10.01.09

Democrats Go to War

With the public option dead for now, the left is launching attack ads against centrist and Blue Dog Democrats—and Rahm Emanuel, the poster child for Netroots betrayal.

With the defeat on Tuesday of the public-option amendments in the Senate Finance Committee, liberal Democrats are threatening an open revolt against the Obama administration. “If Obama takes the public option off the table, we’re looking at a civil war within the Democratic Party,” says Charles Chamberlain, the political director of the million-member Democracy for America (DFA), founded by Howard Dean, which has helped raise over $200,000 for TV attack ads against wavering Democrats and moderate Senate Republican Olympia Snowe.

“The White House has been cutting deals with [health care] stake-holders since they came into office, and progressive groups have to decide whether they’re going to remain progressive or are they going to be an arm of the White House,” says liberal blogger Jane Hamsher. “They can’t have it both ways.”

In drawing a line in the sand over the public option, DFA has been joined by the new 200,000-member Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), fundraising to aid liberal candidates and causes--and the left-leaning blogosphere that was instrumental in Obama’s campaign. Increasingly frustrated, discouraged by the seeming timidity of some traditional Democratic constituency groups in advocating for the public option, and growing disenchanted with the Obama administration’s refusal to push for it or behind the scenes effort to quash it, they’re spoiling for a fight. Their sudden renewal of activism has drawn howls from those Blue Dog and “centrist” Democrats targeted by the ads, and from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who has emerged as their symbol of administration dithering or betrayal.

After the Senate Finance Committee voted against the public option amendments, most major progressive organizations tried to sound optimistic about the chances for ultimate passage of the measure, especially the biggest coalition, Health Care for America Now (HCAN), with 1,000 national and local labor and activist groups in 46 states. Yet the day after, one of the most influential liberal players, Moveon.org Political Action, boasting five million members, did more than challenge the conventional wisdom that the public option is doomed. The group launched a fresh wave of radio ads attacking the three Democrats who voted against the public option amendments: Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), and Max Baucus (D-MT). “Senator Baucus sided with the special interests and the insurance companies,” the ad said.

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Nita Chaudary, campaign director at Moveon.org Political Action declared, “We need to make sure Democrats who side with ‘Big Insurance’ face consequences with the voters back home.” DFA and PCCC also chose a harder line than Health Care for American Now to promote the public option—an appeal for money to “pummel” Senators Olympia Snowe and Max Baucus with TV ads. Their email alert raised $125,000 in just one day, PCCC’s 33-year-old co-founder, Adam Green, told me. “Senator Baucus, whose side are you on?” demands its TV commercial. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), whose mild public-option amendment failed to pass, went on MSNBC to decry the attack ad against Max Baucus for being a tool of the health-care industry: “It’s hurting us,” he said of the campaign. “I wish they wouldn’t do it.” But the appeals are still going out, the money is rolling in and the ad buys are being made.

Frustration with the administration strategy has been building for months among a surprisingly wide variety of loyal liberal Democrats, including longtime Democratic activists and some Washington insiders. One veteran Democratic congressional staffer observes, “This isn’t symbolic for voters—it’s extremely personal. If we pass a bill that doesn’t work, there could be divisions [within the party] that are very hard to heal.”

Since the spring, left-leaning groups and the House Progressive Caucus have launched various strategies to firm up support for the public option. For them, the Senate Finance Committee’s rejection is especially galling.

In early July, Emanuel alarmed liberals by telling the Wall Street Journal that the administration could easily sacrifice the public option for a “trigger,” a mechanism that would activate the public option at some indefinite point in the future if the insurance companies were not meeting certain cost savings. This seemed more a betrayal than a concession. Rep. Raul Grivalja (D-AZ), chair of the House Progressive Caucus, immediately issued a letter calling Emanuel’s proposal a “non-starter.” About the same time, the Washington Post reported, Obama told congressional leaders he wanted to see liberal advocacy groups stop attacking Democrats, but no direct White House pressure was applied then to Moveon.org and DFA, which had already launched ads targeting Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA).

