The Price of Failure

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 9:51 AM

I'm not predicting that health-care reform will go down in flames.

But what if it does?

The media's conventional wisdom is that we are watching a slow-motion replay of the crashing and burning of Hillarycare in 1993 and 1994. Then, too, a young Democratic president was pushing a sweeping reform plan. Bill Clinton was badly wounded, lost both houses of Congress and spent his last six years battling the GOP (and, for unrelated reasons, but in a polarized atmosphere not unlike today's, eventually getting impeached).

So if President Obama were to lose on health care, the reasoning goes, he would be crippled as well.

But what if he wasn't? What if the country just concluded that he tried to push too much too fast and moved on? What if the economy continued to improve, the stock market kept rising, the jobless rate fell, and the White House got the credit? And, at the same time, another 100,000 troops came home from Iraq?

Health care is the trickiest of issues. Everyone seems to agree that the current system needs improvement, but most people -- that is, most of those with insurance -- are satisfied with their situation. They are more worried about losing what they have than abstract notions like universal coverage and cost control. No one is marching in the streets for health-care reform. The issue could fade, and everyone could go back to fretting over Jon and Kate.

I don't want to minimize the short-term hit that Obama would take. It is, after all, his signature domestic initiative, and his clout with Congress might be seriously reduced. I'm just raising the possibility that he could ride out the storm.

My guess is that the Democrats will pass something and call it health-care reform. It could be a stripped-down version that revamps insurance rules but doesn't inflict any pain. The future doesn't always resemble the past.

Meanwhile, if you think the White House isn't steamed at all the town hall coverage, check out what Robert Gibbs said on "Today:" "We all have something to lose, Matt, if we let cable television come to town hall meetings and kill health-care reform for another year, and put the special interests back in charge."

The cable networks Tuesday carried the town hall meeting of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) featuring all sorts of angry people, including a woman who complained about "the systematic dismantling of this country," making it more like "Russia" and ignoring "the Constitution." (She wound up with an invitation to "Hannity.") This is the sort of disjointed rant that goes way beyond health care, and is getting national coverage day after day.

"President Obama traveled to a town hall meeting in a high school gymnasium here yesterday to counter what he called "wild misrepresentations'' about his proposed healthcare overhaul -- his most concerted effort yet to regain momentum in a debate recently dominated by critics' aggressive assault," the Boston Globe reports from Portsmouth, N.H.

"As demonstrators waved signs and shouted across police tape outside, Obama tried to dispel the emotional argument foes have voiced over the airwaves and in local meetings across the country. He also fought back on points about costs and fears of a government takeover of the healthcare system."

NYT: "Fans and foes of President Obama's push to overhaul health care descended on a local high school here on Tuesday to challenge him and hear him fight back against the criticisms -- some outlandish -- that have slowed the legislation's progress.

" 'Parasites!' yelled the protesters on the right side of the school driveway. 'Ignorants!' yelled the protesters on the left side.

"While apparently failing to convert the people outside who protested from the right side of the driveway, Mr. Obama sought to reassure the people gathered inside the school gymnasium that a health care overhaul does not mean that Americans will lose coverage or surrender treatment decisions to the government."

Josh Marshall sees a triumph of right-wing distortion:

"While the president's plan may be in rough waters, I don't think they've lost the message war. Because I think the number of people who actually believe this stuff is really, really small. But that doesn't mean it is insignificant. . . .

"Let's start with Mike Sola, who angrily confronted Rep. Dingell (D-Mich.) at a townhall last week with his son who has cerebral palsy. It's hard to see Sola in the same light as your garden variety teabag whackjob since clearly raising and caring for a severely handicapped child makes these issues very real for him. But here you've got this surreal situation in which the Rushs and the Palins, the Gingrichs and the Armeys, all the professional liars and freak show ringleaders have gotten a lot of people to actually believe that the Obama health plan will mandate euthanizing the old, the handicapped and the infirm. So Sola's on TV completely going out of his head demanding to be heard before Obama and his minions 'put [him and his son] down.' . . .

