All politics is local …and global

Friday, 22. January 2010     0 comment(s)

The victory of the Republican candidate Scott Brown in the Massachusetts senatorial race has been greeted by many as an important indicator of the future direction of American politics and as very bad news for President Obama.

The symbolism for the Obama administration is indeed ominous: on the one-year anniversary of Obama’s inauguration the voters of Massachusetts, called by many the most Democratic state in the Union, voted in a Republican to fill the Senate seat vacant since the death of Ted Kennedy in August of last year. Kennedy was a stalwart of the Democratic Party, having served in the Senate for the best part of half a century.

It would seem at first glance that if the citizens of ‘Democratic Massachusetts’ are ready to vote in a Republican who campaigned centrally against the Obama healthcare reform (also Kennedy had for decades been championing the reform of the US healthcare system) it marks the end for the President’s keynote domestic policy objective for his first year in office - healthcare reform. The logic runs that if even ‘true blue’ Massachusetts has voted red now, the Democrats are in for a kicking in the mid-term elections later this year.

But there is a local context to this that should not be missed. Brown’s opponent, Democrat Martha Coakley, is reckoned to have run a terrible campaign. Yet more interestingly, the reason why Brown made political headway with the “we don’t want to pay for healthcare reform” line is that Massachusetts has previously taken huge strides in reforming its own state-wide healthcare system. Although a number of healthcare economists are now openly questioning the success of the Massachusetts reforms, the state has gone as far as any in attempting to deal with the structural problems that face the hybrid US healthcare system.

In the Massachusetts system everyone is obliged to have health insurance, but the poorest get it for free and subsidised care is available for other low and lower income groups. Cheaper insurance is available in part because the number of insured people increased to include the fit and young, and in part through state subsidy, which became affordable as the expenses to the state caused by the uninsured going to hospital emergency rooms also fell.

Many of the ideas in the Massachusetts plan were incorporated into the various plans that have been discussed nationally in the last year. It should also be noted that the healthcare reform was passed by a centrist Republican governor of the state, Mitt Romney, who would subsequently become much better known as one of the most serious contenders for the Republican nomination for the 2008 presidential election. When Romney ran his national campaign he moved significantly to the right of his record in Massachusetts.

Brown’s “no new taxes to fund the healthcare of others” calls would have resonated in a state that had already fought the battle to provide something approaching universal healthcare and that is now also paying the costs that stem from that decision. It will be ironic if Massachusetts, already having virtually universal care, becomes the state that blocks healthcare reform for the rest of the country by sending a 41st Republican to the Senate and giving the GOP a blocking minority. The vote will ripple outwardsglobally as well; an Obama administration battling domestically will have less energy for its foreign policy efforts. Another failure to reform the US healthcare system will also have important ramifications for the long term strength of the American economy and hence the country’s place in the world.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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