Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I think John Neffinger is on the right track with his Huffington Post piece "Why We Lost Healthcare":

One of the most telling tales in politics is the one about the progressive activist who got a meeting with FDR to explain his great new policy idea.

As the story goes, FDR heard the fellow out, and then told him: "I agree with you, I want do do it... Now make me do it."

... on health insurance reform, Obama told progressives the exact opposite: "Don't make me do it. I'll handle this. Trust me."

... By abandoning Medicare-for-all approach at the outset and instead strongly advocating the public option compromise, progressives made the public option appear to be a radical left position.... in the end, conservative Democratic Senators (as well as Senator Lieberman) did not support the public option exactly because progressives had so noisily supported it. Conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson felt it was important politically for their relatively conservative constituents to see that they did not support the liberal position....

I don't think Obama could have gotten a very, very progressive bill through Congress, or past an American public that still hasn't really abandoned Reaganite thinking, but I think he might have been able to get a fairly good bill (much better than whatever could still pass, if anything still can) if he'd had a Bad Left-Wing Cop as a foil for his Good Left-Centrist Cop. (Early today, Aimai said something similar, but I have some disagreements with her -- see below.)

I'll note that it's not clear that FDR ever actually said "Now make me do it" -- he's reported to have said it to A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights leader, though the story doesn't come up in Randolph biographies, and FDR was notably weak on civil rights. Nevertheless, it's a good story.

This is a good yarn, too:

...As that story goes, not long after Clinton's health care reform proposal went down to defeat in the Senate, Bill ran into Bernie [Sanders, then a Vermont congressman], and Bernie approached him gravely and said "Mr. President, I am so sorry. I failed you on health care."

... "What do you mean, Bernie?" asked Clinton. "You were with me every step of the way!"

"Exactly," said Sanders. "I should have been burning you in effigy on the steps of the Capitol. Then people would have understood how moderate your plan really was."

And I agree -- that's close to what was needed.

But it wouldn't have been enough. Having a left-leaning member of Congress or two to the president's left isn't sufficient. (Aimai thinks Obama should have used Howard Dean as a foil. I don't think he and Anthony Weiner and a handful of other pols and ex-pols would have been nearly enough.) What was needed -- and, yes, I say this all the time -- was a movement to Obama's left on health care, a large number of people supporting a far more progressive plan than was politically feasible.

But (and I say this all the time, too) we don't have a large progressive bloc in this country. We need a bigger progressive bloc. I'll say it again: we need to make more liberals.

Could Obama, as Aimai says, have "whip[ped] up popular anger" and "create[d] a groundswell for major progressive reform"? I don't see it -- not in a still-quite-Reaganite country, not even with his rhetorical gifts. (He had a huge volunteer army in '08, but I think it's far from certain that they would have all agreed on this approach.) And even if he could, he'd be the scary radical with the scary radical plan -- he'd be the Bad Left Cop and it would be up to (probably) the Blue Dogs to play the Good Cops, and we'd be pretty much where we are now.

We needed to be to Obama's left -- and we never were in sufficient numbers and with sufficient force.

Which leads me to something else Neffinger says:

... As dispiriting as where this leaves us on healthcare is what it portends for the future. After this endgame, ... these jokers will be emboldened to be even more stubborn in legislative fights to come. Next up we have Wall Street reform, a desperately needed jobs bill, and even more desperately needed energy bill and the reliably contentious issue of immigration reform. What are the chances of passing any decent bill on any of those issues in the wake of this historic cave-in?

Well, yeah. But I say if you have no reasonable chance of success in a huge political fight, don't take that fight on. Pull back and hunker down. Play small ball for a while. Because every huge fight you lose makes you look weaker -- and thus makes the next big fight even less winnable. Every failure discredits the party and the liberalism with which it's (rightly or wrongly) associated.

For the love of God, don't do immigration next year. Talk about third rails in American politics -- hell, Bush, Saint McCain, the business community, and a Democratic Congress combined couldn't get this done. (There are a lot of ordinary people in favor of immigration reform, but they're, y'know, brown, so the rest of America feels free to ignore them.) And I'd put off cap-and-trade, at least until the pro-science community gets a pulse and learns how to mount a serious pushback against denialism.

But Wall Street reform and jobs? Mr. President, you have a huge crowd calling for blood out there. On Wall Street, a bit of the rhetoric from the Paulist right is almost identical to the rhetoric on the left.

Use the anger to get something good. Tell the fat cats that if there's a double dip and another round of bailouts is needed, you're going to agree with the teabaggers and say "No bailouts this time." Tell them, "Look, if I'm going down, if Main Street America is going down, this time you're going with us."

I know this is never going to happen. But it should.

No comments: