Pundits said purist liberals would kill the health-care bill, but it turns out the left, led by Dennis Kucinich, played smart politics. Eric Alterman on why progressives came around.
“If my vote is to be counted, let it count now for passage of the bill, hopefully in the direction of comprehensive health-care reform… Something is better than nothing—that’s what I keep hearing from my constituents.” So sayeth Rep. Dennis Kucinich during what will probably be the only live-on-cable press conference he will ever enjoy, following his tête-à -tê te with the president on Air Force One about the fate of Barack Obama’s health-care bill, and not incidentally, his presidency.
Just about every single liberal has bitten the proverbial bullet, swallowed their considerable objections to this infuriating health-care process overall, accepted their disappointment with the administration in this, as in so many areas, and are fighting like hell to try and pass this bill.
It’s rather easy to mock Kucinich on any occasion. He’s a vegan. He says he’s seen a UFO. He’s quite short, but has a tall, pretty wife. (So too, does Henry Kissinger and did the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but they are/were apparently another story.) And he’s an out-there lefty. The New York Times' Timothy J. Egan shoots every fish in that little (oops) barrel over and over in what I would like to nominate as a textbook example of why normal people think journalists are, as a rule, arrogant jerks, regardless of their politics. But the funny thing about this silly little man is the fact that he had sensible complaints about the health-care bill and he played politics the way it was supposed to be done to try to fix the problem. A supporter of a single-payer system, he accepted that such a system was not in the cards, but he wanted either a change in the bill, or at least clarity in its language to determine whether individual states would be allowed to implement their own single-payer programs. It’s hard to figure out why any sensible legislator would wish to refuse these things, and if the only way for him to achieve his goal was to oppose the bill until the very last second in order to get the president’s attention and then come out for it in such a way that the Democrats could combine that endorsement with another from an abortion opponent in order to create the impression of momentum 72 hours or so before the final vote, well then he did Obama and the country a favor.
• Benjamin Sarlin: Do the CBO’s Health-Care Projections Add Up?Journalists like Egan love to mock liberal “purists.” Rahm Emanuel thinks they’re “f---ing retarded.” But the fact is, just about every single one of them has bitten the proverbial bullet, swallowed their considerable objections to this infuriating health-care process overall, accepted their disappointment with the administration in this, as in so many areas, and are fighting like hell to try and pass this bill. The bill has no public option; it’s a gift to the insurance industry; it does not allow re-importation of prescription drugs and does not include a tax on “Cadillac” plans until 2018, if ever. And yet Bernie Sanders is on board. Howard Dean is on board. Al Sharpton is rhyming on its behalf. And MoveOn.org, on behalf of its 5 million members, is running an expensive national advertising campaign comparing congressmen willing to vote for the bill to historical leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt. That’s the carrot. It’s got a stick, too, including pledges of financial support from its members to back primary challengers against Democrats who refuse to get on board. The group has already raised over $1 million for Bill Halter, who is looking to unseat Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. The Service Employees International Union is looking to do the same New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, The New York Times reports.
This issue has been confused, sometimes deliberately in the press. For instance The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait wrote a column attacking what he called the "delusional left" for its opposition to the bill, but if you read him carefully, the entire “left” in the Chait/TNR universe consisted of one Jane Hamsher, the blogger for FiredogLake. It’s not that other such bloggers cannot be found. Here’s another one. But outside The New Republic, the idea that the “left” is not supporting this bill is insupportable and always has been. It simply tried to play politics instead of rolling over and playing dead, or running a Nader-style kamikaze mission, as people like Ralph Nader—who recently called Obama an “Uncle Tom” for corporate America—might have preferred.
In fact, Obama had two quite sensible arguments that allowed him to lean on the left in an effective manner. First, if he loses this vote, it’s hard to see how he can hope to accomplish any of the things progressives voted for in 2008, because the media will declare him politically dead and simply wait for the Republicans to mop up what’s left of him (and remaining Democrats) in the coming November elections. Second, this is, damnit, really the best bill he could have gotten, given our crazy system. The nail-biting closeness of the vote demonstrates that. (And undoubtedly it can be improved in the future.)
Obama has no such leverage over Blue Dogs, who don’t really care about the rest of his agenda and in many cases, are far more beholden to industry funders than to any ideals of improving coverage and delivery of affordable health care. What’s more, MoveOn and the SEIU can’t really threaten a Joe Lieberman-type who’d be just as happy to run as a Republican. And so it is the left that looks to be folding at the last minute which, of course, is when you get the most for your vote. Republicans and reporters are shocked, shocked to see effective politicking by people they think should be out chasing UFOs, but there you are. (One of the funniest sentences I’ve seen anywhere during the course of this debate appeared in The Wall Street Journal yesterday: “Republicans also accused Democrats of cutting deals to secure the votes of wavering lawmakers.” Next thing you know, they accuse Barack Obama of governing as if he plans to win reelection.)
Finally, the hystericism of the right, captured every night in “you can’t make this up” fashion by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, helps a great deal, too. I hear Rush Limbaugh has taken back his pledge to leave the country if health care passes, but hey, it’s worth a shot…
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.