I think “groupthink” is a general pattern in this Administration. Not the simple groupthink that considers only one alternative and never discusses anything else, but a more complex sort of groupthink about frames.
Obama looks at alternatives in deciding on policy, alright. And he appears to be rational in his consideration of them. So far, so good. It’s a real departure from Bush’s “shoot from the hip,” gut-decided decisions, and follow-the-leader approach. But when he begins to consider issues, he generally seems to have made a pre-decision on the frame he will use for decision making. Alternatives that are outside his frame are “off the table” and not really open for discussion within the Administration. The limits of his frames, also, seem to be determined by political judgments that come from his gut, and that he does not arrive at through as rational a process as he uses after his pre-decision on a frame is made.
I see this pattern in his approach to fixing the financial system. I think he pre-decided that taking the big banks into receivership wasn’t on the table, even though many economists thought that he should have handled them that way. So all the other ideas for bringing the banks back were considered, but using resolution on them was never really compared on all fours with other alternatives during the decision making process, in spite of the fact that many economists outside this Administration were urging receivership and resolution as the way to go that was best for the American taxpayer, and for healing the financial system by recognizing and removing its toxic assets. Instead, the focus was on the details of a big bank bailout and on the technical wonky aspects of how that might best be done.
The same thing happened with the economic stimulus package. Early on, the President and Rahm Emanuel appear to have decided that ideas such as those of Krugman, Stieglitz, Baker, Galbraith, Kuttner, Reich, and others calling for a massive $1.2 – 1.6 trillion dollar stimulus, focused on infrastructure, saving state government jobs, and re-inventing the economy, couldn’t be sold to the Congress. So they never tried to make the sale to the American people in the face of Republican resistance, even though it was apparent then, as it is even more so now, that the stimulus being considered, and eventually passed in modified form, was only half the size of what was needed to bring jobs back, and also was targeted on the wrong things.
At the time, there were stories about how Rahm and he thought that people like Krugman, Stieglitz, and Dean Baker, were probably right from an economic point of view, but that they had never gotten a bill through Congress. Of course, the only bills Rahm had gotten through Congress, were in earlier pre-crash political environments in the Clinton and Bush Administrations. The thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to Rahm and the President, that old patterns of possibility and probability might have been changed by the panic everyone was feeling back in February and March about the economy, and that at the time the President could probably have gotten everything he wanted. The attitudes of the President and Rahm on the stimulus were very analogous to the President’s stated views on Medicare for All, single-payer health insurance. He admits it’s the best thing from a solution point of view, but he took it off the table as a decision alternative on political feasibility grounds, evidently partly on the assumption that he could not sell it.
In foreign policy, the President appears to be taking a very careful rational approach to what comes next in Afghanistan. But one thing that’s not on the table, from all that we hear, is the full withdrawal alternative. Another case of a decision alternative withdrawn from the process prematurely, because it doesn’t fit what is probably a political feasibility frame, since it plays into the narrative that Democrats are “soft” on National Security.
Everyone will agree with the homily that one should not try to do things that are politically infeasible. But I think political feasibility, unfortunately, is a very slippery thing which can vary from month to month, and that it is a great mistake to take the best solution to any problem “off the table,” until you have actually proven, by attempting to sell it, that it is, indeed, politically infeasible. I see this Administration taking “best solutions’ off the table all the time, and then muttering about how “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” However, I think that “the timid is just as much the enemy of the good as the perfect is.” And I also think that this Administration’s embrace of the timid reflects outdated lessons learned in the Clinton Administration during a center-right period in American History.
Now, however, we’re living in a period when the country does not yet know whether it’s still center-right or has moved to another position. Exactly where it moves will depend on who is successful at solving the nation’s problems, and on the nature of the solutions that appear to work. If these solutions involve Government, the Center-left orientation of American politics which was so successful from the 1930s through the ’60s will again be the order of the day. What actually happens will depend very much on this Administration and whether it can formulate and implement real solutions to problems. The half-measures it has favored so far while bleating about political feasibility, will likely lead to a right-wing reaction and another opportunity for the forces that came very close to bankrupting us so recently. These forces will again get another chance to make themselves richer while putting the nation into an even deeper and more precarious situation. With a little more time between themselves and the Bush Administration to distance themselves from it, to let the people forget, and to provide rationalizations for its and their failure, they’ll be ready once again to sell their low taxes, anti-government, anti-regulation, “trickle-down,” strident nationalist, and moralistic ideology to the American people.
Coming back to health insurance reform and health care reform, the bill that comes out of this Congress, is now almost sure to be highly inadequate. We won’t even get the second best solution of a Jacob Hacker-type PO plan out of this push for reform, but may, at best get a public option tied to Medicare rates, open to the unemployed, and those who can’t get insurance through their employment along with individual mandates, State opt-outs, individual subsidies whose adequacy will constantly be under attack from Republicans and deficit hawks more generally, and an exchange, that along with the PO won’t be operative until 2013. But those backing the Administration will trumpet what a great advance this is, and also probably say later that we can’t possibly take up reform again until we at least give the new bill a chance to work. In other words, they’re going to tell people to shut up until at least 2015, and let Congress get on with other urgent business. Meanwhile, 17- 20 million or more people will still remain uncovered, and large numbers of deaths and bankruptcies, though less than we have today, will still exist in America.
Why are we in this place right now in health insurance reform? I think it’s primarily because the President and his progressive allies, though not all progressives, created a political feasibility frame, before it considered the details of solutions and their likely effectiveness, and took certain alternatives that were worth consideration from a rational, solutions point of view, off the table to begin with, because they didn’t fit that prematurely constructed political feasibility frame. By doing that, the Administration moved the Overton Window of debate over health insurance alternatives over to the right. It distorted the Media’s perspective (and its frame for the debate), and also the public’s perspective on where the center was in the universe of health care alternatives. It excluded national health care alternatives modeled on the VA system, or on the UK’s National Health Plan, I.e. “socialized medicine” systems, and also national health insurance, i.e. “Medicare for All,” “socialized insurance” alternatives, such as the systems we find today in Medicare, or the enhanced Medicare system proposed in the Conyers/Kucinich HR 676 bill, or the kinds of systems we see today in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand among others. It made it seem that the idea of a public option was the “liberal” alternative in this debate, and by failing to get specific about what it wanted in a reform bill, it allowed vagueness, ambiguity, and paranoia about what a public option is, and what its version of a public option contained, to rule the day.
Going a bit deeper, the Administration’s framing of the situation, with a vague public option preference on the left, and no reform at all on the right, played into the media’s tendencies to create frames for stories based on the conventional wisdom of Administration insiders and the White House Press Corps. The media latched onto the Administration’s frame almost immediately at the beginning of 2009. It extended the groupthink about the frame from the Administration to itself, and never covered either national health care (single-payer, single-provider), or national health insurance (single-payer) alternatives on health care reform. After all, White House sources had said these alternatives were off the table, so, how could they be news?
The result of all this was that the Public’s perspectives, often amorphous and volatile on complex political issues, also became distorted, and shared in the Administration’s groupthink, because the frame it was fed by the MSM was one that excluded two types of solutions: national health care, and national health insurance, that had proven viable in other nations, but that the Administration viewed as politically infeasible. This distortion of perspectives has harmed the efforts of progressives to arrive at a solution to the health insurance reform problem that will work, and also be politically viable for Democrats.
Instead of discussing proposals for national health care or Medicare for All, and being able to point to successful and money-saving outcomes in other nations using those systems, or talking about how and why these alternatives can solve problems caused by our present health insurance non-system, progressives have been drawn into the morass of complex discussions about what the various features of exchanges, mandates, subsidies, and variants of the public option notion should be, and also into endless false issues, such as the “death panel,” government take-over of medicine, “rationing,” and other tall tales the opposition to health insurance floated week-by-week during the debate.
The blogosphere was also drawn very deeply into this debate, largely on the side of advocating for a strong and robust public option. But the bloggers, like everyone else, were caught in the President’s and the MSM’s framing of the political situation from the beginning. Most bloggers for reform accepted the constraints of the Administration’s frame, and spent very little time writing about national health care or national health insurance systems. They spent very little time criticizing the Administration’s and the Media’s frame. Instead they bowed to, and therefore helped to reinforce the frame that defined the public option as both the liberal alternative, and also the best alternative attainable at this time. The Jacob Hacker-type PO became “the left of the left” even though progressives originally viewed it as a second best compromise.
In the end, as the Administration, the MSM, the Congress, the blogosphere, and the public have all interacted with the Administration’s unfortunate framing of the issue, we have now come down to the current bad place, where many progressives will consider it a victory if we get a bill with an eligibility-restricted, opt-out PO with mandates and inadequate subsidies, that won’t even be operative until 2013. Such a bill will be a political disaster for this Administration and the Democratic Congress when the public perceives clearly that they will receive little benefit from the bill until 2013, and only after the insurance industry will have had the chance to raise its already unconscionably high rates by another 30 – 40%.
I’ve reviewed the highly negative effects of premature political framing of issues in the bank bailout, economic stimulus, Afghanistan policy re-evaluation, and health insurance reform areas. But, we can also see the same thing going on in cap-and-trade, credit card reform, and the discussion just beginning on a possible jobs bill. The frames of this Administration begin by excluding politically infeasible solutions. We will probably see this again in the areas of education, energy, and the environment, and in any other problems the Administration tackles. And we will also see it back solutions that create similar dynamics in the Media, the blogosphere, the public, and the Congress. This pattern however, does not serve us well. It has a bias toward political expediency at the price of real practicality – getting to solutions that work. If we can’t disturb this pattern, if the Administration is allowed to “pre-compromise” on solutions by using the political feasibility frame, before it has used a “how well does this solution work relative to others” frame, we will continue to get bad results.
What we need to do to get out of this box, is to be truly pragmatic. All of us, including the Administration, need to consider all the ideas that may work to solve a problem, and compare and debate them without first considering their political feasibility. We need to suspend judgment about that while we evaluate a solution on its own merits. That’s because political feasibility can’t be pre-determined. It is not a pre-condition of the legislative process, to be divined intuitively by the experienced and self-annointed political gurus. It is an outcome of that process. It has to be determined by political conflict and negotiation, and also by how well proposed solutions perform in actual debate. In its focus on “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” the Obama Administration has forgotten that “the timid is the enemy of the good,” also. In issue after issue, it has embraced the timid, and the result is that its solutions to the nation’s problems don’t work.
(Also posted at firedoglake.com where there may be more comments)