Watching the centrist Democrats in Congress create more and more reasons why health care can't be fixed, I've been struck by a disquieting thought: Suppose our collective lack of response to Hurricane Katrina was the new normal in America. Suppose we can no longer address the major challenges confronting the nation. Suppose America is now the world's leading can't-do country.
Every other nation with an advanced economy long ago secured universal health care for its citizens — an achievement that the United States alone finds beyond the capacities of mortal man. It wasn't ever thus. Time was when Democratic Congresses enacted Social Security and Medicare over the opposition of powerful interests and Republican ideologues. In fact, our government used to actually pave roads, build bridges and allow for secure retirements by levying taxes on those who could afford to pay them.
To today's centrist Democrats, this has become a distant memory, a history lesson they cannot grasp. The notion that actual individuals might have to pay to secure the national interest appalls them. In the House, the Blue Dogs doggedly oppose proposals to fund universal coverage by taxing the wealthiest 1 percent of the nation's households. Their deference to wealth is not to be trifled with.
Centrist Democrats' opposition to health reform verges on the incoherent. A caucus, the Blue Dogs, formed ostensibly to promote balanced budgets now disapproves of the proposed taxes that would cover the expenses of the new programs. (Rep. Dennis Cardoza from Merced is a member.) The congressional centrists say, commendably, that they want to squeeze more economies out of the system, but they oppose giving more power to an agency that would set the payment scales for physicians.
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Congressional incoherence grows even worse on other issues.
How to explain, for instance, the widespread congressional support for a bill that would require General Motors and Chrysler to keep all their dealerships open? This legislation is co-sponsored by numerous Republican conservatives who actually opposed the administration's efforts to keep General Motors and Chrysler in business. "Distribution, si; production, no!" is by any standard a loony battle cry.
The Republican opposition to Obama's push for health care reform, on the other hand, makes clear political sense. If they can stop Obama on health care, as South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint recently noted, it "will be his Waterloo."
Why Democrats of any ideology want to cripple their own president in his first year in office, and for seeking an objective that has been a stated goal of their party since the Truman administration, is a more mysterious matter.
Is the additional tax burden on small businesses their concern? If so, good news: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that only the top 4 percent of those businesses would be affected by the surcharge that House Democratic leaders proposed, and that's based on the original proposal, before Speaker Nancy Pelosi altered it to include just the wealthiest fraction of the top 1 percent of Americans. Would such a tax impede an economic recovery? In downturns this severe, it's been broad-based consumer spending and public- sector investment that have revived the economy.
But the big picture here, of which the resistance to reforming health care is just one element, is our growing inability to meet our national challenges. Almost all of the major nations with which we trade, for instance, have quasi-mercantilist policies that lead them to champion their own higher-wage growth industries, often in manufacturing. In America alone are such policies considered anathema.
In consequence, as the Alliance for American Manufacturing reports in a new book, we closed 40,000 factories from 2001 through 2007 — years, ostensibly of prosperity, between the past two downturns. This may please Wall Street, which looks with disfavor on decent-wage domestic production, and Wal-Mart, which tripled its purchases from China during roughly the same years those American factories closed, but it poses a clear threat to the nation's economic, and even military, power.
But act on behalf of the nation as a whole, even if it means goring Wall Street's or Wal-Mart's oxen? Perish the thought. Pass a health-reform bill that will cover 45 million uninsured Americans and slow the ruinous growth of health care spending? Not if somebody, somewhere, actually has to pay higher taxes. Hey, we're America — the can't-do nation.
As our former president might put it, Heckuva job, Brownies.
Meyerson is editor-at-large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.
THE WASHINGTON POST