What’s the difference between a Blue Dog Democrat and a progressive Democrat? One is a vertebrate with a spine and a willingness to bite. The other is a jellyfish with no spine and no teeth.
This difference has been glaringly apparent in the current fight over health care reform.
The Blue Dogs in House and Senate have been giving the progressive Democrats an object lesson in how a small group in Congress can get its way. They have threatened to withhold their support for the Obama Administration’s key policy objective of a health reform package, and have managed, with just a handful of votes between them, to remove almost all progressive content from that legislation by threatening to walk if they don’t get their way.
Compare that to the progressives—a much larger faction within the Democratic Party majority in both houses. There are plenty of articles currently circulating in the media talking about progressive rage and dissatisfaction, both among progressives at large, and among progressives in Congress, over the bills that are emerging in committees in both the House and Senate—bills that are gutting any reference to a genuine so-called “public option” government insurance plan that would actually compete with and challenge private insurance companies, and that have studiously avoided having anything to do with a single-payer approach, bills that call for actually cutting back on Medicare, the wildly successful single-payer program that since 1965 has been providing health care for the elderly and the disabled. But none of the dissatisfied progressive Democrats in Congress, and only a few of the progressive political organizations operating outside of Congress, have threatened to bolt and oppose the sell-out legislation that is being produced in Congress, or to stop supporting those Democrats in Congress who are caving in to the pressure from the health industry lobbies. And certainly none of those progressive groups have told the president that he will no longer have their support if he doesn’t insist on a much bolder and progressive health reform bill.
Given the power that the small Blue Dog Democratic Caucus has demonstrated by threatening to rebel and vote against a health reform bill, just imagine the power that Progressive Caucus would have if it were to collectively threaten a “No” vote. Just imagine the different path that health reform legislation would be taking in Congress today if progressive organizations like trade unions, netroots organizations, and others were to tell President Obama that they would withhold their backing in 2010 from any member of Congress who didn’t vote for a single-payer plan, or that he could no longer count on their support in 2012 if he failed to push for single-payer today.
This is the lesson of the current disaster of health reform in Congress, and it is just the latest chapter in the failed history of progressive Democratic politics.
It’s fine to work to elect progressives to Congress, and to send a Democrat, progressive or not, to the White House, given that there is no chance for progressive change while Republicans are in charge, and given the institutional obstacles and the fratricidal internal conflicts that prevent the rise of a viable Third Party alternative, but progressive voters and progressive organizations have forgotten the lesson of the Civil Rights and Anti-Indochina War movements. That lesson is that elections are only a small first step, and that only mass movements operating outside of Washington and outside of electoral politics—mass movements that threaten the Democrats who are currently in power—can produce progressive change.
The power of the Blue Dogs in Congress is derived from the fact that despite their small number, they are numerous enough that, if they stick together, they can derail a progressive reform bill.
But imagine how much more powerful the progressive caucus in House and Senate would be if it took the same tack.
Progressives in Congress, if they developed spines and teeth and ceased being jellyfish, could threaten to vote against every bill offered by those same Blue Dogs, unless they supported real health reform—that is, a single-payer plan such as the one being put forward today by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). If they were backed up by progressive grass roots organizations that let it be known that support would end for any Democrat not backing single-payer reform, we could have that reform.
Instead, we have jellyfish on the left, and both the president and the Democrats in Congress, know that they can ignore the left, because it will support them no matter what they do.
That is not to say that all the Democrats in Congress are jellyfish–just most of them. Conyers, who showed jellyfish-like characteristics on the impeachment issue during the Bush/Cheney era, has been outspoken in his criticism of the Obama administration, and has offered a real single-payer alternative. And last week, at a gathering of Progressive Democrats of America in Washington, Conyers warned that Obama risks being a one-term president, saying to him, “Buddy, you are wrong on healthcare and it’s going to cost you big time.” Nor is it to say that all progressive groups and individuals are toeing the line and simply backing whatever Obama and the Congressional Democrats offer—on July 30 a major protest was mounted in Washington, DC by backers of a single-payer plan (July 30 was the 4th anniversary of the establishment of Medicare—the nation’s single-payer plan for the elderly and disabled.)
Still for the most part, progressives in Congress and at large across the country were quiet as Obama slimed single-payer and moved the debate to the right, only taking a stand at all on the already minimalist issue of whether there will be any kind of “public option” in the resulting legislation, however weak. And even there, few progressive members of Congress have actually vowed to vote down such a lame measure if there’s no public option, or just a weak one.
Note: There is still pressure in in the House for a vote to substitute Rep. Conyer’s single-payer plan for the sell-out bill currently moving through the House. For information on how to join in the fight for Single Payer, go to www.AfterDowningStreet.org or www.PNHP.org
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org