Old School: What Today’s Progressives Can Learn from Yesterday’s Conservatives

I am, yet again, behind the times. This time the culprits were a flight from Philadelphia to London, a bit of jetlag, and a search for an apartment (which ended successfully). Meanwhile, my second blog post went live on the Sun-Sentinel site three days ago. It’s an analysis of Barack Obama’s political strategy to pass health care reform. The conventional wisdom among the chattering classes is that he wasn’t assertive enough, that he put too much power in Congress’s hands, that he didn’t take his case to the public early enough. The paradox is that conventional wisdom also holds that Bill Clinton failed in 1993-94 precisely because he took control of the issue and basically handed Congress the finished product. I look at it from a different angle. You can read my take here. As usual, a few addenda:  

  • The inspiration for this post came from Sam Tanenhaus’s excellent The Death of Conservatism. I’m not much on the recent fad of end-of-times-for-Republicans predictions — politics is cyclical, after all — but this one is too erudite and insightful to pass up. The title is an attention-grabber that doesn’t do the book justice. It’s a much more subtle analysis of what conservatism means, how the label has changed, and how conservatives have changed the United States. Tanenhaus is a liberal, so conservatives will find much to debate in his opinions. It is, however, a debate worth having.
  • Tanenhaus’s passages on Edmund Burke were very helpful for my post. If you’re interested in conservatism, you should also take a look at Austin Bramwell’s qualms with Tanenhaus’s characterization of Burke. Like I said, this is the debate we should be having.
  • There is historical evidence that the approach of “Burkean steps,” as I called them, work for health care reform: That is how Britain created the National Health Service. Talk about progressives taking a page out of the conservative book!
  • “Health care seems to be low on our priority list, below tax cuts, wars, and financial bailouts at least,” wrote Mark Thoma recently. “Why? One reason is that most voters already have health care and their message is a simple one, reform is fine – we should cover everyone – so long as I don’t have to pay more in taxes, my benefits aren’t cut, and the quality of care isn’t compromised (even those currently on Medicare might wonder if their benefits could be preserved at the current cost if the program was extended to everyone). I don’t think people understand the extent to which employer based care will diminish in the future putting their care at risk, i.e. the risk that they face if we do not reform the system…” I added the emphasis at the end. The whole quote sums up the aversion to health care reform — much of which is quite reasonable — and that last part has been poorly explained by the President. That is my other criticism of his political strategy.
  • Jeff Sachs gives a nice example of how we can tackle climate change in Burkean steps. I’m not sold on his point about nuclear power. It’s more expensive than most people realize, and we still don’t have a reliable way to store the waste. Overall, though, it’s nice to see a progressive thought leader taking this approach.

As usual, if you tried to read those bullet points without reading the original post, you’re probably lost. Check it out here.