09/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vital Lessons from the Health Reform Wars

Let me start with a caveat: I've consistently believed that a) President Obama will end up signing a health reform bill; and b) the punditocracy will give him credit for pushing it through, thus shoring up his sagging poll numbers.

The crucial question is whether it ends up being a good bill.

That said, this has been a terrible summer for Democrats. Here are seven key takeaways from the ongoing health care debacle:

1. The big banker bailout has been far more damaging than the White House can imagine.

A month ago, I wrote about the obscenity of Goldman Sachs' record bonuses: "What does it say that the toil and sweat of the first responders who willingly streamed into the burning towers is used to enrich people who "earn" more in a week than a nurse or teacher makes in a year? What does it say that Iranians can march by the millions, put life and limb on the line, while Americans sit meekly by as a financial colossus with tentacles deep into the federal government enriches itself beyond our imagination on the backs of the poor and struggling?"

Paul Krugman discusses the ramifications: "I don't know if administration officials realize just how much damage they've done themselves with their kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry, just how badly the spectacle of government supported institutions paying giant bonuses is playing." Glenn Greenwald adds: "the White House loyally serve[d] the interests of the banking industry that caused the financial crisis (we don't want to make enemies out of Goldman Sachs or turn investment bankers into GOP funders)."

In a nutshell: trust is much harder to build for a health care transformation when Americans see Democrats standing by as ultra-wealthy bankers get ultra-wealthier -- on their backs.

2. The anti-Bush moment has passed, and with it a huge political opportunity.

Carnage in Iraq; confirmation from Tom Ridge that terror alerts were used for political purposes; feuding between Cheney and Bush .... nobody gives a damn. Obama was elected to be the anti-Bush, but the anti-Bush moment has passed. A couple of weeks ago, I argued that "the fact that Democrats are floundering on health reform and Obama's poll numbers are dropping is no coincidence. It's a giant turn-off to voters for Democrats to have spent eight long years railing against Bush, then turning around and copying some of his worst traits."

Greenwald elaborates: "The central pledges of the Obama campaign were less about specific policy positions and much more about changing the way Washington works -- to liberate political outcomes from the dictates of corporate interests; to ensure vast new levels of transparency in government; to separate our national security and terrorism approaches from the politics of fear. With some mild exceptions, those have been repeatedly violated. Negotiating his health care reform plan in total secrecy and converting it into a gigantic gift to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries -- which is exactly what a plan with (1) mandates, (2) no public option and (3) a ban on bulk negotiations for drug prices would be -- would constitute yet another core violation of those commitments, yet another bolstering (a major one) of the very power dynamic he vowed to subvert."

3. Rumors of the GOP's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Although it's pretty early to be making 2010 prognostications, there's no doubt that hopes of a permanent Democratic majority have collapsed far more quickly than Karl Rove's similar plans for the GOP. Obama's polls will swing all over the place in the coming months and years, but judging from how the new administration has come out of the gate, Obama could easily be a one-term president, and even Robert Gibbs is being forced to talk about that scenario.

With respect to Congress, Charlie Cook has bad news: "Many veteran Congressional election watchers, including Democratic ones, report an eerie sense of déjà vu, with a consensus forming that the chances of Democratic losses going higher than 20 seats is just as good as the chances of Democratic losses going lower than 20 seats. A new Gallup poll that shows Congress' job disapproval at 70 percent among independents should provide little solace to Democrats. In the same poll, Congressional approval among independents is at 22 percent, with 31 percent approving overall, and 62 percent disapproving."

4. Obama's campaign machine is not fungible.

If I had a nickel for every time a reporter wrote that Obama was finally firing up his 'online army' I'd be rich. As I stated last week, "Obama's much-talked about online army of 13 million people doesn't exist. At least not in the mobilized, battle-ready and efficient form we saw during the campaign. Between natural attrition rates and typical open (and conversion) rates, that 13 million is closer to a tenth the number who actually read the emails and far fewer who take concrete actions. The singular focus of a presidential race is absent in a multi-faceted legislative fight. Mobilizing an online army on the scale of a presidential campaign is significantly more difficult in these circumstances, if not impossible."

