08/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Crazy Pragmatism

In 2003, Barack Obama told attendees at an AFL-CIO conference, "I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer, universal health care system." Yet in his weekly You Tube address on July 19, now-President Obama said, "I don't believe that government can or should run health care." And then, at his AARP town-hall appearance on Tuesday, he assured his audience that no "bureaucratic law in Washington" would interfere in their private health care decisions, and that "nobody is talking about...a Canadian-style plan." This is quintessential modern Democratic pragmatism: adopting the language of the opposition, preempting criticism by ceding your position, forfeiting a battle in order to win the larger war. But these are tactics that, because they give implicit credence to irrational nonsense, turn every fight into a war that can never be won.

The insidious irony of the pragmatism favored by Obama and Rahm Emmanuel is that it legitimizes a delusional worldview and makes practical goals more difficult to achieve. This supposedly tough-minded style of politics is all about acquiescence, to a conservative culture that has been "non-reality-based" (as a Bush administration official famously described it to Ron Suskind) for thirty years. And when you buy a penny's worth of delusion you're in for a pound, so the liberals who have been propping up dangerous conservative fantasies in the name of pragmatism are now mired in a quicksand of philosophical insanity, where the more they struggle, the deeper they sink. It is simply not possible to adopt code words like, say, "personal responsibility" for three decades and then meaningfully address, for instance, the health care needs of the poor. It's not possible to warn people about "bureaucrats in Washington," and hope to garner broad support for large-scale government initiatives. Yet the Obama administration continues to counterproductively invest much of its energies in trying to make conservatives happy.

President Obama's former personal physician, Dr. David Scheiner, is not impressed by the President's health care legislation, and he lays the blame for its weaknesses squarely where it belongs. Scheiner told the Huffington Post on Tuesday that, "(The President's) pragmatism is what is overwhelming him. I think he's afraid that he can't get anything through if he doesn't go through this incredibly compromised program." The pragmatism Scheiner referred to has of course been the guiding light of Democratic politics for a long time. It was the de-facto motto of the Clinton administration and its so-called "centrist" supporters, both in congress and in groups like the Democratic Leadership Council.

But this isn't 1992, and the exit polls from last year's election showed very clearly that it was a rejection of the way conservative Republicans and "pragmatic" Democrats have been doing things for thirty years. Yet the Obama administration has ignored that mandate, and the power of a 60-40 Democratic Senate majority to pursue compromises with Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats that severely weakened the stimulus bill and are now eviscerating health care reform.

Emmanuel, in praising the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's efforts on behalf of the watered-down stimulus bill, said to Time Magazine, "(Pelosi) is fundamentally a pragmatic, put points on the board, get wins. I think the question -- and I've just always I get asked, you know, left vs. center, etc. The question isn't really a philosophical one of left vs. center. The question is are we moving forward or backwards?"

This was high praise from Emmanuel, an articulation of his deep faith in "the art of the possible." But for every momentary, incremental, Clintonite step "forward" gained by Emmanuel's m.o., the country takes two steps backward. The Obama administration may get a health care bill passed, but because it has let conservatives define the debate, it will be a bill that is written in the dark, in willful, near-lunatic denial of reality.

Americans live sicker, die younger and pay more for health care than the citizens of every other industrialized country on Earth. Yet conservatives have at least half the country believing that the heath care system that all those countries employ, a system paid for by everyone and benefiting everyone, is "socialist" and therefore evil (just like our "socialist" police departments, fire departments, libraries, highway system, military, postal service, schools, Veteran's Administration, Medicare, etc.)

Liberals are never going to win anything meaningful through compromise with a conservative movement that is grounded in that kind of paranoid fantasy. Each compromise lends more credence to a dissociative world-view, a hodgepodge of "positions" that aren't positions at all but lunging expressions of an incoherent, reactionary psychology that disdains the very idea of principled governance. To take the positions of modern conservatives seriously is to buy into the idea that positions should never be seriously taken. With its consistent, reflexive disdain for science, education, art, travel, minorities, empathy and the details of public policy, modern conservatism is less an ideology than a pathology, animated not by political idealism but resentment, tribalism and fear.

You can't debate policy with people who don't believe in policy. You can't govern with people who hate government. Internal Republican and Blue Dog memos and e-mails have revealed that many conservatives not only have no intention of negotiating in good faith for health care reform, but are determined to do everything possible to slow or derail the President's agenda.

Why did Obama never explain to the country the clear, indisputable superiority of a single payer health care system, or at least make a case for the long-term benefits of a strong public option, even one that requires deficit spending? Why has he instead thrown conservatives a bone by promising a health care bill that "won't add a penny to the deficit" (meaning, in practical terms, one with an under-funded or non-existent public option)? That gesture is an implicit endorsement of the premises that got us into this crisis in the first place. It buys into, for instance, the belief that government spending on anything other than the military is bad. It tacitly assumes that government bureaucrats do their jobs less well than the ones who work for Kaiser Permanente, Pfizer and Citigroup.

The endorsement of those assumptions by a Democratic President would be bad enough if they were the foundation of a coherent, fact-based conservative philosophy. But conservatives only adopt those assumptions when they're convenient. Republicans and Blue Dogs weren't worried about deficits when they showered the rich with trillions of dollars in tax breaks, while simultaneously waging two wars. Yet the Obama administration is treating the newfound Republican concern with frugality as an honest one, by making gestures that not only don't bring us any closer to the President's goals, but in fact retard progress.

The historical list of self-contradictory conservative positions is virtually infinite, from the simultaneous Republican support for, and antipathy towards, government intrusion into the personal lives of American citizens, to the simultaneous "rejection" and acceptance by several GOP governors of millions of dollars in Federal stimulus money. And the list of paranoid fantasies is just as long, from the Red Scare to the "missile gap", to WMD, "the homosexual agenda," and "terrorist fist-jabs;" from "welfare queens," to black helicopters, illegal immigrants, and, of course, our "socialist," "fascist", "racist" President.

It's almost a waste of breath for liberals to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy or fear mongering -- when we do we play right into the conservative caricature of us as lily-livered, egg-headed members of the "reality-based community." Conservatives sneer at the very idea of well-thought-out positions. They see well-articulated arguments as evidence of effeminate elitism. So we liberals temper our criticisms and couch them in the language of macho, pseudo-populism, and even adopt the postures of modern conservatism, but by doing so we accept many, if not all, of the fantastical premises underlying its worldview. The Obama administration should ignore the irrelevant, permanently obstructionist, paranoid Republican-Blue Dog minority in Congress and articulate a vigorous, unapologetic expression of clear-headed, progressive moral values. That's what they were elected to do. The country won't be able to overcome its very real problems as long as it is fighting imaginary enemies. To take most modern conservative "positions" seriously is not merely to give ground, it is to ratify delusions that make policy goals like meaningful health care reform impossible.