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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Misanalyzing Democratic Divisions on Health Reform

We’ll soon know the fate of health care reform legislation in Congress. But win or lose, the retrospective analysis of the health reform fight, and particularly the Obama administration’s overall strategy, will go on for years. That’s why I think it’s important to refute some questionable interpretations right now, before they are incorporated into the unofficial history of the debate.
Today Peter Beinart posted an article for The Daily Beast that treats the last-minute skirmishing among Democrats over health reform as the final stage in a two-decade-long battle between Clintonians and progressives, which Barack Obama brought to a conclusion by choosing to move ahead despite Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. This decision, Beinart says, changed Democrats “forever.”
Beinart’s piece is something of a pinata: it can be whacked from any number of directions. Most obviously, he mischaracterizes the current, and actually very limited, conflict among Democrats about what Obama should have done after the Brown victory. Yes, you can find a few self-described Democratic pundits (and he names virtually all of them) who have argued that Obama should have folded his tent or (somehow) pursued a bipartisan, incremental health reform proposal in the wake of Massachusetts. But the idea that the polling pair of Doug Schoen and Mark Penn, or longtime eccentric Pat Caddell, speak for the entire “Clintonian” tendency in the party is completely absurd. More typical and certainly more relevant are TDS Co-Editor William Galston (whom Beinart treats as a major foundational thinker for what he calls the “DLC types” in the party) and Progressive Policy Institute (the DLC’s think tank during all the battles Beinart describes) president Will Marshall, who have avidly backed Obama’s decision on both philosophical and practical grounds (here and here).
If you look at the actual conflict among Democrats in Congress, “no” or possible “no” votes in the House nearly all fall into two categories: nervous Democrats from very tough districts, who do not neatly fit on one side of some intraparty ideologicial spectrum, and more importantly, the “Stupak Democrats” who are focused on abortion policy. By and large, “Stupak Democrats” aren’t “Clintonian” in any meaningful sense of the term; many are very liberal voters on economic issues, and some, in fact, profess to be upset by the absence of a public option in the Senate bill and/or the presence of an insurance premium tax which many unions don’t like. To the extent that they reflect any intra-party conflict of an enduring nature, the “Stupak Democrats” represent the losing side of a debate over abortion that pre-dated the DLC/progressive battles and has little or nothing to do with them.
At least a few actual or potential Democratic defectors on health reform do so strictly from a progressive point-of-view, on grounds that the Senate bill, even if it’s “fixed” via reconciliation, merely ratifies the tainted health care status quo.
And so long as the Clinton brand is going to be thrown around in this discussion, it’s worth noting that the single most crucial modification of Obama’s campaign proposal on health care reform was adoption of an individual mandate, which Hillary Clinton championed. The idea that Mark Penn rather than Obama’s Secretary of State speaks for Clintonism is more than dubious.
Equally implausible is Beinart’s claim that Obama’s decision to move ahead on health reform represented the vindication of the Democratic “left” as opposed to the “center.” Yes, most self-conscious Democratic progressives (like most Democratic “centrists”) are pleased that Obama is pressing ahead on health reform absent any Republican support. That’s because they consider the status quo intolerable from a moral and substantive point of view, and surrender as politically calamitous as well. But as anyone who has been paying attention should know, many, perhaps most, on the Democratic Left are unhappy with Obama for pursuing Republican support as long as he did, and sacrificing important features of health reform in the process.
And this leads me to my most fundamental objection to Beinart’s analysis: his assumption that “partisanship” and “bipartisanship”–or as it puts it elsewhere, a Rovian “base mobilization” strategy as opposed to a Dick-Morris-style “crossover” strategy–are and have always been the essential differentiators between the progressive and Clintonian factions in the party, leading to the conclusion that Obama has now, once and forever, chosen the former over the latter. For anyone seriously engaged in intraparty debates over the years, the picture painted by Beinart is a very crude cartoon that should be offensive to both sides of those debates (as crude, in fact, as his characterization of the seminal Galston-Kamarck essay “The Politics of Evasion” as urging Democrats to “move to the right”).
It should be reasonably obvious after the last year that Obama and congressional Democrats didn’t “choose” partisanship after the Scott Brown victory; they were forced into a purely partisan stance on health reform by Republican instransigence. And it should be equally obvious that Obama’s many gestures towards bipartisanship were motivated not by naivete, but by a conviction that he could best achieve “crossover appeal” in the electorate by exposing the radicalism and intransigence of the GOP. It’s not clear this strategy will work in 2010, but it might well work in 2012 and beyond, thus building a more durable Democratic majority and/or creating incentives for the GOP to correct its current crazy course. In any event, he has not for all time chosen for Democrats a permanent posture of maximum partisanship and “base mobilization,” and his position on the literally hundreds of other policy and political issues that Democrats have internally debated can’t be shoehorned into Beinart’s scheme.
Maybe the decision to go for the gold on health reform will prove to have been momentous. But it wasn’t really a hard choice given the circumstances, and it certainly didn’t resolve every strategic decision Democrats will make “forever.”

One comment on “Misanalyzing Democratic Divisions on Health Reform

  1. Jan Oxenberg on

    The idea that the votes of 100,000 people in Massachusettes, voting in a specific circumstance, should send the Obama administration scurrying to change the priorities and strategies isn’t just ill-conceived, it’s insulting. What about the rest of the national electorate who voted for Obama and a Democratic Congress? I hope the Clintons ask Beinart et al to stop using their name for a “strategy” that amounts to weakness and inability to govern from principle.

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