So Obama got his modest and compromised health care bill through Congress. For those who are more interested in policy than process, there’s a pretty helpful summary of the legislation here. However, I hold the desirabilty of the reforms to be self-evident. The only serious issue is whether the timing is right, given the US Government’s fiscal problems. But if this is the country’s only window of opportunity in the foreseeable future to join the civilised world, then the risk of more macroeconomic tremors will have to be borne. The budget will just have to be sorted out later. And if the fiscal pressure hastens the Americans’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, so much the better.
Unfortunately this is one occasion when the process is more worthy of analysis than the policy, and while I have no pretensions as a commentator on US politics, there is a lesson here for the forces of enlightenment in Australia that can’t be ignored. First let’s review the salient aspects of the health care victory.
Joe Conason in Salon explains, for anyone who needed an explanation, that the Republicans were never really opposed to reforms of this kind, which are similar to several Republican plans of the last decade or two. Their strategy of demonising and scaremongering was solely directed at the November Congressional elections. (For the benefit of anyone who didn’t follow the link in Nicholas’s post below, Paul Krugman reviews the Republican fear campaign in all its nastiness and hypocrisy.) Most importantly, the startegy counted on the bill’s being defeated. The real reason they are upset is that they know that voters will see it’s not so bad, and their credibility will suffer accordingly.
Meanwhile Jonathan Chait in the New Republic argues that there are times when the ‘median voter strategy’ is not going to succeed because the opposition is determined to reject all compromises. Chait’s colleague John Judis points out that on such occasions it’s possible to actually lead rather than merely follow public opinion; furthermore, a leader can energise his core supporters by putting up a fight.
Much has been made, including by Kevin Rudd himself, of the similarity between Obama’s and Rudd’s contemporaneous battles to legislate major changes in health funding, against a hostile opposition. But the situations are very different: the decisive battle to introduce comprehensive health insurance was won long ago in Australia, and even the Opposition Leader takes pride in the difference between Australia and the US in this regard. The health funding debate in Australia has to do with Federalism and efficient decision making rather than basic social justice — the issues are disentangled admirably in Ken’s post.
The appropriate parallel to be drawn is rather with the battle over the ETS scheme. These are several points of similarity:
First, this is one of the moments when, as Obama put it, ‘you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country’. Legislation to abate carbon emissions is a moral imperative that, for those who understand the situation, should transcend considerations of electoral pragmatism.
Second, the opportunity for a bipartisan approach has evaporated. The voices of principle in the Coalition parties have been silenced. Their new leadership has decided to oppose for the sake of opposing, and to do so by whatever combination of swaggering populism and cynical disinformation proves effective. The fact that they are gambling on no ETS legislation passing the Senate is all the more reason for them to oppose the plan uncompromisingly.
Third, even from the point of view of the selfish voter, the legislation is actually not nearly as bad as the Opposition makes it sound. Even in the short term, when they see how insignificantly carbon pricing affects the CPI, people will wonder what all the fuss was about — just as they did when the GST came in. Within a few years, probably even before the current government faces its third election, a workable international treaty may be in place; at the same time the public will see clean-energy, and energy-saving technologies really starting to take hold.
Finally, Rudd and his ministers have nothing to lose by taking up the fight on the ETS. Since they made no attempt to educate the public — on how the scheme works, what it achieves, and how it affects consumers — up to the time of the LIberal mutiny, there remains considerable untested scope for persuasion and leadership in this area. And, at a time when Abbott’s line about Rudd being ‘all announcement, no follow through’ is starting to resonate even with Labor supporters, a bit of gumption on climate change might be just what he needs to get supporters into Kevin-10 T-shirts in November.
Unlike Obama, Rudd controls the votes of his own party members, and doesn’t face obstruction in the lower house. So all he needs to do is (1) overcome his dread of dealing openly with Greens, (2) figure out a compromise palatable to the Greens, Xenaphon and one of the two floor-crossing Liberals, and (3) channel some of Obama’s persuasive power and talk these Senators around, as Obama did with his dissenting House Democrats. Not easy, but worth a shot.