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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Because it was Super Bowl week–and I happened to be watching a rebroadcast of the New York Giants’ amazing Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots, in which his son Zack made the tackle on the final kickoff of the game–I checked in with Steve DeOssie, an acquaintance of mine who also won a Super Bowl ring for the New York Giants, back in 1991. Steve is very politically active and astute, and although we don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, I respect him a lot and his opinions.

DeOssie and his former Patriots teammate Fred Smerlas co-own a steakhouse in Providence, Rhode Island. They are sports media celebrities in New England akin to Curt Schilling. They also happen to be friends and political supporters of none other than new Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, and were on hand at Brown’s election night victory party. (For non-football fans, in the picture that’s Fred on the left and Steve on the right.)

When I asked Steve what he thought about the Brown victory, he told me that most of the national media misinterpreted what happened in Massachusetts. So I asked Steve what the real message of Brown’s victory is. Here is what he emailed me, verbatim and unedited:

Much of the media seems to be missing the point or the cause of the election. On the right they want to believe it was anti-Obama or anti-healthcare. On the left they try to spin the idea that it was just about the poor performance of Coakley. Having been to at least 20 of Scott’s campaign events I can tell you it was none of those reasons. The most consistent attitude was that people wanted to slow down the process. There was a natural reaction even in the most liberal of states to not want anything forced on them the way the healthcare seemed to be. People up here were not anti anything except the healthcare process. They saw it as sneaky and underhanded. Even in Massachusetts, people did not want something that unknown forced on the country. Either way I am glad the process will slow down some but I will not put even a good friend like Scott on that political pedestal like some people are trying to do.

Note Steve’s use of the word process three separate times. Now, the most consistent complaints one heard from conservative politicians, pundits and activists about the process of healthcare reform were that Obama held some closed-door meetings; that the backroom deals with senators like Ben Nelson and especially Mary Landrieu looked shady; and, in general, that reform was being sped through Congress without sufficient time for citizens to figure out what the policy reforms would mean for them individually or for the nation in terms of entitlement obligations or overall spending.

Let me take each of these three complaints in order.

1. Closed meetings. From energy to wiretapping to Iraq, the Bush Administration was one of the least transparent presidencies in history, and Obama has surely been more transparent than his predecessor. But conservatives correctly respond to that by saying, “Hey, Obama ran as a guy who said he would change the way politics was conducted in Washington, and if he’s behaving not much differently from Dick Cheney, well, what was the point of electing him?” Though there is a double standard here, they’re right: Obama promised to be different. I think that this complaint is the strongest of the three. If you seem like you are hiding something, whether you are or not, voters become immediately suspicious–and with cause.

2. Congressional deal-making. The deals brokered with members of Congress seem less objectionable. Obama’s election did not obviate the U.S Congress, nor did it somehow eliminate self-interested behavior by pivotal members of Congress willing to prevent otherwise solid majorities–the Democrats, after all, had 60 seats and the states they represented accounted for even more than 60 percent of the country–from passing legislation by logrolling or stonewalling in order to gain their support. Moreover, neither Landrieu nor Nelson were holdouts resisting from the left side of the Democratic spectrum by publicly opposing the president and then negotiating concessions for more liberal versions of healthcare. Landrieu and Nelson are conservative Democrats, and Nelson’s resistance was predicated on his anti-abortion stance. Is it not a little hypocritical for conservatives and Republicans to complain about the Administration’s capitulation to people like Nelson? Had Obama publicly maligned Nelson for being a small-state senator who was manipulating the anti-majoritarian and often very secretive process of Senate holds so he could hold health care hostage in defense of the unborn, would the same conservatives who complained about shady practices have applauded the president for his forthright and transparent dressing down of a pro-life Democrats? I seriously doubt it.

And while we’re on the subject of congressional protocol and shady procedural practices, may I ask: Where were all these “procedural conservatives” back in 2004 complaining about the largest entitlement expansion of the past 40 years being “rammed” down America’s throat, no less their knowing manipulation of costs estimates for a bill that conservative economic Bruce Bartlett reminds us is costing the country MORE annually than the health care reform bill Democrats and Obama are proposing? I recognize that many budget-minded conservatives criticized George W. Bush for the cost of his anti-competitive, Big Pharma-giveaway, cater-to-the-senior-vote-and-the-budget-be-damned Medicare Plan D prescription drug legislation. But it was the House vote on that bill that was held open more than three hours (15 minutes is the standard time) and included what may well have been an illegal arm-twisting of Republican Congressman Nick Smith. Again, I’m not saying that just because the Bush Administration slipped an $800 billion prescription drug package through Congress literally in the middle of the night that the Obama Administration should do the same. But where was the outrage then?

