Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Taking Yes for an Answer

Lately, when I drive to a nearby town or city, I find myself greeted by handmade signs that proclaim "NO!" to "EU Dictatorship." There are a lot of such "NO" signs around these days, but there are even more (much slicker, professionally printed) "YES" signs around.

Just as the United States is going through a sometimes raucous public discussion, featuring sometimes passionate and even hyperbolic language (death panels, anyone?), on what to do about health care, Ireland is going through its own similarly heated public debate on something called the Lisbon Treaty. The main difference between the two situations is that on Friday Irish voters will get a chance to decide what happens with the Lisbon Treaty, while in the US it is Congress that will take action (or not) on health care and, the president's shifting deadlines notwithstanding, action will happen basically whenever it happens.

The two situations make an interesting comparison. Both have stirred strong feelings on the two sides of the argument. And both ultimately come down to voters' willingness to make a leap of faith in the abilities and intentions of politicians and bureaucrats.

The Lisbon Treaty is essentially a new constitution for the European Union. It would amend the Maastricht Treaty, which has served as the EU's constitution since 1992. And just as the current stab at U.S. health care reform follows an abortive attempt several years earlier, this is not the first time that Irish voters have considered this treaty. It was submitted to them in 2001 when it was called the Nice Treaty (after the French city, not because it was particularly meant to be likable and pleasant). These treaties require ratification by every member state in order for them to go into effect, but the Irish constitution is the only one that requires them to be submitted to voter approval.

The main similarity between health care reform in the U.S. and the Lisbon Treaty in Europe is that they both involve volumes of pages of legalspeak that ordinary people (and, if the truth be told, probably most politicians) don't really understand. And so the public debates tend to be over prospective or imagined consequences rather than over specific language in the relevant documents. Many Americans worry that the health care bill is a first major step toward socialism. Many Irish worry that the new EU constitution is tantamount to a loss of national sovereignty. The "no" campaigners raise the spectre of Ireland losing its neutrality, of being required to participate in military action, of being forced to legalize abortion (which is prohibited here). Abortion has figured in the American health care debate as well. Opponents fear that, once the government is, through its funding for health insurance, calling the shots, government money will be spent on abortions -- just as Democratic administrations always restore the abortion funding to foreign aid that Republican administrations have cut off.

When the Irish rejected the Nice Treaty, it seemed to be out of frustration for not understanding what they were asked to vote on. Also, there seemed to be resentment and a sense that there was something fundamentally undemocratic about national legislatures in every other country more or less rubber stamping the new constitution without citizens of other countries getting to have a vote. But this time around, the proponents (virtually all political parties except the Socialists and IRA frontmen Sinn Féin) have framed the issue as yes means support for Europe and no means rejection of Europe. The other major difference is that Ireland is struggling through a bad recession. It's as if the strangely superstitious Irish feel that God punished them for voting no last time and so, at least the polls seem to indicate, they will vote yes this time.

In the U.S., Democrats have similarly tried to frame the health care question as yes means helping oneself and others and no means keeping the status quo -- even though not a single politician that I have heard favors the status quo. But, if opinion polls are any indication, most Americans aren't buying it at this point. Assertions that you can start up a huge new government program and still be revenue neutral are just too silly even for the dimmest of news consumers to buy. So why make that claim? Why make the issue the candor and truthfulness of reform's supporters instead of having an honest discussion of costs and benefits?

One reason is that such a discussion is awfully complicated to have on a national scale. Another is that politicians always tend to underestimate the common sense of American voters.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


When Barack Obama was running for president, his opponents criticized as naive his stated intention to rely more on diplomacy and engagement, and less on sabre rattling and military force, in dealing with other countries. Obama's response was to insist that he was not talking about merely giving other countries what they want but entering into tough negotiations with them.

So far, we have reason to be concerned about the new president's negotiating skills. Our first red flag would have been the way he has negotiated with Republicans and, more importantly, with members of his own party over health care reform. While he has consistently stated his preference for the so-called public option (government-run insurance in competition with private insurance), he signalled early on that the lack of a public option was not a deal-breaker for him. This was tantamount to guaranteeing that there would be no public option. After all, why would any legislator opposed to it change his or her mind, knowing that its omission would not result in a presidential veto? Instead, once Obama had decided that the public option was not a deal-breaker for him, he could have continued to insist on it until the crucial final horse-trading and then given it up in exchange for something else he really wanted. This is what is known as a bargaining chip. Anyone who has dealt with businesses or unions or politics knows this.

Is this strange negotiating behavior indicative of how the president would deal with other countries? So far, the signs are not good. Last week President Obama announced that he was abandoning the missile shield that had been planned for Eastern Europe. Some observers thought this was a good idea. Some thought it was a bad idea. But one thing that foreign policy wonks could agree on, whatever their positions, was that Obama had given away a very valuable bargaining chip for free. Russia hated the idea of the missile shield. And America has wanted Russia's support in putting pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear project, something the Russians have declined to give. The logical thing would have been to give every indication of proceeding with the shield but negotiating to give it up in exchange for Russian cooperation.

Now maybe this has happened. Maybe there were secret communications to this effect or some sort of understanding so that the quid pro quo is not too obvious. But so far there is not a shred of evidence that this is the case. Or maybe the Russians will decide to help out with Iran on their own, to reciprocate for Obama's gesture. It's possible, but would you be willing to bet a lot of your own money that this is the case? Barring any forthcoming evidence to the contrary, it looks like the president gave away a huge bargaining chip for free. So much for a new age of skilled diplomacy and tough negotiating.

Interestingly, when Obama sat down with ABC's George Stephanopoulos for one of his many interviews on Sunday, Stephanopoulos brought up the first summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev and how Khrushchev "cleans his clock." Already at this point, Obama was visibly bristling. The reporter asked the president if he felt he had had such a moment yet. After stumbling around verbally for a few seconds and saying "I don't mean to be immodest here," Obama turned the subject back to health care, saying that he had been "humbled" by his inability to get people to understand the issue: "It's -- this has been a sufficiently tough, complicated issue with so many moving parts that, you know, no matter how much I've -- I've tried to keep it digestible, you know, it's very hard for people to get their -- their whole arms around it. And that's been a case where I have been humbled..."

This may be the first time we have seen the president to be aware of the limits of his own considerable powers of persuasion.