It’s hard not to think of the final episode of “Breaking Bad” right about now,
because its recent shutdown is all very natural.
The federal government’s isn’t.
And in the interest of our democracy, it is worth a spoiler alert.
The hit TV show, which is really about what good moral desperate people can do
when faced with a terminal health care crisis, ended this week. But just before
the drama played out, Walter White took care of his family in his own odd but
good way, and his wife Skyler asks why. Why has he done it all?
With Skyler looking at him woefully–TV is nothing without the extreme
close-up–Walt delivers the line from the show I’ll never forget: “I did it for
me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was…really. I was alive.”
If politics is, as Jay Leno once famously said, “show business for ugly people,”
TV is an apt place to find an explanation for what we’re seeing on the TV news.
You’re not going to find Walter White’s blunt honesty from any of the political
participants in this current debate in Washington–the Republicans, the Democrats
in both houses of Congress, or the Executive Branch–who have their own Walter
White-ish, selfish interest for shutting down the government.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz is a smart Canadian immigrant, but he has ambition and a
competitive contrarian’s glee painted all over his face when he appears on TV to
blame the Democrats.
On the surface, he disagrees with Obamacare, which is an act of political
rhetoric and disrespect. It is, indeed, the Affordable Care Act, but when
birthers couldn’t get the president on his birth certificate, they attacked him
on the largest piece of legislation he birthed and signed into law.
It’s maddening. The Affordable Care Act, which passed both houses, has been put
through an election as part of a winning Democratic platform and even survived
the constitutional scrutiny of the Supreme Court. If something’s really wrong
with the ACA, a responsible legislator should simply try to fix it.
Instead, the freshman Cruz is acting like the champion college debater he once
was and has devised a maddening nuclear option as a remedy to stop the health
The strategy is totally acceptable in academic debate. Indeed, it’s even clever
and admirable from a strict contrarian point of view. But in the real life
institution of democracy, it’s completely selfish and irresponsible.
As Cruz, echoing Walter White, might say, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was
good at it. And I was…really. I was alive.”
Others in the debate have their own self-interest. But all the polls begin the
blame with the Republicans (now made up of Tea gulpers like Cruz, and Tea
sippers like Boehner), then to a lesser degree, the Democrats, and to a much
lesser degree, President Obama.
Obama, by comparison, is looking more like a leader. The Affordable Care Act is
already a wonderful compromise. It’s not the kind of single-payer health care
system some on the Left have advocated for over the years. It’s a lot more to
the center, with big health insurers still retaining so much control that it’s
laughable to call the ACA “socialized medicine.”
But it does do one thing that no one has been able to do at the federal level:
It helps the uninsured get the health coverage they need.
Today, October 1, is the first day you can actually sign up for a plan by going
The government may shut down, but this portion of the ACA has already been
funded. The website will direct you to the public exchanges, which will help you
choose a health plan that will go into effect on January 1, 2014.
That’s a mild victory. And if you go to the site, you will see the disconnect
between what the ACA–derided as “Obamacare”–really does for people.
For Asian Americans, it means nearly 2 million people who are uninsured will now
have access to health care, according to the White House.
Already, 121,000 Asian Americans between the ages of 19 and 25, who would have
been uninsured, have been added to their parents’ workplace or individual plans.
Moreover, the major point of ACA is that there are no lifetime limits put on
care, and people with pre-existing conditions, normally denied coverage, can get
it under the ACA.
This is the Obamacare Cruz and his ilk are trying to gut, while raising their
profile as some kind of negative freedom fighters.
In fact, the political rhetoric from the Cruz forces is so inane and racist that
one Republican congressman, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, compared the ACA to
The rest of us are left with a dysfunctional democracy that’s gotten sick over a
health care debate.
And who is really talking for and about the people in this representative
democracy? Good question.
Since we began with the Emmy-winning “Breaking Bad,” it may be fitting to close
with the Oscar-winning “Network.”
In San Francisco, there’s an intersection at Howard and Beale Streets, where we
seem to find ourselves standing at this very juncture in our American democracy.
Howard Beale just happens to be the name of the iconic fictive anchorman from
Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network.” It was Howard Beale who urged people to stick
their heads out their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to
take it anymore.”
The movie came out nearly 40 years ago, but every generation seems to have a
moment when it arrives at that intersection.
And with the government shutdown, the first in 17 years, we are smack dab in
that intersection today.
Watch the clip and stick your head out the window. David Gergen, the aide who
served presidents from Reagan to Clinton, commented on CNN that the present
situation “political anarchy.”
His prescription: “We need people to raise hell.”
If we network and yell out our windows so that the powers that be hear how we
feel, it may help us and our government from breaking bad.
Yes. And then, if you’re uninsured, feel your power by going to