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He. Didn’t. Even. Try!

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On my twitter feed, someone alerted me to professional Green Laternite vastleft defending the idea that the ACA was, in fact, the same as the Heritage plan, because all political rhetoric is to be taken at face value as sober policy analysis. Although I should have known better, I noted the radical dissimilarity of the ACA and the Heritage Plan. Since continuing to defend the idea that replacing the ACA with a requirement to buy nearly worthless catastrophic insurance while eviscerating Medicare and Medicaid wouldn’t really change anything is not only impossible but makes it very difficult to sustain a leftier-than-thou pose, this led to vastleft and various of his followers repeating the familiar sequence of goalpost-moving. We can summarize:

  • Compare the ACA not to the status quo ante but single payer.
  • Imply that Obama could have gotten single payer if he wasn’t a sellout to insurance company interests.
  • When called out on that, claim that the idea that single payer could have been passed is a strawman.  Use the phrase “Overton Window” again and again to avoid explaining exactly what you think could have happened.  (I don’t mean to be an armchair green lanternite, but in the future I would recommend varying things a little by also throwing “mandate” and “political capital” out there; makes the bullshit a little less obvious and sounds all serious pundity and stuff.) Also — and this is important — don’t let dismissing the possibility of passing single payer in 2010 as a “strawman” stop you from making single-payer the baseline comparison for the ACA. Those goalposts won’t move themselves!
  • Argue that someone who really understood negotiating would have made a completely empty threat to pass single payer, which would have totally produced a better outcome. Because if you walk into a car dealership and offer $500 for a new Cadillac, the dealer will have no choice but to sell it to you for $2,000.  Clearly, you understand negotiating much, much better than Reid, Pelosi and Obama, who succeeded where Clinton, LBJ, and Truman failed, and I would like to subscribe to your consultancy services.
  • Remarkably assume that when legislation passes without a single vote to spare, with at least 10 conservative Democrats plus Joe Lieberman each having a veto over the final bill, that the burden of proof is on people who think that it was probably the best viable legislation, not on those who think substantially better legislation could have passed.  (In fairness, at least nobody seems to be making the “Obama should have threaten to primary people who weren’t running again” argument yet.)
  • And, finally, rather than arguing that Bayh, Lieberman, Nelson et al could have been on board for destroying the American health insurance industry, you can ludicrously argue that absent the ACA the health insurance industry would have just dissolved on its own, allowing you to pretend that your preferred strategy of Obama using the bully pulpit to favor single payer rather than actually getting legislation passed is actually a path to single payer, rather than an a de facto endorsement of the morally monstrous Republican offer to the working poor and uninsured: i.e. “nothing.”

The one thing that runs through these various strands of bad argument, I think you’ll notice, is the apparent belief that what’s in Obama’s heart matters more than anything else.  This is perhaps the most fundamental misconception of all. Again, the White House isn’t where political transformation starts; it’s where it ends.  If you think Barack Obama is the primary barrier to Medicare-for-all, you’re never going to achieve anything.

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  • Pat

    Wasn’t the meme of “his heart is in the right place, even if he isn’t very bright” one of the earliest excuses for Bush II?

    • There was a thread a few weeks ago about a silly article in Jacobin and I made the point that at least they (usually) have an element of structural argument in what they say. The Daily Worker of, say, 1934 probably had analysis was a bit clunky, what with its dependence on historical materialism as the explanatory force of the universe. But today’s Green Lantern crowd have taken things just as far in the opposite direction. They make bad arguments–or, rather, dispense with arguments and instead just make declarations–and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong because they know what’s in their own hearts. Furthermore, any political actor who doesn’t do what they want them to do–regardless of whether that person or entity has the ability to fulfill the Green Lantern fantasies–those people who don’t usher in utopia are inherently bad or disingenuous or malevolent or weak people.

      How else to explain complex social, economic, political and historical events without actually having to think?

  • liberal

    The one thing that runs through these various strands of bad argument, I think you’ll notice, is the apparent belief that what’s in Obama’s heart matters more than anything else. This is perhaps the most fundamental misconception of all. Again, the White House isn’t where political transformation starts; it’s where it ends.

    How does this model of presidential agency fit an apparent abomination like the TPP negotiations?

    • mds

      Not very well. Treaty negotiations are one of the comparatively few areas in which presidents do have the ability to set the agenda by default.

