Has Rahm's Assumption about Progressives been Vindicated?

Politico's Ben Smith yesterday
suggested
that one important aspect of Rahm Emanuel's health care
strategy -- to ignore the demands of progressives on the ground that
they would fall into line at the end no matter what -- has been
vindicated. Smith points to a new poll showing near-unanimous support
for the bill among liberals as well as the fact that not a single
progressive member of the House (not even Dennis Kucinich) will oppose
this bill even though the prime progressive

Politico's Ben Smith yesterday
suggested
that one important aspect of Rahm Emanuel's health care
strategy -- to ignore the demands of progressives on the ground that
they would fall into line at the end no matter what -- has been
vindicated. Smith points to a new poll showing near-unanimous support
for the bill among liberals as well as the fact that not a single
progressive member of the House (not even Dennis Kucinich) will oppose
this bill even though the prime progressive objections were ignored.
Smith's argument unsurprisingly provoked immediate objections from
numerous progressives -- Paul Krugman,
Markos
Moultisas
, Chris Bowers
-- who argue that in the wake of Scott Brown's election, Emanuel
advocated a drastically scaled-back version of health care reform
because he believed the original, larger version couldn't pass. If (as
looks highly likely) the current bill passes, then, they argue, Emanuel
will have been proven wrong -- not vindicated.

Assuming that Emanuel really advocated for a scaled-back
version (that's from anonymous royal court intrigue reports, so who
knows?), this objection (as Smith
acknowledges
) is true as far as it goes -- but it doesn't go very
far at all, because it doesn't really have anything to do with Smith's
"vindication" argument. The "vindication" Smith sees has nothing to do
with Emanuel's advocacy for a "scaled-back" bill, but is about a
different point entirely: namely, Emanuel's assumption that there was
absolutely no reason to accommodate progressive objections to the health
care bill because progressives (despite their threats) would
automatically fall into line and support whatever the White House
wanted, even if their demands were ignored. Is there really any doubt
that Emanuel was right about this point? Indeed, Markos himself essentially
acknowledged
these progressive failures last night on MSNBC.

For almost a full year, scores of progressive House members vowed
-- publicly and unequivocally -- that they would never
support a health care bill without a robust public option
. They
collectively accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars based on this
pledge. Up until a few weeks ago, many progressive opinion leaders --
such as Moulitsas, Howard Dean, Keith Olbermann and many others -- were
insisting that the Senate bill was worse than the status quo and should
be defeated. But now? All of those progressives House members are
doing exactly what they swore they would never do -- vote for a health
care bill with no public option -- and virtually every progressive
opinion leader is not only now supportive of the bill, but vehemently
so. In other words, exactly what Rahm said would happen -- ignore
the progressives, we don't need to give them anything because they'll
get into line
-- is exactly what happened. How is that not
vindication?

Just consider what Nate
Silver wrote yesterday
in trying to understand why progressives
have suddenly united behind this bill, in a post he entitled "Why
Liberals (Suddenly) Love the Health Care Bill":

It has occurred in spite of the fact that the bill hasn't
really gotten any more liberal.
Whatever might come out of the
reconciliation process will be marginally more liberal than what the
Senate passed on its own, but still lacks a public option or a Medicare
buy-in, and suffers from most of the same flaws that some
liberals were critiquing in the first place.
It might have
helped a little bit to get the Senate bill off the front pages -- but
the differences between the "Obama"/reconciliation bill and the
Senate's December bill are fairly cosmetic.

In other words, the bill which many progressives were swearing just
a couple months ago they could not and would not support (the Senate
bill) is materially similar to the bill they're now vigorously
supporting (the Obama/reconciliation bill). The differences are purely
"cosmetic," as Silver says (it's even worse than that, since one of the
few positive changes progressives could point to -- the Health Insurance
Rate Authority, which would prevent large premium increases -- was
just removed from the bill
). Thus, from a purely strategic
perspective, Emanuel was absolutely right not to take progressives
seriously because he knew they would do exactly what they did: support
the bill even if their demands were ignored.

