Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein thinks President Obama needs to show some leadership. And -- of course -- Obama must do so by being a "centrist." That's a happy thought that borders on being omnipresent among elite media assessments of politicians, but things tend to break down when they begin explaining what it actually means. And Pearlstein is no different.
Pearlstein kicks things off:
The firm ground that he needs to stake out and hold is not the left-liberal ground, but more of a radical centrist ground. And the reason for that is political: it is what the American public at this moment in time can accept. That's the president's role -- to speak for the whole country. Not one party. Not one region. Not one ideology.
"Radical centrism"? What does that mean, exactly? Unsurprisingly, Pearlstein doesn't say. But things really fall apart when he explains how to get there.
Pearlstein begins to explain:
To govern from the center, for example, means you might have to lose some Democratic votes on the far left on some issues.
But, just a little later:
[O]ne of the things the president could do is you say to a number of reasonable Republicans: Look, we're going to win one way or another. We can win the ugly way and change the parliamentary rules, in which case you get the Democratic versions of these things. Or you can sit with us, tell us the few big things that you really need or that you really want, and I'll see what I can do to accomodate [sic]you if you are willing to help us pass them without having to resort to extrodinary [sic] parliamentary maneuvers. And that's your choice: bills that you would find unacceptable, or legislation that you would find much less unacceptable.
So, Barack Obama should "govern from the center" ... and in order to do so, he should threaten to "change the parliamentary rules" unless the Republicans do what he wants. But is there any chance at all that if Obama* did change parliamentary rules to get things done in the face of Republican intransigence (or even threatened to do so) Steven Pearlstein (or anyone else) would praise him for governing from the center? Of course not.
And all the while, Pearlstein writes of the need to win over "five or six" Senate Republicans, without actually suggesting any way of doing so. (Other than threatening to change the parliamentary rules.) And he accuses the Democrats of shutting Republicans out and "engaging in exactly the kind of exclusionary tactics on most issues that the Republicans had used when they were in the majority" -- which is flatly untrue, and ignores the massive concessions to Republicans in last year's stimulus package and in the health care debate, when liberals repeatedly gave up things they wanted in an unsuccessful effort to win GOP votes. Not to mention the lengthy "Gang of Six" negotiations involving Republican Senators.
Of course, had Pearlstein been accurate about the Democrats' concessions to Republicans, it would be harder for him to harp on the need to do more to win over Republicans, because it would be clear that they have demonstrated no interest in being won over.
* Which really means "Obama and congressional Democrats," since Barack Obama can't change Congress's parliamentary rules.
By insisting on a government-run plan, liberals have played right into the hands of Republicans who aim to defeat any reform by mischaracterizing it as a government takeover.
Here's the thing: If Republicans are going to try to defeat any reform by mischaracterizing it as a government takeover, any reform you offer can be said to play into their hands. Their willingness to mischaracterize what you propose means that it doesn't matter what you actually propose; they'll mischaracterize it as a government takeover regardless.
Pearlstein's argument is blame-the-victim nonsense that is typical of the way the media has approached decades of Republican lies. Sure, they'll say, Republicans and the media distorted Al Gore's comments throughout the 2000 election -- but he shouldn't have given them the opening by being imprecise. Nonsense. People who are willing to lie about you and make things up don't need an opening to do so.
But reporters would rather blame the victim than acknowledge who is really to blame: Politicians who spread falsehoods, and the media who repeat them or do a lousy and ineffectual job of correcting them.
Maybe Pearlstein will understand if I put it this way: By Pearlstein's logic, his column opposing a public plan gives me an opening to point out that he's secretly on the payroll of health insurance companies who oppose a public plan.
Except I just made that up. Why would Pearlstein blame himself for something I made up?
From Steven Pearlstein's August 7 column in The Washington Post:
The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.
There are lots of valid criticisms that can be made against the health reform plans moving through Congress -- I've made a few myself. But there is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie whose only purpose is to scare the public and stop political conversation.
The centerpiece of all the plans is a new health insurance exchange set up by the government where individuals, small businesses and eventually larger businesses will be able to purchase insurance from private insurers at lower rates than are now generally available under rules that require insurers to offer coverage to anyone regardless of health condition. Low-income workers buying insurance through the exchange -- along with their employers -- would be eligible for government subsidies. While the government will take a more active role in regulating the insurance market and increase its spending for health care, that hardly amounts to the kind of government-run system that critics conjure up when they trot out that oh-so-clever line about the Department of Motor Vehicles being in charge of your colonoscopy.
There is still a vigorous debate as to whether one of the insurance options offered through those exchanges would be a government-run insurance company of some sort. There are now less-than-even odds that such a public option will survive in the Senate, while even House leaders have agreed that the public plan won't be able to piggy-back on Medicare. So the probability that a public-run insurance plan is about to drive every private insurer out of business -- the Republican nightmare scenario -- is approximately zero.
By now, you've probably also heard that health reform will cost taxpayers at least a trillion dollars. Another lie.
Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off. Republican leaders are eager to see us fail that test. We need to show them that no matter how many lies they tell or how many scare tactics they concoct, Americans will come together and get this done.