      On the other hand, even in such areas, assigning them to intangibles such as “in his heart” or “force of will” are probably red herrings. For instance, I actually doubt that LBJ had a fundamental bloodlust in his heart for invading the shit out of Vietnam, the way that the Bushians did with Iraq. That turned out not to help the outcome very much.

      Anyway, if you want to assign presidential will / executive branch power as a driver of shitty “free trade” agreements, go ahead. Hey, let’s mobilize and try to get the Senate to push back against fast track authority, approving trade-related treaties by rubber stamp, etc. That’s actually a worthwhile pursuit. The problem is that most of you don’t stop (or even start) there, but apply it sweepingly to situations where the counterfactuals are pathetically, laughably obvious. The Lemieux Generalization(TM) has the virtue of applying in a whole lot more areas than Green Lanternism does.

      • joe from Lowell

        I don’t know, mds. I think it’s pretty clear that Barack Obama’s subjective desires are the only thing causing the decades-long trend in American trade policy to continue on its long-established course.

        • Davis X. Machina

          …the decades-long trend in American trade policy…

          Absent Obama, there is no NAFTA…

          • He could have blocked Smoot-Hawley but it he didn’t.

            • Phil Bayless

              Yet he always finds plenty of time to hoot small-y, on Twitter! Thanks Obama!

              We coulda had a “jalepeno poppers for all” program. But Obama. Didn’t. Even. Fry.

              We coulda had the contents of Al Capone’s secret vault. But Obama. Didn’t. Even. Pry.

              He coulda stopped Hurricane Sandy from flooding America. But Obama. Didn’t. Even. Dry.

              • joe from Lowell

                I’d forgotten about Hoot Smalley.

                Good times.

          • Well, except that absent Obama, there really is no TARP. And he was just a mere Senator, then, but he rushed back to Washington in the middle of his presidential campaign (!) to save this odious monstrosity from dying its well-deserved death.

            • joe from Lowell

              That’s pretty ridiculous.

              Absent Barack Obama, the United States Congress would have allowed the banking sector to collapse.

              Pull the other one.

        • mds

          the decades-long trend in American trade policy

          Well, see, I was trying to be even more generous than that, since we’re no longer dealing with the bog-standard “make it easier to move jobs overseas” kind of treaties. We’re into the realm of “Force extremely sweeping intellectual property policies on our trade ‘partners’ in order to maximize rent-seeking by IP holders, and all in secret.” (See, e.g., the EFF.) And I can acknowledge that this is a worrisome newer trend, that the TPP is not even particularly a trade agreement in the normal sense of the term, that a Democratic White House pushing for such treaties is not to be applauded, that there needs to be pushback by Congress on the whole way in which such treaties are being negotiated as well as their content, and—and—that it’s not all happening because Barack Obama has personally declared “Make it so,” while cackling malevolently.

    • Greg

      That’s one area where if the president is waging a lonely crusade against the entire rest of the political establishment, he or she might be able to make a difference. However, once you’ve arrived at the point where your best shot is for the president to wage a lonely crusade in favor of your policies you’ve already mostly lost. Presidents don’t typically challenge the establishment because they’re creatures of the establishment. If you want them to act differently you need to give them more allies to make their crusades less lonely.

      • You mean like the 80% of the public that opposes cuts to Social Security? The 60+% who think the minimum wage should be raised to at least $10.10 an hour? How lonely is that?

        Democratic politicians are perfectly capable of reading polls. What is the explanation for the fact that they don’t act like they do?

        • joe from Lowell

          Exactly which Social Security cuts have Democrats made?

          Exactly which increase to the minimum wage have they failed to support?

          • Scott Lemieux

            I’m outraged that Obama vetoed the minimum wage increase passed by the Republican House.

  • The Sheriff’s A Ni-

    There’s a Tea Party level of reality denial in the Green Lanternite arguments that both vexes and amuses me.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      it’s depressing. it seems like life is too short to keep going around on the fact we don’t have a monarchy (or even a starship) where Number One can wave his or her hand and say “make it so” and it is made so

      • Actually this is the primary argument in favor of dictatorship. But, you know the UK, Australia, and even Ghana all seem to have health care as good or better than Cuba and are not dictatorships. So there is something else going on other than we can only have universal socialized health care if we have a one man dictatorship like Castro had.

