The prevailing paradigm

THE PREVAILING PARADIGM…. What Jonathan Cohn said.

Just think about how the filibuster, as currently practiced, distorts and constrains the process. When corralling sixty votes depends on winning over some combination of Senators Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Olympia Snowe, passing truly liberal legislation is going to be difficult, if not possible. The only way to change that is by electing even more liberals to the Senate, changing the way the Senate runs, or some combination of the two.

That project will require time. It will also require convincing voters of something too few of them believe already: That government action can be make a difference in their lives. Passing health care reform, even a deeply flawed one, will help enormously in that regard.

I tend to dismiss talk of the United States still being a “center-right nation,” but probably the most compelling evidence that it’s at least partially true is the way in which fear of government activism underscores our discourse.

The left and most Democrats see government as a tool that can and should be used to address policy problems. But the right’s reflexive response — the “government is the problem” paradigm — remains so prevalent that Dems are defensive, if not downright apologetic, when “big government” and “government takeover” rhetoric looms.

President Obama meta-challenge — on top of the policy crises he has to address — is convincing people that government intervention isn’t evil, public solutions aren’t necessarily wrong, and government action in the midst of great challenges is both preferrable and necessary. (Greg Sargent has been emphasizing this point all year.)

The significance of this in the health care debate is obvious. The administration has already shown that an ambitious government response can rescue the country from the economic abyss, and if reform passes, and can be implemented effectively, it offers an opportunity to change the public’s perceptions about what’s possible. It’s precisely why Bill Kristol told Republicans to kill reform 15 years, and it clearly plays a part in GOP tantrums now.

I occasionally think about something Rich Lowry wrote in February, when he said the president is “trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation.”

Ten months later, that’s proven more difficult than many of us hoped, and Democrats still feel compelled to pretend government intervention is something else entirely.

But health care reform, at a minimum, offers a chance to change the game. If it fails, the prospect of policymakers doing anything of value anytime soon all but disappears.