Will Democrats Heed Call From Left, Unions for Populist Agenda?

From union leaders like the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka to progressive advocates at the Campaign for America’s Future, the lessons from the Massachusetts shellacking are crystal clear: the need to push ahead with a strong populist agenda, including healthcare reform and jobs creation, instead of kow-towing to corporate interests and center-right Democrats with weak proposals that only fuel voter anger.

“This special election is a wake up call and should lead to a course correction. The Democratic party can no longer run as a managerial and technocratic party. Going populist is now smart politics and good policy,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, the Nation editor, declared in a column. “Obama’s decision to demobilize his base in 2009 in favor of an insider approach to governing was a big mistake. It is time to re-mobilize the base.”

But the president this week sent signals in a different direction: he may be seeking a more stripped-down bill that, somehow, after the GOP’s “Party of No” declarations to “break him” and all their lies about death panels, could gain bipartisan support.

Meanwhile, the pathway to passing a decent health care bill seemed even slimmer, with some House progressives balking at passing the weak Senate bill and then supplementing it with a quick-fix budget reconciliation measure.

As The New York Times reported:

President Obama signaled on Wednesday that he might be willing to scale back his proposed health care overhaul to a version that could attract bipartisan support, as the White House and Congressional Democrats grappled with a political landscape transformed by the Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race.

“I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on ABC News, notably leaving near-universal insurance coverage off his list of core goals.

But it was not clear that even a stripped-down bill could get through Congress anytime soon. Throughout the day, White House officials and Democratic Congressional leaders struggled to find a viable way forward for the health care bill and to digest the reality that much of their agenda, including an energy measure and an overhaul of banking regulations, had been derailed by the outcome in Massachusetts.

Inside the White House, top aides to the president said Mr. Obama had made no decision on how to proceed, and insisted that his preference was still to win passage of a far-reaching health care measure, like the House and Senate bills, which would extend coverage to more than 30 million people by 2019.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders said they were weighing several options. But some lawmakers in both parties began calling for a scaled-back bill that could be adopted quickly with bipartisan support, and Mr. Obama seemed to suggest that if he could not pass an ambitious health care bill, he would be willing to settle for what he could get. In the interview with ABC, he cited two specific goals: cracking down on insurance industry practices that hurt consumers and reining in health costs.

The left’s longed-for solution of reconciliation, which could only need 50 Senate votes plus VP Joe Biden, for finance-related measures such as taxing the wealthy or a public option, didn’t seem to be gaining much traction so far on Capitol Hill. Yet a House health committee source told In These Times, “nothing’s off the table.”

For instance, even progressives are cool to the strategy first proposed by health reformer Ron Pollack, the president of Families USA — pass the Senate bill to get it to the President’s desk, then work out a firm agreement among Democratic leaders and the White House on the shape of a stronger reform-oriented budget reconciliation package. But as Salon reported this week:

The co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus says he won’t support a plan to have the House pass the Senate healthcare bill, then change the legislation through budget reconciliation.

“It has to be the whole thing” done through reconciliation, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., told Salon Wednesday morning. “The whole issue of parallel — do this or do that later — I don’t believe that will occur.” Getting the House to agree to pass the Senate bill — without changing even a single comma — is the only way to send healthcare legislation to President Obama without the Senate having to vote on it again. But Grijalva thinks that option is virtually impossible. “If it is the Senate bill that we’re asked to just merely vote on [and] send to the president’s desk for his signature, I think it’s going to be difficult to round up a majority,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mixed-message comments on the likelihood of passing a Senate bill also indicates the tricky path forward to passing health reform now. As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein observed, with an updated correction that the press spin on her comments apparently dooming the Senate bill were taken out of context:

Did Nancy Pelosi just declare health care dead?

“I don’t see the votes for [passing the Senate bill] at this time,” she said. If the pressure eases now, it’s hard to see the votes emerging at some later time. And if the House backs off now, it’s impossible to imagine the Senate stepping in to pick up the slack.

To appreciate what’s happened over the past few days, imagine if all Democrats had read from the same hymnal and responded to Scott Brown’s election with a low-key “it’s a shame Martha Coakley ran such a bad campaign, but health-care reform is on the 1 yard line and we’re not turning back now.” Brown’s victory would have been as big story, but not a cataclysm for the Democrats’ legislative agenda. Instead, Democrats have decided to act as if they’re in the minority for the next year and will actually become the minority in 2010.

