Posts Tagged ‘Progressives’

The Myopia of the Public Option

Friday, August 14th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

There’s much to appreciate in Howard Dean’s comments on healthcare reform at Netroots Nation, both on the policy and politics fronts, but at the same time, I keep coming away with this nagging feeling about the continued obsession progressive activists and activist styled bloggers have with the public option. It’s not that the public option isn’t important or worthwhile, it very much is, it’s just that it’s not the center of the bill, by any stretch. And it’s not that Dean’s 2004 plan didn’t contain any sort of public insurance plan, (or many of the other meaningful regulations the current proposal seeks to implement), it’s that I can’t shake this fear that while progressives focus on the public option, reform opponents will go after the more central regulations like community rating. And I do have to wonder whether or not the fact that the public option is easy to understand while the other things are a bit more complex, and numerous, doesn’t play into this as well.

But as far as advocacy goes more generally, I think the public option is one of the places its needed least. The White House has already thrown down a marker on it, before there was even a House bill drafted I believe, and most of the Congressional Democrats have already come to something of a compromise; progressives will get some form of public insurance option, while conservative Dems will get concessions weakening it in the market place, from limiting who is eligible to purchase it to prohibiting it from using Medicare style rate bargaining. Which is sub-optimal, but nothing that can’t be changed later. And putting something in place is much more important than making sure it’s absolutely perfect, over even “good enough.” It’s much, much easier to expand a popular program than it is to construct and implement that program in the first place. See Social Security.

But that said, it does seem like the debate over the public option is pretty much over with, and that there’s going to be some sort of public insurance program. Progressive activists would do better to keep their guns trained on the central aspects of the bill reforming the health insurance industry. That’s where most people are going to be affected at, and that’s where the bill is going to do the most immediate good. It’s also what the insurance industry has the most incentive to try to derail.

He’s Not God

Monday, June 29th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

I don’t know if it’s the central role the President plays in our contemporary political narratives, or a general desire to find one person to blame (for which The President is obviously a better stand-in than The Congress), but the tendency to blame Barack Obama for what are essentially Congressional, or structural, failings seems somewhat bizarre to me, if somewhat understanable, particularly coming from people who presumably spend enough time observing politics to understand the systemic problems. This post from Whiskey Fire seems representative of the genre:

The economy is in shambles and people realize that we need safety net services like extended unemployment and maybe a government health insurance option. The time is ripe to strike while the iron is hot and Obama is shrugging his shoulders and saying ” I don’t know what do you guys think we should do?” Spineless, like a jellyfish. They call themselves Centrists, but to me they are conservative reactionaries, including Obama. He seems to be waffling on all the important issues that he received my vote and that of many other liberals to address.

On health care he is providing little leadership and seems to be waiting for the lowest common denominator, in this case both parties, to decide what it will allow so that it looks like something is changing while allowing the insurance company fuckers to continue raping us all wholesale. He has made no movement on repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and has completely left the gay community to hang out in the wind on the issue of marriage. Guantanamo is humming along with no real trials in site for the people detained there. Lest we forget, that 16 month withdrawal timetable in Iraq seems to have evaporated.

Now, I can empathize with the frustration, but putting all of this squarely on Obama is somewhere between unfair and childish. To take the points individually:

1. On the question of a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, we do have a timeline in place, as part of the Status of Forces Agreement Agreement with the Iraqi government. It’s not exactly the plan Obama proposed, but it’s close enough that the costs of a new government unilaterally abrogating agreements with other countries would have outweighed the benefit of going with the plan Obama was proposing during the campaign. And really, this is one of those times where political observers should take pains to note that sometimes events change plans. When Obama was a candidate proposing a 16 month timetable for withdrawal, SOFA was not in place. By the time he was inaugurated, it had been agreed to by both the US and Iraqi government. So this isn’t so much an example of a politician saying one thing and doing another, so much as it’s an example of changing plans based on a new circumstance. And people who rightly mocked Bush for his “stay the course” attitude and complained about the hubris of unilateralism run amok during the last 8 years shouldn’t be complaining that the new President won’t rigidly adhere to a peviously outlined plan made under a different set of facts, nor unilaterally abrogate an agreement with another government.

