David Rothkopf

A deal at “any cost” is, more often than not, one we can’t afford…

Quick, somebody explain to the president that a deal and an accomplishment are two different things. The future of his presidency depends on it. “Health reform at any cost” inevitably will produce an outcome we can ill-afford. The same is true for “a climate bill at any cost” or “engagement at any cost” or “withdrawal ...

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Quick, somebody explain to the president that a deal and an accomplishment are two different things. The future of his presidency depends on it.

“Health reform at any cost” inevitably will produce an outcome we can ill-afford. The same is true for “a climate bill at any cost” or “engagement at any cost” or “withdrawal from Iraq at any cost.” The mentality that you can spin the dross of a lousy deal into political gold or at least the currency of reelection is the single greatest risk facing the Obama administration at this point.

To observers from around the world, this is one among many reasons why the current health care debate in the United States is so vitally important to watch. Other reasons are:

  • America’s broken health care system is bankrupting our economy and rendering American businesses deeply uncompetitive. Unless it is fixed, it more than any other single factor will drag down the U.S. economy and undercut American power. (To put it in perspective, America’s unfunded retirement health care liability amounts to somewhere between 3 and 6 times America’s current fiscal deficit depending on which estimates you believe.)
  • The political horse-trading currently going on over health care are already starting to have a big impact on other pending legislative initiatives from climate to trade. (See for example the ethanol tariff deal that was cut or note that the centrists who are key on the health deal are also the key obstacles to progress on some aspects of a climate bill.)
  • The shrill and purely unconstructive response of the Republican Party to this health care reform effort is seen by some of them as a potential rallying point for a badly wounded politically party. That is a sign of just how weak they are. Because while this issue regularly ranks high on the list of American concerns as a party the Republicans have had absolutely nothing constructive to say on this issue during this entire debate…or during the eight years of the Bush administration. Every time a Republican leader opens their mouth on these issues and lists another problem they have without offering an alternative approach they further underscore their intellectual bankruptcy.
  • That Obama’s health care reform efforts are floundering despite such facing pathetic opposition from the Republicans might suggest weakness on the part of the president. I would say it more accurately reflects too much reliance on his part on the undistinguished Democratic “leadership” on the Hill and effective opposition not from Republicans but from entrenched interests in the health care industry.

On this last point, let me add two things.

First, I am in Las Vegas at the moment. (More on that tomorrow. Seriously, I can explain everything.) On the TV periodically are ads for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s reelection. The notion that the majority leader of the Senate of the United States happens to represent a state dominated by the one of the sleaziest and most corrupt cities in the history of the planet really speaks volumes. That the Senate has picked as a leader a “nice guy” whose actual mastery of the Senate is roughly akin to a munchkin riding bareback on a brontosaurus explains loads about why Obama was wrong to punt to depend on his former Hill colleagues to shape a bill that still … this far into the debate … lacks any intellectual core, any principles around which it is to be built. (Reminder: the bill needs to be seen by the American people as improving the quality of our health care system, cutting costs and ensuring universal coverage. Those are the basics.)

Second, it’s hard not to be in Las Vegas and think about corruption and moral decay. That’s what the city sells (and why we should hope to the heavens that what happens in Vegas actually stays in Vegas). It is such a repulsive monument to tasteless venality that I visit it every so often as a kind of public service — so you don’t have to go yourselves. Ok. I’m not such a saint. I also go here because it is the only place in the world I feel not only comparatively virtuous but also elegant and thin. In fact, last night walking out of a show (the truly lousy “Jersey Boys” … a subject about which I know something) I felt like I was trapped in some nightmarish Francisco Botero painting of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Costumes by Old Navy.

Anyway, the point is that as bad as Las Vegas is, it is only the second most corrupt city in America. Read Robert Reich’s Salon piece on Obama’s deal with the drug companies to understand just the latest outrage in this respect. Or read Frank Rich’s excellent piece in the NY Times, “Is Obama Punking Us?” (Note to observers from outside the United States: note that these are critiques from Obama’s base, the left.) The fact is that there will be no good deals in Washington, no meaningful reform, until there is real campaign finance reform in America. Barack Obama talked tough about lobbyists and punished a few by keeping them out of his administration.  But he has done absolutely nothing to limit the real forces that are corrupting the U.S. system … the flow of cash from Big Pharma or insurance companies or on other matters from Wall Street or unions.

So the combination of unclear marching orders from the White House, weak leadership from Dems on the Hill, shrill negativism from Republicans and a corrupt political system has produced a muddled health reform bill when we need a strong one. While we are right to be frustrated and appalled we should not be surprised. The same will almost inevitably follow with climate. The same will almost inevitably follow with every bill until we fix what is really broken in Washington.

But on another level, if the administration continues to send the message that it is so eager to check the boxes on some check list of deliverables that it will buy into the illusion of progress rather than fighting for the real thing we are likely to see engagement for the sake of engagement (watch Hillary Clinton try to talk herself around this issue with Fareed Zakaria from his show this weekend…you could tell it was tough for her) or withdrawals from warzones that mask heightening risks in those places (Iraq) and new ones (AfPak). Or rather, we’re already seeing these things. 

From health care to climate to Iran to half a dozen other policies in the Middle East we are seeing dangerous compromises and worrisome caveats and complications. And since some of these have nothing to do with the money politics of Washington we have to conclude that they are linked to and revealing of the still evolving character of the administration.

This should be a warning sign for them as well as for us. It carries an important message: The most important achievements of this administration may come from the deals it is willing to walk away from. Only through these can it send a message that it actually has principles and the integrity that is a prerequisite of real leadership.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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