3. Speed kills. Finally, there is the matter of the ramming down America’s throats of healthcare reform. I suppose in terms of the specific legislation in various forms that was working through Congress in 2009, one might say a year is too speedy a process. And there were so many bills it was hard to keep track of them, which was the downside of the Administration’s decision to let Congress take the lead rather than trying a Clinton-style approach by advancing an administration bill. Still, there was ample and many forums for debate. And, to be fair, the broader healthcare reform conservation in America hardly began on January 20, 2009: Both parties, and especially the Democrats, spent the better part of two years during the 2008 presidential cycle arguing about reform proposals. And if you want to take the longer view, the country has been arguing about how to reform our employer-based healthcare system since at least 1993, and really since the Truman Administration. Did we debate Medicare Part D as long? Not even close. But that’s a benefit for seniors, who are older and whiter and vote more regularly than the poorer, darker and less insured people Obama is trying to cover. Haste is of the essence when legislating for the former, but patience is demanded when legislating for the latter. Are we to believe that is a coincidence?

Nor do I recall the procedural complaints about the speed with which we went to war in Iraq. Heck, people like Phil Donahue who so much as dared question the decision were mocked and shunted aside. (Mocking those who questioned the “process” back then made one a patriot; mocking and shunting aside Tea Partiers makes one an transparency-hating elitist, however.) Remember: The policy discussion prior to the Iraq decision—as Andrew Card conceded, the political rollout began on Labor Day weekend 2002—was at most six months; and if, in fact, President Bush actually decided privately—and yes, in a very non-transparent way—to invade Iraq in late December 2002 or early January 2003, that process was really only about four months. (Oh, and if Bush really decided well before Labor Day 2002, that means the decision was made *before* the process started.) And do we really need to revisit how much of the information during that national “debate” was manipulated, hidden and misrepresented? If public policy professors are looking for a model of governmental non-transparency, it’s hard to top the Iraq war “debate.”

Steve DeOssie makes some great points, and I wish conservatives in Washington like Charles Krauthammer—who all-too-conveniently would have us believe that Scott Brown’s victory more or less vindicates, well, every idea or belief Charles Krauthammer has ever espoused—would listen a bit more closely at the very moment they are telling the Administration it has a listening problem. And while I appreciate their newfound insistence on government transparency generally and ending political logrolling specifically—a practice, by the way, that hardly began with Mary Landrieu and essentially dates back to the negotiations 223 years ago over the language of Constitution itself—the recent good-government conversions by some conservatives are a bit suspicious and, in some cases, appallingly disingenuous.

Meanwhile, Obama is now participating in a bi-partisan commission and publicly debated House Republicans live on television in their backyard–and without any notes written on his palm. These actions are unlike anything that was done by the Bush Administration, which had to be shamed by 9/11 victims into agreeing to even have a commission to investigate the pre-attack intelligence failures of our government, nor did Bush visit a caucus of House Democrats to defend the claims of Al Qaeda-Iraq connections or how exactly that yellowcake or mobile weapons labs on the back of 18-wheelers managed to get into Saddam’s hands. So we will have greater transparency, and that’s a good thing as an end in itself. But does anyone want to bet that a highly-transparent policy process, and certainly one that departs dramatically from the politics of the past decade, will be sufficient to end conservative complaints?

I hope the president and his advisers take careful note of what Steve said above. And I’m also hoping that Scott Brown—who really does seem like an eminently thoughtful and reasonable person—will call out his fellow Republican partisans if and when, by some crazy chance, they ever happen to engage in anything less than good faith bargaining and virtuously transparent politics in Washington. If he does, I’ll advocate for his re-election in 2012 to a full term. Of course, if Brown fails to call out non-transparent behavior and other procedural shenanigans, he’ll be guilty of becoming corrupted by the very same Washington forces he and Obama both criticized in order to get elected.

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