2. As far as Gitmo goes, I don’t really see how you can make this kind of a complaint without so much as noting in passing that Obama asked Congress for the money to facilitate closing the place, but Congress rejected it. Regardless of the other issues surrounding Obama’s performance here, Congress certainly isn’t without substantial blame.

3. I haven’t written much about Obama and gay rights, mostly because I don’t care to challenge what seems to be a pretty comprehensive truism at this point, and because my argument against it isn’t really that riveting. Bsically, I just don’t see what Obama can actually do. The progressive line on gay rights strikes me as very similar to the neocon line on Iran; if only Obama would say X, everything would be awesome. The notion that Obama can unilaterally end DADT is just false. The UCMJ is law, and as such it requires an act of Congress to change it. Obama could take a tougher line on it, but he’s just not likely to walk into that minefield while healthcare reform is working its way through Congress. And he could theoretically issue a stop-loss order to prevent the discharging of indiduals found guilty under it, but that would leave the policy in place, officially, and probably destroy any will on the Hill to repeal it altogether, which doesn’t strike me as being desireable from a social justice standpoint. On the question of gay marriage, the President has even less authority. Obviously he can’t order the states to recognie same-sex marriage, and it’s not even clear to me that Congress would have the authority to pass such a bill. Unsatisfying as it may be, the only real way the federal government can move anything forward on gay marriage is through the courts, which Obama has no control over, short of appointing judges, and through a Constitutional amendment, which the President has nothing to do with, and which is also highly unlikely to be successful. So while I can appreciate that the lack of progress on gay rights is frustrating, I really don’t see what the President, any President, could realistically do to change that fact given the present circumstances.

4. Finally, on healthcare, this is just a common refrain at this point; the bill has to go through Congress, and there’s nothing the executive can do to affect that. He can threaten to veto an ultimate bill, but that’s not going to work, because it just won’t be believeable, if for no other reason than that the White House needs a bill much more than Congress does. But this would be the case even if Obama were taking a more overtly active role in public; this would still be Congress’s baby, and the President would lack any real ability to substantively affect the sausage making.

On the one hand, I’m sure this all sounds like nit-picking, unjustified Obama defense. But I don’t really think that’s the issue. If you’re looking to “pressure” people i politics, it’s very important you pressure the right people. That goes for laying blame as well. If progressives are routinely blaming failings of Congress, or of the underlying system, on the White House, that just leaves you aiming at a target who can’t really respond to your criticism, because they’re not the problem, and it also deflects attention from the real problem spot, as well as giving Congress more cover to continue what they’re doing, because they’re not catching the heat for it.

Accountability Now

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Jeebus:

Accountability Now PAC will officially be based in Washington D.C., though its influence is designed to be felt in congressional districts across the country. The group will adopt an aggressive approach to pushing the Democratic Party in a progressive direction; it will actively target, raise funds, poll and campaign for primary challengers to members who are either ethically or politically out-of-touch with their voters. The goal, officials with the organization say, is to start with 25 potential races and dwindle it down to eight or 10; ultimately spending hundreds of thousands on elections that usually wouldn’t be touched. […]

It is a concept bound — indeed, designed — to ruffle the feathers of powerful figures in Washington, in part because the names behind it are now institutions themselves. With $500,000 currently in the bank, Accountability Now will be aided, in varying forms, by groups such as MoveOn, SEIU, Color of Change, Democracy for America, 21st Century Democrats and BlogPAC. FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher and Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald will serve in advisory roles, while Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos will conduct polling, with analytical help from 538.com’s Nate Silver.

Because there’s nothing like a Washington based PAC to ruffle the feathers in Washington. And really, I think the netroots involvement is selling themselves short here. Clearly, Markos should do candidate outreach, Move On could run their candidates’ marketing efforts, and Hamsher can throw in some copy-editing help. What could possibly go wrong?

More seriously though, this is a really stupid venture. I know it’s sometimes hard to understand, but the United States has a really peculiar election system, and it’s something that’s very odd across the board. We’re not a parliamentary legislature, and even the more receptive chamber of Congress, the House, is somewhat skewed away from public opinion because of the nature of single district representation. More to the point, it’s skewed because districts are drawn up once a decade, and done so by partisan apportionment boards in the various states. So while it sounds counter-intuitive after an election where Democrats carried such sweeping victories nationally, a lot of these districts are still very marginal, if not slightly Republican leaning in general, because Republicans controlled the last round of redistricting in these areas. Looking at Mary Jo Kilroy (OH-15), she represents most of Columbus, but the boundaries of the district largely overwhelm the urban core with the highly Republican Eastern suburbs, to the extent that Kilroy lost in 2006, and barely won in 2008. So if she exhibits “Blue Dog” characteristics, it says nothing about her own personal opinions, but rather that she’s trying to navigate a highly Republican district. Pursuing a primary challenge against her will do nothing positive for Democrats or progressives.

But moreover, the point is that these districts are only Republican leaning at the margins, and some minor tinkering could make them noticeably more progressive. And guess what; the last election before widespred redistricting is…2010! Which is what’s particularly absurd about this “Accountability Now” nonsense. If the people organizing it really do want to make Congress more progressive, they could raise money for Democrats at the state legislature level or in other state level races with an eye on the apportionment board in states where that can make a disproportionate difference. So the obvious thing to observe here is that either the people running this operation know very little about politics, or Hamsher is totally full of shit and it’s all about party purges. Given what you read from most of the people involved with the project, I’m going to go with a little of both.

Being Right is No Excuse for Being Right

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

It’s nice that more people are catching on, I suppose, but I really don’t understand the need to keep denigrating accurate observers by insinuating the people making them are wildly dreaming of “secret plans:”

I’ve been resistant to “secret plan” theories of Obama administration activities, but now that we can look at this sequence of events in retrospect, the plan looks to have been pretty solid. Faced with Blue Dog pressure over the stimulus, the White House agreed to bend-not-break and make a big deal about how the deficit is terrible and we need a summit about fiscal responsibility. Then he unveiled a plan to contain the medium-term deficit that consists of tax hikes on the wealthy and fewer wars. Good ideas! But not ideas that involve liberals giving any actual ground. Similarly, he’s moved decisively to execute liberals’ long-time hope of redefining the “entitlement problem” as primarily a problem that requires systematic health care reform.

That’s all well and good, but why exactly do we need to continue the backhanded “secret plan” rhetoric? What, exactly, is surprising about this? At dozens of points in the Presidential campaign, Obama clearly stated that ending the war and rolling back the Bush tax cuts were crucial to our fiscal health. His Director of OMB is best known for arguing that Medicare is the real threat to the budget, not Social Security, and that the problem with Medicare is the cost of healthcare. And to the extent that Obama has ever talked about changes to Social Security, he’s been remarkably open to the idea of raising the cap on payroll tax eligible income. The example that most readily comes to mind is from the infamous ABC primary debate; Obama discussed the possibility of raising the cap and exempting incomes between the current cap and $250,ooo. And while I don’t really agree with that (why does income over $100,000 need to be treated more specially than working class income?) the upshot would be the closing of Social Security actuarial deficit with additional revenues derived completely from incomes over $250k/year. Hardly something that should outrage progressives.

So with all of that in mind (and with the kind of reporting people like Ezra Klein were doing leading up to the summit), it really wasn’t hard to see what was going on, keeping in mind that this is politics. Obama was using establishment language and loading the roster up with big names from Washington to draw maximum attention to the event, which he then used to…push his agenda using establishment language in such a way as to redefine that language. The goal wasn’t to screw progressives over, it was to redefine “fiscal responsibility” to include ending the Iraq war, raising taxes on the wealthy, and passing an ambitious healthcare reform package. He even got John McCain to set up the Defense budget for him.

The bottom line? Jane Hamsher doesn’t understand politics. It’s quite easy to flip out over every little thing that worries you, especially if you’re hyper paranoid, but it’s quite another thing to run down the people who accurately assesed what was going on, politically, because you think they’re making up “secret plans.” Especially when there’s a fairly long record to support their observations, and when the administration is confirming them in advance.

Just Say No To Populism Cont’d

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Following up yesterday’s post on the populism folly, Sirota himself comes out with a line of thinking that pretty clearly sums up why progressives should unambiguously oppose populist appeals:

In the 2008 Republican primary, we saw the rise of the economic populist wing of the GOP through Mike Huckabee. This faction has started making waves in Congress, too – many Republicans voted against the bank bailout, and there were at a few Republican-backed amendments aimed at forcing stimulus money to be spent on specific projects in the United States, and not on job outsourcing (Sanders-Grassley was one of them). And now, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham is endorsing bank nationalization.

In other words, if the Democrats don’t embrace their populist wing, they will find the Republicans trying to outflank them on some hot-button economic issues like trade, outsourcing, and economic patriotism.

Let’s be clear about this; Mike Huckabee’s economic populism was his embrace of the so-called fair tax, and trafficing in the idea that this would shut down the dreaded IRS forever. This was always, of course, total nonsense; the Fair Tax is a highly regressive national sales tax that would put the bulk of the tax burden on the working class, and as long as you collect taxes you can’t eliminate the IRS. To the extent that you could get rid of the specific agency, someone has to collect federal taxes and see that the tax laws are enforced, so some other area of government would simply pick up the IRS’s job. It was, in other words, exactly what the GOP is good at; taking a policy that will disproportionately hurt workers and help the rich wrapped up in folksy sensibilities and sold as a populist measure. Progressives shouldn’t be trying to “outflank” that, they should be rebutting it, if for no other reason than the fact that they simply can’t win a race to the bottom with the Republican Party.

In Defense of the Filibuster

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

The topic of the week seems to be the filibuster, and the general consensus amongst progressives is pretty resounding; get rid of it. Well to echo the sentiment I’ve taken to more or less everyone else’s blog, let me say that I think this view is incredibly short sighted, and a very large over reaction.

First of all, I think it’s important to understand how, exactly, the filibuster functions, or can function, in regards to the larger context of the Senate. Scott Lemieux, in comments, asked me how exactly the filibuster protected under represented minorities, and my answer was pretty simple; it doesn’t, and I’m not really sure how it could. What the filibuster can, or could, serve to do, however, is to restrain majorities who aren’t really majorities. To that end, consider this statement from Ezra Klein for a second:

Rather, I’d argue that the central question is “legitimacy.” We have a party-based electoral system that, particularly in the Senate, pushes towards a relatively even division of power. The question then becomes whether we’re more comfortable with the consequences of a system where the minority can block good policy or the majority can pass bad policy. I’d prefer the latter: The policies of politicians we voted for have more democratic legitimacy than the system’s structural preference for inaction. Elections should be about the bills passed by the majority rather than the obstructions erected by the minority.

And that’s fairly hard to argue against, if you view the partisan make up of the Senate to be a pure representation of the will of the voters. But why, exactly, you would think that I don’t really know.  Only 1/3 of the seats in the Senate are contested in any given election. At least 16 states will have no Senators on the ballot each cycle. It’s rather common for parties to lose seats, even a fairly large number of seats, in the body yet still retain control, or to suffer a fairly substantial loss in the aggregate yet come out fairly well because the other party was defending more seats that cycle. So, in that respect, you actually get majorities in the Senate that obviously don’t reflect the sentiments of the voters based on the last election.

The most picture-perfect argument for the Senate is, ironically, that old bugaboo, the 2000 election. Until Jim Jeffords bailed on the GOP, Republicans controlled the House by 9 votes, had the majority of a 50-50 Senate split based on the tiebreaking vote of the Vice-President, and, of course, had control of the White House despite getting fewer votes for the office than the Democratic candidate. Additionally, they lost seats in both houses of Congress in 2000, including 4 in the Senate. Is there any real argument that this unified government was the result of the country’s overwhelming preference for the GOP agenda? Obviously not, and in this sense preserving the ability of the minority to block the majority’s legislation represents, paradoxically, a majoritarian measure (or a counter-countermajoritarian measure if you prefer).

Now, obviously, this is an anomaly, and anomalies do not make for great precedent. With that in mind, I certainly wouldn’t argue that the filibuster is perfect, or even functioning well at the moment. The 60 vote requirement, for example, seems rather absurd to me. Maybe there was a time and a partisan atmosphere where getting 60 votes for cloture on a non-fiscal bill was fairly likely, but in the current system it seems fairly unlikely that any party, short of having 60 or more members themselves, is going to be able to garner that sort of consensus on any package that can’t be taken to the reconciliation process. But I’m not sure, at this point, that that’s an argument for eliminating the process altogether so much as it’s an argument for modifying it. I’d suggest trying a 55 vote bar for cloture instead of 60. A 55 seat majority isn’t unattainable, or even particularly unusual, but it’s also rather hard to fluke into. It also shouldn’t be terribly hard for a majority of 51-54 to find a handful of members in a relatively large minority to support cloture, at least, on legitimately popular pieces of legislation. On the other hand, having the filibuster as an option still restricts a relatively small majority that may not even acurrately reflect the will of the electorate from ramming through unpopular aspects of their agenda.

