The Progressive Nuclear Option

by , posted on Monday, August 24th, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Couple of days ago I got an e-mail from my right-wing-nut sister. Well a lot of people got it; she’d broadcasted it to her entire address book. It was supposed to be a joke about the top ten things we can all expect under Obamacare. It wasn’t funny, so I didn’t laugh.

But I did lose my temper and responded “to all” with what can only be called a rant. The rant included lots of facts and figures and some helpful links, since I assume my sister is not likely to happen upon many of those fact-thingies while watching Faux News and listening to Rush. But it also included a thorough rundown of my own uninsurable and dubious state of health, along with a request that if my sister wished to helped Big Insurance execute me for sake of the conservative cause, she at least display enough shame to leave me off her e-mail list.


No sooner did I hit send, than I scrambled back to her original message checking to see if she had included our mother in her distribution. She had. So I had included her in my reply. Not a good thing when you consider that I’ve spent the years since I recovered from leukemia trying to convince my mother, and/or anyone who may repeat anything to her, that I am the picture of health and all is rosy in my world. Kind of necessary in light of the fact that she had what I can only call a breakdown when I was diagnosed and was drugged by her doctor into insensibility for virtually the entire year I was in treatment.

So, yeah, big uh-oh.

I haven’t heard a word from my sister, but last night Mom called.

And immediately launched into a long and largely incoherent ramble about how much she admires Obama, pleading with me to believe she voted for him and thinks he’s just great.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of this, I finally managed to wedge in a word and asked her what the hell Obama had to do with anything?

I got another long ramble in response, but the gist of it was that she assumed I had taken personal offense to my sister’s attack on Obama and wanted to reassure me she had no part in that.

I spent a long, long time after that talking to her about the fact that I think what Obama does or does not in regard to health care reform is largely irrelevant, since from my point of view Obama is a centrist who is not inclined to lead on this issue so his only real value to proponents of health care reform at present is that he is not likely to veto any remnant of real reform we may be able to wring out of Congress by hook or by crook.

She said “oh, I don’t follow politics so I don’t know about that” and persisted in repeating her admiration for Obama, this time throwing in Michelle and the kids for good measure.

Then she tried to get me to move in with her in Florida, which is how all our conversations end up, so I assumed it was pointless from there.

But the whole thing got me to thinking about how the general public, who “do not follow politics,” view the health care battle. It’s a thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: how the general public views health care reform and how we can sell it to them. I’ve been following arguments about the framing of the debate etc., and most particularly worrying about how those over 65 view it, because that picture is not pretty. Gleaning what I can from the conversation with Mom, and the repugnant e-mail from my sister, I suspect the general public views health care reform in terms of Obama (Democrats) vs. the Status Quo (Republicans). And of course we have obligatory Repub fear and smear tactics, grannies with their plugs pulled, immigrants rushing the border to steal our taxpayer dollars, etc, etc, etc.

Like a lot of people who do follow politics, particularly internal Democratic Party politics, I view this battle as liberals and progressives (pro health care reform and already losers of the single-payer battle) vs. conservadems (Blue Dogs, New Democrats, recipients of very large donations from the insurance lobby, etc).

This seems very simple and obvious to me, because last time I looked, Democrats held both houses of Congress and the White House. Democrats can pass any legislation they want. Really. All threats of filibusters and other such hand-wringing nonsense aside, they really can.

So I went to sleep troubled by this and woke up this morning to see this Russ Douthat opinion piece linked at the top of the page on DailyKos.

I’ll excerpt exactly the part DKos did:

If the Congressional Democrats can’t get a health care package through, it won’t prove that President Obama is a sellout or an incompetent. It will prove that Congress’s liberal leaders are lousy tacticians, and that its centrist deal-makers are deal-makers first, poll watchers second and loyal Democrats a distant third. And it will prove that the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises.

I can’t agree entirely with Douthat, since I think we hardly need proof that the Democratic Party’s centrist deal-makers are “deal-makers first, poll watchers second and loyal Democrats a distant third.” To me, that’s a given.

But it did help gel for me what I went to sleep troubled by. The health care battle is not about Republicans vs. Democrats. Republicans are irrelevant to this. They lost this debate when they lost the election. They are useful only to conservadems who wish to latch on to their sound and fury in attempt to find cover for opposing any meaningful reform, such as the inclusion of a public option, in a health care bill.

Said sound and fury is, for Republicans, a desperate effort to make health care reform fail, for the sake of proving that “the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises.” They’ve said so openly: politically, the achievement of anything by Democrats while they control the Congress and the White House is anathema to Republicans. Because voters like achievement and detest failure, the surest path for Republicans to regain seats and some semblance of power in 2010 is to prevent passage of any good legislation in the interim.

So here we are.

Battling once again for the soul of the Democratic Party. Nate Silver’s got some good – though daunting – analysis of why this is likely to lead to the exclusion of a public option from health care reform.

Me, I’m seeing signs of hope. And, yes, “Hopey” is delivering them. While I’d like very much to believe that Obama has recently reiterated his fondness for (as opposed to an insistence upon) a public option out of real conviction, I am cynic enough to believe rather that the strong liberal and progressive pushback against the administration’s “the public option is not necessarily necessary” trial balloon created a bit of a quandry for Obama.

Hopey being, first and foremost, a very adept political animal, the idea of a revolt by the left of the left base having enough teeth to actually sink his achievement of any legislation at all must be rather, well, revolting to him.

And therein lies the Progressive Nuclear Option, or what I’ve come to think of as the only progressive option.

For progressives and liberals, the only real option at this juncture is to stick on the public option by being utterly willing to blow up the legislation entirely – or as Nate Silver puts it, go on tilt. All else is failure. Failure to achieve any real health care reform, yes, but more importantly, failure to strengthen the Congressional Progressive Caucus and take back control of the party from centrist conservadems.

To go back to Douthat, the game for Republicans is to prove exactly this:

that the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises

And that, my progressive friends, is also, ironically, the only leverage we have: to prove that we are utterly willing to ensure that the Democratic Party, without us, is “institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises,” rather than continuing on a decades-long course of allowing centrists to control the party – and give away the store.

Carrots, yes.

But in the end we need to recognize that we’ve managed to get hold of a very large stick and that being willing to – determined to – wield it is our only option.

This time, the only way to win is not to play (the conservadem “what else can we give up?” game).


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4 Responses to “The Progressive Nuclear Option”

  1. iowademocrat says:

    Excellent post. Tweeted it earlier this evening!

  2. prosepetals says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’m new to your blog, so I’m excited to read such down-to-earth direct writing on this subject. Take care. :)

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