When Will They Ever Learn?

One thing is absolutely clear from what has happened over the last week in the health care debate: fundamental change has not come to Washington, D.C.
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With the dizzying twists and turns of these last several days on health care, we still don't know where things will lay once the dust settles after what promises to be a very high drama ending before the August recess. We shouldn't be giving up hope that a good bill can be achieved, because the drama has not played itself out yet, and the August recess period itself -- with the question of whether strong health reform proponents or astroturf defenders of the status quo will win the passion and organizing battle -- will be crucial in deciding this bill's fate. But one thing is absolutely clear from what has happened over the last week: fundamental change has not come to Washington, D.C.

Big business lobbyists, in this case from the health insurance industry, still have more power than the president. The media establishment, for all their lost audience and credibility, still have the ability to drive a negative conventional wisdom story about how change is impossible. And Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, out of a combination of caution and the fear of these aforementioned lobbyists, still don't have the ability to deliver transformational change. The kind of change Barack Obama based his campaign around is, so far, nowhere to be seen.

This inability to change Washington is all the more remarkable given the events of the past few years. George W. Bush simultaneously expanded presidential power and destroyed the Republican Party brand. Democrats won sweeping historical victories two elections in a row. Voters proved they were more open to bigger historical change than anyone would have predicted just a few years ago, electing an African-American son of an immigrant with an African-Muslim name, a candidate who beat the strongly favored establishment candidate of his party by running a campaign calling for big change. The economy collapsed in a more dramatic fashion than in any way in American history except for the Great Depression.

You would have thought that with all that dramatic change and upheaval going on in such a short time, that Democrats would have been able to be bigger and bolder in their thinking. But they seem to be stuck in the business-as-usual ways of doing things. The strangest thing is that, for all the boldness of at least some of Obama's proposals such as health care reform, the day to day legislative tactics seem to reinforce the business-as-usual thinking on Capitol Hill: the apparent unwillingness to twist the arms of the Blue Dogs in the House, the empowering of the uber-cautious Max Baucus in the Senate.

Could we still get the kind of big change Obama promised? Anything is possible. Both FDR and Lincoln moved to the left and accomplished their best and biggest changes later in their presidencies, and the pace of change picked up in the mid-1960s after JFK had struggled early in the decade. And more big events could certainly shake things up. But, while I am normally more of an optimist than many people about what is possible, I fear the worst if health care reform becomes whittled down to nothing very substantial, or even fails entirely. If there is an iron law in politics, it is this: winning makes you more powerful and confident, and losing makes you weaker.

If the insurance industry wins on health care reform by beating Obama soundly on bigger, more transformative change, it will strengthen and embolden every other big special interest. The energy companies on climate change, the big banks on financial reform, and every other special interest lobbyist Obama has said he would tame will be laughing at the failure of bigger health reform, secure in their knowledge that nothing has changed in Washington, D.C. And as the economy sputters along and nothing has really changed that would help regular people, conservative Republicans will be laughing their way to the next election. There is still time to turn the ship in a new direction, but right now it is looking more and more like we're heading straight into a big iceberg.

There's an old folk song made popular by Peter, Paul, and Mary called "When Will They Ever Learn?" Right now, that feels like the operative question for today's Democratic Party.

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