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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: September 2009

Obama the Marxist

A week ago I reported that famed right-wing agitator Richard Viguerie was extremely upset with House Minority Leader John Boehner for conceding on Meet the Press that he didn’t believe President Obama was a “socialist.” So Viguerie polled his own readership on the question of the president’s ideology, and got this response:

An online poll conducted by the Web site ConservativeHQ.com found that a near-unanimous 95 percent of respondents disagreed with House Republican Leader John Boehner’s recent statement that he did not consider President Obama to be a socialist….
Only 4 percent agreed with Boehner, with 1 percent undecided.
The poll then asked to evaluate Obama’s political philosophy. Of the 975 respondents, the results were:
Traditional Liberal–1%

Now granted, the kind of people who look to Viguerie for leadership tend to come from the hard-core conservative fringe. And I can only guess how they would define the word “Marxist.” But the fact that well over five hundred people, offered the alternative of “socialist,” insisted on the “Marxist” label is pretty bizarre, since it implies they think the President of the United States is determined to seize the means of production on behalf of the industrial proletariat (not, BTW, the most pro-Democratic of demographic groups these days).
No wonder a Newsmax columnist has just published a piece suggesting that the U.S. military might need to launch a coup d’etat to overthrow the U.S. government. With secessionist and nullification views making a big comeback, and plenty of people still believing the president is some sort of foreign Muslim “plant,” it’s no surprise the completely hallucinatory idea of Barack Obama as a Marxist has some purchase in the same precincts of the Right.

Anti-Abortion Health Reform Amendment Defeated

One vote in the Senate Finance Committee’s markup of health reform legislation should be of positive interest to progressives: the committee defeated an amendment proposed by Orrin Hatch that would have prohibited use of federal subsidies to purchase private health plans offering abortion coverage. The vote was 10-13, with Democrat Kent Conrad supporting Hatch, offset by Republican Olympia Snowe’s opposition.
While Hatch’s amendment was advertised as maintaining “government neutrality” on abortion, it would have actually rolled back existing abortion coverage in private plans. Moreover, as Jonathan Cohn has pointed out, the tax writeoff for employer-sponsored health plans already provides significant taxpayer subsidies for optional abortion coverage, so allowing subsidies to be used (particularly since the Baucus bill already requires segregation of public and private money for such purposes) for the same coverage doesn’t really change anything.
Hatch will undoubtedly offer his amendment again on the Senate floor. And there remains the separate issue of whether any public option would offer abortion services (which didn’t come up in the Finance Committee since the Baucus Bill has no public option). But the fears of some progressives that the White House or Senate Democrats would surrender on an anti-choice amendment don’t seem to have been borne out so far.

