The Guns of August, and Why the Republican Right Was So Adept at Using Them on Health Care

What we learned in August is something we’ve long known but keep forgetting: The most important difference between America’s Democratic left and Republican right is that the left has ideas and the right has discipline. Obama and progressive supporters of health care were outmaneuvered in August — not because the right had any better idea for solving the health care mess but because the rights’ attack on the Democrats’ idea was far more disciplined than was the Democrats’ ability to sell it. 

I say the Democrats’ “idea” but in fact there was no single idea. Obama never sent any detailed plan to Congress. Meanwhile, congressional Dems were so creative and undisciplined before the August recess they came up with a kaleidoscope of health-care plans. The resulting incoherence served as an open invitation to the Republican right to focus with great precision on convincing the public of their own demonic version of what the Democrats were up to — that it would take away their Medicare, require “death panels,” raise their taxes, and lead to a government takeover of medicine, and so on. The Obama White House — a veritable idea factory brimming with ingenuity — thereafter proved unable to come up with a single, convincing narrative to counteract this right-wing hokum. Whatever discipline Obama had mustered during the campaign somehow disappeared.

This is just the latest chapter of a long saga. Over the last twenty years, as progressives have gushed new ideas, the right has became ever more organized and mobilized in resistance — capable of executing increasingly consistent and focused attacks, moving in ever more perfect lockstep, imposing an exact discipline often extending even to the phrases and words used repeatedly by Hate Radio, Fox News, and the oped pages of The Wall Street Journal (“death tax,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “government takeover of health care.”) I saw it in 1993 and 1994 as the Clinton healthcare plan — as creatively and wildly convuluted as any policy proposal before or since — was defeated both by a Democratic majority in congress incapable of coming together around any single bill and a Republican right dedicated to Clinton’s destruction. Newt Gingrich’s subsequent “contract with America” recaptured Congress for the Republicans not because it contained a single new idea but because Republicans unflinchingly rallied around it while Democrats flailed.

You want to know why the left has ideas and the right has discipline? Because people who like ideas and dislike authority tend to identify with the Democratic left, while people who feel threatened by new ideas and more comfortable in a disciplined and ordered world tend to identify with the Republican right. Democrats and progressives let a thousand flowers bloom. Republicans and the right issue directives. This has been the yin and yang of American politics and culture. But it means that the Democratic left’s new ideas often fall victim to its own notorious lack of organization and to the right’s highly-organized fear mongering.

I suppose I’m as guilty as anyone. A few weeks ago I casually mentioned in a web conversation on Politico‘s web page that if supporters of universal health care and a “public option” felt their voices were not being heard in our nation’s capital they should march on Washington. A few moments later, when someone wrote in asking when, I glanced at a calendar and in a burst of unreflective enthusiasm offered September 13. I didn’t check with anyone, didn’t strategize with progressive groups that have been working on health care for years, barely checked in with myself.

I was deluged with emails. Many people said they were planning to march. Someone put up a web page, another a Facebook page, a member of Congress announced his support. But most people said they couldn’t manage September 13. It was too soon. It conflicted with other events. It followed too closely behind a right-wing march against health care reform already scheduled for September 12. It was a day AFL leaders were out of town, so couldn’t lend their support. Many who emailed me wanted another day — September 20, or the 27th, or early October. Others said they’d rather march on their state capital, in order that local media cover it. When I finally checked in with the heads of several progressive groups and unions in Washington — all with big mailing lists and the resources to organize a big march — they said they were already planning a march, for October. But they still haven’t given me a date. (I will pass it on as soon as I hear.)

August is coming to a close, and congressional recess is about over. History is not destiny, and Democrats and progressives can yet enact meaningful health care reform — with a public option. But to do so, we’ll need to be far more disciplined about it. All of us, from Obama on down.


Originally published at Robert Reich’s Blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

6 Responses to "The Guns of August, and Why the Republican Right Was So Adept at Using Them on Health Care"

  1. CH   September 1, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Robert, you finally said something that I partially agree with! “Because people who like ideas and dislike authority tend to identify with the Democratic left, while people who feel threatened by new ideas and more comfortable in a disciplined and ordered world tend to identify with the Republican right” EXCEPT that your comment is far too broad and lacks proper context.It is the nature of the left ideas and the manner in which they were presented that caused the real backlash from the right and let’s face it, the “much larger than you care to admit” center. Left/Progressive ideas all seem to come with the unfortunate tentacles of increased government control even though the government has proven inept at managing pretty much everything under its control from the war and financial regulation (yes, this comment is coming from a member of the Right!) to the existing bankrupt medicare program.The majority of Americans just do not want permanent long term control over our Freedom by the government in health care or any other facet of our daily lives. We don’t want it and we don’t need it. The majority of us also take offense at the attempts by the Left to cram their health care plan down our throats in an unbelievably hasty and arrogant manner. I’m sorry to tell you that while “fear-mongering” might feel good to you because the implication is that the other side did not fight fairly, but the truth is that the real reason this failed is that it is a poor idea to begin with, poorly executed!

    • Guest   September 4, 2009 at 7:18 am

      My, such harsh words. Marxists are simply not into forcing anything down anybody’s throat. Arrogance is simply unknown to the current administration.

      • CH   September 6, 2009 at 10:48 am

        Gosh, you’re right….Karl’s “student” Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were true pacifists in the same manner that Obama and Pelosi are portraits of humility! When you return from your vacation in Socialist Utopia, please check out the current administrations handling of the health care plan….even CNN will show you their humble “burn the house while they’re asleep” strategy. Problem is….America woke up!

  2. Guest   September 2, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Finally, someone’s brushed up on G. Lakoff’s book, The Politcal Mind”.Axelrod knows this stuff. Come on W.H. re-frame the debate. Now.

  3. Guest   September 4, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Disingenous reporting by the suck-up American media leads Americans to believe the health plan is just about the health plan. Not so. While it seems that all critics of the plan are stupid Republicans bereft of any intelligence at all, such is not the case, also. This health plan would open the Obama floodgates and allow the perverts in the administration unlimited power. The wackjobs already appointed like Commie Van Jones are case in point. I don’t want Obama controlling health care and find Democrats amazingly out of touch on this issue. Unfortunately, the Dems are far more adept at slime than the oafish Republicans and will eventually succeed to a degree in passing a health bill that lots of Americans have the right to fear bigtime. Of course, I just don’t get it, do I? Yeah, I’m far too stupid to understand such an open, honest solution to our health care problems, right?

    • CH   September 6, 2009 at 10:57 am

      Now, now Guest….you have nothing to fear….Nancy and the Czars know what’s best for you….you just sit back and let them “take care of you”….LOL~ I completely agree…this is much more than a health care plan….this is nothing more than a huge eminent domain land grab on all fronts of our liberties. I think history has shown that the Great Purge and Cultural Revolution are right around the corner if Conservatives don’t continue to speak the truth!