Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why Daniel Henninger is Depressed

As one of the WSJ editorial page's chief ideological warriors, Daniel Henninger is easily depressed these days. Here's what he has to say about Obama's latest speech:
Listen closely to that Tuesday night Wisconsin speech. Unhinge yourself from the mesmerizing voice. What one hears is a message that is largely negative, illustrated with anecdotes of unremitting bleakness. Heavy with class warfare, it is a speech that could have been delivered by a Democrat in 1968, or even 1928. [snip]

Here's his America: "lies awake at night wondering how he's going to pay the bills . . . she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill . . . the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt . . . the teacher who works at Dunkin' Donuts after school just to make ends meet . . . I was not born into money or status . . . I've fought to bring jobs to the jobless in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant . . . to make sure people weren't denied their rights because of what they looked like or where they came from . . . Now we carry our message to farms and factories."

It ends: "We can cast off our doubts and fears and cynicism because our dream will not be deferred; our future will not be denied; and our time for change has come."

I am not saying all of this is false. But it is a depressing message to ride all the way to the White House.
Let's get this straight. To rally the country to deal with widening income inequality, a health system that leaves 45 million people uninsured and another 30 million underinsured, a massive transfer of risk of all kinds onto individuals,and the wage pressures imposed by globalization is to be 'depressing.' To tell the country 'yes we can" deal with these major social ills, to say that the American dream and the American ideal calls us to share opportunity, share risk, and yes, share wealth more equitably is to purvey "a vision of the United States that is quite grim and could wear thin in the general election."

In an odd way, this free market fundamentalist response to Obama makes me happy. It shows that economic conservatives have nothing left. Only an ideologically blinkered remnant still believes that that we have not failed miserably in recent years to deal with the festering social ills that both Obama and Clinton are calling us to deal with. The readers commenting on the transcript of Obama's Martin Luther King Day speech did not find his message 'depressing' -- instead they poured out their admiration with comments like these:
"Beautiful! I’m a republican but I would vote for Senator Obama over Senator McCain!"

"Obama is the most inspiring candidate I’ve ever heard. He has caused me to switch from the Repulican to the Democratic Party and I will be volunteering in has campaign. Enough of the cynicism and doubt. Go Obama!"

"I’m a republican thats going to vote for Obama. Rather be for a party that is for the people and not just the wealthy corporate elite."
Obama has devoted his adult life to protecting the rights and increasing opportunity for the least advantaged. At the same time, as his much maligned comments about Reagan demonstrated, he has absorbed the lessons of liberal excess in the '60s and '70s --he's not calling for welfare as we used to know it or a protectionist regime. Here's that rounded awareness, from his speech at a GM plant in Janesville, WI on 2/13:
Now we know that we cannot put up walls around our economy. We know that we cannot reverse the tide of technology that’s allowed businesses to send jobs wherever there’s an internet connection. We know that government cannot solve all our problems, and we don’t expect it to.
He is pragmatic and inclusive enough to drive legislation that Republicans can buy into. It is because he is not bitter, because he calls on America to do better out of a deep confidence in the country's historical success in moving progressively closer to fulfilling the ideals expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution, that Americans of every political stripe are responding to him. Here is the flip side of the vision that Henninger finds so bitter, again from Janesville:
But that doesn’t mean we have to accept an America of lost opportunity and diminished dreams. Not when we still have the most productive, highly-educated, best-skilled workers in the world. Not when we still stand on the cutting edge of innovation, and science, and discovery. Not when we have the resources and the will of a decent, generous people who are ready to share in the burdens and benefits of a global economy. I am certain that we can keep America’s promise – for this generation and the next.

And, from the beginning of the same speech, the simple credo that engenders both the criticism and the promise:

But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America – that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it’s not – when opportunity is uneven or unequal – it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.
A few hours after reading Henninger, I happened on (via Ezra Klein) a magnificently clear-headed debunking of myths about Canadian healthcare on written by a certain Sara Robinson who has lived under both systems -- at times simultaneously, as a Canadian citizen with an American employer. The most telling part of her analysis (in Part II) focused on the national security risks posed by a healthcare system in which legions of un- and underinsured put off going to the doctor when they are ill. Robinson contrasted the swift, thorough, efficient action of the Canadian healthcare system to contain the SARS outbreak with a likely scenario had the outbreak occured in the U.S.:
If the first people to get sick were among those 75 million without adequate insurance, they probably would have toughed it out a few extra days before finally dragging their half-dead carcasses into an ER somewhere. Not only would they be much farther along in the course of the disease -- and thus at greater risk of death themselves -- every one of them could have infected dozens or even hundreds of other people in the meantime, accelerating the spread of the epidemic.
Robinson argues that a country that aspires truly to be a commonwealth is more healthy in the broadest sense:
Part of what makes a country competitive is its own commitment to the common good. I've often been impressed by the very tangible sense of civic pride and shared effort my Canadian neighbors have in the fact that they're taking the best possible care of their own, regardless of status, age, or ethnicity. Every encounter with the medical system reminds them that they're all in this together. A medical system that routinely drives families into bankruptcy or divorce court is actively destroying, rather than adding to, the essential social capital that makes the whole society function.
To free market ideologues like Henniger, that 'social capital' is a chimera. But the American electorate is ready to invest.

Related Posts:
McCain and Lieberman's Bridge to Nowhere
Will-fully Misleading?
Niall Ferguson's Fog of War
Dissing the Electorate

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