By the next month, though, Emanuel responded to the ads with an obscenity. Appearing in early August at the weekly closed meeting of constituency groups called Common Purpose he denounced the ads as “fucking stupid.”

The strife died down momentarily amid the general Democratic panic over right-wingers rampaging through town hall events intended to build support for health care reform. The White House and liberals generally were flummoxed. Alan Charney, the program director for USAction, the lead grass-roots organizing arm of HCAN, lamented, “The capacity of the right to create fear with misrepresentation and lies was more than I anticipated.”

On top of that, “the people at the top haven’t given us a simple message we can carry out there with emotional impact,” Susan Smith, a Tampa Bay DFA organizer and Democratic Committeewoman, told me.

Now, post-Finance Committee, the intra-party strife has broken out in the open again. But even most state activists and local Democratic Party officials interviewed by The Daily Beast are skeptical that the ads from progressive groups targeting well-entrenched Democrats who have come out against the public option will have much impact on their reelection. )

Jane Hamsher, a former Hollywood producer (Natural Born Killers), who runs the influential blog Firedoglake, has expanded her blogging to create her own fundraising and activist mini-empire. An ad targeting Senator Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Mike Ross, funded with nearly $80,000 for the state’s low-cost TV market by Hamsher’s FDL Action PAC, declared: “Act like Democrats—or we’ll find someone who will.”

Democrats out in the hinterlands are divided on the potential impact of such campaigns. Bill Kopsky, executive director of the reformist Arkansas Public Policy Panel, told me, “I can’t imagine anyone taking that very seriously: it’s a perfectly legitimate strategy, but it won’t have anyone here quaking in their boots.” Even so, he and other state-based activists still welcome the ads for raising public awareness about the importance of health reform. Brian Osborn, the Democratic Party Chairman in rural Phelps County in south-central Nebraska, says of a series of attack ads targeting Sen. Ben Nelson for being a “sell-out” to the insurance industry, sponsored by Change Congress and other groups, “They woke people up!”

Nelson’s efforts to respond to the progressive attack ads are cited by their sponsors as proof that Nelson was “feeling the heat.” Green, the co-founder of PCCC, gleefully recounts: “Before we went to Nebraska, the local organizers—SEIU, Health Care for America Now (HCAN), all the groups—were killing him with kindness. We got him to move.” He points to Nelson’s evolving positions after first saying the public option was “deal-breaker” and how Nelson felt compelled to produce his own ad explaining his views on health reform. Ultimately, though, the pressure hasn’t produced results yet from Nelson.

Green and Hamsher are among those especially critical of leaders of the major groups, such as those in the HCAN coalition, who meet regularly with the White House and Hill leaders to work on legislation. “They’re straddling inside and outside roles, and it’s an awful strategy,” Green says, contending other groups should take the lead in grass-roots organizing. “They’re pulling their punches.”

Hamsher says, “The White House has been cutting deals with [health care] stake-holders since they came into office, and progressive groups have to decide whether they’re going to remain progressive or are they going to be an arm of the White House. They can’t have it both ways,” she says. (There’s been one key exception to her ire: newly elected AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who has insisted on the public option and threatened to withhold support from anti-reform Democrats.)

Yet progressives across the spectrum in the drive for the increasingly endangered public option are starting to accept they all have different roles to play. Charny says, “We want to be at the table, and the same time we have operations that function in very aggressive ways to put as much positive pressure on legislators to do the right thing.” He also admits his coalition delayed tapping into public anger over insurance companies and has started a systematic campaign, “Big Insurance: Sick of It,” only this month. The sight of screaming right-wingers at the town halls apparently made the liberals realize that they might consider exploiting populist rage, too.

“We’re all sort of cops for the Democratic Party,” says DFA’s Chamberlain. “We fall into the category of bad cops, but HCAN is never going to use sticks. When you’re organizing, you go with the good cops, but it’s hard to keep people motivated just using carrots.”

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com, and numerous other publications. He also blogs regularly on labor, health, and other reform issues for In These Times and Huffington Post.