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Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

Posted: March 22, 2010 02:25 PM

The Moment

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President Obama will savor, and rightly so, his extraordinary achievement in enacting fundamental health care reform. He has done something few thought possible, and he may well have revived the enormous faith that his election gave millions. But we should not miss the lesson in this fight. Nor the opportunity to rally this rebounded presidency to its real potential for reform.

However good, however essential, however transformative this health care bill may be, we should not mistake success here as a sign that Washington has been cured. Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald reminded us over the weekend -- in an essay that should be every reformer's required reading -- success on this bill is no justification for:

claiming that it represents a change in the way Washington works and a fulfillment of Obama's campaign pledges.  The way this bill has been shaped is the ultimate expression -- and bolstering -- of how Washington has long worked.  One can find reasonable excuses for why it had to be done that way, but one cannot reasonably deny that it was.

Obama's victory was achieved because his team played the old game brilliantly. Staffed with the very best from the league of conventional politics, his team bought off PhRMA (with the promise not to use market forces to force market prices for prescription drugs), and the insurance industry (with the promise (and in this moment of celebration, let's ignore the duplicity in this) that they would face no new competition from a public option), so that by the end, as Greenwald puts it, the administration succeeded in "bribing and accommodating them to such an extreme degree that they ended up affirmatively supporting a bill that lavishes them with massive benefits." Obama didn't "push[] back on the undue influence of special interests," as he said today. He bought them off. And the price he paid should make us all wonder: how much reform can this administration -- and this Nation -- afford?

For let us not forget: for a president overwhelmingly elected just a year ago, with a super majority in both the House and Senate, this has been a bizarrely difficult fight. This wasn't a third-string issue for Obama. It was the premier issue on the this President's agenda. And regardless of the foxmyths that spin with public opinion polls, it wasn't as if America didn't vote with a clear demand for health care reform. Yet the fight for this first major battle of this administration practically killed the administration, and this near death experience should finally waken this President from his conventional-politics stupor, and remind him of the reformer he originally was.

It was two years ago precisely that candidate Obama finally tuned perfectly the frame which he claimed hung around his campaign -- and which distinguished him from the Democrats' presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. As he said on the eave of the Pennsylvania primary, echoing a theme that had been growing over the prior 16 months,

For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, the system has been rigged against everyday Americans by the lobbyists that Wall Street uses to get its way.

Think about it. The top mortgage lenders spend $185 million lobbying Congress, and we wonder why Washington looked the other way when they were tricking families into buying homes they couldn't afford. Drug and insurance companies spend $1 billion on lobbying, and we're surprised that our health care premiums, and co-pays, and the cost of prescription drugs goes up year after year after year. The big oil companies play the same game, and we wonder how they're making record profits at a time when you're paying close to $4 a gallon for gas.

The system is broken ....

I know there's been some talk about Rocky Balboa over the last couple days. And we all love Rocky. But Rocky was fiction. And so is the idea that someone can fight for working people and at the same time, embrace the broken system Washington, where corporate lobbyists use their clout to shape laws to their liking.

We need to challenge the system on behalf of America's workers. And if we're not willing to take up that fight, then real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans -- will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.

This is an administration with high hopes. They are the hopes of America. Obama ran, as an angry email from inside the campaign during the campaign told me "on a platform of universal health care, ending the iraq war, a massive cap and trade system, 18 billion in new money for education, a revamping of the tax code to make it more progressive, a restoration of our civil liberties and enforcement of our anti-discrimination laws, a doubling of foreign aid, a huge expansion of national service tied to making college more affordable, tightening regulation in the financial markets, an unprecedented set of ethics and transparency rules governing the white house." But how much, at this pace, will we get?

The lesson of the health care struggle is not that Republicans are evil. The lesson is the one candidate Obama taught us again and again. That "unless we're willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change." Republicans were just the sock-puppets for that clout this time around, aided by key swing Democrats. And a campaign waged against these sock-puppets will be a useless campaign waged against ½ of America.

Rather than waging that partisan fight, this is the moment to challenge that "broken system." Americans are disgusted by the story of this reform, however much they will come to love the health care it produced. They don't need to be convinced that the "clout" in DC over this past year came not from votes in an election, but from dollars these lobbyists will deliver to a Congress still addicted to campaign cash.

Remind us again, Mr. President, about that "clout." Focus us again on the "fight" that we must "take up." And then take up that fight. That was "the reason," you told us, that you were "running for President [ -- ] to challenge that system." So challenge it now. And give us all the reason to fight to make sure you have 7 more years to deliver on the promises that you made.

 
 
 

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