"I mean, let's all collectively throw a little cold water on our faces and just realize that this is some really crazy stuff.

"The health care debate is now being driven by a perverse nonsense feedback loop in which the Palin/Limbaugh crowd says all sorts of completely insane lies, gets a lot of . . . how shall we put it, impressionable people totally jacked up over a bunch of complete nonsense, and then Fox brings one of them, Mike Sola, on the air to basically lose his mind on camera. . . .

"Journalists have no capacity to deal with this stuff. In any sane civic discourse Sarah Palin's comments about 'death panels' would have permanently written her out of any public debate about anything."

At American Prospect, Paul Waldman assesses the mad-as-hell phenomenon:

"If you've watched any of the growing library of YouTube videos depicting (mostly) middle-aged white guys yelling at their members of Congress during town meetings about health care, you may have had the following reaction: Why are these people so angry? Did that congressman kill that guy's dog or something? What the heck is going on here?

"One answer is that what is going on is a campaign of thuggery organized by a loose coalition of corporate-funded interest groups, lobbying firms specializing in 'Astroturf' campaigns, and conservative organizations. But that's only part of the story. For all the strategizing by the usual right-wing suspects, the people being marshaled are there of their own volition, and they aren't acting. They may have been told where and when to appear by a Washington lobbying firm, but they are genuinely, sincerely, quiveringly mad.

"At present, their anger is being spat at the administration's attempt to reform health care. But that rage goes much deeper than any one policy; should the health-care plan fail, it will continue to simmer unabated. It's been manifested by many groups: the 'birther' conspiracy theorists convinced that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to be president; the 'tea baggers' suddenly angry about federal spending and taxes (after eight years of not being too concerned); and in its most extreme forms, the stream of angry men carrying out mass shootings when the liberals or the immigrants or the women have pushed them too far. . . .

"Nothing is worse than this -- the president of the United States is an uppity black man with an Ivy League degree, who would appoint a Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court instead of someone who deserves it, who might not really be American, who plainly spends his every waking hour working to keep good honest folks down."

But Hot Air's Ed Morrissey says Obama has a bigger problem than rowdy crowds:

"Town-hall meetings won't solve the problem of national rejection of ObamaCare. People want insurance reform, but they don't want a government takeover of the system. The big problem is the legislation itself. If Obama wants to fix that, then he needs a meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, not the people of Bozeman and Portsmouth."

And National Review's Peter Ferrara paints Obama as elitist:

"Last week, at a Democratic party fundraiser in McLean, Va., Pres. Barack Obama gave his answer to the thousands of Americans showing up at town halls and protests all over America to question his proposed federal takeover of health care. Obama said:

"But I don't want the folks who created the mess -- I don't want folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to just get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don't mind cleaning up after them, but don't do a lot of talking.

"Obama here was talking about the Republicans and conservatives he holds responsible for the economic downturn. He doesn't want to hear from them -- whether about health-care reform, or economic policy more generally. He just wants them to shut up and get out of the way of his glorious left-wing revolution."

I said the other day that Sarah Palin's Facebook eruption about not wanting her Down syndrome baby to go before Obama's "death panels" had gotten surprisingly little attention. That has changed, as we see in this Roger Simon column:

"Today, we live in the age of rabid response.

"Not rapid response. Rapid response was yesterday. Rapid response was the political tactic of responding quickly to all attacks, no matter how outrageous or unbelievable.

"Those who did not respond rapidly, those who told themselves the public would not believe outright lies, failed to win higher office. (Thus Democrats still blame John Kerry for not responding rapidly enough in 2004 to the attacks of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.)

"Rabid response is different. The purpose of rabid response is to scorch the earth, to raise the stakes, to go nuclear in the hope that your opponent will be so shellshocked he can make no response at all. The purpose of rabid response is to grab the public by the throat and not let go. . . .

"In olden times, Palin might have made this claim at a speech or during a news conference where reporters might have asked questions like: 'What proof do you have?' or 'Aren't you just trying to scare people?'