I want to be clear here: I'm not criticizing progressives who
support this bill, nor am I criticizing those who insisted they would
oppose it but changed their minds at the end. Unlike many progressives,
I was never among those who advocated for this bill's defeat because,
as loathsome and even dangerous as I find the bill's
corporatist framework to be
(mandating that citizens buy the
products of the private health insurance industry), I've found it very
difficult (as I said all along) to oppose a bill that results in greater
health care coverage for millions of currently uninsured people.
Whether progressives are doing the right thing in supporting this bill
is debatable (there's a strong progressive case for the bill -- any bill
that restricts industry abuses and vastly expands coverage is
inherently progressive -- and a strong
progressive case
that it does more harm than good), but that's a
completely separate question from the one raised by Smith.

What's not debatable is that this process highlighted -- and worsened
-- the virtually complete powerlessness of the Left and progressives
generally in Washington. If you were in Washington negotiating a bill,
would you take seriously the threats of progressive House members in the
future that they will withhold support for a Party-endorsed bill if
their demands for improvements are not met? Of course not. No rational
person would.

Moreover, everyone who has ever been involved in negotiations knows
that those who did what most progressive DC pundits did here from the
start -- namely, announce: we have certain things we'd like you to
change in this bill, but we'll go along with this even if you give us
nothing --
are making themselves completely irrelevant in the
negotiating progress. People who signal in advance that they will
accept a deal even if all of their demands are rejected will always be
completely impotent, for reasons too obvious to explain. The loyal,
Obama-revering pundits who acted as the bill's mindless cheerleaders
from the start (this is the greatest
achievement since FDR walked the Earth
) were always going to
be ignored; why would anyone listen to the demands of those doing
nothing but waving pom-poms?

By contrast, progressives who originally threatened to oppose the
bill unless their demands were met (such as Moulitsas, Howard Dean,
Jane Hamsher, the Progressive House Caucus) absolutely did the right
thing: that's the only way to wield power and to have one's demands be
heard. And there's nothing necessarily wrong as a negotiating strategy
with ultimately backing down from one's threats: it's normal and often
effective in negotiations to insist that one won't accept a deal without
X, Y and Z only, at the end, to accept a deal lacking some or even all
of those elements on the ground that the deal on the table is the best
one will ever get, and it's preferable to having no deal. The problem
here is two-fold: (1) nobody (certainly not
Emanuel) ever took the progressive threat seriously -- because nobody
believed they would really oppose the bill even if they got nothing --
and it thus had no credibility and they were ignored; and worse: (2) nobody
will ever, ever take progressive threats seriously again in the future,
because they know that progressives will do what they did here:
namely, get in line at the end and support what the Party wants even if
none of their desired changes to a bill are made.

Talk Left's Armando, who is a long-time litigator and thus
deals with these negotiation dynamics every day, has been making this
point for months, and made a very
insightful comment yesterday
about all of this. He quoted
Nate Silver pointing
out
that "at least five different parties effectively have
veto power over the process
, including the White House, the
Blue Dogs
(who cast the decisive votes in both chambers of
Congress), and both the Floor and Committee Leadership," and then
explained:

And there you have the progressive failure in political
bargaining in a nutshell - no one EVER believed that progressive had
veto power, or more accurately, no one ever believed progressives would
ever EXERCISE veto power. That the progressives would be rolled was a
given. Obviously that was an accurate view of the reality. . . .

Silver can not imagine a progressive bargaining position that
threatened the passage of the health bills. No one could imagine it,
even progressives. Until they can not only imagine it, but in
fact project it in a political negotiation, progressives will remain
irrelevant outside of Democratic primaries, when they will receive a
plethora of campaign promises sure to be abandoned by pols.
Cuz
that is what pols do.

I think there is actually a counter example that anyone
interested in bargaining can look to for a better result - the unions
and the excise tax. The unions were willing to "kill the bill" unless
they received major concessions on the excise tax issue. The White
House wanted an excuse tax and serious and tough negotiations ensued,
with the unions gaining major concessions.

The only reason why the unions were able to garner those
concessions was because they were willing to, and were perceived as
willing to, "kill the bill."
They knew Obama wanted this health
bill more than they did and that Obama would find a way to accommodate
the unions' concerns on the excise tax.

The unions took the risk of killing the bill and were rewarded
with major concessions on their key issue. That is how bargaining works.

This has been going on forever, far beyond the
health care process
. After all, aside from contempt for the
establishment media, the single greatest fuel for the rise of the
liberal blogosphere was contempt for the Democratic Party's corporatism
-- i.e., the fact that progressives had no influence within the
Party, and Party leaders, TNR-style, spent far more energy
scorning the Left than the Republicans. That's what is somewhat ironic
about the blogosphere's almost-unanimous support for this health care
bill (as well as their increasingly rabid, TNR-style
demonization campaign
against the handful
of people on the Left who actually stuck to their guns
and who are
thus now viewed as worse than Pol Pot): namely, even if supporting the
bill is the right thing to do, this conduct has reinforced and
strengthened the powerlessness of progressives, i.e., the very
problem the blogosphere was devoted to subverting. There's a reason why
so many progressive Beltway bloggers now turn to the war-supporting,
Lieberman-loving, Left-bashing Jonathan Chait as the guide for what All
Good Progressives do and think; that's the model that's being
strengthened here.

Amazingly, one now finds posts
on the front page of Daily Kos
(not by Markos) demanding that
progressives repeat this behavior on every bill in the
future: "whatever that final position is, it will then be the job of
the progressive to evaluate it strictly on the merits of what it is,
rather than what it could have been. And if what it is, is even
incrementally better than what we have right now, then it should be
supported
." That sounds exactly like the rationale of
capitulating Democratic officials of the last two decades, not what the
blogosphere was ostensibly devoted to promoting. Why would anyone in
Washington -- surrounded by powerful lobbyists and people whose threats
are actually credible -- ever take seriously or listen to a person who
thinks and behaves this way (I'll support anything you want even if
you ignore me, as long as I get a single crumb)
, and even proudly
announces it in advance? They never would listen to such a person --
and they don't -- because that's the sure path to self-imposed
irrelevance.

Again, whether progressives are doing the right thing by changing
their minds and supporting the health care bill is a separate question
from the one I'm discussing here. I never argued for this bill's
defeat, so that's not my issue; I think that's a reasonable debate to
have. As I also said, it's also perfectly reasonable to oppose
something all along and then -- once the process is over -- decide
you're accepting what you previously said you wouldn't. But what's not
reasonable is to pretend that Emanuel wasn't right in his core
assumption about progressive behavior. Nobody likes to acknowledge
their own powerlessness, but no good can come from shutting one's eyes
and pretending it's not true. It's a genuine problem that the threats
and demands of progressives (for lack of a better term) aren't taken
seriously at all, and will be taken even less seriously now. Facing
that problem is a prerequisite to finding a way to solve it.

UPDATE: As I've noted many times, the
column of mine which has produced the most hate mail over the last year
was when I argued
back in August
that the White House affirmatively wanted there to
be no public option in the final health care bill (contrary to the
President's claims) because that was their way of minimizing opposition
by the health care industry (opposition both to the bill itself and the
Democratic Party generally). I repeated that argument many times,
including recently
when explaining
why Democrats would not enact a public option even
though they now only needed 50 votes (because the White House did not
want one).

Last night on MSNBC, NYT reporter David Kirkpatrick confirmed
the existence of that arrangement
-- where the WH negotiated secret
"quid pro quo" deals with the hospital industry based on the premise
that there'd be no public option in the final bill.

UPDATE II: Last September, Rep.
Anthony Weiner said
:

All of the protest letters in the world don't add up to much if
you don't finally stand up and vote No on something the President and
Nancy want. There is clearly a sense that progressives in Congress are
easily rolled. . . .

If the Congressional left can't pass even something as
modest as a watered down public option, then frankly I don't think
anyone is going to take the left very seriously later on in this
Congress.
When Blue Dogs talk, there are fewer of them but
they have more influence than when progressives talk . . . You
can only shake the saber so often before someone expects you to use it
.

Weiner, however, is one of those House members who is now voting
for the final bill even after vowing unequivocally that he'd vote NO if
it did not include a public option. Whether he's doing the right thing
is a separate question; what's clear is that he's the author of his own
powerlessness for exactly the reason he himself so eloquently described
just five months ago.

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