It Isnít Just a Game
In November of 1979, Iranian militants invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 Americans hostage. A few were sent home shortly afterwards, but 52 of them remained captives of these terrorists for 444 excruciating days, finally being released after a long, arduous series of negotiations and a failed rescue attempt.
The Iranian hostage crisis was a stark illustration of how difficult it is for two parties to reach an agreement when they operate on completely different moral levels. As a friend of mine put it at the time, "The problem is that we care if innocent people get killed. They don't."
The Iranians had no interest in ending the stalemate, and didn't care if it ended badly; meanwhile, our own adherence to principles like the rule of law and protecting the innocent limited some of our options to achieve a quick end to the crisis. Mind you, I am not arguing that sticking to our principles is necessarily wrong, if at all – the hostages did all eventually come back home without us dropping nukes on Tehran. But this is as good an indication as any of asymmetrical negotiating positions – the party that has the least to lose benefits the most by being as intransigent as possible.
Such is the impasse we've reached on health-care reform. There are two types of congressmen and senators in Washington: those who care that 44,000 Americans a year are dying from a lack of health insurance, and those who, like Rhett Butler, just “don't give a damn.” Those legislators who do care about reform, those who entered public office in the spirit of service, have been working extremely hard to pass health-care reform that amounts to something more than free cash for the insurance industry, which is what Medicare Part D was. Meanwhile, the public "servants" on the other side don't really care if the whole process blows up, so they have a structural advantage in the negotiations.
And that's exactly what's been happening. Health-care reform proponents have made concession after concession after concession – from dropping a single-payer system as an option from the very beginning, to allowing the public option to be watered down to the point where it's become virtually meaningless, to even dropping a proposal to revoke the antitrust exemption for the insurance industry, something that should be a complete no-brainer.
The anti-reform elements haven't moved an inch, and remain unimpressed. Why? Because these congressmen and women really don't care that Americans are dying – if they didn't care that Americans died (and continue to die) in Iraq and Afghanistan, why would they be swayed by a few hundred thousand extra cancer deaths? If reform fails, it's all the same to them. Just keep those fat lobbyist checks coming.
Need a little evidence? Just consider what's happened to the public option opt-out proposal. The concept was an inspired way to bridge the gap between those who believe the public option is essential to providing competition for the insurance industry, and those who equate it with the “End of Western Civilization,” or something. If one of those red states (one of the ones you find clustered at the bottom of the per-capita income rankings) doesn't want its citizens to be exposed to that eeeevil, eeeevil, eeeevil commie pinko, socialistic public option, they can simply turn it down, and never be disturbed by it. Meanwhile, the blue, better-educated, higher-income states would happily adopt it, and we'll see who lives longer.
A perfectly sensible compromise, no? If you don't want the public option in your red-state paradise, you don't have to get it. Moreover, "states' rights" are supposed to be a major conservative fetish – it’s very difficult for a conservative to make a rational and honest argument against the opt-out proposal. (Which is why they're never asked to.) But apparently the right-wing leaders of some of our states are perfectly happy to make decisions for more progressive states when it suits their purpose.
And their purpose is to destroy the whole health-care reform effort, which is why their so-called principles, like "states' rights," fly out the window when it's convenient. That's what the advocates of health-care reform are up against. They're dealing with the Iranian militants here.
The rhetoric of health-care opponents, the Grassleys and the Liebermans of the Senate, drips with contempt for those who suffer from health crises. To them, it's all just a game. But to the rest of us, it's a very real problem, and the solution is well within our grasp. We just have to remember that we're dealing with some seriously bad people on the other side. But if the hostages eventually came home, then we can get health-care reform by sticking to the high road. Just stop treating the teabagger elements as if they had the best interests of the nation in mind. They don't.