"But Palin does not risk that. She takes no questions. She has done her duty as a rabid responder. She has rung the tocsin, sounded the alarm, lit the signal fire.

"Truth? Accuracy? Responsibility? Not her territory."

Keith Olbermann really unloaded on Palin during a lengthy special comment:

"Madam, you are a clear and present danger to the safety and security of this nation. Whether the 'death panel' is something you dreamed, or something you dreamed-up, whether it is the product of a low intellect and a fevered imagination, or the product of a high intelligence and a sober ability to exploit people, you should be ashamed of yourself for having introduced it into the public discourse, and it should debar you, for all time, from any position of responsibility or trust in the governance of this nation or any of its states or municipalities."

At the Daily Beast, however, Lee Siegel dissents:

"For those of us who believe that the absence of universal health care is America's burning shame, the spectacle of opposition to Obama's health-care plan is Alice-in-Wonderland bewildering and also enraging -- but on one point the plan's critics are absolutely correct. The plan's -- and Obama's -- sympathy for limitations on end-of-life care is morally revolting. And it's helping to kill the plan itself.

"Make no mistake about it. Determining which treatments are 'cost effective' at the end of a person's life and which are not is one of Obama's priorities. It's one of the principal ways he counts on saving money and making universal healthcare affordable. . . .

"This is the Big Brother nightmare of oppressive government that the shrewd propagandists on the right are always blathering on about. Except that this time, they could not be more right."

Every independent journalistic looking at this has concluded that the voluntary counseling is not an avenue to euthanasia.

By the way, Palin is also being dogged by the ex-boyfriend who won't zip it:

"Sarah Palin's marriage has been in trouble from the beginning, says Levi Johnston, the father of their grandson Tripp and ex-fiance of daughter Bristol.

"What's more Levi told RadarOnline in an exclusive video interview that he believes marital problems were behind Palin's decision to resign as governor of Alaska."

Key phrase: He believes. Spare me.

Rove, Revisited

More on the Bush administration's prosecutor firings, in this LAT piece: "Karl Rove and other officials in George W. Bush's White House played an active role in the firing of the top federal prosecutor in New Mexico, according to documents released Tuesday that also show Bush political aides tried to influence Justice Department officials on other matters.

"The e-mails and interview transcripts made public by the House Judiciary Committee show Rove and other White House aides paying particular attention to complaints from Republican officials in New Mexico that U.S. Atty. David C. Iglesias had failed to help their election prospects by prosecuting alleged instances of voter fraud."

AOL's Gamble

The folks at AOL's Politics Daily weren't thrilled about my column on the three-month-old Web site, though it was certainly more positive than negative. In fact, Mediaite's Robert Quigley says I "painted Politics Daily as a fantastic wonderland of six-figure salaries, 5,000-word articles, foreign correspondents who actually go overseas, and a distaste for the 'hyperpartisan.' All of which sounds great, but could it ever turn a profit in an environment where traffic for articles like 'Strippers Compete in Palin Look-alike Contest' is likely to dwarf Afghanistan coverage for the foreseeable future? If not, what is AOL trying to pull? . . .

"Politics Daily's high-mindedness is admirable, but it raises the question of whether AOL is using the site to buy prestige. AOL and Time Warner will finally split at the end of 2009, after which the newly-created AOL Inc. will be a publicly-traded company. AOL has been telling anyone who will listen that it's reinventing itself as a content (i.e. blog) provider. Though the site may never make money, AOL could be betting that having one 'serious' site to pad out a portfolio rife with fluffy, slideshow-happy sites like Asylum and TMZ is worth the loss."

Whatever the reason, it's still putting up money for quality journalism.

True Crime?

And I thought American shows would do anything for ratings. Check out this piece from Sao Paulo:

"In one murder after another, the 'Canal Livre' crime TV show had an uncanny knack for being first on the scene, gathering graphic footage of the victim.

"Too uncanny, say police, who are investigating the show's host, state legislator Wallace Souza, on suspicion of commissioning at least five of the murders to boost his ratings and prove his claim that Brazil's Amazon region is awash in violent crime."

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