Behind the Current Progressive Split on HCR

As you just may possibly have noticed, there is a lively, heated debate going on among the progressive grassroots/netroots about whether or not to support a watered-down health reform package. I have friends in both camps (as does Carrots and Sticks), and actually am split on the question myself, so I cannot say either viewpoint is wrong. As an organization, Carrots and Sticks has to date chosen not to formally engage on health care reform, not because we do not care about the issue, but rather because it had already been so oversaturated with activists and interest groups that we would have been joining too late in the game to make any appreciable difference. So I don’t think it’s prudent to take one side over the other, but there are a ton of important lessons that we can learn from the public option saga, and I’d like to start laying those out here.

To me, the fundamental reason for the divide comes down to politics vs. policy. After all, the progressive movement came together in a rare show of force and fought for a public option as a unified bloc. Now that it seems the public option is dead in this HCR bill (it could feasibly come back later as a stand-alone measure), we must decide how to react. There is first the question of whether a bill similar to that about to pass the Senate is better than nothing, aka the status quo. Given the political dynamics at play, I must assume “nothing” means “nothing for the next decade or more”. With that in mind, I think the bill as currently laid out is unquestionably a step in the right direction. Sure, it’s far from perfect (the mandate, excise tax and implementation dates being the big issues), but the Medicaid expansion, regulatory insurance reforms and creation of the exchange are huge pluses that far outweigh the drawbacks.

Yet on the other hand, progressives just went all-in on an issue and came up empty. A major reason this happened was the White House’s (ahem Rahm ahem) arrogant dismissiveness towards liberal concerns. Rahm thinks we can always be depended upon for campaign support when push comes to shove, so our viewpoints can safely be ignored. At the same time, the Beltway punditocracy fully expects the left flank to cave on its demands after the deals are cut. And frankly, they have no reason to believe otherwise, given the trends of recent history. So this is a crucial moment for the legitimacy of the progressive movement. Those of us who consider ourselves representatives of the movement should be very wary of seeming too much like the pushovers Rahm makes us out to be.

As we see, there are two equally valid lines of reasoning, borne from very similar though not identical priorities, leading to diametrically opposing viewpoints. Notwithstanding the value of healthy deliberation and internal dissent, the conflicting messages coming from the left do not serve us well as a political force, and will never help advance the policies we all want to see enacted. Going forward, the key lesson to be learned is how to best limit the possibility for this sort of situation from happening again. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but there are  a handful of important points to note. Keep in mind, these are open (NOT rhetorical) discussion topics:

  • Was victory (passage of a worthwhile public option) ever possible? I’m not sure the answer is as unequivocally “yes” as we had hoped, especially once Obama decided to make nice with PhRMA.
  • A lack of fierce, mobilized and deep-pocketed opposition would definitely help our cause, although that cannot always be possible (example: banking reform). Obviously, we want to maximize our chances of winning while remaining true to core progressive principles. Thus, how strongly should limiting opposition factor in when we choose our mobilizing issues in the future?
  • Did it make sense to put all of our eggs in the public option basket? It very well might have made perfect strategic sense, but we still need to address that question.
  • Did the strategy of whipping the progressive caucus to draw a line in the sand make sense, in retrospect? Could it have been done more effectively? How else could we have injected our demands into the debate?

Take these questions as food for thought. I don’t pretend to have the definitive answers, nor do I wish to attempt to unilaterally discover them here and now. We’ll no doubt revisit them later.

I’ll finish with a poignant quote from Pandagon’s Amanda Marcotte:

The netroots has only been around for like 6 or 7 years, and only really been a player for 4.  Taking over a party takes longer than that, and that’s all there is to it.  I think there’s a tendency to fight for scorched earth tactics designed to get a lot of results in a very short period of time, and a defeatism when that doesn’t work.  I’ll admit that impetus baffles me, because a lot of us are into politics because we love the game, and so we should have the disposition for a long term fight.  And by “long term”, I mean taking a truly radical stance, which is that political means alone will not get us where we need to go, but that we have to change society itself.


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