Wednesday, February 11, 2009

President Obama -- take a lesson from Lincoln!

By Dan Beauchamp

We have seen enough of President Obama, on the campaign trail and in the early days of his administration, to suspect that he holds two theories of political reform, two theories that unfortunately can be at war.

The first view is that better, more high-minded, bipartisan politics and values produces better, more high-minded, bipartisan policy. A new politics creates new policies.

The second view stands this idea on its head: new policies create a new politics, not just the other way around.

Political change as massive as, say, health care reform requires a new civic institution and policy that gives the citizenry more voice and power in politics. This increase in the public's power and expectations will bring major changes to our politics and to both political parties.

Usually the opening for major institutional innovation occurs when a crisis arises and offers an opportunity: a war, a Great Depression, an assassination of a president coupled with a huge electoral win by his successor, as with LBJ and the Great Society.

Surely President Obama knows that we are in another battle for the body politic and that he needs to seize the opportunities the crisis offers to forge a new body politic and politics.

Certainly the Republicans know this. This is why they stonewall Obama. The Republicans know he will try to use the crisis to take the body politic into new territory, territory that will be hostile to Republican political fundamentalism.

To better emphasize my point let's consider health care reform.

One of the most important and seldom-discussed features of universal health care is that, properly designed and implemented, it will change our politics, big time.

This is because security in health care for all Americans will prove popular with the poor and the middle class together and the result is that the party that achieves reform will be broadly supported at the polls and in power for a generation.

Conservatives deeply fear a scheme of universal health care precisely for this reason: it will reward the Democrats in the short and mid-term and it will warn off the Republican party from attacking the new program, much as they learned again under President Bush the dangers of attacking Social Security.

A well-designed national health care reform plan and set of institutions or one that creates a clear path to that new institution will likely change the Republican party more than any other single thing that Obama does by emphasizing bi-partisanship. Republicans today resist and fear that change.

I think Obama knows this. With many in Congress resistant to the new politics that will come in its wake, he made Tom Daschle his first pick to lead the reform battle that is looming.

But Obama also believes that a better, cleaner, and more ethical politics will also produce better policies; hence his new ethical standards for office-holders and his reluctant willingness to let Daschle go.

I also think we need a more ethical yardstick to measure political appointments.
But Obama needs to decide which of these two theories of political change is the more important, and here is where he has a difficulty.

You see, newspapers love the ethical view of politics to death. They know their readers will too. This is because it is easier to understand. "If I pay my taxes, why shouldn't they?" Or worse, "If he [Timothy Geitner, the new Secretary of the Treasury] can't manage his own finances, how can he manage the nation's finances?"

Daschle and Geitner should have paid their taxes but if they are as good as they are reputed to be, we badly need them in office to produce the new policies that will change our politics, in the long run.

Make no mistake: Obama needs not only national health care reform but a new economic and social policy for America that will set our politics on a new course.
But when Obama let The New York Times run off Tom Daschle with its high-minded editorials Obama may have encouraged the media to focus endlessly on the ethical conduct of those making policy and far, far too little attention on how policy like health care reform works and can change our politics, and who’s tough enough to put those policies in place.

There is a famous story about General Grant and President Lincoln.

Rivals to Grant complained that he was a drunk. But Lincoln is supposed to have said, "If drink causes him to fight, then find out what he drinks and send a case to my other commanders."

Lincoln was my kind of politician. He knew that sometime the important thing was the resulting policy. He needed a tenacious, ruthless general relentlessly pursuing a military policy that took full advantage of the superior industrial power and population of the North.

Lincoln knew that only the military defeat of the South would deal a fatal blow to the "Slave Power" of the South and its hold over American politics, a hold so important that the South seceded and led us into the Civil War.

Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated and Reconstruction was ended before the South's politics was utterly changed by giving African-Americans more equality at the ballot box and help in achieving economic independence.

But the principle that we sometimes need new big policies to bring big changes in our politics, rather than the other way around, still stands today.

President Obama, an ardent admirer of President Lincoln, ought to take a lesson from his hero and find his generals to help him bring his own party together for the chance of a generation.

Dan Beauchamp, a health policy expert who now lives in Bisbee, Arizona, worked as a health official in the New York State Department of Health under the Cuomo administration. He led an effort to design a new health care reform proposal that attempted to create a de facto single payer system using clearinghouse technologies for checks much like the Federal Reserve system and using what we today call the Internet.

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