The Public Option: More Chances Ahead

It’s a bummer that Sen. Rockefeller’s more robust public option was voted down (8-15) — almost 2-1 — in the Senate Finance Committee, despite Dems being 60 percent of the U.S. Senate. How large a majority do we need before we can pass a bill that provides a genuine public option for health insurance?
Worse, Chuck Shumer’s “level playing field” amendment, in which the public option is modified to the point where it is no drain of reimbursements from rural hospitals, also failed 10-13. (Carper and Nelson voted with the other Dems on this one.)
No doubt there will be calls for the heads of Sens. Max Baucus, Blanche Lincoln, Kent Conrad, Tom Carper and Bill Nelson, who voted with the Republicans and are now being attacked around the blogosphere for being leading recipients of health insurance donations. It’s not quite fair to demonize them as rubber stamps for the Republicans, inasmuch as their most recent (’08) ADA ratings show them to be fairly progressive: Baucus 80; Carper 85; ; Conrad 90; Lincoln 80; and Nelson 75, all of which are way higher than Republican Grassley’s 25, for example. Still many, if not most, Democrats feel the public option ought to be a cornerstone of Democratic health care principles.
At this point, opponents of the public option are reduced to a version of the “slippery slope” argument, which says in essence that “even though it would not be available to all that many consumers, the public option should be opposed because it sets a bad precedent by expanding government’s role at the expense of for-profit business.” I doubt that any of the five senators actually believe this so strongly as a matter of principle; it’s more because they can get away with voting against it. Unfortunately Dems against the public option are over-represented on the Senate Finance Committee.
I understand the strong feelings of betrayal many Dems feel about the votes of the five. But after all of the splenetic denunciations of the five have been uttered, we are left with the fact that we are a Big Tent party, and tolerating differences of opinion on various legislative reforms is necessary, if we want to hold a majority. But, as Ed has persuasively argued, party discipline should kick in on cloture votes in a big way. No Democrat should be able to screw his party on a cloture vote without paying a significant price.
One thing is clear. With few exceptions, Dems have not done a great job of educating the public — to the point where these Senators would feel secure with their constituents in supporting the public option. Limp constituent education remains the Dems’ Achilles’ heel. Yes, the trifling, servile MSM bears much of the blame. But it’s still on us to do something about it.
The public option may not be toast just yet. Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery report in The Washington Post that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may insert a public option when he has to merge the Finance Committee’s bill with Senate health committee legislation (approved in July), which includes a government plan. If Reid, who Murray and Montgomery report is undecided at present, omits a public option, it’s supporters will try to amend the bill when it gets to the Senate floor. They have another shot at it during final negotiations with the House, where Speaker Pelosi, a strong public option advocate, can use her leverage to insert the provision. In addition, as Ed notes below, there is always the problematic budget reconciliation route. And who knows, a “triggered” public option amendment might gain traction before it’s all over. In any case, five Democrats ought not to be empowered to thwart the will of an overwhelming majority of Democrats — and the majority of Americans who support the public option.

Understanding Reconciliation

Now that the Senate Finance Committee has voted down two versions of a public option for health care reform, many progressives will undoubtedly start focusing on the possible use of the budget reconciliation process for this legislation to reduce the threshold for passage (in theory, at least) to 51 votes.
Anyone tempted to say “Reconciliation or Bust!” should give a gander to a post by Mark Schmitt at The American Prospect that reviews the history and purpose of the reconciliation process in some detail.

This wasn’t originally meant to be a grand process for big policy changes. Rather, it was designed to “reconcile” the modern budget process with the arcane congressional process. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, figured out that the process could be used to package together and force a vote on the big budget cuts they envisioned. Later that decade, Sen. Byrd created the rule that bears his name to put some boundaries around the process, although it has still been used for both bipartisan (1990 and 1997 budget deals) and single-party bills, including welfare reform and tax cuts. But even in those cases, legislation has been sharply trimmed to accomodate the constraints of the process — for example, that’s why the Bush tax cuts had to be set to expire.
The reason this history is important is because it is a reminder that reconciliation was not designed to create a “50-vote Senate.” It was really a limited scheme intended to connect the old spending process with the new.

In other words, any health reform bill enacted via reconciliation would almost certainly have to be “sharply trimmed to accomodate the constraints of the process.” It’s not just a convenient way to brush aside filibusters.
And for the same reason, as I’ve argued myself on occasion, the decision whether or not to utilize reconciliation for health reform is not just a matter of how bold or audacious or progressive you are. It’s a question of risks and tradoffs.
Schmitt’s even more impatient than I am with the “damn the torpedos” approach to reconciliation, using a rather arresting analogy:

In the lead-up to the Iraq War, there was a saying among neoconservatives: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” Now, among progressives, one might say, “Everyone wants to do health reform. Real men want to use reconciliation” to cut out all Republicans and a few Democrats. But legislative strategy, like foreign policy, is not a test of manhood. It’s a very arcane and limited process that will leave many key provisions behind, and a weak and limited health plan.
One way or another, we’ll have to compromise. We’ll either compromise with the most conservative Democrats and one or two Republicans, or we’ll compromise with the limits of a process that was designed for a totally different purpose. The political question is simply going to be which compromise is worse.

To put it more positively, health reform supporters have several strategic options remaining for getting acceptable legislation through this Congress and onto President Obama’s desk. The reconciliation process is but one of them, and the fact that it would theoretically make it possible to bypass “centrist” opinion, while perhaps emotionally satisfying, doesn’t necessarily recommend it as the best way forward.