A persistent point I've made since January is that the Obama team is in perpetual campaign mode, but that they are operating in a completely different environment, where campaign tactics can be useless, and even harmful. On a related note, Dibgy addresses the dated approach favored by the White House: "Rahm Emanuel believes that the key to Democratic success is a coalition in which Blue Dogs and corporate lackeys mitigate progressive change on behalf of the moneyed interests which he believes the political system must serve. Regardless of his malevolent view of how the political system should work, on a political level, I think he's living in the past. The political system is no longer organized around two parties with a faction of either moderates or racists in the middle who determine the consensus. The two parties have neatly broken down on ideological and even geographical lines and issues have to be fought out in the open on partisan grounds. Turning over the country to Max Baucus and Charles Grassley is undemocratic and unmanageable and it's not going to hold."

5. The old media machine is alive and well.

Although the online commentariat have tremendous (under-acknowledged) power to shape the national debate, the health care debacle is a frightening illustration of the old rightwing noise machine's potency: "Setting aside strategic errors by the Democrats (and there have been several in this fight), just look at how reform opponents have outgunned the White House using town halls, cable news, newspaper editorials, Freepers, Drudge, talk radio and chain emails. If I close my eyes, I'm transported back to my days on the Kerry campaign and the summer of Swift Boats, Purple Heart Band-Aids and rightwing attack machine antics. It's as though a half decade of technological advances disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Forget Facebook and Twitter, it's all about Fox and MSNBC and CNN replaying images of angry protesters at town hall meetings railing against 'government takeovers.' It's about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spreading fear and fury. It's about anonymous emails zipping across the country, distorting the facts and sowing confusion. It's about rightwing pundits setting the terms of the debate by foisting radical ideas on the public. Paradoxically, the attempts by Democrats to counter all this by sending emails to Obama's list and creating campaign-style fact-checking websites seem almost quaint by comparison."

Eric Boehlert adds: "the entire mini-mob crusade was built around the GOP's age-old media strategy--right-wing radio, Drudge and Fox News. i.e. It's 'Old Media.' In terms of new technology, the mini-mobs are very 1990's."

6. The national debate is still conducted on the right's terms.

That's the title of a post I wrote last week, in which I contended that, "the national discourse (if you can call it that) could very well have been about the benefits of a single-payer system, but aside from a sham vote to appease progressives, single-payer is considered anathema in the media and political establishment and instead Democrats are scrambling to respond to a barrage of rightwing talking points. ...

When the left mocks 'birthers' and 'teabaggers' and 'death panels', we should keep in mind that there is a larger and more sinister strategic imperative in play, namely, to move the debate to the far right. Granted, it may not be a conscious strategy on the part of ordinary Americans voicing their fears about "government takeovers" and "socialism." For these citizens, the desire to "take their country back" stems from genuine emotions and beliefs, albeit emotions and beliefs carefully stoked by a still potent rightwing message machine using think-tank-crafted soundbites. Put more bluntly, a lot of these protesters really believe what they're saying. What's distressing (and deplorable) is how wrong-headed some of it is. And what's disgusting is when it devolves into racism and xenophobia."

7. We are a soundbite democracy and the right has better soundbites.

All credit due to the Obama campaign for using simple powerful words like 'hope' and 'change' in their successful White House bid. But let's face it, now that we're dealing with down and dirty policy fights, we're seeing the brutal effectiveness of conservative messaging. 'Government takeovers' and 'socialized medicine' and 'death panels' infiltrate and infect the public dialogue, and no amount of fact-checking can change that. And it's too late to start developing our own soundbites on the health care debate, since these things take years to create, activate and deploy.

In conclusion, in this summer of Nazi symbols and gun-toting protesters, terrified citizens parroting rightwing soundbites, chaotic town halls and fear-mongering radio nuts, an avalanche of half-truths and misconceptions flooding the airwaves, we're learning some sobering political lessons. Hopefully Democrats will take heed and adapt, but I have my doubts. Strangely enough, the remedy for what ails Democrats isn't all that complicated:

Lay out solid goals based on core progressive values; govern with confidence but not overconfidence; confront opponents with strength but also with decency; make fairness and justice indomitable pillars of policy. Sure it's idealistic. But as I've said repeatedly: it's good politics, too.