Wednesday, March 24, 2010


"Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake."
-- Napoleon Bonaparte

There is a man to whom I would like to introduce you. Some of you will have heard of him. His name is Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, Field Marshal of the Prussian Army at Waterloo, and in my opinion the unsung hero of that battle.

He had already had a long and distinguished career in the Prussian Army, a career that included the distinction of being one of the few generals to have gotten the better of Napoleon, at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. But in 1815 his luck hadn't run quite so well. Napoleon had returned from his exile at Elba, and was back in charge in France. Von Blucher marched to meet Napoleon's army, acting in concert with his British allies under Wellington, but Napoleon got there first. While leading a charge at the Battle of Ligny, von Blucher's horse was shot out from under him, and he was trapped under the animal's body for several hours.

Most men would have called it a day after that. Gebhard von Blucher was, most decidedly, nothing like most men. Once his aides had hauled the carcass off of him, von Blucher poured some brandy on his wounds, drank the rest, gathered what was left of his army, and led them on a two-day forced march. On the 18th of June, 1815, von Blucher arrived at Waterloo with the battle hanging in the balance, just in time to pay Napoleon back, with interest.

It is worth noting that he was seventy-two years of age.

Now, I say all of this by way of prologue, since there's been a lot of blather lately about the health care bill being Obama's Waterloo. I think the comparison is apt, just not in the way that conservative pundits had surely intended it a few weeks ago. Metaphorically, Obama did not play the part of either Napoleon or of Wellington. He played the part of von Blucher, the closer. He may have showed up late to the campaign, he may have suffered an early reverse, but he rallied when it counted.

Additionally -- and somewhat tangentially -- there are a few things I find interesting about reactions to the bill.

One: I hear a lot of blather about "death panels" and "rationing" ... I find that as grimly amusing as I did last summer. As I said then, when you have a finite good and an infinite demand, you will have rationing. Medical care is a finite good: there are only so many doctors and nurses to go around. Medical care isn't quite in infinite demand, but we all want to live longer and healthier. The question is, how do we allocate those resources? One extreme is to allocate purely on the basis of the ability to pay, the other extreme is pure first-come, first-served. As I said earlier, I find both extremes unsatisfactory, for slightly different reasons. I think the new bill strikes a better balance than the one we had previously, though.

Two: The other complaint I hear is that people object to paying for the care of deadbeats and freeloaders. I'd have some sympathy for this viewpoint ... if we weren't paying for it already. If you're uninsured, and you have a serious medical problem, where do you go? To the emergency room. Emergency rooms can't turn anyone away for lack of ability to pay, that's the law. Now, doctors and hospitals have to make up that budget shortfall somewhere. They have to. Otherwise, they go under, which does none of us any real good. So, they pass that cost along to anyone they can. Those of us who can pay, do, and we find that our fees for services and procedures are inflated slightly. We also pay higher county taxes, to support the public hospitals that are shouldering the burden. More people insured means less of this nonsense. It may mean that I have to shell out a little more tax money, to pay for those premiums. Fine. At least that way, I see the bill up front, and not as a hidden cost that I can never really know. Maybe I'm weird, but I prefer to take my lumps where I can see 'em.

Three: I suspect this will have blown over by November. Understand this isn't to say that the Democrats won't take a thumping in November. I believe that's still in the cards, since a roaring, booming recovery is somewhat unlikely between now and then. Lots of people out of work translates into an angry, discontented electorate. Like it or loathe it, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; the Republicans were on the receiving end in '08, and since the Democrats are wearing the "in power" hat, it's their turn in '10. They will lose seats in the House and the Senate, the only question is how many. Intrade is quoting a 55% chance the Democrats will retain control of the House, and 75% that they'll keep the Senate. That sounds about right, given what we know today. If Pelosi keeps her job, she'll have a knife-thin majority, and will have to do some fancy dancing to get anything done legislatively.

Four: Even if Pelosi loses her job, health care reform is here to stay. There's simply no way the Republicans can capture enough seats to win a super-majority in both houses, which is what they would need to pass a repeal over a Presidential veto. And as the weeks go by, they'll discover that while the bill may poll poorly, the actual pieces of the bill will poll quite well, and their constituents won't want those bits repealed. Even though they'll blather on endlessly about repeal, understand that they have no real intention of actually doing it.

Five: It strikes me that a big part of Obama's modus operandi appears to consist of not interrupting his opponents while they make mistakes. At any point in this process, the Republican caucus could have proposed an alternative plan, or participated in the crafting of the bill. If they had, they probably could have gotten parts of their plan in the bill. Instead they elected to stonewall, betting that they could derail the whole thing ... with the result that they had to eat the whole thing. Mind you, he's not perfect, and he's as prone to mistakes and miscues as anyone. But for all that, even his mistakes are a move or two ahead of the other player's. It is an education, watching this man operate. Whether you love him or hate him, there's no denying he's fiendishly effective. He's a master of the left-hand dagger, of the sucker-punch you never saw coming.

Six: Speaking of which, I think it's fairly apparent that the Republicans are out of airspeed, out of altitude, and out of ideas. They're running on rage at this point. Rage is a useful servant but a perilous master ... and angry people make stupid mistakes. Until they take the time to figure out what they're really for as opposed to what they're against, they're going nowhere with great sound and fury. For the next few years, it's all aboard the Crazy Train. I would like to be disproven on that. Virtually everything is cyclical, and they're bound to regain power eventually; it's vitally important that they work through their fit of the howling crazies before that happens.

And that's about it for a very eventful week ... possibly the biggest we'll see in quite some time to come.

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