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Tea Party Envy

December 17, 2009

I’ve had a sinking feeling for quite awhile now, but lately it has metastasized: I am worried by the trajectory of the cynical, sometimes fiery, sometimes dejected progressive movement.

A year ago, liberals were celebrating the rise of the tea party movement. Their rallies were ugly, their rhetoric was hysterical, and they garnered more than their share of media coverage. But everyone agreed that ultimately, their message was so far right that the tea party was bad for the conservative movement. Significant portions of the liberal blogosphere were convinced that we were watching the final death throes of the Reagan Revolution!

I admit, I believed that to some extent too. In fact, I still think that the Tea Party movement should and still would be bad for the conservative movement, if it weren’t for poll after poll showing a demoralized left that plans to stay home next November. How did we reach a point where portions of the left are self righteously boasting that they will lie down and surrender to the fringe in order to protest the center-leftness of Reid and Obama?

The answer, I think, is that liberals are suffering from tea party envy.

Progressives see a lot to be depressed about. Obama (note: President, not Senator) has not secured passage of the public option. Progressive senators aren’t willing to kill a bill without a public option. Harry Reid is willing to compromise with – and then compromise again, and again, and again with Joe Lieberman and Olympia Snowe and Ben Nelson. There is no high profile cheerleader for the causes that progressives care about. In short, there is no visible Democratic ringmaster of pablum and bromides.

The Tea Party movement is united by pablum and bromides. George W. Bush was a President whose operating principles were pablum and bromides. The current GOP leadership is still devoted to pablum and bromides. Sarah Palin has become a star based on the strength of her pablums and bromides. Liberals look at this and say, “What a disaster governance by pablum and bromide has been for the country!” But I think we have been breathing this noxious air for so long that some of us are beginning to wonder what it would be like to bat for the other side. And having considered it, I think some of us are saying: “Wow, those bromides must feel great!”

What else but bromide can we call the idea of torpedoing a historic bill that would better the lives of thousand because it lacks a public option? Arguments like these mistake politics for morality plays. And – I hate to play this card, but I am coming to believe this problem is all too pervasive – to confuse politics for a morality play is a mark of privilege. What makes progressives feel self-actualized is not what makes the uninsured feel insured.

Fortunately, enough prominent liberal bloggers have not followed the GOP down the rabbit hole into the world of if-it-feels-good-then-do-it politics. I happily quote a handful of liberal bloggers below, relieved that a good portion of the liberal blogosphere remains committed to a reality-based politics centered around good legislation.

Passing good legislation is hard, as Max Weber explains, via Matt Yglesias:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth–that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base forwhat he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

This really is the nub of it. Progressives will always be at a structural disadvantage. It will always be harder to convince people to do something than to do nothing. This is an eternal truth, and it is one that Republican obstructionism exploits to spread cynicism throughout the progressive base, driving a wedge between party activists and their Weberian leaders. But progressives do themselves no service by wishing that it were the other way around; that we could achieve the same kinds of political victories through pablum and bromides as can the party of the status quo. Progressive victories will necessarily be incremental, mundane, and hard fought. But none of this matters if their cumulative effects are real.


Nate Silver’s Elevator Pitch at 538:

So, we’ve talked a lot about what the bill is not. It’s not structural reform. What is it, then? At the end of the day, it’s a big bleeping social welfare program — the largest social welfare program to be implemented since the Great Society. And that’s really what it’s been all along: fundamental reform like single-payer or Wyden-Bennett was never really on the table. The bill comes very close, indeed, to establishing what might be thought of as a right to access to health care: once it’s been determined that people with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied health care coverage, and that working class people ought to receive assistance so that they can afford health care coverage, it will be very hard to remove those benefits. It’s the sort of opportunity that comes around rarely — and one that liberals will greatly regret if they turn down.

G.D. at PostBourgie:

But it’s worth remembering that Social Security, a landmark piece of progressive legislation, was a mess when Roosevelt signed it into law. In its original form, it  effectively excluded women, people of color, farmers, nurses and tons of other folks. These were horrible exemptions, but to mix metaphors, the safety net was expanded as legislators added meat to the original skeleton. This is hardly the end, and we should look at this imperfect bill — still a major achievement in historic and human terms — as a first draft.

Jamelle at United States of Jamerica:

Americans have grown accustomed to a government that is either indifferent or actively hostile to their concerns.  If nothing else, this bill will go a long way in rehabilitating government’s reputation and showing Americans that the government, for all of its flaws and problems, isn’t the bogeyman of conservative imagination.  It’s the best — and only — thing we have to tackle the problems and challenges we face as a nation and a people.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:

If healthcare reform dies this year, it dies for a good long time.  Say what you will about the Democratic leadership, but Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer all know this perfectly well.  So do John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.  (Boy do they know it.)  But if it passes, here’s what we get:

  • Insurers have to take all comers.  They can’t turn you down for a preexisting condition or cut you off after you get sick.
  • Community rating.  Within a few broad classes, everyone gets charged the same amount for insurance.
  • Individual mandate.  I know a lot of liberals hate this, but how is it different from a tax?  And its purpose is sound: it keeps the insurance pool broad and insurance rates down.
  • A significant expansion of Medicaid.
  • Subsidies for low and middle income workers that keeps premium costs under 10% of income.
  • Limits on ER charges to low-income uninsured emergency patients.
  • Caps on out-of-pocket expenses.
  • A broad range of cost-containment measures.
  • A dedicated revenue stream to support all this.

What’s more, for the first time we get a national commitment to providing healthcare coverage for everyone.  It won’t be universal to start, unfortunately, but it’s going to be a lot easier to get there once the marker is laid down.  That’s how every other country has done it, and that’s how we did it with Social Security and Medicare, both of which had big gaps in coverage when they were first passed.

But if we don’t pass it, we don’t get any of this.  Not now, and not for a long time.  Instead of being actual liberals, we’ll just be playing ones on TV.

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