Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not the Summer of Love

Summer 1993.

Team Clinton was trying to reform the nation's health care system and things were already starting to look grim. The forces of Gingrich darkness were gathering strength. Scary ads were running on TV.

Late that summer I joined roughly 500,000 fellow progressives on the Mall in DC for one of the largest demonstrations in American history. As Clintoncare was beginning its slow death, we marched in Washington to demand. . .that gays and lesbians be allowed to serve in the military.

One result of that demonstration was the heavily triangulated and patently absurd "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Another result was the defeat of health care reform. After 1994 health-care reform vanished from the national agenda until 2008.

Never mind how inept the Clinton people were in trying to reform health care, and how much blame they deserve. They got no help from people on the left, most of whom were still in the thrall of indentity based politics. For their part, the Gingrich crowd recognized that they could occupy with left with any number of battles in the culture wars. They were thus able to win the real fights of the decade without much opposition (like tanking the health care plan, for example). In 1993 what put progressives in the streets - forget the irony of it all - was gays in the military, not health care reform, welfare reform, or a host of other things.

I've been thinking about that demonstration as I've watched the "town hall" meetings on health care being hijacked by screaming loonies. I have no doubt (though I also have no real evidence) that these "spontaneous" expressions of grassroots anger at health-care reform are in fact carefully orchestrated recitations of Republican party talking points. It hardly matters one way or the other - at the moment, the Republican party has successfully framed the debate about health care and stolen most of the national headlines.

Part of this is the fault of the Obama administration which has not yet made the case for reform as effectively as it could or as it needs to. Part of the fault, however, lies with us. There has been no groundswell of support for health care reform to match the screamers at the recent town hall meetings. No one has yet organized a big march in Washington to demand that all Americans - gays and straights, wise Latinas and dumb white guys - have access to health care.

There is much to dislike about the current proposals to be sure, but that is beside the point. Some health care reform is vastly better than no health care reform, and not just for the health of the nation. Remember that in 1994, emboldened by their defeat of the Clinton health bill, the Gingrich lunatics took over Congress and turned it into their asylum.

The question this time around is whether progressives are prepared to march for health care, or whether Joe the Plumber and all his cousins will be allowed to defeat it again.


Anonymous said...


My sense is that Obama's victory last fall was significant, but in the way Nixon's was in 1968. In the case of 68, it was the final defeat POLITICALLY for the majoritarian New Deal coaliton. But it WAS NOT an ideological defeat.

Likewise, Obama's victory last fall was a defeat POLITICALLY for Nixonland. But it was not an ideological repudiation of Reaganism.

In other words, people rejected movement conservatism - Bush, McCain, Palin - but they didn't endorse a new liberalism as a result.

I don't know what the upshot of this is fully at this point. But I do think that this is why basically the people that voted for Obama are not fired up about his agenda. Because, IMO, he won on the grounds of identity/cultural politics, particularly amongst younger people and Latinos, African Americans, Asians, etc.. Obama as a person much better embodied this new coaliton's vision/image of the United States than anybody the GOP can throw out there or any of the stories the GOP tells Americas about the country (thats why the whole lets get a black man to run to show "diversity" won't and hasn't worked for the GOP, IMO).

What he says and stands for matters here too, but not in concrete sense. That is why no one here really cares about the in and outs of healthcare policy, even though this was clearly something he campaigned on. Conversely, for the teabag crowd, big government is a concrete idea they oppose and can get fired up about.

Ben Piggot

Anonymous said...

To follow up quickly about what I mean by ideology:

There has not been a sustained, widespread, organic movement that preceeded Obama's election to explain why Reaganism is limited/wanting in important respects. The old ways have not been discredited for enough people. Which means a fierce constituency mobilized to block any change exists and a lot of voters in the middle by default won't, deep down, make a leap for something new. Because what has existed still can plausibly be argued to work.

I thought the financial/real estate breakdown of 2007-08 would shift people, but I don't think it has. In the language of war, the opposition has not been totally defeated and discredited. As such, I don't think meaningful structural reform regarding the economy is likely.

