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The government shutdown, political blame, and the US healthcare system

I take strong exception to A. J. Edelman’s recent column on the shutdown and his view that “in the current liberal climate,” Democrats are being hypocritical and indulging in “whining,” while the President “refuses to even sit down and negotiate,” even so being “assigned absolutely no blame.”

Let it first be noted that the current political situation is extremely volatile. On the very morning the opinion column appeared in The Tech and I sit down to write this reply (11 October 2013) came the news of a new “tone” in the discussions, and new confidence that a large-scale negotiations are, if not underway, now deemed more likely than they were a few weeks ago. There are also many news reports of massive disarray within the Republican party, of a “cave-in” on the debt ceiling problem, and of the disappearance of the “Defund Obamacare” war-cry of Tea Party Republicans and the abandonment of that goal. In other words, columns like Edelman’s and letters like mine are always slightly behind current turns of events and our views may quickly be undercut. Furthermore, it is very hard to generalize about what either the House, the Senate, or the President wants, let alone what they might settle for.

Nevertheless, I am dismayed by Edelman’s glib opinions. To start with: the anecdotal reports he cites can by no means be taken to prove the shrill Republican warnings of looming “steep increases” in health insurance premiums once “Obamacare” takes hold. Nor can I let pass unquestioned his equation of the “hypocritical” stance of “free speech for me but not for thee” [the title of the whole column] with the purported liberal stance of “for-me-but-not-for-thee” when it comes to paying for health care. This is sloganeering, not logical argument.

At the very least, the reasoning behind the new health care law, which I find convincing as a starting-point, is that once everyone is mandated to pay for insurance, medical costs will go down, and so will premiums. It is also intended that the poor be given access to health care without having to pay the same rates that the wealthy and the middle class do. But it is the Republican-dominated states that are doing their best to forestall or deny these goals in multiple ways: by refusing to fund increases in the Medicaid program, by not setting up state exchanges, etc. It is they who are saying health care “for me,” but not for the poor. All of the (middle-class?) liberals I know (myself included) are more than willing to pay some modest increases in our insurance premiums if that will mean a fairer, socially just system can take hold. If it did, we’d have the same kind of system that exists in all other Westernized nations around the world. The kind of system that the scriptures of all major Western religions argue for when they call upon us to feed the hungry, help the sick, shelter the homeless, etc. Sure, advocating for this as national policy is a “liberal”(or “left” or whatever you want to call it) point of view. But I am not hypocritical about it: I believe it is right, and I am willing to pay my fair share.

In reality, there is no better way to provide affordable health care for all than through a single-payer system, but many Americans run from that idea in horror, as if it means capitulation to some un-American socialistic system. So, for better or worse, the health care law that was passed is a massively complicated, multi-layered compromise. Of course it has flaws and bugs — but what large social welfare system doesn’t?

Flaws can be fixed, and systems can be improved. But what is there to “negotiate,” when the Republican position has been simply to do away with the law altogether? Edelman says that Obama and Democrats are being unreasonable (“whiny,” etc.) in opposing a “one-year delay” of the law’s implementation. But is that what the Republicans really want? Remember, the House has voted more than 40 times to revoke the bill entirely. Ted Cruz “filibustered” (sort of) to oppose the law outright, with eager support of Tea Party representatives, and the inexplicable tacit support of establishment Republicans. And, remember, it’s the House’s refusal to fund this law of the land and use that point to “draw a line in the sand” that led to the current shut down. Recent polls have made it clear that a large majority of Americans did not want Republicans to do this and blame them for the current mess. This is not due to “liberal media bias,” no matter how long Fox News and its friends cling to that delusion. It’s due to common-sense reading of the current situation.

Do we all really need to be reminded that the current shutdown occurred four years after the health care law was passed, two years after it was reviewed and upheld by the Supreme Court, and almost one year since the president’s reelection? And that the same election also saw the Republicans’ failure to take control of the Senate, despite massive spending to do so and a lopsided number of Democratic seats up for grabs? If the 2012 election was in part a referendum on the health care law (although this is an uncertain point at best), then the law was surely vindicated. Moreover, there are probably many Americans who do need reminding that a one-year delay in implementation of the small-business portion of the law has already been put into effect. Over the past few years there have been other compromises or alterations of what was originally hoped for, to placate different constituencies, right and left. The White House, if anything, has been too eager to negotiate in the past.

Furthermore, if Republicans were truly serious about wanting to negotiate over problems in the law, why have none of them put forward a bill giving a slate of particular reforms or changes? It would be much more reasonable for both sides to wait a year to see how the law does and does not work. Then, the parties might sit down and “negotiate” improvements. For far too many Republicans, the issue keeps coming down to doing away with the law, but without any clear alternative offered in its place, save for some sort of vague return to the status quo ante. (This would bring us back to the time when health costs continually skyrocketed, before the new law was passed.)

I suspect that much of the current Republican obstructionism has to do with a deep-seated fear that the law will indeed prove be an improvement over the current system, and that Americans will gradually come to take it for granted as much as they now do Social Security and Medicare. If so, Republicans will surely come to regret having labeled the law “Obamacare,” because it will redound to his credit. Once upon a time, Romney was praised for supporting such an initiative in our state, and his political fortunes rose. Has Massachusetts suffered dire consequences because of its health care law? Have our premiums soared because of it? Surely many Republicans are aware of this and wonder if they can stop the law from succeeding, except by dismantling it altogether. But whatever the basis for their fear, it seems to be a “non-negotiable” feeling that reasonable people can’t seem to fathom.

“For Me but Not for Thee” sounds like a great “mantra” to pin on Democrats. But it’s sophistry. What I and many Americans want is a system that is more fair and more just — “For you and for me, for one and for all.” Yes we are impassioned, but we are neither hypocritical, whiny, nor unreasonable. We are certainly willing to pay a little more in taxes, if that’s what is required to forestall excessive increases in the national debt, so long as the wealthy also be called upon to contribute more. (For the sake of keeping my letter from becoming way too long, I have left the debt issue out of this discussion, even though it is another key component in the current political crisis.)

We are not the ones who have repeatedly threatened to shut down the political process and to rupture the financial mechanisms underpinning our economy, just to insist we get our way. Nor do we lose hope that eventually a better way of doing things can be negotiated — despite the continual effort of far too many Republicans over the past several years to hold our entire political system hostage to its unclear, ever-escalating and fundamentally regressive demands.

Martin Marks is a Senior Lecturer in the department of Music and Theater Arts