Political Reality

***This post was originally written just after the health care debate, but only published now***

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

~ George Bernard Shaw

Anyone who’s read this blog even a little knows that I was one of those dastardly, counterproductive people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. I’m not particularly hung up on my vote at that time, but I’ve felt compelled to return to the issue numerous times since then because Nader – and anyone in progressive circles who voted for him or (seemingly) thinks he’s anything less than the devil incarnate – has become such a bete noire for the Democratic party and even for progressives generally. Progressive thought leaders, from Kos to Josh Marshall to countless rank-and-file people whose names neither of us would recognize, think that a vote for Nader in 2000 led to some of the worst events in this country’s history under the questionable (at best) stewardship of Dick Cheney and his organ-grinder monkey, George W. Bush.

And you know what? They’re right, in a sense. Though I lived at the time in California and therefore could accurately claim that my vote didn’t actually elect anyone, had I lived in Florida that would have been different. And so, I accept the mantle of being one of the people who helped bring about eight years of George W. Bush (or at least the first four, anyway).

Just this last week, we were treated to another dose of political reality with the passage of the landmark health care reform bill passed through both houses of congress and sent to President Obama to be signed into law. Anyone who even vaguely follows politics has been unable to avoid hearing about the health care debate over the past year: it, along with general redneckery, was probably responsible for the rise of the teabaggers (great movie title, BTW: Rise Of The Teabaggers – hey, Cameron, you listening? Heh.), and that issue has dominated the debate and produced most of the rancor in the halls of congress for the better part of a year.

Why did it take so long? Well, partly because Washington always takes longer than even the most jaded and pessimistic observer figures it’ll take to accomplish any given thing. But even that doesn’t account for the full YEAR of acrimonious wrangling and (if you’re into that sort of thing) edge-of-the-seat “will-they-or-won’t-they” suspense. Democrats spent virtually all of 2009 after the initial high of the Obama inauguration wore off lurching from one debacle to another in their plans for passage of health care. When the Minnesota Senate contest between Al Franken and the ever-odious Norm Coleman devolved into a contest between a few hundred votes (shades of Florida, 2000!) instead of several thousand or even tens or hundreds of thousands, the Senate told the President and the public that we just had to wait until we had sixty votes in the Senate before we could accomplish much. Health care reform wasn’t the only casualty of such thinking, but it was perhaps the largest and most significant piece of Obama’s agenda which languished and suffered under the “we need sixty votes” reign of thinking.

Of course, it goes without saying – and I’ve pointed out here before – that none of this would be a problem were the GOP not so committed, both ideologically and procedurally to being the Party Of No™. In the last two congresses (from 2006 on, when the Democrats re-took power in the Senate), the Republicans have racked up more filibusters-per-year than previous congresses have in their entire two-year terms. By a longshot. They’ve said no to virtually everything the President or congressional Democrats have proposed, however trivial or inconsequential, often opposing their own proposals or hypocritically inveighing against things they themselves regularly do, just to annoy/obstruct the President and the Democrats. I’m by no means suggesting that either President Obama or congressional Democrats (particularly Senate Democrats) have had an easy time of it. They haven’t. They’ve found themselves in one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history, with a functionally inoperable opposition party that is more dedicated to their own pursuit of power and to scoring political points than they are to the welfare of the country. It hasn’t been a picnic.

It also hasn’t been an impossible problem, either. Back when the Franken/Coleman race was still dragging on well into 2009, Harry Reid, Joe Lieberman and a host of other Democratic luiminaries (as well as the gleeful Republicans who appeared thrilled – if somewhat surprised – that their stonewalling was actually going to work) told us over and over that they just couldn’t accomplish anything without that sixtieth vote. Liberal bloggers and commentators, myself included, practically tore our hair out, many of us pointing out that George Bush had much smaller majorities in both houses than the Democrats currently enjoyed, and with a combination of message and party discipline and a keen sense of how to play the political game, was able to ram through most of his agenda despite Democratic opposition. The Senate NEVER needed sixty votes to do much of anything. They needed sixty votes to procedurally break a filibuster, yes. But breaking a filibuster through a sixty-vote cloture motion was never – and is not now – the only way to accomplish one’s legislative goals. The passage of health care reform – especially the package of “fixes” to the dreadful Senate bill which was passed by the House and then sent to the Senate where it passed under budget reconciliation – proves that. Not “suggests it” or “implies it,” it proves it.

Most of the liberal blogosphere just shook our collective heads when, after Franken was finally certified the winner in Minnesota, Harry Reid immediately went to various media outlets, trying to “manage expectations,” no doubt, and told the nation that

“We have 60 votes on paper,” Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, said Wednesday in an interview. “But we cannot bulldoze anybody; it doesn’t work that way. My caucus doesn’t allow it. And we have a very diverse group of senators philosophically. I am not this morning suddenly flexing my muscles.”…

“One or two could peel off on any issue,” said Mr. Reid, who has seen the ranks of his party swell by 15 in the past two elections.

