October 23, 2009

Mad Men, Mamie’s Funeral and the Public Option (A Political Epiphany Brought To You By Lucky Stripe—“It’s Toasted!”)

Watching MSNBC tonight, I finally realized it:

Barack Obama is Pete Campbell.

That probably sounds crazy, but bear with me for a minute.

On one level, you might think, Obama is obviously not Pete Campbell. He can’t be. He’s Don Draper!* In fact, that’s more or less what Karl Rove suggested during the election, when he described Obama by saying that, “Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."

Of course, the fact that Karl Rove thinks that painting this picture of Obama would make Americans less likely to vote for the guy speaks volumes about just how laughably bad Rove’s understanding of normal human psychology is, but let that pass. Rove’s point is basically right. Obama is smart, likeable and charismatic, like Don Draper, not a miserable little shit like Pete Campbell, right?

Well, yes, on a personal level, that’s exactly right. But when I say that Obama is Pete Campbell, I’m not talking about the guy's personality. I’m talking about his approach to the health care debate.

In fact, bearing in mind that we’re talking about Obama-the-political-strategist, not Obama-the-person, maybe it would be better and less confusing to say that Rahm Emmanuel is Pete Campbell. Whatever.

Here’s what I mean.

Pete has many, many unappealing qualities, but in his own way, he has some real insights, often being a bit more in touch with the pulse of the buying public than his generally smarter and more stylish co-workers. He’s the only one who really gets JFK’s appeal, the only one who keys into the fact that dangerousness-as-edginess will one day actually sell cigarettes. And he has at least one genuine tactical stroke of genius.

Sterling-Cooper is helping out the Nixon campaign, and they also represent Secor Laxatives. In Episode 9 of the first season, “Shoot” (easily one of my thirteen favorite episodes that season), Pete Campbell and his co-worker Harry get to reminiscing about the frats they were in back in college. Pete’s frat had a street dog named “Mamie” they adopted as their mascot. Around the time of Mamie’s death, the rival frat organizes a beauty pageant parade on Main Street for the girls on campus. To ruin their fun, Pete’s frat gets a permit from the city for, in “classic frat style,” a grand funeral march for Mamie on Main Street to be held at the time the beauty pageant parade was supposed to happen. As Pete and Harry are chuckling about this like the smarmy little assholes they are, Pete has an epiphany:

The Nixon and Kennedy campaigns are competing to buy up as much air time as possible in the key battleground states. The Nixon campaign has bought up all the air time they can, so they can’t buy them more, but…cue drum roll….they can buy up huge blocks of time in those states for Secor Laxatives. Pete leans back, a smug smile on his face, “We're selling laxatives, Nixon's selling Nixon, and Kennedy's watching Mamie's funeral."

As Roger Sterling says, later in the episode, “I honestly didn’t think he had it in him.”

Now, back to Obama. Or to Rahm Emmanuel, or whichever of the key players in the White House one chooses to find most Campbell-esque. (more after the jump)

Most all first-world countries have, in one form or another, a system that is, at the very least, single-payer. (Some, like the U.K., go beyond this, having nationalized not only health insurance, but the hospitals themselves.) Those countries pretty much uniformly out-perform America’s health care system to a really absurd extent…unless, of course, you take the World Health Organization rankings to be some sort of insidious commie propaganda masking the true fact of the matter that only Glenn Beck can see, which is that America has the best gosh darn health care system in the world. (In fact, even Cuba performs about on par with the United States of America in the WHO rankings, which is pretty amazing, considering that the former is a very poor, resource-strapped third world nation that’s been under embargo from its natural trading partner for four decades, and the latter is the wealthiest nation on the face of the planet.) Moreover, a lot of folks seem to have gotten the crazy, outlandish notion in their heads that there’s something somehow morally objectionable about letting people die in the streets because they can’t afford health insurance, or bankrupting even those that can afford it with co-pays. (Neither of these are exaggerations. If you’re willing to impoverish yourself paying it back later, everybody gets emergency room care, but if you’re dying of cancer, that’s not in the emergency room care category. Moreover, the vast majority of bankruptcies declared by people who can’t afford to pay their health care costs are declared by people who have health insurance.) As such, the rallying cry of the American left since the Truman administration has been single payer nation health insurance, an idea that polls have shown broad, deep and consistent support for among ordinary Americans since forever.**

Obviously, I personally disagree with the public's wooly-headed liberal commie thinking on these issues.*** If God had wanted the poor to have medical care, He would have made them rich, and as one of my favorite Dickens characters points out so eloquently, you have to dispose of the surplus population in one way or another. As such, I thank God every day that here in the greatest nation He has ever given us, He has blessed us with a health insurance industry with the wisdom to pour gazillions of dollars into the pockets of both parties, securing a broad, deep bipartisan consensus that joining the rest of the first world by enacting single payer would be madness. As such, President Obama has always been wise enough to say that the option of a single payer system is “off the table.” We can “reform” the private health insurance industry, but no matter what the polls might indicate that the peasants want, we by all means shouldn’t actually abolish it.

In fact, since the good lord has blessed us with such a fine and excellent private health insurance industry, the main way that we should reform it is to legally force all citizens to buy that industry’s product. Just think of the profit margins! The increased political power!

This is a genius idea, and so it has quite correctly been the centerpiece of ObamaCare.

But wait.

The President has the following problem. What about that damned annoying liberal base that wants, and has always wanted, single payer? You know, the people who got him elected? Clearly, they’ll have to be pacified somehow.

