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Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad

Kathleen Sibelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, had a short and clear brief to deliver yesterday before the House committee looking into problems with the rollout of Obamacare. She wanted to say, and did say, that the computer glitches were inexcusable but would be remedied in enough time so that people could sign up before the deadline, and also that people receiving notices of the expiration of their policies were doing so because their policies had been too recent to be grandfathered into the Affordable Care Act and that they could get better policies by going to the insurance market created by the ACA. She did not deign to answer the Congress people who cited letters from their constituents that said they had been notified that their cancellation was due to Obamacare and were offered more expensive policies as an alternative. A Democratic Congressman did press her to say that no one could be forced to buy the alternative offered by the insurer.


Sibelius did not ask the rhetorical question of whether one should believe what insurance companies say is their motive for putting out a new product or whether the Congressman citing a constituent letter had, before reading it, inquired whether the policy cancelled had been of long standing or not, or whether the person was aware of other alternative policies. It is a political no-no to question the wisdom of a voter and, anyway, all the Republican Congress people wanted to do was rant, and so let them use up their time doing so. That will bring the hearing to a close without her making a mistake by saying too much. None of the Congress people asked in a way that would consider an answer the question that I wanted to ask, which was what went wrong given that there had been three years to develop the web site. That is an extremely long time. Did they just not get around to it? Were there conflicting demands that got in the way? Why not go to the people who put up the Amazon web site, which is a marvel? Do government contracting procedures get in the way of hiring the best, and what should be done to change that?


What would qualify as a five minute press conference—add another ten for repetitive questions by reporters—took up two hours of her time and the time of forty or so Congress people and their staffs. Speak about waste in government. This is not the way to develop information that I, for one, would prefer to digest in memo form. But as has often been remarked in these pages as well as everywhere else, the purpose of Congressional hearings is not to develop information. It is to give every Representative on a committee a chance to shine for three minutes, even if that means looking silly, obtuse, or uninformed. What they want to do is deliver a message about where they stand on the issue, not what might be learned from the witness or even how to embarrass the witness. Only some people will draw from such performances the idea that Congress people are people who couldn’t hold down a serious job except in politics. Their ranks are filled with pest exterminators, funeral home operators, an awful lot of lawyers, and a few doctors who preen about how much they know about health insurance because they had patients—more than the patients who somehow never got fully reimbursed for their up front payments to the doctors?


It is necessary to remind oneself that the function of political speech is not necessarily communication. It can also be the evocation and mobilization of emotion so as to provide support for a political cause. You push the right buttons, and out come the placards and the cheers and, when you want them, the boos. Thus has it been since Aristotle turned his jaundiced eye on the matter. Aristotle was perhaps overly optimistic to think that political rhetoric made use of reasoning that was insufficiently rigorous to provide proof rather than plausibility. The Republican Congress people were not just a bit short of proof; they offered nothing in the way of proof, just outrage and unverified letters from constituents. They would not take an answer for an answer, however often Sibelius repeated the few things she was willing to say. They have no gift for dialogue, which means using what she said against her rather than going back to the talking point an aide had placed in front of them.


There is another way to look at the matter that is perhaps more salubrious. I was reminded by Geoffrey Miller, with whom I will share a panel next month, of a passage in Book Two of the Iliad, though I read that passage a bit differently than he does. The passage describes a dream of Agamemnon that is prompted by Zeus to foretell eventual victory. Agamemnon assembles his chiefs to tell them that he reads the dream to mean they should leave Troy because Zeus was out to deceive him. Catching wind of this, Athena tells her partisan, Odysseus, to stop a quick departure of the assembled tribes. He stops the leaders, one by one, as they leave the conference, and convinces them to go back to the war.


What I take away from the passage is that government is done by consensus and that the consensus can quickly change. The gods, in that weird way in which the conduct of the gods mirrors those of mortals, also had a conference about what to do about this war that dragged on, and that Zeus chose to disrupt or rearrange the consensus by appearing in Agamemnon’s dream. Everybody is always negotiating and nobody’s word holds for very long. So one or another leader has to be constantly lobbying and pigeonholing his peers to keep his consensus going.


Far from this being a primitive way of conducting political life in that it seems without  stable structures for arriving at a decision, it is a fundamental truth about how politics and, particularly, legislative politics, operates. Congress people can be whipped, but they can’t be counted on for very long if the political winds change. They vote with the Tea Party when that seems the popular thing to do and then they will, in the next Congressional election, run away from that by claiming to have been the responsible people who only wanted the Tea Party option to have a chance. In the present instance, they are against Obamacare until it becomes popular, which will happen when people actually sign up. So they are not against Obamacare because they are against a new government entitlement, and so they are out to sabotage its roll out; they are against it because it still does not have the wind in its sails.


Who leads the Congresspeople in one direction or another? Sometimes it is Ted Cruz, who promotes what seems the fresh idea that you really can go over the cliff or much closer to it than anyone had previously thought possible; and sometimes it is the new statesman, Mitch McConnell, who is now promoting how he is a leader and so a compromiser rather than one of those stuck in the mud Conservatives, which is a role he found for himself only a few weeks ago when he was important in reopening the government. Sometimes, Joe Biden makes the deal, as when he negotiated the sequestration, which is now discredited by the Liberals who thought he should not have given in on that though that is all he could come up with at the time, the President having allowed the Republicans to play out the string on their oppositionist strategy until they had to collapse, which they would not have done at the time of the sequestration. A political strategy tried once too often is bound to fail. It is a wise leader who knows when this time is one time too many. Agamemnon knew that Zeus had overplayed his hand, but he did not realize that Odysseus had not used up all the value in his own cards.


Never fight on an old battlefield where everyone knows the terrain. The Union should have realized that about Bull Run. Find another path. So let us not in the next few months revisit either the sequestration or another grand bargain or another race to the cliff. Find something everyone can live with because it is a new thought whispered or dreamt. How about a selective set of cuts that do not injure any longstanding or overall program? Defense cuts are undone if the Defense Department gives up the F-35; entitlement reform is put off by chained cost of living increases for Social Security. There are deals to be done which allow people to shift sides, make new temporary coalitions, because that seems the right thing to do for the moment. Obama care fades as an issue once the website is working and Congress people will move on to other things to get outraged about, and Obama, our Odysseus, can keep on with his steady agenda, the next thing up being either to craft an immigration bill that can get through Congress or to keep immigration as the issue that will get him elected a Congress that will pass an immigration bill he really likes.

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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013

"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic

The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013

The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013


A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky