Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Thursday, Nov 26, 2009, 8:30 am

Flawed Health Reform Could Hurt Dems in 2010—Part 2

BY Roger Bybee

Email this article to a friend

For the first part of this piece, go here.

Once Americans sort out the meaning of Democrats' healthcare reform plan, which could be passed within the next six weeks or so, their mood is likely to be unforgiving toward the Dems in the 2010 mid-terms as they uncover one distressing feature after another in the new health bill.

But there is no clear outlet for this almost-certain discontent. Unlike in 1994, when Bill Clinton failed to deliver on healthcare reform but instead rammed through the North American Free Trade Agreement, the GOP is rudderless and in disarray.

Meanwhile, leading Democratic voices like chief economics advisor Lawrence Summers are blind to the economic and social misery across America, and are resisting the notion that a new economic stimulus is needed.  This head-in-the-sand approach by the Obama administration and many leading Democratic congressmen ignores some very unpleasant realities:

CREDIT STILL FROZEN:  "In more normal times, one dollar in base money has been fanned by the banks into $8.50 in loans. Today, one dollar in base money produces only one dollar in loans," reports Ellen Brown in
Yes! Magazine."  

6 TO 1 RATIO: "Job seekers now outnumber openings six to one, the worst ratio since the government began tracking open positions in 2000," theNew York Times reports.

JOB DESTRUCTION: Employers are using the economic crisis as cover for undertaking off-shoring US jobs and shutting down US plants. "These jobs aren't coming back," John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C. told the Times. "A lot of production either isn't going to happen at all, or it's going to happen somewhere other than the United States..

FORECLOSURE FLOOD: The daily number of foreclosures is taking place at ten times the rate during the Great Depression  any time since the Depression. 

JOBLESSNESS TO GET WORSE: Even before the recession began, 41% of US families were having trouble paying their medical bills  While unemployment nationally is officially at 10.2% (with  the number of under-employed swelling the figure to 17.5%), we witnessed the last recession ending a year and a half before net jobcreation began to occur, as economist Nouriel Roubini has pointed out.


A this moment, it is instructive to recall the words of progressive political strategist Steve Cobble assessing the rubble created by New Gingrich's takeover of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. The Democrats' basic message on the economy came in two parts, Cobble stated.

First, the Democrats were telling working people, "You're doing better than you think you are," Cobble told a Rainbow Coalition conference in early 1995. This hardly corresponded to the day-to-realities of experiencing falling wages, busted unions, and jobs being relocated overseas. But you can hear a similar version of this argument comping from the White House right now.

Second, the Democrats argued in 1992-94, "We're setting up all these re-training programs for the new computer-based economy in case you lose your factory job." The same pitch is being used today by Democrats reluctant to confront corporations over their investment decisions, but yet they want to look "compassionate" toward discarded workers with the hollow consolation of re-training.

But workers were and are keenly aware that training programs don't matter if there are no decent-paying jobs with benefits on the other end of training. They are also highly skeptical about their desirability as older workers in the new low-wage economic sectors where they were to be relocated. Thus, the Democrats' message on this point, according to Steve Cobble, was translated into, "It's too late for you, Jack."


The result of these counter-productive messages was a sharp drop-off in voter turnout from Democratic constituencies. The purported Republican electoral tsunami was a hoax, and actually a matter of a mild pro-GOP wave washing over a very low dike in the form of depressed Democratic turnout.

At this point, unless Obama and Co. seriously re-engage with their once-enthused voters around reviving the economy, the most likely outcome for the Democrats in 2010 is a depressed, demoralized, and disillusioned base unlikely to show up at the polls.

The Republicans, for their part, lack any credible message about reversing the economic downturn still confronted by most Americans, regardless of stock prices and leading economic indicators. The GOP only promises a larger, more extreme dosage of the medicine offered for eight years by George Bush.

Nonetheless, with the Republicans offering the only sustained outrage—however incoherent, self-contradictory, opportunistic, and fueled by outright lies—the Republicans could manage to pick off a surprising number of Democrats.


Ironically--but fittingly---many of the Democrats most vulnerable to this change in public mood may turn out to be conservative Blue Dog Democrats and their allies who have insisted on more concessions to the insurers and drug industry every step of the way.

They have contributed not only to the weakening of any possible good that health care reform might accomplish (e.g., they fought to lower subsidies to moderate-income families in the name of deficit reduction) but also to the clouding of the debate by continually endorsing for-profit healthcare and pursuing the insurer-pharmaceutical agenda of particularistic, technical points.

In response to the actions of the Blue Dog and Senate allies, new AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has promised to punish Democrats who vote against the interests of working people on crucial interests like healthcare reform. If Trumka follows through, some of the Blue Dogs could be faced with a vast drop in labor support and perhaps even primary challenges.


Framing the healthcare fight as a moral battle for the health and survival of Americans vs. the profits of giant corporations would almost certainly have been a popular stance in even the most culturally conservative of districts.

Instead, the conservative Democrats pursued a strategy that has left them tainted as pet poodles of their big contributors from insurance and big Pharma, and thereby left themselves open to challenges from the Right as "corrupt Washington politicians."

Overall, the Democrats' thematic weakness and inability to deliver substantive health reform amidst an ongoing "jobless recovery" leaves a major vacuum that could be filled by a pseudo-populist Republican message like the kind offered by Pat Buchanan or Lou Dobbs. Imagine Dobbs-type Republicans disingenuously chiding arrogant CEOs for outsourcing U.S. jobs (as Mike Huckabee did in the 2008 primaries) while waging a real war against the  influx of job-stealing immigrants.

But given the current Republican direction, don't expect to hear any criticism of off-shoring jobs from the Republicans. With 77% of Americans opposed to the "off-shoring of jobs," the time is ripe for someone to seize the issue. 

But we can't even count on forceful denunciations of relocating U.S. jobs from many Democrats, except from marginalized voices like Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), either. President Obama's frequent and fulsome praise of "free trade" on his recent trip to Asia has been a stunning reversal of the positions he hammered home in battered industrial towns from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin in the 2008 primary.

Yet, the Republicans' current feebleness may be giving many Obama and other Democrats the illusion that they can put the appeasement of big health and Wall Street contributors ahead of addressing the acute needs of their deeply hurting electoral base.


However, the Obama Administration's incestuous ties to Goldman Sachs in particular and Wall Street in general may provide the Republicans with some targets that are just too tempting.

"The rage out there is larger than Palin and defies partisan labeling," correctly observes NY Times columnist Frank Rich: 

Her ever-present booster [Matthew] Continetti, writing in The Weekly Standard, suggested that she recast the century-old populist outrage of William Jennings Bryan by adopting the message 'You shall not crucify mankind upon the cross of Goldman Sachs.' If Obama can’t tamp down that rage across the political map, Palin will at the very least pave the way for a demagogue with less baggage to pick up her torch.

No corporate entity has matched Enron for rapaciousness coupled with more disdain for public opinion and the public interest like Goldman Sachs. But there is a very dangerous potential that the proposed Palin attack on Goldman Sachs--whose name but hardly be more Jewish-sounding--will help to ignite a barely-disguised racist and anti-Semitic backlash. The linkage of Jewish names with the crucifixion carries particularly heavy imagery.

Whether it is Palin or ultimately someone else who shapes and directs this sentiment, the elements of a very ugly campaign of hate-driven resentment--fueled at least in part by recession-caused pain-- are becoming increasingly visible.  

If the Democrats continue to react with complacency to the enormous degree of economic misery still stalking the land, their smugness is likely to be rewarded by a sharply diminished turnout in November, 2010.

The Palin phenomenon, coupled with the tea-baggers' relentless and ugly attacks on Obama, liberals and the Left, should set off alarm bells for an Obama team fixated on watching the "green shoots" of recovery.

While they cheer on a recover that is still invisible to most Americans,  the Right threatens to trample America's hopes for greater economic justice and a more expansive democracy.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at

View Comments