With the Democrats running the show, the Republican mole “Shallow Throat,” now a high-priced political consultant, is no longer positioned inside the government, but still has a wide network of administration and party contacts, especially in the GOP. So using our usual code, I asked for a meeting to get Shallow Throat’s take on what is going on in Washington a little more than a year after the new president was inaugurated.
As we walked on a shade-covered path near Bethesda, I said: “You know, the same pattern tends to repeat itself when a non-insider becomes president, such as a governor or one-term senator: As new occupants of the White House, they tend to get rolled by the beltway elites until they figure out how things work and how they want to combat that system to make it work for them. It looks like Obama and his advisors have finally started to figure it out, after a pretty rocky and uncertain first year.”
“If you’re referring to the health-care bill,” said Shallow Throat, “one can observe a lot from Obama’s trajectory over the past 14 months. Unfortunately, being a frightened centrist, he felt he needed ‘cover’. And so he tried for much too long — maybe six to eight months too long — to lure some Republicans to his side. He refused to admit, until nearly too late, that they’d already placed all their chips on taking him down, breaking him, and nothing he could do or say to them would yield him what he wanted.
“Obama also took a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook, and gave away the store before the congressional battle even began. In order to get something, anything, resembling serious reform, Obama made his secret deals with Big Pharma, the hospitals, the insurance companies, and so on. The whole health-care food chain was bought off to either gain their support or to mute their criticisms. They will continue to rake in humongous amounts of profit under the new system, so they’re not all that unhappy.”
The Potomac Virus
“Why did Obama feel he needed to do that, especially so early?” I asked. “For example, he took the ‘public option’ off the table while he was still leading on his base for many months that he was all for it. That took the heart out of the competitive aspect of the bill since there would be no incentive for insurance companies to reduce their rates. And, I can tell you from me and my friends that his sell-out on the public option took our hearts out of wanting to be active in supporting this badly watered-down and compromised bill.”
Shallow Throat gave me The Look I’ve come to know so well, the one that suggests conversation with a political numbskull. “Look, Bernie, when Obama entered the White House in January 2009, he realized he had been presented with an economy on the brink of catastrophe. (There was even some suspicion that the disaster might have been deliberate.) The whole thing could slide over the cliff. Philosophically he may not have wanted to, but he found himself with no wiggle room except to continue the Bush bailout policies and to appoint experts complicit in the economic meltdown. This was a bad sign of his willingness to go along to get along. He was getting suctioned into the Beltway Bubble, was catching the Potomac disease. Make no waves, keep the power brokers on your side, you might need them on other issues later.
“To Obama and his campaign advisors facing this formidable political power leviathan in Washington, it looked as if they could never get a health-care plan of any sweep. Obama had been hailed as a potential ‘transformational president” and here he was bogged down with CheneyBush economic policies and foreign policy disasters. On top of that, the Republicans and their even-further-right allies were attacking every day on every thing he said, everything he did, and mostly attacking on things he didn’t say or do — just lies and hyperbole and destructive spin.”
Selling Out the “Public Option”
“So, put yourself in his place, thinking you might never get a second term and a chance to climb out from the disaster pit your predecessor left you in unless you were able to accomplish at least one major item on your agenda. Health care was that do-or-die item, at least a chance to get the controversial issue of national health-care reform inside the tent of respectability, which would provide a place to build from in future years.
“Obama and his main advisers (read: Rahm) believed the public would never accept single-payer or public option. This was a bad misreading of the public mood, as either of those, especially the latter, could have been sold had they had the courage and will to do so. Instead, Obama chose to make his shadow deals with the health-care oligarchs, keep those secret arrangements out of the conversation, and get what he could get. The result is the jerry-rigged bill that is now the law of the land, achieved (just barely) at a very high price.”
I responded: “Are you saying that Obama is really far more progressive than we think but was reined in by Rahm and the others? That he otherwise would have been much more willing to take on the forces of true power in D.C. and the country? I sincerely doubt it; he’s a creature of those very forces.”
“No,” said Shallow Throat. “What I am saying is that you and your liberal friends would have done well to remember that Obama is not an ideologue and never has been. He’s a pragmatist. He’ll sacrifice a lot, compromise a lot, give his base the back of his hand, to get something vaguely in the direction he’d like to go. The ultimate incrementalist. That’s the irony of the GOP screaming that his health-care reform bill is ‘socialist’ and ‘tyrannical”‘ and ‘Nazicommie.” It’s the usual weak Obama middle-of-the-road mish-mash. What terrifies the GOP leaders is that, as the program unfolds, everyone will see how non-threatening it is and turn on the Republicans for lying to them and taking them down the road to defeat and irrelevance.”
GOP Continues the Big-Pot Gamble
“One would think that maybe the GOP leaders would have learned to bend just a little bit as a result of this major defeat,” I said, “but for whatever reason, they’ve decided to stagger on in the same self-defeating mode.”
“You gotta think like they think, Bernie,” said Shallow Throat, “not how you’d like them to think. So they’ve got no positive program, no ideas the public really wants to accept; that’s all true. But they also came just inches away from breaking Obama and the Democrats with their policy of obstructionism, demagoguery, outright lies, stirring up the militias and Tea Party rabble. Why shouldn’t they go all in, to use the betting terminology?
“In addition, they’re anticipating huge gains in the November election, maybe even taking over the House again. Why shouldn’t they just continue doing what they’re doing?: More crazy talk from their shock troops (Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, Hannity, Coulter, Savage, Malkin, Bachman, et al.) More demagoguery from the Congressional Hard Rightists. More incitement of the militias and Tea Party types, you never know what might happen.
“Besides, you’re missing the point. If you can’t assume power until sometime down the line, you mess up the other guy’s game so that he can’t govern. Remember? The Republicans did that to Bill Clinton; if they had been lucky enough to convict him in the Senate, great. But by impeaching him they had accomplished their main goal of breaking whatever momentum Clinton had and made sure he couldn’t be an effective president. Obama is the current target. Mess him up, cripple his programs, refuse his nominees, drown him in major and petty complaints and smears, take him to court, whatever. If and when he falters, push him into the mud and make sure he stays there.”
Riding the Extremist Tiger
“And is that where he was supposed to be,” I asked, “as a result of his anticipated defeat on health-care reform?”
“Exactly,” said Shallow Throat. “That was to be the first foundational stone to be removed; the rest would follow. Now I have no idea if his health-care reforms and savings will pan out over time — my guess is that many of them won’t. But that wasn’t the point. It was the spear thrown into the Obama/Democratic gears that was at issue. Even you disgruntled, angry lefties eventually came around and supported the bill; you finally saw that health-care reform had become the central battleground and that if the Dems lost on this one issue, you all would have lost a lot more than that. Besides, the principle of a right to decent health-care is now inside the tent of normal politics, and more progressive changes can be made over the years.
“Provided, that is, you survive, and can figure out a way to properly frame the extremist Republican shitstorm that’s coming your way. And whether and when the Republicans get eaten by the violent, dangerous tiger they’re riding that they’ve called into existence.”
And with that, Shallow Throat ran out of the park, leaving me there pondering what I think was Good News mixed in with some Very Bad.
Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner