If you look at who’s angry on the Democratic left over the countless compromises needed to secure 60 votes in the Senate for health-care reform, you’d be forced to conclude that the nay votes have all the bases covered. They’ve got former chairman of the party (and champion of its populist base) Howard Dean. They’ve got the biggest names in the netroots, including Glenn Greenwald of Salon, Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake and the folks at MoveOn.org. They’ve got cable guy Keith Olbermann, talk radio (and black) guy Tavis Smiley, and they almost, but don’t quite have the senators Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders.
The fact is, a bit of populist anger from the liberal base is actually good for the Democrats. It makes them appear reasonable to the elites and to so-called swing voters.
Thing is, Rahm Emanuel is right when he observes, nay, brags, that liberals have nowhere else to go. Nobody’s ever managed to pass comprehensive health-care reform before, though Democrats have been trying since Harry Truman’s victory in 1948. Obama could have done a great deal more to fight for the public option, to make life miserable for Joe Lieberman, to threaten Olympia “Hamlet” Snowe, etc., with exposure for their foolish and time-wasting games. But the fact is he got the best bill he could have gotten out of this Congress. Yes, it’s a crime how much power the insurance and pharmaceutical industries have to undermine the democratic intent of the voters. It’s outrageous how eager the Republican leadership is to employ the (previously) rarely used filibuster technique to try to derail the process at every step, without ever presenting anything remotely resembling an alternative themselves.
• Big Fat Story: What’s Next for Health Care• Adam Clymer: A Bill Fit for a KennedyBut so long as this is the way the system works, then activists will have to make do with the Democratic Party they have, absent their ability to elect a better one. They have a chance to try to take out recalcitrant “Blue Dog” Democrats in 2010 primaries, but most of them come from purple or red states that are unlikely to turn leftward under attack.
Meanwhile, as Republican senator Richard M. Burr observes, “ The lines are drawn” for the coming midterm elections.
This is why Howard Dean, who began to walk back his opposition a bit on Sunday, surely had a point when he observed that the Medicare expansion, which would have added millions of people to federal-program rolls within months of enactment, and thereby “would have made 2010 a lot easier for” Democrats. (This ought to give you some understanding about why Lieberman flip-flopped on what, until a few months ago, had been his own proposal.)
But the fact is, a bit of populist anger from the liberal base is actually good for the Democrats. It makes them appear reasonable to the elites and to so-called swing voters. It doesn’t matter whether the base is right or wrong. A party that governs from its base—whatever public opinion may say—is considered ipso facto irresponsible by opinion-making—and in the case of the Democrats—campaign-funding elites.
Rahm is right. The outrage over the sellouts in this bill cannot much outlast the winter storms. Politics is about perception, and by the time the snow has melted, Democrats will be forced to sell the hell out of this thing whether they like it or not. This is the lesson of 1994: With a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, if they do not hang together, they shall surely hang separately.
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.