Obama's victory was thus, IMO, a demographic/cultural victory like Nixon's in 1968. Not an ideological victory like Reagan's was in 1980 (or perhaps even more pointedly, Thatcher's in 1979)

Ben Piggot

Geoff Robinson said...

From an Australian perspective it's crucial to get something through Congress, even if its unimpressive it will demonstrate that Congress can actually do something, and when the sky doesn't fall down the right will look crazy.Everything vindicates Skocpol's argument that the right benefits by political dysfunction.

EdHeath said...

I think that some elections are repudiations of the mistakes of the previous administration, and some have more ideological roots. I think Nixon's 1968 election was a reaction as much as anything to LBJ's own backing away from the war. I think Jimmy Carter's election was a reaction to the meltdown of Nixon. And I think Obama’s election, with 52.8% of the vote, was a reaction to the financial meltdown last year, along with the hardcore of remaining Democratic voters reacting to all things Republican.

I think that Regan’s election in 1980 was an ideological retrenchment away from the leftward widespread cultural shift of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, a shift many Americans were uncomfortable with, even as it was forced on them by the media and the economy. I think the ‘70’s in particular were something of an aberration, a left-leaning blip that challenged our natural puritanical, slightly sexist and racist bent (and eventually lost). I don’t think that Obama’s election changed that at all either. I think Obama did have support among young people (who have since been distracted) and that sustained him until his natural talent could overshadow first (Hillary) Clinton and then McCain. Obama was, for many, I think, simply the Democratic candidate in a year when the economy, under a Republican, ad imploded and when the follow-up Republican candidate turned out (in the debates) to be an angry yet doddering old man. Yet many voters showed their distaste for a black man, and Obama only won by 52.8%. If McCain could have showed some charm, he would probably be President now.

That 52.8/46% seems like it is close to the breakdown of feelings about healthcare. A solid majority wants something, perhaps a bare majority actually likes the one or more of the plans in Congress now, and a small-ish, but vocal and apparently nationwide minority wants to convince the rest of us that there will armed rebellion if healthcare reform passes and is signed by *that man*.

I agree with Obama’s logic that we need to do something about health care costs now (we needed to fifteen years ago). But we have a poor record of addressing long term issues. There is Social Security, dependence on oil (foreign or otherwise), climate change; so many issues we should have addressed fifteen years ago when instead we were happy to get rich on the back of the (chimerical) internet. So I will not be surprised if Obama loses this battle.

Anonymous said...


I disagree. I think you underrate the degree to which Obama's victory had historic implications.

Basically, think of it this way. A northern, big city liberal who was black and had a very foreign sounding name won 53% of the vote. That's the highest total a Democrat has received since LBJ.

Another way of thinking about it. Obama won only 43% of the white vote. But still won a comfortable victory. If this election was held in 1988 and the racial/ethnic percentages were the same, Obama would have lost.

I do agree with you about Reagan's election. However, I disagree with your characterization of that election and the ideological realignment it ushered as being a cultural reaction to the the 60s and 70s. It was much more a reaction to "big government" and secondarily (or perhaps primarily) about restoring American "greatness"/patriotism.

The reaction to cultural change occurred with Wallace/Nixon and the "silent majority" during the late 60s. Reagan benefitted from this realignment, but he wasn't its cause. Thats what I mean when I describe 68 as a political realignment but not an ideological realignment. 08 was, IMO, a political realignment, but it wasn't an ideological realignment. And I will stand by this even if the GOP makes gains in '10, which I think they will. The symbolism of Obama, the size of his victory, and the nature of his coalition together make his election much more significant than Clinton's in '92 or Carter '80.

Scott said...


I agree. Obama only won b/c people were sick of Bush and his policies in the same way people were sick of Clinton when Gore ran. It is poor judgment to read more in his victory than that. Sadly though many Dems seem to think they have a mandate to remake this county over in their socialist image.

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