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Barack Obama couldn’t possibly have meant his campaign promise to hold negotiations on major legislation in public, broadcast live on C-SPAN. How could he?
He’d been in the Illinois legislature for eight years and in the Senate for two, not enough experience to make him a Robert Byrd–style expert on Senate procedure going back to the Romans, but surely enough to realize that much important work has to take place in secret.
If sunshine is a great disinfectant, it’s also a great encouragement to grandstanding and obfuscation. Sensitive negotiations have to be private or no one will discuss anything frankly. If all Capitol Hill negotiations were broadcast, then the significant discussions would all occur in private “pre-negotiations” — the real wheel-dealing inevitably retreating before exposure like a vampire before the dawn.
Even if this fact of life escaped Obama during his time as a legislator — in fairness, he was distracted in the Senate by the crush of his own incipient political celebrity — he might have noted the same basic principle prior to his ascension. Did the University of Chicago hold its faculty meetings in public? Did he eschew all private strategy sessions as a community organizer?
Obama’s campaign pledge recalls, on a far less grand scale, Woodrow Wilson’s call for “open covenants, openly arrived at” during World War I, a prelude to his sitting down with the leaders of Britain and France over a map in secret and divvying up the world. Except Wilson was legitimately a naïf in international relations. Obama just struck a pose.
C-SPAN honcho Brian Lamb kindly offered to broadcast the negotiations between the Senate and the House over the details of the health-care bill. The White House pronounced that unnecessary, since many other discussions had been public. Recall, for instance, the October gathering of doctors supportive of Obamacare in the Rose Garden, before which they were all given very doctorly white coats to wear for the cameras. What’s that, if not transparent?
Besides which, there won’t be any negotiations, at least not as traditionally conducted. They typically take place in a conference committee between the Senate and the House. Since this would afford Republicans further opportunities to highlight embarrassments and to delay, Democrats have decided on a more hurried, informal process for the most complex and significant legislation to pass Congress in decades. All in secret, of course.
Nancy Pelosi had the best gloss on Obama’s transparency pledge, sloughing it off as just another one of those disposable things he said on the trail. But this gets to the essential insincerity of Obama’s former good-government purism, of the pledge to take public funds in the general election (abandoned when the vista of mounds of private dollars beckoned), of post-partisanship (abandoned when it might constrain his ambitions), and of open negotiations (abandoned on first contact with reality).
This is one of the starkest paradoxes of American politics: that George W. Bush — whatever his other flaws — was ingenuous to a fault, while the herald of a new politics, Barack Obama, was insincere to the point of cynicism, especially about the process issues that were so central to his new-politics appeal. He punked voters into believing he represented a new way of doing business, before immediately embracing the old practices on behalf of a very old agenda of state aggrandizement.
The public’s dawning awareness of this accounts for the rapidly closing window for health care and other major initiatives. The Democrats’ race against time — and their inability to command popular support — makes the process uglier than ever. Sen. Ben Nelson is on roughly his fourth explanation for the Cornhusker Kickback, the enormous Medicaid payoff for his vote, each more implausible than the last. It’d be instructive to see his panicked strategy sessions about the wave of revulsion to his deal in Nebraska and even among his fellow Democratic senators. But they won’t be on C-SPAN, either.