Why Our System Doesn't Work

EVEN IN SUCCESS, 'THE SYSTEM' IS IN TROUBLE.... We've all heard the phrase, "The system worked." It's usually uttered after some contentious, tumultuous, needlessly complicated process meets with a satisfactory conclusion. The suitable result, in these cases, came not from a radical departure from existing norms, but by slowly, painfully working within the framework already in place.

When it comes to health care reform, one might be tempted to think "the system," in the broadest possible sense, "worked." We had hearings, a lengthy debate, and a back and forth that I suppose we can describe as spirited. In the end, the House culled together a majority to pass its bill, and the Senate managed to overcome Republican obstructionism and pass its bill with a 60-vote majority. It wasn't pretty, and it was excruciating to watch at times, but after compromising, cajoling, persuading, and arm-twisting, health care reform worked its way through the system.

Our politics, the argument goes, must not be completely broken, since policymakers were able to identify a problem, propose a solution, and pass legislation. It might even give someone hope -- if officials can work within the system to address the health care crisis, they presumably can do the same to address any number of other major policy challenges.

Mark Schmitt, who was pleased with this morning's vote, explains why that would be the wrong lesson to have learned.

The reason [the health care vote] feels like a loss is simply that fact, that any sense of movement or possibility in our political institutions -- and again, I mean mostly the Senate but not only the Senate -- is gone. Getting exactly 60 votes, on an issue where the ground has been prepared, is possible only on rare occasions. That Obama, and Harry Reid and his allies, hit that small target on the single issue that has eluded every progressive president before him is wonderful for both the health-care system, and for those millions who need care, but still, it does not bode well for our political future.

I've always argued that Obama viewed his central domestic mission as changing the culture and practice of American politics. The passage of health reform is a revelation of just how desperately that change is needed and how difficult it will be to achieve.


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