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Wit and Wisdom

Tough Luck

The anguished complaint by liberals that Democrats don’t know how to bargain-- that they start at the middle instead of the left, and thus wind up too far right-- was effectively addressed by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein on Bill Maher’s show “Real Time” March 4.  

Maher was expressing grudging respect for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for staking out an extreme position on public employee unions, one that would eventually yield in compromise everything he really wanted in the first place.  Maher wondered why  President Obama didn’t do something similar with health care reform: initially demand Medicare for all, in order to wind up with a public insurance option as part of a market-based system.

Klein pointed out that big opening gambits are often counterproductive.  He predicted that if Obama had unveiled a single-payer system, the next day “eight conservative Democratic Senators would have withdrawn their support,” essentially killing health care reform for another 20 years. And Klein said Walker may well have overreached with his absolutist stand, leaving him no easy way to back down.

Even though it’s true that when it comes to policies and programs, most Americans are more liberal than they realize, their reactions to language and ideas is predominately conservative.  Because politics traffics in language and ideas, liberal politicians have to tread more carefully than their conservative counterparts, lest they be quickly vilified and marginalized for good plans that “sound wrong.”

As satisfying as tough talk and non-negotiable stances are to ardent advocates, they are not the stuff of effective policy progress, especially on the left. For all it’s faults, a comprehensive health care system is finally in place, one achieved through often frustratingly moderate means. 

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