info here.) And polls show that it’s wildly unpopular. So after remaining passive while the popular public option died, the Administration finally weighed in – by pushing an ineffective and essentially indiscriminate tax based on widely-challenged, right-leaning economic theory.

And Dems seem to have forgotten that Massachusetts is more liberal than the country overall. 58% support there could translate to much less support nationwide. Even in that progressive state, a majority of people want reform improved – and that’s with no organized resistance from the Right! Replicate that law in Red States, with Republicans in full revolt and tea-partiers parading in the streets, and you could be facing disaster. Throw in a regressive middle-class tax and the public perception that special interests drove the process, and the picture gets downright ugly.

Sadly, there’s no sign that Democratic leaders are paying attention. Sure, they can pass the Senate bill as is, but that could hurt them – unless they immediately pass an amendment which creates a public option. The reconciliation process would be entirely appropriate, since a public option would decrease the Federal deficit. They could pass some genuine cost-containment measures that way, too, and jettison the neo-right-wing rain dance that is the Cadillac tax.

We only can hope that Democrats eventually learn from this experience, that they’ll stop placing blame and start taking responsibility. There’s a word for that:

Leadership.

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