I have with me Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology and Chair of the Ph. D. Program in Communications at Columbia University. After President Obama's health care speech last Wednesday before the joint Houses of Congress, Gitlin wrote Insurance Companies: By the Numbers about the "major reason why a sensible health system has been throttled for decades."
Welcome to OpEdNews, Todd. So, what do you have to say about President Obama's speech and his new leadership role on the health care legislative front?
OK, for a start: Obama, as is his wont, spoke like an adult. That's a very fine start, don't you think? Here is what I wrote right after the speech. I'd add only that he's boxed the Republicans in, thrown them on the defensive, and turned up the heat on the Blue Dogs. Whether he had to throw in the $900 billion figure to accomplish the latter--some smart people think he conceded too much--I'm not sure. But Republican incoherence, plain nastiness, and negativity are now amply on display, and the momentum is back with reform.
I agree about Republicans looking bad, although their spin machines are always ready to reframe any issue. Obama, when he chooses to, knows how to put together a moving speech. But his leadership and a clear message have been missing from the debate, for the most part, up until now. What were you hoping for, in terms of health care legislation?
I have been hoping for something very close to universal coverage; for a public component to knock down the profiteering and bloated administrative costs that accrue to the insurance companies; for subsidies to the least able to afford health insurance; for progressive taxation that would enable the latter; and in the longer run, some honest debate about how to cut the crazy costs of the American health-care system.
Well, I think we can agree that the proposals are nowhere near that. And the president, in his speech Wednesday evening, backed off his former support for public option by saying it was a means to an end and that anything that accomplished that goal would be acceptable. As of last Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rescinded her former strong support for the public option (Harry Reid, too). Immediately after CNN covered her announcement, journalist David Sirota reported that an email blast was sent out for a Pelosi fundraiser. It will take place on September 24th at the home of Steve Elmendorf, a registered lobbyist for UnitedHealth. It's hard not to see this as a clear quid pro quo, and this legislation as just another bailout enriching the health care industry and screwing the American public. Can you offer an alternative explanation?
I did see the story about the Pelosi fundraiser. Can she really be so crude as to manage a direct quid pro quo? How will this go over in her district? Meanwhile, there are contrary developments. See Matt Yglesias [at ThinkProgress.org]. Two weeks ago, [AFL-CIO's] Rich Trumka said that "lawmakers would pay a political price if they abandon a government-run option in any health care overhaul." So, I guess it comes down to whether wobbly Dem members of Congress are more afraid of the AFL-CIO or of Pelosi. There's a lot still in play.
So, how does necessary reform happen?
The Constitution is an insuperable obstacle in the way of public opinion. Big political contributions are almost as untouchable, with all its veto effects. On this unfavorable landscape, substantial reform requires two things simultaneously: visible, sensible mass movement on the outside, coupled with well-organized progressive politics on the inside.
In your youth, you were quite involved in the SDS, a radical organization. During that time, you demonstrated against the Viet Nam War and apartheid, among other things. Bringing your activist past to bear, what advise do you have for those seeking meaningful health care reform?
My advice is to press hard for the public option; turn out for MoveOn's Sept. 22 noon rallies at health insurance headquarters; lobby Blue Dogs and a few Republicans (Voinovich?) like mad; emphasize that insurance companies have no God-given rights. Here's something I blogged today: clamor to know what insurance companies contribute to the public good that entitles them to keep 14% of proceeds for profits plus administrative costs; do your homework; don't let polls get you down; don't let journalists get you down; don't let up.
And, as we watch this play out, do you have any predictions? Will we be pleasantly surprised down the road or are we in for another chapter of entrenched special interests coming out on top?
I've never been very good at predictions. That said, I'm going to predict that Obama will end up signing a health care bill that includes either a public option or Olympia Snowe's trigger--in which case, a few years down the pike, the trigger will click and there'll be a public option that, over time, will grow.
Will such a victory help build momentum for decent climate change legislation? Right now, I'd bet against it. I desperately want to be wrong.
1. Target the profit-soaked, administration-heavy, big-lobbying insurance companies. Put a face on the enemy. MoveOn is planning to do this on Sept. 22.
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