        • Schadenboner

          Yeah, but parliamentary systems have the advantage (note: “Advantage” within the frame of reference of the ruling party’s ability to enact policy) of having 2.5 branches of government, and generally with an effectively unicameral legislature so truly only one legislative branch.

          But the US has 3-but-really-4 branches, plus the “fourth branch” administrative apparatus (which is nominally Executive branch but which operates with at least some freedom of action from the Executive branch as it is strictly understood). And that’s the Federal level. It nests recursively at the State and even county/municipal levels.

          The prospects for a National Health Service in the US is extremely dim (and personally I’m agnostic about the desirability of such a hypothetical establishment, versus a hypothetical USP).

  • joe from Lowell

    If you think Barack Obama is the primary barrier to Medicare-for-all, you’re never going to achieve anything.

    Sure you are; you’re going to succeed in fluffing your ego and considering yourself to be better than all of those total sellout Republicrats.

    Which really is the point, when it comes right down to it.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I concede the point.

    • Medicine Man

      Hilarious — the best part of this strategy is that it can be repeated for *any* issue whatsoever.

      • joe from Lowell

        There was a commenter at Yggies’ blog a few years ago who used to rant and rave about how Dodd-Frank was a total sellout bill because it didn’t include the Volcker Rule. Over and over again, he insisted that whether the Volcker Rule was included in the bill was the key element, and its absence demonstrated that the Democrats were sellouts and the bill didn’t deserve to pass.

        Then they added the Volcker Rule to the bill. It caused a bit of a shock – these people are usually better at making sure they pick an impossible line in the sand – and he forgot himself long enough to come out and admit that he wouldn’t be satisfied until the wealth of the expropriators was nationalized blah blah blah.

        It’s just a game they play. It has nothing to do with politics or activism.

        • FlipYrWhig

          Precisely. The point, as ever, is to signal that you are so hardcore that you can never be satisfied, because satisfaction is complacency, i.e., liking things is for chumps, patsies, and quietists.

          Otherwise you might not be the radicalest radical who ever radicaled, but just some guy constantly kvetching about how the world never lives up to his imagination.

        • Anonymous

          Say, whose side are you on, anyway?

          • joe from Lowell

            The work horses, not the show ponies.

        • Medicine Man

          I’ve seen the same drama play out when the subject is surveillance and espionage. The first clue is when the entire conversation seems to be about whether the current heroes du jour are getting sufficient respect.

        • FlipYrWhig

          Or, to put it another way, the whole point is to take the vague notion that Things Should Be Better and make that somehow something rather brave.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Then they added the Volcker Rule to the bill. It caused a bit of a shock – these people are usually better at making sure they pick an impossible line in the sand – and he forgot himself long enough to come out and admit that he wouldn’t be satisfied until the wealth of the expropriators was nationalized blah blah blah.

          Wasn’t that Petey? Whatever happened to him, anyway?

          • IM

            PUMA disease?

            It was something like that.

            A pity.

          • Few people I’ve encountered on the internet were as smart, insightful, impulsive and crazed as Petey.

    • The Sheriff’s A Ni-

      Partially that, though I would also think that the electoral history of the United States from 1994 through 2004 probably had an effect as well. Democracy failed liberalism time and time again, if this was our only chance to get health care reform then democracy be damned.

      Which, frankly, is entirely not a liberal position to take. But its a lot easier to blame the guy in big chair and invoke autocratical powers, than it is to admit that it will take far more than internet snark to convince middle America that your argument is right.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        not sure it was middle america so much as congress and the people who own it who needed convincing.

        snark, of course, doesn’t work on them either

  • “A version” of The ACA passed the house, Nov. 7 220-215. Was this the only house vote on the bill? I presume that after the 2010 midterms there would have been no chance of passage.

    • Meant to include this link.

    • Greg

      There was another in March on the Senate version. It passed more narrowly, I believe, and lost the only Republican.

  • That cartoon graphic makes my head hurt and literally makes me queasy.

  • joe from Lowell

    Notice how vastleft has to lie to make his point:

    I guess this guy smeared Obama by saying ACA was based on Romney(/Heritage)care:

    There is, of course, nothing whatsoever in the Obama press release that mentions the Heritage plan in any way.

