Monday, December 21, 2009

Testing the Progressive Machine

In my previous post, I sided with Jim Webb's opinion that things may have played out differently had Obama provided a starting point for health care reform, rather than just a mandate to achieve it left up to the machinery of congress to make a reality.  I still agree.  But TAP's Mark Schmitt fills out another aspect of the reform effort equally as true: this started long before Obama even announced his candidacy for the Oval Office, and the President's role only goes so far.

[...] even world-historical figures color within lines that they do not draw themselves. What presidents, governors, or even legislators are willing and able to do is defined by forces and efforts outside of themselves. And for progressive politicians, those factors include the condition and power of the progressive coalition and its organizations -- its ability to generate and refine ideas, as well as its organizational capacity to bring pressure to bear on the political system. Every success or failure can be seen as a measure of the strength or weakness of that infrastructure.

Consider, for example, the widely predicted possibility that the only major accomplishment of the current Democratic majority before the midterm election will be an imperfect version of health-care reform, while financial reform, cap-and-trade, and long-term economic-investment strategies are blocked or delayed. If that occurs, is it simply that the president didn't give enough priority to those other causes?

That's one possible explanation. Another would be that the work underlying the current health-reform effort began years before Obama even announced his campaign for the White House. Drawing on the lessons of past failures, when reform had no organized constituency, advocates and funders put massive resources into groups such as Health Care for America Now. They picked up political scientist Jacob Hacker's idea of a public plan within a structured insurance marketplace and developed it to give progressive advocates of a single-payer system something politically realistic that they could get behind. And they worked to ensure that all the Democratic candidates for president (with the exception of single-payer stalwart Rep. Dennis Kucinich) converged around roughly the same basic model. Years of health-reform-policy development, projects to improve public awareness of health reform, and advocacy campaigns were able to lay the groundwork for health reform well in advance. It was never going to be easy, but the best possible mechanism for achieving the long-thwarted goal was constructed for the president to flip the switch.
This is why the backlash from progressives is more important than even influencing the Senate's health care bill.  On that, their vocal opposition to it's current form may garner a few small concessions, but in the end progressives will probably stop short of killing the bill.  Despite that, the opposition is important to change the precedent set that they will be the first this administration expects to role over for passage of legislation.  As Schmitt writes, it's a test of the progressive machine at this point.  Will they be able to assert enough influence in the process to ensure that in the next legislative battle, the first concessions come from the conservative members of the body, rather than default on progressives from the get go?

To even have the chance for that power struggle, progressives have to be serious in their threat to "kill the bill," even if everyone knows that isn't going to happen.

Simply, they have to be willing to make as much noise and difficulty for the administration as Lieberman, Snowe, and Nelson have.


  1. I hope they have enough pull to kill this legislation. Simply put, I don't think any group should be expected to roll over and take whatever congressional leaders offer. If we can't come to some area of consensus then we should nto be passing the legislation. (Yes, I know that means things will come to a standstill on some issues, but I thnk it makes the nation stronger when we do move forward.)

  2. [W]orld-historical figures color within lines that they do not draw themselves. What presidents, governors, or even legislators are willing and able to do is defined by forces and efforts outside of themselves.

    Which does not explain how President Bush took this country into a war of aggression, and instituted warrantless surveillance, preventive detentions and torture. Talk about coloring outside the lines!