The collective thud of heads hitting desktops (or walls, or cinder blocks) throughout America was deafening that morning. Sure, we’d like to operate by consensus too, Harry…but sometimes the obstinacy or self-interest of members of either or both parties doesn’t allow it. Not according to Senator Reid, however, who immediately afterward turned over all the power in the health care debate to the Max Baucus-chaired Finance Committee’s ill-storied “Gang of Six,” (three Republicans and three Democrats, despite the Democrats having a clear majority) to hash out a “bipartisan” proposal for health care reform. With the expected results, of course. Baucus – no progressive himself – and Kent Conrad (ditto) and Republicans Enzi and Chuck “Pull The Plug On Grandma” Grassley spent the entire summer, as teabaggers exploded in ginned-up, scripted rage across the nation’s town-halls and TV screens, holed up in the Finance Committee’s chambers, getting nowhere.

When the “Gang of Six” finally did come back with a proposal, it was just as bad as you’d expect a proposal to be, if it were drafted by three moderate Democrats and three Republican assholes dedicated to slowing and ultimately stopping the legislation at all costs. No public option. No medicare buy-in. Few cost controls. No prescription drug price bargaining. Etc. And then, after this weak sauce was endorsed heartily by the Rahm Emanuel wing of the White House, even THAT couldn’t get passed through the Senate. Well, actually, it did get passed through the Senate, but only after Reid was held over a barrel by everyone from Mary Landrieu to Joe Lieberman to Ben Nelson, resulting in some of the worst examples of pork-giveaways in recent memory (the “Cornhusker Kickback,” etc.). Cobbling together sixty votes, the Senate passed this weak bill….and then the bottom dropped out. Scott Brown, because of Democratic incompetence and cocksureness, snatched Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat from the campaign of the hapless Martha Coakley, throwing the Senate back into a 59-41 situation, instead of the 60-40 chamber that had, however haltingly, managed to pass the bill in the first place.

Uh-oh! Red alert! Now we can’t get anything done, according to Harry Reid’s view of how the Senate has to operate! Now we’re completely paralyzed when it comes to passing health care. Because, although both the House and the Senate had passed versions of health care reform, they were not identical, and so would have to be melded together in a conference between the House and Senate, and the resulting identical bill would have to be re-passed by both houses again. And Scott Brown was already on record saying that he would be the “forty-first vote” against health care reform. Danger, Will Robinson!

But a funny thing happened on the way to health care reform’s certain demise. That funny thing was that after nearly a year of constant harangue and spotlight on the issue, it had assumed a life of its own. The public was now sufficiently focused on health care reform – and the agonizingly slow path it had been taking through congress – that polls now consistently showed that NOT passing it would be seen as a crushing defeat of the Democratic agenda and their new President’s ability to get anything done. It would be, as Jim DeMint correctly though cynically observed, Obama and the Democrats’ “Waterloo.” What to do? Democrats had, in effect, come too far to go back now: the public was too engaged and aware of the issue of health care reform for Reid and Obama to simply let the issue die on the vine and then tell the cameras they had “other priorities” or that Republicans just wouldn’t go along. Last March, that might have been possible. Even last June. But by fall – and certainly by the end of the year – Democrats had begun to realize that they HAD to deliver something that they could, however disingenuously, refer to as “health care reform,” or they’d be in for a (justified) crushing defeat in 2010, and probably again in 2012. If they allowed the Republican strategy of obstructionism to carry the day, they’d never hear the end of how the GOP had “saved” America from certain socialism in the form of “Obamacare,” and how the only sensible thing for the voters to do now was to continue along the same path, by returning the Republicans to power.

Reid could see it. Rahm could see it. Obama himself could see it. They all now understood that NOT passing health care reform would be, if not exactly more difficult than passing it, definitely more harmful to their own agendas and careers. All of a sudden, the previously-discredited idea of reconciliation – passing items through the Senate on a fifty-vote threshold, avoiding the possibility of filibuster – resurfaced. This idea had been floated ever since the beginning of the health care debate, when it became clear to everyone (except, apparently, elected Democrats) that the GOP was ONLY dedicated to “killing the bill,” not finding compromise or working with Democrats. But Reid, stuck in his “we must have sixty votes, but don’t expect even sixty votes to mean too much” strategy – if indeed it can even rightly be called a strategy – had discounted it out of hand for months. In January and February, Reid let slip in interviews that it wasn’t completely a nutty idea – probably floating trial balloons, to see how the media/public/President/fellow Democrats/Republicans would react. And, when it became clear as day that it was do or die time – literally, die, in the political sense of the word – all of a sudden Democrats, including Reid, were all about reconciliation.