    The guy is either too lazy to actually look at the Massachusetts health care plan (that was passed over multiple Mitt Romney vetoes) and compare it to the Heritage plan, or he does understand the difference and is perfectly comfortable bullshitting his readers.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Good catch — once again I didn’t even bother clicking the link because the assertion was stupid even if true.

  • Use the phrase “Overton Window” again and again

    Yes, it’s definitely moving to the right to get people health care.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The Republican Party has only one core mission: greatly expanding Medicare and Medicaid.

      • junker

        I lol’d.

    • joe from Lowell

      A large-scale system of federal regulations and subsidies aimed at curtailing abuses and overcoming the shortcomings within a market is more or less the dream of every American conservative.

    • Among the reasons to think “overton window” is one of the stupidest things anyone professing to be a progressive will ever say is the origins of the term. Overton was a guy affiliated with the Mackinac Institute, a Cato-like state-level think tank/bullshit pump in Michigan. It comes from his theory that repeatedly pushing privatization of Social Security would eventually result in it being privatized. This was before the 2005 debacle that showed that other than on Wall St and among some DC/NYC/Silicon Valley elites, there’s zero interest in privatizing Social Security. So it’s also a stupid concept.

      • Greg

        Ironically, the Overtonians are kind of right, except that they haven’t noticed that the ACA itself moved the Overton Window hugely to the left. Look at all of its millions of provisions that are no longer even seriously challenged rhetorically any more. Even Republican pay lip service to the idea that you shouldn’t be able to be denied coverage for prexisting conditions. Howard Dean, the last Democratic governor of Vermont, was supposed to be a radical leftie, but his health care plan is well to the right of the ACA, and the current Democratic governor of Vermont is working on single payer (availing himself of the flexibility given to states by the ACA).

        • The “overton window” concept is interesting if it’s only one side talking and the other side is mute. Otherwise, you would seem to end up with overton windows pushing out from the center in multiple directions, which sometimes happens–1920’s Europe, for instance–but in most cases it wouldn’t make much sense as an explanatory concept.

          • Greg

            There are multiple dimensions to push on though. The lefties didn’t get single payer,but universal health care isn’t going anywhere. The righties still have the EPA to kick around, but neither do I expect domestic discretionary spending (particularly on food stamps) to increase any time in the near future.

            • Uh, that isn’t because of “overton windows,” it’s because the Republicans control the House and except about 100 days in 2009-2010 they exercise veto in the Senate.

              Which is kind of our point.

      • People love to cite the Overton Window like it’s some kind of iron law and not the poli-sci equivalent of the Uncanny Valley and the Laffer Curve (to wit: widely accepted theories that seem obviously true in the broad strokes but which fall apart into endless exceptions when an attempt is made to put them into practice).

  • junker

    Reading that old thread I’m struck by how badly some of those predictions turned out,like the complaint that an extension of the Bush tax cuts in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits was foolish because “obviously republicans would have caved on unemployment”

    Based on recent events,not so much.

    • joe from Lowell

      I can’t help but notice that the people arguing in that thread “Of course the Republicans would have given in on UI!” are the ones who most frequently accuse President Obama of having too much faith in the decency and reasonableness of the Republicans.

      • FlipYrWhig

        They wouldn’t give in due to decency or reasonableness, joe. They’d give in because they’d be intimidated, but they’re not, because Obama isn’t tough enough! The psychosexual aspects of Bully Pulpit Theory are omnipresent: the imperative is always to prove the extent of your manliness. (This is also why it’s comical that the most relentless Bully Pulpiteers are not exactly Alpha Males in any other aspect of their lives. Neither am I, I’ll hasten to say, but I’m not the one fixated on toughness and shows of force.)

        • rea

          And remember the other side of this coin–the Republican plan to force Obama to agree to defund the ACA. They were going to prevail with a display of manly resolve, which would force that wimp Obama to let them do it.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I can’t help but notice that the people arguing in that thread “Of course the Republicans would have given in on UI!” are the ones who most frequently accuse President Obama of having too much faith in the decency and reasonableness of the Republicans.

        Oh yes. This is a particular problem with the stimulus — the critique switches seamlessly from “Obama sold us out by trying to appeal to Republicans because he’s a naif” to “Of course several GOP Senators would have voted for a $1.5 trillion stimulus!”

        • mds

          “Of course several GOP Senators would have voted for a $1.5 trillion stimulus!”

          Okay, I know this is the thing that somehow turns me into a Lanternist, or something, but it’s more like “Of course several GOP Senators would have voted for a $900 billion stimulus, having been publicly seen to have gotten the figure below an unaffordable $1 Trillion through their sheer fiscally-responsible awesomeness.” Or, “Of course several GOP Senators would have voted for a $700 billion stimulus without half of it being composed of the second-worst ‘bang for the buck’ on the fiscal multiplier chart, beating out only ‘firing all the money into the sun.'” There are a lot more variables and ambiguities in that process. I don’t think the stimulus could have been what the grown-ups had decided was necessary. I don’t even necessarily think that the full figure could have been used as a starting negotiation. But it was not exactly a binary process, and I’m not giving any credit to the preening assholes in the Senate for somehow having figured out the maximum size and composition of an allowable stimulus in advance. They wanted it under a trillion, arbitrarily reduced on their say-so, and larded with tax cuts. That potentially leaves a tiny space for improvement over the final deal, and even a tiny improvement would have had additional positive effects. So I will continue to cling naively to the notion that there is some difference between the way the stimulus was hammered out, and single payer ponies throughout the land.

          • Scott Lemieux

            Of course several GOP Senators would have voted for a $900 billion stimulus

            That’s not the argument most of them were making, but according to Grunwald’s reporting this is almost certainly false. Several Democratic Senators were stuck on $800 billion.

            Of course several GOP Senators would have voted for a $700 billion stimulus without half of it being composed of the second-worst ‘bang for the buck’ on the fiscal multiplier chart, beating out only ‘firing all the money into the sun.’”

            I’ve never seen anyone argue for this, but if so it’s crazy. It was GOP senators that added that stuff in the first place. What was going to stop them from wanting it?

            • mds

              What was going to stop them from wanting it?

              Nothing. So, if it’s something they actually want, what are they offering in order to get it? We’re talking about something where comparatively small changes could have a disproportionate effect. How about changing the 50/50 split to be slightly more helpful? Because we’ve already established what the senators in question are, and it’s time to haggle over the price.

              Anyway, while I can clearly trace the process by which the PPACA became the best we could possibly get, I’ll continue to chase the phantoms of multipliers that could have been over the stimulus. Sorry if that sticks me with the proggier-than-thou crazies as fellow travelers, though in my defense I don’t think my claims are quite as outrageous and reality-denying.

              • Scott Lemieux

                Well, the price that was extracted for the stupid tax cuts was a stimulus near the maximum range of what marginal Democratic senators would accept. More bang-for-the-buck would have meant a smaller bottom-line number, and likely a substantially smaller one.

    • Aidan

      Also the people who complained the loudest about extending the Bush tax cuts in exchange for UI are the sample people who complained loudest about the stimulus being too small.

      • Aidan

        Excuse me – I meant to say the people who complained loudest about the stimulus being too small *due to a lack of presidential leadership*

  • CP Norris

    That linked 2011 post entitled “I Guess I’ll Burn Down This Strawman” seems to have spam links at the end of it. Was the site compromised at some point?

    • Everybody and everything gets compromised at some point. That is why the US has the ACA rather than an NHS type system right? ;-)

    • rea

      If only the original post had been farther to the left, then the Overton Window would have given us more centrist spam.

  • People like vastleft seem to be arguing against an unspoken belief that Obama’s supporters believe him to be secretly a pure progressive. Obama didn’t run as anything of the sort and anyone who believes him to be is deluded. That has absolutely nothing to do with whether the ACA was the optimal legislative outcome. It is irrelevant to me whether Obama would have preferred single payer or a public option.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The way vastleft (dishonestly) re-phrased my claim was very instructive. For these guys American politics revolves entirely around the presidential phallus.

      • I don’t think they understand that we can hold the two ideas “Obama is not as progressive as myself” and “Obama is not a perfidious mustache-twirling villain” at the same time and not break down like a computer facing a paradox from Captain Kirk.

        Obama is probably around the middle of the pack of federal Democratic elected officials in terms of his policy preferences. This turns out not to be very progressive because elected Democrats are not very progressive. Anyone who is shocked by this has not been paying attention.

        • FMguru

          It’s going to be even more fun if/when Hillary wins in 2016 and governs as…the corporate-friendly 1990s DLC centrist that she’s always been and not the “Hillary, Progressive Warrior Princess” that much of her fan club has convinced themselves she is.

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