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WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH US! Why doesn’t the U.S. embrace health care? Harris-Lacewell made a good point: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2009

Why King drank the Kool-Aid for Powell: On Saturday, Colbert King’s column focused on Afghanistan, a very serious topic. But King began with a bit of recent history—very important recent history, which very much should be recorded.

When Colin Powell went to the U.N. in 2003, why did Insider Washington Journalists rush to embrace his presentation? This is a very important part of recent American history. At the time, King wrote an embarrassing column in praise of Powell’s moral greatness. (Headline: “Powell’s mastery.”) But then, so did a string of his “liberal” Post colleagues (Cohen, McGrory, Raspberry). Like the others, he swooned and fawned about Powell’s vast greatness—and missed the weakness of Powell’s presentation.

To his credit, King has now explained that reaction. He chugged the Kool-Aid for Powell, he says. In this passage, he explains why:

KING (12/5/09): The slurping sound you may have heard after President Obama's speech at West Point was yours truly once again demonstrating his trust in a leader by drinking the Kool-Aid. This time, however, I didn't chug-a-lug as I did after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

I swallowed every drop back then because I thought it inconceivable that Powell, one of the country's most respected public officials, a former top military commander tempered by Vietnam experience and sensitive to the importance of personal credibility, would present to the world a case on weapons of mass destruction that could prove to be bogus. But it happened.

Sobered by that experience, I stopped short of going bottoms-up with Obama on Tuesday night.

In 2003, King “swallowed every drop” of the Kool-Aid, he says. So did a string of his colleagues.

For ourselves, we had a different reaction to Powell’s presentation that day. To our ear, Powell’s presentation seemed oddly weak, even before we learned that Powell, despite his vast moral greatness, had actually doctored some of the transcripts he presented to the U.N. But then, we had spent the previous five years sharpening our ear—documenting the weakness of the ways our journalistic elites tend to “reason.” Like his colleagues, King had spent the previous decade inventing unfortunate demon tales about Clinton, Clinton and Gore—and equally silly hero tales about a saint named Powell.

By the time of Powell’s U.N. adventure, our hapless “journalistic” elite had “reasoned” that way for many years. In our view, King made a contribution to history this weekend, describing his self-blinkered reaction to Powell’s presentation.

By the way: Lawrence Wilkerson is routinely described as the guy who put together Powell’s presentation together—presumably including those doctored transcripts. For unknown reasons, Wilkerson is now a Hero of Progressive Labor on prime-time MSNBC.

Special report: What’s the matter with us?

PART 1—A GOOD POINT: Last Friday’s Rachel Maddow Show included several strong points about our struggle for national health care. Maddow discussed the topic with a panel of guests. For our money, the first strong point was made by Rep. Anthony Weiner in response to a question from Maddow.

Why has it proven so hard for this country to move forward on national health care? We agree with Weiner’s point—our side hasn’t “messaged” real well:

MADDOW (12/4/09): What about the sort of "What`s the matter with Kansas" problem here? I mean, nationally, the worst states for people being uninsured and under-insured are the states represented by members of Congress who are most opposed to reform. The reddest states have the worst health care situation right now. How does—how does that resolve in the long run politically?

WEINER: Well, I think part of it is—we’ve done a terrible job, my team, of messaging all of this. You know, we should have started with a conversation about Medicare, how we got there, the fact that a lot of the same opposition came at the time we added a security for those over 65.

Weiner quickly moved to a different point—but the analysts lustily cheered what he’d said. In our view, the liberal/progressive world has done a miserable job of health care messaging, over the course of the past several decades. This is part of a larger messaging breakdown over the past many years.

Our side doesn’t message real hard. We much prefer to spend our time explaining how smart we all are.

