Mandate musings: How Obama got into this mess

Sam Smith

I’ve finally figured out that Barack Obama is a liberal after all. It’s the liberals who have moved to the right and Obama just went along with them.

The gap between progressives (and liberals of an earlier time) and today’s version is growing all the time.

Progressives these days tend to be either Green or independents who work on certain key issues. For example, groups supporting single payer, major economic reform and civil liberties are often outside the liberal mainstream, which is far more interested in maintaining its own culture than in growing the larger one that is America.

One way you can tell this is that the larger America is, in the liberal encyclopedia, a bunch of gun toting, racist, abortion hating nuts. The problem with this definition – aside from misidentifying tens of millions of our fellow Americans – is that this constituency is seen as one to scold rather than to convince, and to punish rather than to help out with its own real problems.

In fact the history of liberalism over the past eight decades can be fairly divided in half. In the first half, the prime goal was to help the mass of Americans with their economic problems (albeit ignoring for much of this time other key issues such as civil rights) while in the second half the prime liberal goal has been to tell other Americans how to behave.

If you think I exaggerate just compare Barack Obama’s relative interest in bailing out banks vs. bailing out troubled homeowners. Or this list of accomplishments of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration found in Wikipedia:

“The WPA employed 8.5 million people in its seven-year history, working on 1.4 million projects, including the building or repair of 103 golf courses, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, and 651,087 miles of highways and roads.”

Or read this from the biography of Frances Perkins, FDR’s labor secetary”

“Perkins would have been famous simply by being the first woman cabinet member, but her legacy stems from her accomplishments. She was largely responsible for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and adoption of the federal minimum wage”

Name one woman senator or cabinet member in the past thrity years who has come close to this level of perception and action.

In fact, name one Democratic or liberal policy effort of the past three decades that even comes close to any of these.

The truth is that the difference between liberals and conservatives has become that liberals believe in the status quo while conservatives believe in the status quo ante, witness their efforts to undo eight decades of political progress.

Understanding the difference between liberals and progressive helps to explain the bizarre controversy over Obamacare.

This was meant to be the flagship of Obama’s presidency, but has turned into a major disaster. There are a number of good reasons:

– Obama wanted success more than he wanted a specific goal. Thus his compromises were not wise incremental steps towards something grander, but a hodgepodge of deals with the ultimate aim of having something to brag about. This is not a good legislative approach.

– Obama and around 40% of those in Congress are lawyers. Only around 3% are doctors and 1% nurses. Thus a massive alteration in national health policy has been designed by those with little knowledge of the field and a humungous bias towards the view that legal language is an adequate substitute for integrity, skill, fairness, and comprehension of a particular issue. There is a similar disparity in official Washington’s education skills, but that didn’t stop anyone from passing a massively disruptive series of national mandates for historically local public education.

The way politicians use to get around their lack of talent was through their ability to negotiate, work with disparate groups of people, understand human nature, and figure out where a reasonable consensus lay. Obama has a hard time even being friendly with members of Congress.

– The problem is exaggerated by current liberal contempt for state or local participation in political matters, Liberals have forgotten where the civil rights, women’s, environmental and gay movements got a foothold, and it wasn’t in Washington. Similarly, flexibility on issues like healthcare allows the best solutions to occur at least somewhere whereas the liberal assumption that the only smart people are in Washington leads to a steadily increasing political myopia driven by arrogance rather than common sense, empirical knowledge and negotiation.

– Consider just one matter that came up during the Supreme Court hearing on Medicaid:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You mentioned the the Dole case. Now, what was the – the threat in that case, raise your drinking age to 21 – 21 or what?

GENERAL VERRILLI: Or lose a percentage of your highway funds.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Do you remember the percentage?

GENERAL VERRILLI: Seven percent, yes.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Yes. It’s a pretty small amount. That is really apples and oranges when you are talking about lose all of your Medicaid funds or lose – I thought it was 5, but 7 – 7 percent of your 15 highway funds.

This bill was passed in 1984 when Congress and the White House still had some respect for the Tenth Amendment. It wasn’t a particularly useful law given that, for example, one survey found that 32% of today’s college heavy drinkers are underage, but at least Washington didn’t tell the states – as in Obamacare – that if you don’t do what we want with Medicaid you lose it all.

That’s not a legal issue, it’s just plain political common sense, something that is in short supply these days.

Similarly, any decent natural politician could have guessed that the individual mandate would have been a nightmare,.

But because of the smugness of the Hill and the White House – where lawyers undoubtedly reassured everyone that it could all be sold as constitutional – Obama et al went ahead with their 2700 page monster.

The lessons to be learned from this chaos are not just about the Constitution, or about the contemporary liberal desertion of a decent role for states and localities in our system. There is much we can learn about the growing conflict in our system between legal and politically wise arguments and solutions.

The former look good in law school or on the op ed page. But the latter, sometimes in conflict and sometimes parallel to the legal ones, are what will get you through the next election without half your constituents really pissed off at you for no good reason except that some attorney said you could get away with it.

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