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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Public Option and “Tactical Extremism”

Whatever else happens in the “endgame” of health care reform in Congress (and a lot obviously depends on the President”s big speech next week), the drama over “the public option” within the Democratic Party is going to be a factor. You can argue all day long, as many, many progressives already have, that this shouldn’t be the make-or-break issue for anybody, but the fact remains that it is.
For many Democratic “centrists,” the public option is the symbol of a “government takeover” of health care that plays into conservative attack lines, and a potential threat to the survival of private health insurance. And for many self-conscious Democratic progressives, the public option represents a huge compromise of what they actually consider necessary, a single-payer system.
But this isn’t entirely about substance, either. The more the public option has received attention from both its friends and its enemies, the more its fate in health care reform has become a crucial test of power within the Democratic Party, particularly for progressives who have for years been livid at what they consider the disproportionate influence of “Republican Lite” Blue Dogs.
As Matt Yglesias (quoting a Chris Bowers post) succinctly summed it up today:

[W]hile the movement on behalf of the public option certainly wants a public option and believes the public option is important, the larger goal is to “to try and make the federal government more responsive to progressives in the long-term” by engaging in a form of inside-outside organizing and legislative brinksmanship that’s aimed at enhancing the level of clout small-p progressives in general and the big-p Progressive Caucus in particular enjoy on Capitol Hill.
That requires, arguably, some tactical extremism. If you become known as the guys who are always willing to be reasonable and fold while the Blue Dogs are the guys who are happy to let the world burn unless someone kisses your ring, then in the short-term your reasonableness will let some things get done but over the long-term you’ll get squeezed out. And it also requires you to pick winnable fights, which may mean blowing the specific stakes in the fight a bit out of proportion in the service of the larger goal.

The big question, of course, is whether a my-way-or-the-highway position on the public option is a “winnable fight” in terms of enacting legislation in Congress. And in a direct response to Yglesias’ post, Ezra Klein warns progressives against playing chicken with the Blue Dogs on this subject:

This seems a bit like a firefighter attempting to out-arson an arsonist. The reason the Blue Dogs have a reputation for being happy to let the world burn is that they really, really, really are willing to let the world burn, let health care fail, let cap-and-trade die, let Iraq grind on. The reason liberals have a reputation for not wanting to let the world burn is that all the anti-burn initiatives under discussion are, in fact, items from their agenda. They really, really, really don’t want the world to burn. It’s possible they’ll be able to do it once. But what happens then? The Blue Dogs, now distancing themselves from a party that seems to be plummeting in the polls, will happily abandon cap-and-trade, because that’s their preferred position anyway. Will the liberals? What if we need another stimulus? The Blue Dogs don’t want to support that bill. Attracting them will require all manner of concessions, if it’s possible at all. Will the liberals kill that, too?

Klein goes on to address the frustration of party progressives about the unfairness of this disequalibrium of power within the party, which limits the ability to make “vulnerable Democrats [vote] for initiatives their voters don’t obviously support in districts Barack Obama didn’t win at a time when the president is no longer popular.”

Can you beat the Blue Dogs at their own game of final-stage obstruction? The reason they’ve chosen that game, after all, is because their incentives are well aligned to win it. Liberals need another game. Maybe it’s primary challenges. That strategy has certainly worked against Arlen Specter, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Grassley. Liberal groups certainly have the money to mount five or six high-profile challenges a season. Maybe it’s procedural changes meant to weaken the power of centrists. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s all of these things. But it’s hard to imagine that liberals will ever beat the Blue Dogs at their own game. The likelier outcome is that everybody loses.

I’d put it in a slightly different way: if, say, the Progressive Caucus in the House wants a final, definitive test of strength against the Blue Dogs, it might make sense to choose one in which the failure to act is entirely acceptable according to their own principles and priorities. At the same time, Blue Dogs need to be frequently reminded that they will be the very first Democrats to suffer electoral disaster if the President’s legislative agenda comes to grief.

3 comments on “The Public Option and “Tactical Extremism”

  1. pjcamp on

    Here’s a fight the progressives can pick: do away with seniority as a criterion for committee membership. There may be enough Blue Dogs in the Senate to hold the balance of power, but there aren’t enough in the caucus to control anything. And with the power to remove people from committees comes the power to control the Blue Dogs.

    Reply
  2. aml on

    klein’s correct that progressives want good policy but he forgets the dichotomy of personal vs. policy interests.
    lets start with the basic assumption that all congress-critters want to maintain their positions
    the thinking of progressives is thus:
    IF the dems don’t pass a good bill
    AND CONSEQUENTLY dems take big losses in 2010
    THEN THE PERSONAL/POLITICAL RESULT IS those losses will be concentrated in the marginal districts occupied by blue dogs. progressives survive.
    AND THE POLICY RESULT IS status quo on health care, negative implications for other policy initiatives
    OR
    IF the dems pass a bad bill
    AND CONSEQUENTLY dems take big losses in 2010
    THEN THE PERSONAL/POLITICAL RESULT IS those losses will be concentrated in the marginal districts occupied by blue dogs. progressives get challenges from their left
    AND THE POLICY RESULT IS health care is worse, negative implications for other policy initiatives
    OR
    IF the dems pass a good bill
    AND CONSEQUENTLY dems take minimal to no losses in 2010
    THEN THE PERSONAL/POLITICAL RESULT IS those losses will be limited to highly marginal districts occupied by blue dogs. progressives survive.
    AND THE POLICY RESULT IS health care is better, positive implications for other policy initiatives
    OR
    IF the dems pass a good bill
    AND CONSEQUENTLY dems pick up seats in 2010
    THEN THE PERSONAL/POLITICAL RESULT IS those wins may occur in even more marginal districts that will likely be occupied by blue dogs. some existing blue dogs get a bit less blue. progressives thrive.
    POLICY RESULT – health care is better, positive implications for other policy initiatives

    Reply
  3. gdb on

    “I’d put it in a slightly different way: if, say, the Progressive Caucus in the House wants a final, definitive test of strength against the Blue Dogs, it might make sense to choose one in which the failure to act is entirely acceptable according to their own principles and priorities.”
    Passing a health care bill without a strong public plan stands a good chance of creating increased health care costs with little increase in the number covered— that’s a disaster that could delay true health care reform and result in greater Democratic losses than a failure to pass a bill containing a strong public plan. In that case, pushing for a strong pulic plan aligns failure to act with interests of Progressives.
    “At the same time, Blue Dogs need to be frequently reminded that they will be the very first Democrats to suffer electoral disaster if the President’s legislative agenda comes to grief.”
    DISASTER COMES TO BLUE DOGS– BUT IT WOULD ALSO HAVE COME AFTER PASSAGE OF A WEAK BILL. OBAMA ALSO CERTIFIES HIS WUSSINESS SUPPORTING A WEAK BILL— AND THAT PERCEPTION OF WUSSINESS THAT IS BEING DEVELOPED BY REPUBLICANS WILL CARRY OVER TO THE REST OF HIS AGENDA.
    If this turns out to be the political dynamic (and no one knows the answer), then betting the house on a strong health reform bill with a public plan is the ONLY hope for avoiding political disaster and creating wide public support similar to that created by FDR in passing social security. Rhetorical question: Suppose one had to choose b/w passing social security and extending the Depression an extra year or two (ignoring that social security spending, like health care spending, alomost certainly shortens economic downturns)?? I, for one, would bet that in the long run, passing social security (or health care) is by far the better choice.

    Reply

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