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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Health Reform Movement Needs Energizing

In his op-ed article “An Army Untapped,” WaPo columnist and American Prospect Co-Editor Harold Meyerson challenges President Obama and progressive groups to mobilize their supporters in service to health care reform. Says Meyerson:

Though most Americans support the provision of universal coverage and a public plan, a mass movement for health-care reform doesn’t exist. And the efforts of the administration and of the groups promoting universal coverage aren’t likely to conjure it up.
The problem begins with the administration’s inability — or disinclination — to use its greatest political asset, the list of 13 million supporters that the Obama presidential campaign amassed last year. In 2008, that list was the wonder of the political world, enabling Barack Obama to run the best-funded campaign in history and to activate more volunteers than any candidate ever had.
This year, however, the administration has asked far less of that list and received, not surprisingly, far less in return.

Meyerson cites some pretty tame initiatives on the part of the Administration and the DNC, such as urging his supporters to “create a conversation within their communities” and “collect health insurance horror stories and put them on line” and participating in a “day of service” focused on health care projects — which Meyerson describes as “All very commendable, and about as likely to affect the outcome of the health-care deliberations as the phases of the moon.”
Further, Meyerson adds,

Even when the battle for health care finally comes down to a single bill, the plans to activate Obama supporters are conceptually modest. “We can’t target individual members of Congress,” says one DNC official. “To tell people to target certain Democrats puts the party in a weird position.” Not even 13 million supporters, apparently, can instill party discipline into a political culture that scarcely knows the meaning of the term.

In his blog ‘The Plum Line,” Greg Sargent is a little more encouraged by the health care reform mobilizing efforts of Organizing for America and other activist groups. On related topics, see also J.P. Green’s July 6 TDS post noting the distinction between party discipline invoked by voters, instead of leaders and Ed Kilgore’s post yesterday emphasizing the need for party unity on cloture votes, while leaving room for debate on policy.
Meyerson does commend nongovernmental groups like SEIU and MoveOn.org for a stronger effort, including ads challenging timid Democrats to provide a stronger voice for universal health care. But he says “…They are no substitute for campaigns to build the one thing that would ensure enactment of such a plan — a mass movement. They are the fruits of a legislative strategy, not a movement-building strategy.” Meyerson adds,

Major progressive legislation in America is seldom enacted absent a mass movement clamoring for change. The New Deal’s legislative triumphs were the product not merely of Franklin Roosevelt’s political genius but of the political pressure built up by general strikes and wild-eyed campaigns for social insurance. The great civil rights legislation of the 1960s was the product not merely of Lyndon Johnson’s legendary political skills but also of the blood and sweat of a generation of demonstrators in the Jim Crow South.
…The administration’s willingness to limit the potential of its army of supporters and the progressive groups’ unwillingness to try to create a movement (say, for single-payer health care) that goes beyond the administration’s goals have all but ensured that legislators will feel no major pressure for systemic change as Congress crafts national policy. If Obama doesn’t want to use his mega-list to pursue his mega-goal, supporters of universal coverage might ask him, as Abraham Lincoln once asked the notoriously inactive Gen. George McClellan, to borrow his army as long as he isn’t using it.

A tough critique, and a bold challenge — one Democrats may soon have to accept, if the goal of a health care system that serves the people is to become a reality.

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