Monday, December 21, 2009

Somewhere Between "Kill It" and "Get it Done"

Since the Senate announced a passable compromise, I've tried hard to decide where I stand on the bill.  I don't like it.  It's weak.  Compromise(d) is the best way to describe it.

When Howard Dean shouted "kill it," I agreed.  When he said he wouldn't "vigorously" campaign for the president if the bill passed in current form, I thought he went too far.  He's walked that back now, thankfully.  When Ezra Klein pointed out that there are still important reforms in the bill as stands, I agreed.  But when others have suggested progressives shut up and accept the deal, I found it arrogantly dismissive.  When Axelrod says the bill will control costs in current format, I roll my eyes.  And when Jane Hamsher says "we're all tea-baggers now" in opposition to it, I cringe.  There may be populist similarities between those who oppose the bill and tea parties, but I've yet to hear anyone opposing the bill from the left calling Obama a Marxist, railing against non-existent tax increases, or seeing ACORN conspiracies in the breakfast cereal.  Extremes on both sides.  But I think it's all part of a necessary parlay to better legislation.

Dean is doing what he's always done best as a movement leader.  Axelrod is doing what he's always done best in selling Obama's agenda.  Those who have defended passage of a bill they admit is very flawed also make sense to me.  Social Security and Medicare were hardly perfect when first passed, and have been improved greatly in subsequent years.  But they had to start somewhere.  And it's still worth pointing out that the back and forth between Senate Democrats and activists/policy wonks has produced the most substantial health care debate to date, with the bullshit of the GOP, "death panel" exaggerations, and screaming tea-baggers finally taking a back seat to an actual adult discussion.

I think there's a healthy dose of kabuki theater in both the opposition and the support for this bill.  It's politics.  There always is.  Activists, justifiably frustrated by an administration they helped to elect, and a Democratic majority they fought hard for have every right to feel spurned by the Senate and the President over capitulation once again to the self-serving immaturity exemplified by Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson.  Wonks are equally as justified claiming that no bill passage will risk repeat of Clinton's health care crash and burn, and yes, it is possible to "fix it later."

In the end, I hope the bill passes.  I also hope that progressives stir up enough dust and ire to ensure improvements in conference, and secure future improvements in 2010, not 2014.  In the opposition, there should also be fight against the precedent set first by the stimulus debate -- where "moderates" like Snowe, Collins, and Lieberman also effectively undermined the legislation -- and now playing out again in health care reform.

For supporters of passing this legislation, it's all well and good to toss the word pragmatic around, and there's a lot of truth in their views of legislative possibilities and practicalities.  But as the cliche goes: the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  If progressives hope to gain larger influence -- and, specifically, more influence than short sighted "moderates" -- criticism of the Senate bill is important.  Progressives have accepted compromise after compromise, Reid and Obama shrugging and pointing at Snowe and Susan Collins repeatedly as in "what can we do?  Our hands are tied."  Well, no.  They aren't.  You just held back at the wrong time.  The administration hedged, demanding movement on reform but supplying no starting framework for a congress to build on.  In hindsight, fears of branding this Obama's reform lacked merit.  The GOP spun it as Obamacare, and no one cared.  Reid hedged as well, allowing Baucus to piss away a month of debate time building a coalition that wasn't and probably never could have been just so he could assemble a pretense of bipartisanship only beltway insiders care about.

Concentrated and consistent opposition to the bill, with at least the threat of blocking it's trip to the president's desk, could turn the framing on it's head, forcing habitual "middle roaders" to accept a compromise now and then.  It's how legislative coalitions and power brokering works.  Cap-and-trade is up next.  So is the midterm.  A little progressive influence now could go a long way toward better odds on both.

Health care is one of the most important issues this administration will tackle, but still have a few agenda items left to attend to that aren't insignificant even in comparison.  If progressives roll over and accept what they are offered by a dysfunctional Senate and an administration seemingly afraid of owning an issue outright, the pattern of compromise will only continue.  If they push to far and effectively kill the bill, they may assert a more effectual role in legislative battles, but we won't see health care addressed again to after 2012, at the very soonest.

So pass the bill, but hold your nose and demand improvements while you do it.  It's time for progressives to flex a little muscle.


  1. One thing that bothered me while going through Twitter when people were debating Dean's comment was how Obama set out to be bipartisan but instead, by taking a back seat, he was dividing the Progressives. Now that the Senate Bill has passed people are more relaxed, but for a few days, anyone agreeing with Dean was considered either naive or privileged.

  2. I guess it was silly of us to think that the candidate who talked about "change we can believe in" was making realistic proposals when he advocated a robust public option and no individual mandate.