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A Party of Lemmings

Beware the Progressive Democrat

by HELEN REDMOND

It’s not
What you thought
When you first began it
You got
What you want
Now you can hardly stand it though,
By now you know
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
‘Til you wise up

Aimee Mann, “Wise Up,” from the soundtrack to Magnolia

The nascent movement for single-payer in the United States has to learn the correct lessons from the health care debacle that has unfolded for the last year and is about to conclude. The number one lesson: DON’T TRUST THE DEMOCRATS – NOT A ONE. Especially the progressive Democrats.
Millions believed Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to create a humane, affordable and inclusive health care system and rein in the copious abuses of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. On the campaign trail, Obama proclaimed these corporations were greedy and more concerned about profits and patents than the needs of patients. Some thought because Obama was a former supporter of a single-payer system, he might just enact it when he won the Whitehouse. How wrong they were.
No one could have predicted how much influence and control over health care reform President Obama would give to the very corporate interests killing and bankrupting the American people, and who just a few months earlier, had fiercely attacked and called out by name. No one could have predicted the scale and scope of the sell out. It is truly astounding given the soaring rhetoric of before and the cruel and sleazy reality of now. 

From day one there they were, warmly welcomed to the table for the public to see Karen Ignagni, President and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and Billy Tauzin, President and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA.) After the sham for the cameras was over, it was off to the much more important “let’s make a deal” meetings (secret, back door, closed, so not transparent) with the Capital Gang: Ted Kennedy, Max Baucus, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and even President Obama.

Their army of lobbyists set up base camp in Congress. A new report by Medill News Service, Tribune Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics found a “revolving door between Capitol Hill staffers and lobbying jobs for companies with a stake in health care legislation.” According to the analysis, “At least 166 former aids from nine congressional leadership offices and five committees involved in shaping health care overhaul legislation – along with at least 13 former lawmakers – registered to represent at least 338 health care clients since the beginning of last year. Their health care clients spent $635 million on lobbying over the last two years.”

The fish rots from the head down (fish have no spines, either.) Obama set the tone for capitulation and compromise and the rest of the Democrats, the tempo. With breathtaking speed they dismissed, deneutered, and dealt away anything and everything the killer corporations objected to.

It’s important to remember the insurance industry offered to end the outrageous practice of pre-existing condition and rescission in order to shape the legislation in their favor and to make up for a potential loss of profits. They were not concessions won even though the Democrats and the media always portray them that way.

This is the political environment the so-called progressive Democrats were operating in. It was patently and painfully obvious their party was working hand in glove with the point people responsible for the health care crisis and allowing them to ghost write the House and Senate bills. They never mounted a serious challenge to this profoundly undemocratic, behind-the-scenes maneuvering. It would have meant challenging President Obama.

The right wing, Blue Dog Democrats had no such qualms and exacted a number of concessions: severe restrictions on abortion, no public option or Medicare buy-in. It was both incredible and infuriating to watch the scum of the House and Senate rise to the top – Stupak, Lieberman and Nelson – and win their demands. To be sure, the public option and Medicare buy-in were weak, non-reforms that would have done nothing to make health care more affordable. They were only symbolic sops, but even that was too much for the free market misogynists. 

And what of the amendments supported by members of the Progressive Democratic Caucus, the supporters of single-payer (SP): John Conyers, Anthony Weiner, Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders and Jan Schakowsky?
At every critical moment these politicians with vertebrae composed of Jello compromised, backed down and conceded. Their allegiance to the Democratic Party and to President Obama trumped everything. There was nothing they were not willing to compromise away, no constituency that couldn’t be thrown under the bus for the sake of passing a bill; most appallingly women and abortion rights. With the exception of Dennis Kucinich and Eric Massa, they all voted for the house bill that contained the Stupak Amendment. At a small protest in front of Jan Schakowsky’s home after the vote, she came out and told protesters she voted in favor of the Stupak Amendment because she knew it would be taken out of the Senate bill. She promised us it would be. As Schak strolled back into her opulent residence she protested, “I didn’t throw women under the bus.”   

The progressive Democrats sold out on single-payer early on when they backed the public option. This created enormous confusion: How could they advocate for both single-payer and the public option when the two are diametrically opposed? It didn’t take long before they all shilled almost exclusively for the public option. Schakowsky spoke at numerous HCAN meetings and rallies, never at single-payer events. Weiner was regularly interviewed by the press and focused the discussion on the public option, not single-payer.    

John Conyers, the lead sponsor of the single-payer bill H.R. 676, immediately endorsed the principles of Health Care for America Now (HCAN), an organization opposed to single-payer. When confronted by single-payer supporters at a Health Care Now! national conference, Conyers couldn’t explain the contradiction. Joel Segal, one of his staffers, became enraged and attempted to shut down the discussion. Soon after, Mr. Conyers became irrelevant to the movement for single-payer and a colossal embarrassment to it. It’s tragic, really. Conyers completely abandoned his magnificent legislation, H.R. 676: the only legislation that could transform health care from a commodity to an entitlement for all and solve the crisis. Instead of fighting for that legislation, he was holding briefings with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to discuss “Why the public option must be included to have true health reform.”

It was easy to champion single-payer when the Republicans were in power and health care reform wasn’t on the national agenda, but the minute it was, with the Democrats in control of Congress and the Whitehouse, Conyers collapsed like a house of cards.  Every now and again he howled about something. In one article he declared, “I’m tired of saving Obama’s can” but it never occurred to the doddering old fool to stop.

The Weiner Amendment was sheer duplicity. Single-payer supporters worked overtime and got arrested holding Nancy Pelosi to her promise of a vote on the amendment. The vote was scheduled but the day before, Conyers and Kucinich called off support for the vote and Weiner withdrew the amendment. But that was okay with the always-waffling Weiner. He explained: “I have decided not to offer a single payer alternative to the health reform bill at this time. Given how fluid the negotiations are on the final push to get comprehensive health care reform that covers millions of Americans and contains costs through a public option, I became concerned that my amendment might undermine that important goal.” Now we know: The most important goal for Weiner was securing a political future in the Democratic Party.  

Conyers and Kucinich tried to spin their skullduggery this way: “Many progressives in Congress, ourselves included, feel that calling for a vote tomorrow for single-payer would be tantamount to driving the movement over a cliff… We are now asking you to join us in suggesting to congressional leaders that this is not the right time to call the roll on a stand-alone single payer bill. That time will come.” Their assertions were preposterous and false – our movement wouldn’t go “over a cliff” if there was a vote, just the opposite. They claimed there wasn’t enough national support for SP, but that wasn’t true, either. Poll after poll show a majority support a government-run health care system, doctors do, too! Moreover, there would have been more grassroots activism and protest if Conyers and Kucinich had clearly, consistently and unapologetically led a political fight to get SP “on the table.” They did nothing to make H.R. 676 a central part of the health care debate and instead, spent their political capital working for the doomed public option. The time was never better to have a vote on single-payer – we had nothing to lose but the vote. For progressive Democrats there will never be a “right time” to have a vote on single-payer in the United States. 

The Kucinich Amendment for state single-payer never even made it into the final House bill. 

Single-payer amendments batting zero.  

Next up to the plate was the Bernie Sanders single-payer amendment in the Senate. The Republicans forced the reading of the 700-page bill (no single-payer bill should be that long, H.R. 676 is only 27 pages!) and after 3 hours Sanders caved. He didn’t “have to,” so why did he? Because the doomsday clock was ticking for the vote on the atrocious Senate bill, reading his amendment was wasting their precious time and Sanders fellow Democrats were positively apoplectic. But it was a Stupak, Lieberman, Nelson moment and Bernie blew it. If he had any balls or principles, he would have forced those senators, those members of the “Millionaire’s Club” who have “Cadillac” health care, to listen to every single word in that amendment, for as long as it took.

Fuck the Senate bill!   

If Sanders was a real socialist he would have committed political suicide and voted against the bill. But instead, a few days later in yet another unbelievable, eye-popping betrayal, he voted in favor of it! He was bought off with the promise of 10 billion for primary care and community clinics. In voting for the bill, Sanders rendered null and void his thirty-minute fiery, single-payer soliloquy in the Senate because it’s not what you say it’s what you do that counts.

Sanders admitted in a New York Times article he “doesn’t sleep well,” and knows, “The insurance companies and the drug companies will be laughing all the way to the bank the day after this is passed.” I hope he never gets another good night’s sleep and the truly progressive people of Vermont punish him by throwing his sorry ass out of office and into the dustbin of history.     

Back to correct lessons learned. Number one: DON’T TRUST THE DEMOCRATS – NOT A ONE. Especially the progressive Democrats. When push comes to shove they will not stand and deliver, they will back the status quo. The stunning series of sellouts of single-payer must not be forgotten. Number two: We have to build an independent movement for health care that is so large, so powerful, so full of fury and so uncompromising that whatever party happens to be in power is forced to abolish the private for-profit insurance industry and enact single-payer. That is the only way it will happen – by the force of hundreds-of-thousands of people in the streets, sitting in at insurance companies and in the corridors of Congress. When we do that history will truly be made and health care will finally become a human right in the United States.

Until that day, we remain a nation of hostages to the health insurance corporations.  

HELEN REDMOND is a medical social worker in Chicago. She can be reached at redmondmadrid@yahoo.com She blogs at http://helenredmond.wordpress.com