TDS Strategy Memo – Part III — Dems must develop local activities that can evolve into enduring local community social and cultural institutions

This item by James Vega is the third part of a three-part TDS Strategy Memo that was first published during the week of September 14, 2009. A PDF version of the entire memo is available here
Immediately after Obama’s inauguration, there was a widespread sigh of relief and a collapse into exhaustion among huge number of Obama’s supporters. Responding to this sentiment, and occupied with the transition, the DNC and OFA made relatively few attempts to organize directly “political” activities and events or to build a formal network of “real-world” local organizations in the first several months of the Obama administration. The general view was that “everyone needs a break.”
This, however, reflects a severely limited definition of what constitutes “political” activity. In democratic countries around the world many political parties routinely support a wide range of grass-roots community activities that are not explicitly “political” but which play a significant role in maintaining their political support. They sponsor local soccer teams, hold street fairs, run youth clubs, manage pool halls, arrange holiday trips and organize hobby groups. Small businesses that support the parties put permanent banners in their windows and build their customer base around a sense of community cultural loyalty to the political party.
During 2008, the Obama campaign began to evolve in this direction. The “Yes We Can” campaign took on characteristics of a social movement rather than just a traditional political campaign. The explosion of creativity expressed in music, art, videos and other media were inspired by Obama but reflected more than simply a campaign to elect an individual candidate. There was a clear feeling that Obama represented a cultural movement of the young rather than the old, of the urban, hip and educated rather than the small town and traditional. The Obama campaign became a broad social movement united by a common outlook, sensibility and identity. The Republicans were the past and the Democrats were the future.
It is now vital that Democrats reignite this spirit and energy and find the ways to carry it into daily community life. To be specific the Democratic community needs to launch a renewed “Yes We Can” movement – not a narrowly “political” campaign to support Obama’s specific proposals, but a broad cultural response to the negativity, nihilism and divisive “real America” chauvinism of the Republicans. It must express an outlook and perspective that is based on hope for the future and openness to change.
There are two different sub-groups to whom this must be addressed – Obama’s natural constituencies and the broader group of “persuadable” voters who are open to his message. Each requires a distinct approach.
The first sub-group is Obama’s natural constituencies and social environments

College campuses and urban America – Some key steps in building a revitalized “Yes We Can” movement include building rapport with rock bands and DJ’s (e.g. by providing free items like specially developed high-quality designer clothing), sponsoring free rock concerts and art shows, Setting up special film screenings, book signings and neighborhood street fairs, engaging with the major social networks through art and music as well as narrowly “political” discussion and sponsoring sports teams in urban marathons, bicycle races, skateboarding and roller skating events.
Stores and businesses (e.g. coffee houses, bicycle shops, environmentally friendly products stores, independent bookstores) – some key steps include encouraging “Yes We Can” sales days, happy hours, special events and neighborhood parties and developing business-connected give-away “goodies” for display and distribution (coffee cups, chocolates, tire gauges, natural soaps).
Ethnic, political, social and community organizations. Some key steps include piggybacking on existing events and activities, incorporating “Yes We Can” motifs into ongoing programs and participating in organization-sponsored volunteer activities under a “Yes We Can” umbrella.

Public Option: Two Setbacks, Long Way To Go

As you may have heard by now, the Senate Finance Committee voted down two different amendments adding a public option to its health care reform bill. The first, offered by Jay Rockefeller, was a so-called “robust” public option linked closely to Medicare. It went down 8 to 15, with all the Republicans and five Democrats voting nay. The second, offered by Chuck Schumer, was the “level-playing-field” public option, which would compete with private plans but without forcing down provider payments to Medicare levels. It picked up two senators, Tom Carper and Bill Nelson, who voted against the Rockefeller amendment, but lost 10 to 13 as Democratic senators Baucus, Lincoln and Conrad still voted no.
After the second vote, Schumer concluded rather obviously that there weren’t 60 votes in the Senate for the public option. That’s not the same, of course, as saying there are 60 votes to filibuster a bill with the public option (which could still reach the floor after the Finance and HELP bills are merged) , and should Senate leaders decide to pursue the budget reconciliation route, 60 votes aren’t necessary anyway. And ultimately, 60 votes for a bill with the public option in the Senate isn’t the same as 60 votes for a conference committee report including the public option, if the alternative is to kill health reform entirely. On top of everything else, a “triggered” public option, for those who consider that acceptable, remains a very live possibility.
So there’s a long way to go on this issue. But today’s votes, predictable as they were, may represent a shock to progressives who thought that public opinion polls and activist pressure would make Democratic opposition to the public option melt away.

Motes and Beams

One of the longest-running themes in a certain sort of mainstream journalism is the claim that the internet has enabled a vast rise in unregulated hate speech, particularly of the antisemitic variety. Almost invariably, such claims focus on comment threads in which crazy people lurk in obnoxious obscurity.
Last week Washington Post columnist (and former George W. Bush speechwriter) Mike Gerson penned a particularly strange and sweeping version of this claim, suggesting that “cyber-bigots” pose a threat similar to that of–yes, you guessed it–the Nazis, whose pioneering use of radio for hate speech is supposedly the precedent and analog for today’s comment-thread lurkers.
When fellow Post-man Ezra Klein posted a pretty obvious response noting that a more reasonable analog for yesterday’s radio-enabled hate talk is today’s radio-(and cable TV-)enabled hate talk, Gerson had a public meltdown. Writing in a Post blog, Gerson went directly after Klein as an a member of the President’s “unpaid policy staff” (a strange complaint coming from someone who became famous as a paid presidential staffer), called his observations “ignorant,” and then insulted his ethical sensibilities. But as Jonathan Chait notes today in a tart smackdown, Gerson’s big trump card was the fatuous claim that Holocaust Museum shooter James Van Brunn was a creature of the internet.
On a separate front, Spencer Ackerman performed his own smackdown of Gerson for the man’s audacity in lecturing liberal Jews about how to deal with antisemitism.
Since Gerson is a Christian, and so am I, allow me to offer my own advice: it would be more seemly, and for that matter, ethical, if you didn’t dismiss the obvious, huge-audience haters in your own political community, and your own more conventional media, before going all Confessing Church on the incredibly marginal internet ranters that you apparently associate with the Left. You know, Matthew 7:3: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Ways To Skin Cat

A lot of progressives are focused on today’s events in the Senate Finance Committee as a sort of Battle of Armageddon on health care reform, since the Committee will formally vote on a Rockefeller-Schumer amendment to add a public option to the Baucus proposal, which currently lacks one. You can follow the action via Tim Noah’s liveblog at Slate.
But as Chris Bowers keeps pointing out at OpenLeft, the Finance markup isn’t the last, or even the best, opportunity for a public option to emerge in the Senate debate. That will happen when the Finance and HELP Committee versions of health care reform are merged under the direction of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, with our without the benefit of budget reconciliation rules. There’s another possible shot at a public option in a House-Senate conference committee, but it’s unlikely the Senate will be any friendlier to the idea later rather than sooner.
Now that’s all she wrote to a lot of progressives; either the public option is attached to the bill, or health care reform legislation has failed and isn’t worth pursuing, since it merely represents gigantic subsidies to private health insurers. If you are in that camp, you might want to force yourself to read Jonathan Cohn’s piece today on health reform without a public option in The Netherlands.
Cohn’s basic point is that aggressive government regulation of private health insurers can accomplish a lot of the same things as competition from a public option, particularly in terms of limiting out-of-pocket consumer costs and preventing discriminatory treatment of the sick and/or poor. Moreover, such regulations are often politically popular, even among rank-and-file Republicans. So it might be a good idea, during the Senate Finance Committee and later in the process, to focus a bit on the regulatory questions that will determine the ground rules for any new competitive system of health insurance, whether or not a “robust” public option is one of the players.

TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira Cites Uptick in Support for Obama on Health Reform

President Obama’s approval rating on health care has improved “across multiple polls” as a result of his September 9 speech, the unveiling of Sen. Baucus’s health care reform bill and “progressive pushback,” according to TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira. In his latest ‘Public Opinion Snapshot’, Teixeira cites,

…a consistent pattern of increased support exists for Obama’s handling of health care and for the health care plans before Congress. This pattern can be seen in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, where Obama’s approval rating on health care increased by 4 points and support for health care legislation rose by 3 points.

Teixeira notes that an overwhelming majority – 89 percent — agreed that “requiring that health insurance companies cover people with pre-existing medical conditions” must be included in health care legislation (63 percent) or that they would prefer that it be included (26 percent). In addition, 63 percent of poll respondents felt either that “requiring that all but the smallest employers provide health coverage for their employees, or pay a percentage of their payroll to help fund coverage for the uninsured” should be part of reform legislation (26 percent), with another 37 percent saying they would prefer that it be included. In terms of the ‘public option,’ Teixeira adds,

And 53 percent felt either that “creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies” must be included in legislation (26 percent) or that they would prefer that it be included (27 percent).

And further,

In the same poll there is a very interesting finding that highlights how fed up people are with the current system. The public, by a 45-39 margin, said “it would be better to pass Barack Obama’s health care plan and make its changes to the health care system” rather than it would be better “to not pass this plan and keep the current health care system.”

Conservatives have done everything they can to kill health reform, but the tide is turning, and public is increasingly ready for change.

Collateral Damage of the Health Reform Fight: Mitt Romney ’12

A lot of the political implications of the health care reform fight depend heavily on what happens between now and the end of this congressional session. But one “victim,” as Andy Barr puts it in Politico today, is pretty clear regardless of the ultimate outcome: Mitt Romney.

Three years ago, Romney was heralded for his innovative effort to institute near-universal health care in his state. But now that the issue has emerged as a partisan fault line and the Massachusetts plan has provided some guidance for Democratic reform efforts, Romney finds himself bruised and on the defensive as the GOP rallies around opposition to President Barack Obama’s plans.

Some of the flack aimed at Romney has to do with the perceived consequences of the Massachusetts health reform initiative, particularly in terms of costs. Here’s Mike Huckabee’s vicious little swipe on that point:

“It’s going to bankrupt their entire budget,” former Arkansas GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee said of Romney’s health care program in his address to the [Values Voters] summit. “The only thing inexpensive about the Massachusetts health care bill is that there you can get a $50 abortion.”

Nice, eh? But the broader problem for Romney is that it’s hard to attack current health reform plans as a “government takeover of health care,” and individual or employer mandates as the extinction of freedom, without applying similar rhetoric to Romney’s initiative. And while Romney didn’t talk much about his health care record during his 2008 presidential run, he hasn’t repudiated it, either–if for no other reason, because he’s trying to shake a reputation as an opportunistic flip-flopper. With Republicans treating health care reform as an outrage similar in audacity to the Sack of Rome, there’s just no way a good bit of this hate won’t rub off on the Mittster, particularly in the crucible of another presidential campaign.
You have to figure many Republicans are privately unhappy with this situation. Ever since the last election day, the CW in Washington has been that Romney is the best option the GOP has for 2012, particularly after Jon Huntsman all but took himself out of the running by joining the Obama administration as ambassador to China. Romney ran a reasonably viable if flawed campaign in 2008, and wound up as the candidate of most conservatives leery of John McCain. He was a good do-be party man during the general election campaign, and according to one leading account, might have become the Veep nominee and kept Sarah Palin in obscurity had not John McCain forgotten how many houses he owned and made a Richie Rich ticket impracticable. He’s got endless money, a credible record as a blue-state governor, and the intangible advantage of being considered competent and sane even by most Democrats.
But it’s difficult to see how he overcomes responsibility for a state health care initiative that in important ways looks and sounds a lot like what Democrats are trying to enact nationally, now that hard-core shrieking opposition to health care reform has become an absolute litmus test for conservative orthodoxy.