David Hoppe

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:: Bayh vs. Pence

Nobody wins this race

By David Hoppe

When he launched the magazine, George, in the 1980s, John Kennedy, Jr., son of the murdered president, said he wanted his publication to cover politics in a new way - as entertainment.

At the time, many critics poo-poohed the concept, saying that covering politicians as if they were celebrities was wrongheaded. In the first place, it belittled the supposed seriousness of our political process. But on a more practical level, it would never overcome the fact that most politicians were basically pretty boring.

How far we've traveled since then.

Scott Brown, elected last week to Kennedy's late uncle's senate seat in Massachusetts, holds the distinction of having posed nude for a spread in Cosmopolitan. He's a good-looking hunk who downplayed his Republican party affiliation in a Democrat-dominated state in order to cast himself as that most attractive of political commodities, an Outsider.

Brown's election set off a paroxysm of hand-wringing and dire speculation tantamount to the kind of analysis usually reserved for NFL play-off games. How would the Obama administration deal with the loss of its supermajority in the senate? Was this the harbinger of a bad year for Democrats in upcoming elections? Whither health care reform?

These questions are not trivial. But as pundits and politicians have attempted to find answers, the extent to which our political culture has drifted from a politics of ideas about how to live in this polymorphous society to making book on political horse races has become clear.

It seems George was ahead of its time.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the muddle Democrats have made of health care reform. Here we begin with a real problem that proceeds from a big idea that's worth our attention. This country's health care system is failing to provide satisfactory care for a large portion of its citizens. This condition is caused by our society's failure to resolve whether quality health care should be a right of citizenship or treated as a privilege for those who can afford it.

Instead of conducting a public debate on this issue, politicians have nibbled round the margins, narrowing the focus from health care to health insurance, a process that has only served to reveal the extent to which American political careers are beholden to corporate interests.

It is tempting to blame this sorry state of affairs on a lack of leadership. It's true enough that politicians and voters alike have been all too willing to excuse a lack of vision for purported managerial skills, to vote for the pol who vows "to get things done."

The trouble is that absent a persuasive vision about why something should be done, very little is actually accomplished. The reasons for fixing bridges should be obvious. But our supposedly managerial politicians haven't had the nerve to ask us to pay for making our infrastructure up to date.

Competing visions for the country have been overrun by personality contests. Democrats have won big in the past two national election cycles, but the country looks pretty much the same as it did before 2006. We continue to pour massive amounts of resources into Iraq and Afghanistan; the gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us continues to widen; we're making little progress on climate change and, well, I've already had my say about health care reform.

In Indiana, Evan Bayh has made a career of marketing his inscrutably fresh face to Hoosier voters who have ingenuously returned him to office again and again. Bayh exemplifies the kind of managerial candidate that practical-minded Hoosiers favor. But rather than managing to make the Democratic super majority in the Senate an agent for social reform, Bayh has voted against Obama policy initiatives more often than any other senator from his party, helping to reinforce perceptions that Obama and Democrats can't get anything done.

Leave it to Mike Pence to make Bayh's performance seem almost progressive. Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts has apparently emboldened the former talkshow host and current Republican congressional mouthpiece to consider challenging Bayh's seemingly shaky senate tenure.

Pence, who has steadfastly resisted health care reform, supports privatizing social security and has called cap-and-trade legislation "a declaration of war" on the coal-burning Midwest, is tailor made for today's political sport. He has the ability to contrast himself with Bayh, not because Bayh waffles on issues, but because Pence belittles the very idea of government doing anything that doesn't require uniforms and guns.

Pence, like so many of his rightwing colleagues, doesn't represent an alternative vision of government so much as he wants to make government go away. That this streamlined approach promises more sabotage than reform doesn't seem to matter to a lot of people. But that's what happens when politics is reduced to a day at the races. The only thing that matters is who loses.