I remember reading an interview with Kevin Smith back in 1997 in which the trench-coat-wearing writer/director/Miramax poster boy admitted that his third film, Chasing Amy, which was getting a lot of positive critical attention at the time, was actually intended to be his second. Figuring there was bound to be backlash against him after the enormous success of his first, low-budget feature, Clerks, Smith decided that, rather than let a film he felt was actually worth something get unfairly torn apart by jealousy and bad press, better to send out a sacrificial lamb to take the hit -- in this case, a movie he didn't care too much about and that no one would ever mistake for a good film that had gotten a bad rap.
And hence Mallrats.
Well, with apologies to anyone who takes politics and high-minded social criticism seriously, I have come to the conclusion that President Obama is taking a similar tack with the public health care option.
I figure it this way: Obama had to know that whatever goodwill he enjoyed during his first few months in office would eventually dry up. That the relative ease he'd experienced in passing the financial bail-out bill in February was a honeymoon victory resulting from unsustainably high poll numbers and a desperate economic environment in which any strong action would be looked on positively by an American public driven to disbelief by Bush's detachment.
Obama's inner-circle also knew that when it came time for the president to call his second big play, the Republicans would waiting in the tall grass for him.
So rather than put health care reform on the table straight and risk getting into an ugly dog-fight over issues he thought were vital (like lower premiums and guaranteed coverage), Obama put the public option out into the world as a sacrifice, a big piece of Democratic red-meat with a slight tang of socialism that he knew would drive the Right crazy.
Then, just when things seemed to be getting irretrievably dark (like, say, early September, after a full month of town hall nonsense), Obama put the word out that he was willing to reach across the aisle, to compromise for the sake of health care reform. By doing this, he suddenly appeared munificent and bi-partisan in an environment of extreme ideological toxicity. Now any Republicans who continued screaming and shouting about the danger the president's health care plan posed to America's social fabric would come off looking petty: They would be representatives of the "party of no," disagreeing just to be disagreeable in a time when insurance premiums kept rising, more and more Americans were losing their coverage and the economy was sinking deeper into the tank.
My friend Eliot Tretter, doctor of geography and apparent closet boxing fan, calls this approach the "rope-a-dope": Obama lays back during the summer and lets the Right Wing have their effigy-burning, name-calling, Hitler-referencing fun and then, just when it looks like the Democrats are getting their heads handed to them, he swoops in with a compromise only a mindless ideologue could truly hate. Suddenly health-care reform looks alive again, naysaying Republicans no longer look like the principled opposition party but rather a bunch of intransigent cranks, and the president comes off looking like a bipartisan rationalist.
So now what, Obama? Now that you've given a couple of speeches and gone on all the Sunday news programs and Late Night With David Letterman and told the American people what your plan is really all about?
Now you have to get some version of health care reform passed (not a perfect bill, of course, but one that speaks to the issues you find most pressing), finding common ground among Democrats both left and centrist while leaving Republicans, both blindly contrarian and powerless, out in the wilderness.
Then you sit back and let people get used to the good that can come from government involvement in the health care industry -- the reduced premiums, the fixed prices, the guaranteed coverage -- never underestimating the American public's capacity to change its ideological tune when it experiences firsthand the benefits of a policy they were once skeptical about.
Remember, when social security was being debated in the 1930s, opponents swore up and down that anyone supporting it was a socialist. Same with Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. And now look: Social Security has become the great untouchable in American politics (just ask George Bush and the Republicans about the virtues of privatization); meanwhile Medicare -- that shining example of government-run "socialized" medicine -- is so sacred that even right-wing town hall crazies carry signs demanding the government stay out of it (and without a hint of irony, too).
(Medicaid, of course, is slightly less sacred to Americans because it benefits only the poor, and if there's one thing the Right is good at, it's screaming about the need for a national Christian morality while totally missing the point of Christianity.)
If this all happens, then you've built up enough political capital and public goodwill that maybe the voters will trust you and your party enough to keep you in power come 2010 and 2012. And then -- after you've been re-elected and after the American people have grown accustomed to the idea of government involvement in health care and seen what it can do for them -- then you spring the public option on them. Because by that point you will have softened them up to the idea.
It's a perfect demonstration of the old adage that politics is the art of the possible, achieved in increments.
If this is all true, if Obama really is "rope-a-doping," and if he manages to pull it off, then he very well may be a political genius, a thinking-man's leader so patient he's willing to bide his time (through one of the darker, more intellectually demeaning months in American history, no less) and suffer all kinds of indignities in order to get what he feels is best for the country. But if it's not true, then Obama is stuck in neutral. A man both without a cause and without a plan. A moral and political lightweight.
And if that's the case, then Eliot Tretter Ph.D. and I are the only political geniuses around. Us and the Republicans. And God help this country if that proves to be true.