This is what’s known as political reality: when faced with the loss of their majorities, their agenda and their very careers, suddenly the Democrats in congress and the White House dropped the whole “bipartisan” nonsense that most of the rest of us could see for months was an impossible dream to begin with, took the gloves off, and did what they had to do to pass the bill. The sad thing is that back during June and July, through August and September, while many of us here on the left were urging, pleading, begging the Democrats to consider using reconciliation to circumvent the GOP’s obvious obstructionism, we were told (yet again, just like the Iraq war) that this was an “unserious” position, that reconciliation was “too difficult” or “would never work” or other forms of discouragement. Often, this discouragement came wrapped in a cloak of condescension, suggesting or even occasionally outright stating (not in so many words) that the grown-ups had decided that we needed sixty votes – even though the briefest of glances backward at the Bush years immediately put the lie to such a notion – and that we’d all better get in line behind the President and Harry Reid and call our Senators and urge them to try to get sixty votes, yada yada yada. Right up until the time they (Reid, Pelosi, Obama) realized their own butts were on the line, along with literally all of their agenda, if they did not use it.

Village talking heads, Democratic party insiders and those who tend toward conservatism and/or capitulation as a matter of personal proclivity, all told the dirty fucking hippies that the “political reality” was that sixty votes must be corralled to pass health care reform or, indeed, anything else. Today, the Democrats have only fifty-nine. And yet health care reform passed. Why? Because the Democrats were faced with not passing anything else in their agenda for the rest of the term if they held fast to that cherished “sixty vote” notion. What kills me – still – is that the political reality was ALWAYS that ways could be found to pass things without sixty votes. Is reconciliation difficult and treacherous? Is it not for everything? Of course. Does that mean it can’t be used at all? Only if you’re a craven, capitulating Democrat.

This same logic was in full force in 2000. Was Al Gore always better than George Bush? Of course! But was Al Gore at the time also given to the Clinton-era strategy of being (or at least trying to appear as) GOP-lite? Yes. More cops. Increased military. More-conservative social positions. On and on and on until the public wondered why they were even bothering to consider the Democrats, since they could just have the “real thing” – the guys who invented the shtick – by just simply voting for the GOP. And they did, in election after election. And the Democrats’ response? Uh-oh, we must not be acting conservative ENOUGH! Man overboard! We have to move FURTHER to the right!

No. You don’t. You didn’t then, either. I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 because I knew for sure (by observing their behavior) that unless the political reality forced them to do otherwise, Democrats would only continue along on this path of moving halfway to the Republican position in a vain attempt to “capture the center.” In 2000, Ralph Nader ran against Al Gore because Al Gore was a capitulating, triangulating, corporatist Democrat. The Al Gore of “An Inconvenient Truth” didn’t even exist in 2000 – or if he did, Gore kept him well-hidden from public view, because he wanted to be elected, and he’d convinced himself that progressive positions were the electoral kiss of death; if he wanted to be elected, he had to keep that side of himself as quiet and out of sight as David Vitter does his hookers. Only the threat – or the reality – of a swift kick in the teeth (electorally speaking) would be enough to jar the Democratic party out of the grip of this ruinous, corporatist, faux-“centrist” malaise.

And you know what? It worked. I’d have preferred (as I’m sure Nader himself would have) for Gore to recognize the attack from his left flank as a clarion call to not continue neglecting and taking his base for granted. I’d have preferred for him to wake up one morning to rediscover his own progressive, environmental, pro-social-safety net principles (as he has done now that he’s out of the pressure-cooker/spotlight), and to toss Nader a hearty “thanks for the reminder” and go out and kick George Bush’s ass using those themes, the very themes which made the Democratic party the most potent force for improving the lives of most Americans this country has ever seen. But he didn’t. He ignored and marginalized Nader, and even during the campaign, Democratic party operatives looked on – and portrayed – Nader as some sort of traitor to the cause. Meanwhile, the rest of us wondered “what cause is that, exactly?” Because Nader’s positions far more closely resembled those of FDR or even LBJ than Gore’s did.

But no. It didn’t happen. And because of 90,000 Nader voters in Florida that year, George Bush won the election. And what was the result? Well, I’ll give you a hint: did Kos, TPM, HuffPo, all the others, even exist in 2001? No. Yes, blogging in general was in its infancy at that time. But it wasn’t just the progression of the technology that was responsible for the tremendous upsurge in progressive activism. Some of it began as a realization of how insanely destructive the GOP had been in its lopsided persecution of Bill Clinton, but the abysmal Presidency of George W. Bush is what irrevocably served to remind progressives throughout the country (if not their leaders, quite that soon) that we’ve got a heck of a good thing in the United States, and that it’s not set in cement: we have to protect, defend and expand it, or the forces of reaction and personal greed (the GOP and corporate interests, in that order) will be there to erode and erase it. Today, there is progressive energy and activism not seen since the halcyon days of the 60s and early 70s. And it is all due to the election and mismanagement of Dubya. And that, in turn, is due to to Al Gore having lost to George Bush by 537 votes in Florida. Which, itself, is due to 90,000 Nader voters being willing to say “no, if you’re not actually going to support any of my positions in reality, you can’t count on my vote.”

So-called moderate, pragmatic Democrats have been telling us for years about the reasons why now’s not the right time to advocate strongly for broadly-popular policies, that the “political reality” is that it just wouldn’t be possible right now, that it just wouldn’t work. But their idea of what’s possible and what political reality is changes dramatically and abruptly as soon as they discover their own butts are on the line.

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