Of course, all of this only matters in the event that one party controls the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. In the event of a split at any point of the legislative process, both parties have a majoritarian stake, and can block the other party with that majority. So, in perspective, the entire debate is focused around a relatively unlikely situation in the first place.

Just Say No to Populism

Monday, February 16th, 2009

The Kansas City Star has a worrying article (and not just because it quotes Sirota extensively) about the rise of left-leaning economic populism that really ought to worry progressives concerned with the long run health of the country.

Without getting too much into the crux of the article, which uses the issue of CEO compensation caps to examine America’s populist tendency, let me say that the problem with liberal economic policy is that it necessarily reinforces conservative populism, particularly on “cultural issues.” The “beauty,” for lack of a better word, of conservative populist appeals is that they’ve managed to structure it such that it doesn’t actually impede their elite-friendly economic policies. Indeed, it enhances them. Limbaugh, Hannity, and the gang have turned the appeals to God, Guns, and Gays, and the anti-intellectualism of the right into appeals on “keeping your money in your pocket” and trickle down economics. The result is a horde of working class white males who can be counted on to support economic ideas that disproportionately benefit the upper class.

By contrast, left oriented populism just can’t do that. To the extent populism relies on the notion of the supremacy of the little guy and his values, you just can’t turn explicit populist economic appeals into a respect for social tolerance and equality unless those things already exist, because you’re arguing against yourself. On the one hand you’re building a guy up, on the other hand you’re telling him his values and beliefs are all wrong. Nor can you then extol the value of learned experts in a field. In this sense, the right’s real advantage is simply their ability to lie with ease, and to play on an intuitive anti-tax populist belief to spread an outright lie that “Reaganomics” creates broad prosperity or awesome economic outcomes. The answer to that isn’t more populism, it’s a more educated populous with a better understanding of economics.

And then there’s the more inconvenient fact of left leaning populism, sometimes the populists just can’t help but to grab onto some good old cultural resentiment. You’re in the minority? Everyone’s a sell out. Can’t get someone to agree with you? They’re in bed with the elite. Expert opinion goes against you? Fuck ’em. After all, it wasn’t Rush Limbaugh who said that we were all economic experts because we all live in the economy.

Update: See DDay as well.

Progressive Fail

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

by Brien Jackson

David Paterson has made his choice to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, and the winner is…a Blue Dog. I confesss, I’m mildly amused. The progressive blogosphere spent an awful lot of time arguing against Caroline Kennedy and the appointment process itself, and they get rewarded with a Blue Dog Senator for their efforts. But at the same time, I’m quite pissed about it all, because what this means is that the online progressive movement is still “led” by people who just don’t understand politics.

It was always clear that Paterson, for his own political reasons, wanted to pick a  minority or a female from upstate/Western New York who would owe him for the seat. In retrospect, Gillibrand is a pretty obvious candidate. And progressives should have been trying to prevent that from happening. It very well could have been prevented when Caroline Kennedy, and the political muscle behind her, began angling for the seat. But instead, progressives pressured him not to appoint Kennedy, without pushing any progressive alternatives. There were a couple of exceptions to this rule, but by and large they were pushing for Carolyn Maloney, who was never going to get considered. Not because she’s not a capable candidate, but because she chairs the House Subcomittee on Financial Institutions, and any Governor of New York would catch hell for giving up that position in Congress.

So, without any progressive support for a Kennedy-alternative, Paterson was free to wait Kennedy’s campaign out, let it collapse in on itself, and then fill the void with his first choice, the Blue Dog. It was masterful politics on Paterson’s part, but still, it was all made possible by the fact that there was no strong progressive hurdle to climb, because they campaigned against themselves, and torpedoed the only serious progressive in the running.