Perhaps Barack and Rahm were reminiscing about college. Perhaps they were watching a Mad Men re-run. I don’t know. What I do know is that they pulled the most spectacular bait-and-switch since Pete Campbell’s massive air time buy for Secor Laxatives:

Start talking about a “public option.” Always talk about it in the vaguest possible terms. Don’t talk about who will and won’t be eligible, whether people will still have to pay premiums (in which case this won’t exactly be “public” in the way that “public schools” are public, or Police and Fire Departments, or, hey, I don’t know, genuinely public health care systems in the rest of the first world are “public”), how much the co-pays will be, what it will cover. Stick with vague. Vague is your friend. The base knows it’s going to be hard to get single payer, so if it has the word “public” in it, they can read all of their hopes and dreams and aspirations into your vagueness. And, trust me, they will. These people are desperate. Seal the deal by talking about it in a way that insinuates that it will be available to anyone who wants it, but of course without ever actually coming out and saying that. If you just use the word “competition” a lot, saying things like “forcing the private health insurance companies to compete with a public option will drive down prices," this will lead people to draw their own conclusions, like, I don’t know, that the public option will be competing for the health insurance preferences of ordinary people. (The strategy here is much the same as the way that that Bush administration officials always artfully gave people the impression that Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to the September 11th terrorist attacks, without ever quite saying it.) Keep on talking about it until 95% of the debate is about the public option, and almost nobody even bothers to bring up single payer as a possibility. Keep on talking about it until, as pale and ridiculous a shadow of what they actually wantas this poorly-defined, bullshitty “public option” may be, the damned thing is under such fierce attack that the liberal base starts seriously worrying that they might lose even that, and they rally to its defense.

Now, here’s comes, as Ford Prefect would say, “the clever bit.” Start sounding little hints and signals and trial balloons that suggest that you’re actually backing off from even the tiny little crumb that is “the public option.” Use whatever excuse you need to for this, because it’s a key step. Anything will work, even an excuse as lame and strange as “bipartisanship,” as if that was even a little relevant when you’re in control of both Houses of Congress and the Presidency and you have the kind of approval ratings the last President would have cut off his own right arm for and the Republican Party is as defeated and marginal as you could hope for it to be. Fuck it. It doesn’t matter. Your excuse doesn’t have to make sense. All that matters is that you seem to believe it, and you’ve got folks scared that you’re backing off even from the “public option.”

Now, the labor unions, the left-wing advocacy groups, the progressive wing of your party and a massive section of the general public will be furious at you and they’ll let you know. This will be where the left takes its last pathetic little stand. At this point in the debate, anything that has the words “public option” in it will feel like a massive victory to them, no matter how pointless or toothless it ends up being.

You let them “win.” As versions are being negotiated, some sort of “public option” is back in the mix. There is much rejoicing. Only then do you really start to hammer out the details of said public option, which will be, hmm, not actually too greatly expanded from what currently exists as Medicare. And, um, states will be able to opt out (makes sense, right, like how states can opt out of Social Security and…oh, wait, no they can’t), a provision that absolutely guarantees that in some of the poorest states in the union, some of the states most desperately in need of government-provided medical care, Republicans in charge will score points with movement conservatives by opting out.****

And, oh yeah, can’t forget this, according to the numbers mentioned on Countdown on MSNBC tonight, it’s very clear that, at a bare minimum, 200 million plus Americans, the vast majority of the public, will not be eligible for it. Remember how the President’s always said that the public option will only be an option, and if you like the insurance you’re currently getting through your employer, you can keep it? Well, it turns out that the little detail he was leaving out was that even if you don’t like the insurance you’re currently getting through your employer, tough shit, you have to keep it.

Most people will have no option but to keep on enriching the private insurance profiteers, keep on getting bankrupted by their co-pays when loved ones get cancer, with no public option competing for their business and no competition-fueled decrease in costs. Only, hey, under likely versions of “reform,” they’ll now have the excellent twist of being legally coerced into buying the private insurance industry’s product. Reform is fun! And profitable!

So…to sum up…

The Obama White House? They get to claim a major policy victory, one that the last Democrat in the White House tried and failed to achieve in the 90s.

The Republicans? Well, they can be counted on to score points with the talk radio crowd, but further alienate everyone else, by voting against it. Best of all, they don't control enough votes in the House or Senate to be relevant to the outcome. Even on the fantastically unlikely off-chance that they try to filibuster it, the ensuing circus will inevitably play out in favor of the White House, and the legislation will go through anyway.

The private insurance industry? They get millions and millions of new customers. Their executives get to buy bigger yachts and their PAC’s and lobbyists will be able to wield even more political power to head off serious reform in the future.

And the liberal base?

Well….

The liberal base will be watching Mamie’s funeral.



*If you don’t know who these people I’m talking about are, you need to stop reading this, get in the car, go first to Blockbuster and then to the best liquor store in driving distance. Pick up the first season of Mad Men at Blockbuster, pick up a bottle of nice single malt at the liquor store, then go home and consume both. (Together, obviously. It’s just silly to watch Mad Men without a drink in your hand.) It really is, hands, down, the best show on television in the post-Sopranos era.
**Even now, every poll showing widespread opposition to ObamaCare shows that far more people think it doesn’t go far enough than think it goes too far.
***I guess I should add “fascist” to that list somewhere as well, since if we’ve learned nothing else from Glenn Beck, it’s that liberalism=communism=fascism. I would never even think about questioning the obvious wisdom of Beck’s classification scheme.
****Will that cause people to move from those states to states that do provide it, thus ultimately harming those states and providing momentum to opt back in someday, as some desperate liberals have tried to argue? OK, maybe, but guess what? Most poor people, with jobs and families and stuff, aren’t really in a position to pick up and move just whenever. Most of the people who really need public health care in deep red states will just be fucked. But, hey, that’s OK, right, since it’s a “clever” “compromise”? Yeah….

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