Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Health Care: The Definition of Success is Failure

The political news streaming out of Washington, at least as reported by the major outlets, already casts a large, ominous shadow promising nothing but inevitable disappointment and tension headaches. By strong implication, the ultimate effect produced no matter what health care bill is passed by both chambers and then signed into law will be that of bitterest disappointment. The irony, however, is that no matter the outcome, whatever results from negotiation and finds its way onto President Obama's desk will be deemed either insufficient or detrimental in the minds of both liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike. I suppose I was of the silly opinion that success had many fathers while failure was an orphan. That a bill so desperately needed could be so reviled, rather than revered upon enactment, (and, need I mention, years before it will even be fully implemented and tested for effectiveness) speaks to how we seem to judge winning and losing these days.

As Paul Simon wrote,

Laugh about it
Shout about it,
When you've got to choose,
Every way you look at it, you lose.

Regardless of one's political allegiance, the Health Care Reform bill will be rightly deemed beneficial or detrimental when it is more or less fully integrated into the existing system. It is at that point, which might be as long as five whole years from now that we will be able to make a credible judgment for ourselves as to whether or not it works. Until then, we are merely gaming on probabilities and resorting to that eternal bane of every cagey politician: speculating about hypotheticals. Although hammering out the intent of the bill is highly necessary, our fiercest criticisms should be saved for much later down the road. My thoughts now pivot to the words of the Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who, when discussing his opinion as to the root cause of that divisive conflict, stated,

"We failed to do the thing we have a true genius for, compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising but it’s the basis of our democracy, our government is founded on it; it failed.”

To highlight another current issue, some are already pronouncing the stimulus package either an outright failure or a disappointment, but the truth of the matter is that its impact is simply not as bombastic and instantly transformative as many of us were expecting. A vast majority of the funds have not yet even been dispersed or spent and many others are tied up in bureaucratic red tape. The lesson to be learned is that government works very slowly, it is heavily indebted to the status quo, and that no matter what promises of change are made, one must work within the established parameters of the system. This does not mean, however, that in seeking massive reform that we had unrealistic expectations going into it. Ideals are the only way that anything gets formulated and brought to the floor.

Change will come to Washington, but the pace is not proportional to our anticipation of it. We live in a lightning-quick, impulsive, short-attention span world fed by media but this is absolutely nothing like the world in which our elected representatives dwell. Most people I know find C-SPAN to be an effective anti-insomnia cure and not edge-of-one's-seat entertainment. One of my friends chose to study international politics rather than American politics because in other countries, one was apt to see scenes of excitement and upheaval on a frequent basis: coup d'etats, violence in the streets, huge rallies, transparent espionage, and moments of high drama. In recent memory, with the notable exception of the 1960's, one rarely observes such things here, and even then the unrest didn't reach the fevered pitch of say, the Prague Spring. By contrast, we are indebted to the example of our English forebearers whose one and only revolution produced a short-term attempt at Parliamentary democracy, an equally short-lived de facto military dictatorship, and then a prompt re-establishment of the monarchy, albeit with a few democratic concessions granted to English citizens. Our own revolution did not, quite unlike the French, take on a radical component that attempted to sweep aside almost all established conventions in the process.

Some are quick to pronounce Americans as either center-right or center-left, but I think center by itself would suffice. Most people, if asked, would probably identify themselves as moderate. We are a centrist nation, by in large, and one which looks upon both unabashed liberal strains and conservative strains with a great degree of suspicion. Our fear of radicalism and/or reactionary elements is hardwired into our DNA. Most Americans are not inclined to march in the streets or to take on activist roles. Being left alone to their own devices might be the attitude of a vast majority. Regarding health care, what will probably be signed into law will be a slightly left-leaning proposal that contains concessionary measures to moderates while preserving a few key demands of liberals. Love it or hate it, this is just how Democracy functions within a pluralistic society. When Mussolini took control of Italy as a dictator, the saying goes, the trains ran on time like never before, but then again, the barrel of a gun has a persuasive power that an attack ad never does.

Lest one think otherwise, I don't want to seem as though I'm happy with accepting crumbs when promised a lavish dinner. Certain elements of the House bill really trouble me, particularly the anti-abortion amendment tacked onto it as a means of placating anti-choice legislators. Still, the place for changing minds and disseminating ideological stances is ours, not theirs. The role of the politician is, as stated, to best represent the beliefs of his/her constituency. If our stated duty is enlightening and educating the ignorant, then we might take this huge flap over health care as a reference point of where we need to allocate our resources and the strategies we propose to use to accomplish it. We are not immune to the need for reform, either, and though we might make a living off of rocking other peoples' boats, we need someone to rock our own every so often, too.

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