Update Reading Pelosi’s comments in full, that line is being ripped out of context a bit. It reads more like she’s arguing the Senate bill will need to be changed in order to pass, which is a pretty normal stance right now. “We have to get a bill passed,” she said. “we know that. That’s a predicate that we all subscribe to.”

Still, what’s especially worrisome to some progressive observers is the backpedaling by some Democratic leaders and liberal stalwarts such as Rep. Anthony Weiner, proposing instead slowing down and rethinking health reform.

As Klein commented on election night:

And here comes the firing squad. Anthony Weiner went on MSNBC to suggest that Democrats drop health care and pivot to jobs. Evan Bayh is blaming “the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party,” who have gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months. Barney Frank is hoping that some Senate Republicans will revise the health-care bill to their liking, resulting in a bill that will be far less to the House’s liking than the current Senate bill. And so on.

There will be more to say on all this tomorrow. For now, it’s worth observing that a Democratic Party that would abandon their central initiative this quickly isn’t a Democratic Party that deserves to hold power. If they don’t believe in the importance of their policies, why should anyone who’s skeptical change their mind? If they’re not interested in actually passing their agenda, why should voters who agree with Democrats on the issues work to elect them? A commitment provisional on Ted Kennedy not dying and Martha Coakley not running a terrible campaign is not much of a commitment at all.

Given this Democratic waffling, only a strong grass-roots push by progressives and unions is likely to lead to an effective health reform bill. And that will make it more likely they’ll be willing to heed the populist reading of the victory in Massachusetts. As Trumka said the day after the election about Masschusett’s angry voters: “You see, they believe that Wall Street’s being taken care of. They believe that corporate America is being taken care of. They believe the insurers are being taken care of. But they don’t think that workers are being taken care of.”

Moreover, as the AFL-CIO Now blog pointed out, the voters still want the change they voted for in 2008:

Massachusetts voters sent a strong signal to Washington lawmakers Tuesday that they want results—and aren’t seeing any. Not on health care reform, not on job creation and not on fixing the nation’s economy.

Voters also sent another powerful message for Democrats: Ignore the working class at your peril.

Some 79 percent of voters polled on election night said the most important issue for them was electing a candidate who will strengthen the economy and create more jobs. Controlling health care costs was next on their list, with 54 percent citing that issue as the main determinant of their vote.

The poll, conducted by Hart Research Associates among 810 voters for the AFL-CIO on the night of the election, also found that although voters without a college degree favored Barack Obama by 21 percentage points in the 2008 election, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley lost that same group by a 20-point margin.

And as AFL-CIO Richard Trumka has pointed out, Massachusetts voters have the same goals for reforming health care, creating good jobs and strengthening the economy as they did in November 2008—but President Obama and the Democrats have done too little:

“Voters showed they don’t think Democrats have overreached—they think that the Democrats underreached.”

In fact, voters were not worried about Democratic “overreach”—47 percent said their bigger concern about Democrats is that they haven’t succeeded in making needed change rather than tried to make too many changes too quickly (32 percent). Even voters for Scott Brown were more concerned about a lack of change (50 percent) than about trying to make too many changes too quickly (43 percent).

These results puts a lie to the corporate media spin that Democrats have gone “too far” in pushing a reform agenda.

Unfortunately, too many Democrats seem to be so spooked by the Brown victory in Massachusetts that they seem unwilling so far to take strong, decisive steps to pass health care reform — and, by failing to do so, could doom the party’s chances in 2010 and beyond. As Klein reported near the end of the day Thursday:

The negotiations on the Hill are increasingly odd. One of the options is to pass the Senate bill. That’s not a perfect option, because it’s not as progressive as the House bill. Another option is to pass the Senate bill and put the compromises into a reconciliation rider. House members are worried, however, that that will seem like another backroom deal and give Republicans more ammunition. A third option is to pare the bill back and pass some of its component pieces, like the Medicaid expansion and the insurance reform.

Of all of these, the third option makes the least sense. The Senate bill may not be as progressive as the House bill. But it’s a whole lot more progressive than something that’s smaller and covers fewer people. As a negotiating strategy, this is a bit like rejecting a job because it pays too little and instead taking a worse job that pays less.

As for kneeling before the Republican argument that passing a package of amendments is a backroom deal, put the negotiations, or whatever they are, on C-SPAN. If the lesson Democrats have taken from this is that they can no longer pass legislation because passing legislation involves people speaking in rooms and agreeing on deals, they’ve just agreed to rule governance out of order.

I’m starting to think congressional Republicans have mastered the Jedi mind trick.

What labor and progressive groups like Health Care for America Now do next in response to such Democratic waffling could decide the future of health care reform.