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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Timely Reminder on Health Reform

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on March 12, 2010.
One of the fundamental reasons for the kind of strategic analysis that TDS encourages and sponsors is that it’s sometimes easy to conflate strategy and tactics, and more basically, means and ends. Indeed, I’d contend that most of the major disagreements among Democrats are attributable to this problem of arguing past each other because one side or the other is thinking in different terms about where a particular political or policy decision lies on the continuum that extends from day-to-day tactics all the way over to grand strategy. And that has certainly been true in the health care reform debate.
But we should all be able to agree on one thing: the ultimate objective in politics–particularly progressive politics–is to make changes in public policy that have a real, beneficient impact on the real-life experiences of the American people. When that opportunity presents itself on one of the major challenges facing this country, taking advantage of it trumps a lot of otherwise valid considerations.
And so, in all the back-and-forth this week about polling on health reform, and the possible consequences to the Democratic Party this November of enacting or failing to enact legislation, it is important not to forget the big picture here: the responsibility that most Democrats would accept for meeting the challenge of changing the health care system in a positive direction.
Matt Yglesias offers a good analogy to keep in mind in weighing the political risks involved in enacting health care reform this year:

[T]he measure of a political coalition isn’t how long it lasted, but what it achieved. From the tone of a lot of present-day political commentary you’d think that the big mistake Lyndon Johnson made during his tenure in the White House was that by passing the Civil Rights Act he wound up damaging the Democratic Party politically by opening the South up to the GOP. Back on planet normal, that’s the crowning achievement of his presidency.

From that perspective, there are still important short-term political factors for Democrats to keep in mind: the impact of future Republican gains on other important policy goals, and even the possibility that those gains will be so large that the next Congress or the one after that will repeal health reform legislation. Short of that, though, it’s probably a moment for Democrats to keep their eyes on the prize and let the political chips fall where they may. It’s not as though we haven’t faced and overcome political adversity before, when we didn’t necessarily have the chance to make large progress on one of the enduring policy goals of the party going back more than a half-century.

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