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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Health Care Reform As Platform for the Future

In Friday’s HuffPo, TDS contributor Mike Lux takes a step back to put the battle for health care reform into the big picture — how it enables momentum in support of the broader struggle for a more progressive agenda. As Lux writes,

Being into the whole history thing enough to have written a book on it, I tend to take a long view on the big policy battles we fight today…At the end of the day you also have to ask yourself two very big questions. The first is whether the passage of this legislation sets the stage on other issues for better or worse things to come. The second is whether the legislation, even with all of its flaws and compromises, creates a platform to build on in the future…These two questions are equally applicable to the other big fights looming immediately in front of us- climate change, financial reform, immigration, maybe (hopefully) a jobs bill, Employee Free Choice Act. In every single case, progressives are going to have to make difficult decisions re the compromises they will be forced to make. On none of these issues will we be able to get what we want, and some of the tradeoffs will really suck. But as we are debating the policy pros and cons, we also need to keep those two big questions in mind.

Lux draws the painful, but instructive lesson from the Clinton Administration’s failure to enact health care reform:

…When we lost on health care in 1994, and then lost Congress in the elections because our base was so discouraged that they didn’t turn out, it made Clinton and Democrats in general hyper-cautious about trying to do anything big or bold the rest of his Presidency. If we had won on health care, we would have kept Congress, and we would have emboldened Democrats to try other big things. It is one of the most basic laws in politics: victory makes you stronger, and defeat makes you weaker. You can fault Obama for some of his specific policy proposals, and for being too ready to compromise on some things, but one thing he has been willing to do is try to do big things, and if health care goes down, the attempt to do big things will probably will stop- climate change probably is given up on as too hard, financial reform gets weaker, efforts to create more jobs probably is given up on, immigration reform very likely gets shelved. If a health care bill is passed…it will create the possibility of doing other big things.

Lux uses the example of Social Security legislation as a foundational reform that paved the way for strengthening amendments:

…When it was first passed, it was far weaker than today, and had many flaws progressives of today would have been rightfully upset about, but that it was a platform future progressives could build on. I think that’s how we have to view this health care bill, the climate change bill, and at least some other legislation coming down the pike.

A salient point. We want the strongest possible legislation, but a bill’s weaknesses can be corrected later. Lux, author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, concludes:

…Where there is some early success, momentum can build into something bigger and more progressive over time: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ all achieved most of their big historic changes after more than a year in office. We need to create that platform so we can build big change one step at a time. Every one of those steps will be slow and painful and infuriating. I still have hope, though, if we can get the first step of health care done, we can take another step, and then another one, and that we will be able to look back many years from now with pride because we made big change history when our opportunity for it came.

The opportunity is upon us, and ‘big change history’ now calls Democrats everywhere to action.

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