Reform is inevitably a difficult process, and not just for the reformees. It’s particularly painful for the reformers, no matter how meritorious their cause. Who would admit opposing fundamental changes to a health care system in this country that is glaringly overpriced and significantly underperforms? Who would resist efforts to rescue the planet from boiling away?
As the reformers are learning, once they stop preaching to their own choirs and face off against those who benefit and prosper from the current setups — like the insurance companies or the energy corporations — their adversaries will do anything in their power to maintain things just the way they are.
The latest batch of reformers who have thundered into Washington armed with what they believe to be these obvious needs for change are facing a harsh reality. They are learning that our political system is sullied by foul play that protects the interests of those who pay for things. The real “deep state” in this country is the status quo protectors and their bought-and-paid-for officeholders. Their propagandists churn out a steady diatribe of accusations that those seeking change are “radicals,” or even worse, “socialists” who would destroy the American way. Seriously.
That relentless theme is effective in muddying the waters. The first lesson in our reform school is that special interests are not about to give up their advantages without a brutal fight. Chris Matthews has good reason to call his TV program about politics “Hardball.” The rattled agents of basic change are reduced to playing whiffle ball unless they are ready to descend into the muck and start wheeling and dealing.
The newbies can ostracize their more experienced natural allies for challenging their purity all they want. The crusaders’ pithy threats to oppose fellow Democrats in the primaries will only pith off those fellow Democrats. The reformers will need the wherewithal of party members who have been around for a while if there can be any change whatsoever.
When these rookies decided to run for Congress, they were really choosing to take part in the political establishment game. The alternative is fighting for change from the outside. On the inside, as they quickly learn, the game is ugly. For many, their brightness is rapidly reduced to a flicker. Light is called the “best antiseptic,” but our system of government is darkened by the history of double dealing. Lust, ambition and overall corrupt self-serving are the dominant motivations.
Never underestimate the desire of the rich and powerful to seek even more riches and power. The recent tax changes are a prime example, which even co-opted the word “reform,” selling it as “tax reform” instead of what it really was: a way to shift more wealth to the wealthy.
The health insurance industry is swimming in money. The energy companies are swimming in money. It takes petty cash to drown the reformers by paying off the officeholders.
Those who fight for change will need to gear up for a brawl in the gutters. If they wise up, they can make small improvements that might lead to more small changes. Otherwise, they become the latest victims of a system that is badly in need of change but where change is resisted at all cost.
(Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.)
© 2019 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.