We’d love to see a wider discussion of that messaging failure. But the discussion quickly moved on. Soon, Nicholas Kristof was making a point with which we tend to disagree:

KRISTOF: And haven’t we made the wrong argument? I mean, let me throw this out, that it strikes me that in other countries, like Switzerland, that have adopted a more universal health coverage, the winning argument there has been a moral one, has been people should not die because they can’t get insurance. And instead, this year with Obama and in 1993 with Clinton, the arguments, I think, tended to be more technical, more about cost-saving, more to the policy wonkish one. And I wonder if that, you know, in a sense, people in Kansas, if we don’t lose sight of this basic question that, you know, 45,000 Americans die a year because—

Kristof was cut off there—but we tend to disagree with that point. In our view, the one bit of messaging liberals have achieved about health care is the “moral message”—the claim that [insert number] million people lack health insurance, and that is morally wrong. No doubt, this message could be delivered more skillfully. But we think it has largely been a losing message, perhaps for the reasons about which Melissa Harris-Lacewell eventually spoke.

Why has it been so hard to build a consensus about national health care in the U.S.? Why did so many European nations agree on national health care in the post-war years, while the U.S. still struggles and strains? Near the end of the discussion, Harris-Lacewell came in with a salient point, a point she had raised a bit earlier:

HARRIS-LACEWELL: And let’s also remember that we’re talking about more ethnically homogeneous countries where they could make this “Let this don’t let anybody die” argument. The fact is that in our country, we are willing to let those who are very different from us suffer in way that—

At this point, Weiner broke in with a joke; the discussion was quickly over. But Harris-Lacewell may have touched on a factor which helps explain our unfortunate “exceptionalism” when it comes to national health care.

Why did European nations pass national health systems in the late 1940s, while the U.S. failed? In The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman asserts (with limited documentation) that our failure at that time represented a racial breakdown—that southern members of Congress balked at the notion because they didn’t want to integrate southern hospitals. We have no idea if that’s true—but it’s certainly plausible. But even now, in 2009, we remain a much less homogeneous society than the European societies which passed national health plans in the late 1940s. Presumably, this can affect the societal drive to extend benefits to all. In a non-homogeneous society, dreams of The Other bloom, killing the generous impulse.

Earlier, Harris-Lacewell had noted that this problem extends to issues of class as well as race and ethnicity:

HARRIS-LACEWELL: And all of that is driven by these issues of sort of the initial anxiety that exists in our country around both race and class. And by class, I mean here sort of our shrinking economic pie that often causes a kind of ethnic balkanization, people pulling to their own sides and saying, "We can’t possibly do for one another because our pie is shrinking."

And so, remember that these red states are often poor states—if you think about Louisiana, for example, states with high levels of unemployment and people feeling as though any sort of attempt to help others comes at their own expense. And just a failure to talk about how, in fact, these are exactly the kind of expansions that would help unemployed workers in places like Louisiana.

In her longer statement, Harris-Lacewell began by focusing on the motives of senators and members of Congress, rather than on the views of voters. But we would guess that her overall picture may well be accurate. It has been harder for our society to achieve consensus about national health care due to its racial/class/ethnic diversity. Most likely, due to its regional diversity as well.

Is a more homogeneous nation more likely to rally for national health care? We would guess that’s the case. But the analysts smirked at the obvious irony, as they saw this salient point being made on the Maddow program. Has any program ever been more devoted to advancing invidious claims about different societal groups? Has any program ever wallowed more in denigration of The Other?

What’s the matter with Kansas, we liberals tend to ask. We rarely ask a second question: What may be the matter with us? What’s the matter with our “messaging”—with the way we present these issues? We thought Harris-Lacewell made a good point about the role of societal fragmentation. We also thought that someone should explain this point to her host.

More specifically, Maddow has acted out her reflexive class condescension in a series of ways in the past week (including on last night’s program). But then, pseudo-liberals have often acted this way over the course of the past fifty years. It helps keeps our society fragmented. It keeps hope from coming alive.

Our messaging has been bad, Weiner said. We agree. But then again, we watch the Maddow program!

TOMORROW—PART 2: Darlings! Can you even believe what Laura Bush recently did?

Coming: Disingenuous clowning about tea-baggers!

Disingenuous treatments of race!