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Lessons From the Healthcare Wars: or Why Democrats Will Be Disappointed in 2018

The Party is continuing to fight its increasingly progressive base, instead of mobilizing it

A rally to support healthcare

A rally in Los Angeles on March 23, 2017 to save the ACA. (Photo: Molly Adams/flickr/cc)

One of the things that came as a complete surprise to the establishment media and the punditocracy was the speed with which the attempt to repeal Obamacare mobilized support for it as well as for a single payer, Medicare for all approach to health care. A recent poll found that a slim majority now favors single payer or protecting Obamacare, but the trend is clearly upward on both, and that’s without a coherent and unified push from either party.

There’s a lot to learn from understanding why and how this transformation occurred, and if Democrats don’t learn those lessons, 2018 is likely to be disappointing and they could even lose to Trump in 2020. Oh, they’ll pick up some seats in the House in the midterms – maybe even enough to have a majority.  But unless Trump completely self-destructs and takes his party down with him, there ain’t gonna be no blue wave, let alone a tsunami if Dems don’t get smart.  So far, there’s no signs of that happening.

So let’s review the lessons being ignored by the neoliberals in charge of the party.

Lesson One – If you try to meet them in the middle, they’ll drag you to the right. The Affordable Care Act was, in many ways, a preemptive capitulation to the insurance companies and conservatives.  It was, after all, molded around a proposal developed by the Heritage Foundation.  Real progressives, who would have been natural allies for real health care reform, never felt passionate about it, so Obama lost his natural constituency for reform right out of the gate.  Which brings us to …

Lesson Two – If you want people to show up at the polls you have to be an advocate for their values. At first glance, one of the remarkable things about the roll-out of Obamacare was how effectively conservatives controlled the narrative.  But the reality is, conservatives won because they were the only ones to show up for the debate. 

Jimmy Kimmel demonstrated just how poorly Democrats did at communicating the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in a couple of his street interviews (or see here) .  Basically, he asked folks whether they preferred the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.  Many were adamant in their hate for Obamacare, but supportive of the ACA, and some even refused to believe they were the same thing when told.

When Kimmel’s interviewer broke down the elements of Obamacare, people supported each one – which is consistent with polls, which find widespread, deep, and bipartisan support for nearly every provision.

Now, this kind of result could have been a function of extensive editing by Kimmel’s crew to weed out a majority who knew better, leaving only the ignorant.  But as polls show, Kimmel’s clueless on-air folks were the majority.

The Kaiser Foundation tracked knowledge of, and support for the ACA over time, and here’s what they found: despite the fact that people didn’t know much about it, they didn’t like it.  One of the most telling findings of the survey was that 79% of those polled knew there was a mandate “forcing” people to have health care insurance, but less than half knew insurance companies were prohibited from dropping people with pre-existing conditions.  Pretty clear from that, who controlled the debate.

In fact, even as late as February of 2017, polls showed that more than a third of the people didn’t know that the ACA and Obamacare were the same thing. In another telling note, 72% of Republicans knew.  Why? Because only Republicans were framing the issue.

This failure to even attempt to control the narrative by Democrats isn’t restricted to health care; on issue after issue, Democrats either refuse to show up for the debate, or they spew out mealy-mouthed, spin-tested, poll-driven, mumbles in an effort to be all things to all people and to preserve their pay-to-play relationship with their corporate benefactors.

Not to beat a dead horse, but take Hillary Clinton’s position on climate change as an example. Clinton embraced renewable energy, acknowledged the science behind climate change, and she backed Obama’s Clean Energy Plan.

But Ms. Clinton also advocated fracking and new exploration on federal lands, even though the science dictates we leave more than 80 percent of the oil we’ve already found in the ground if we’re to avoid catastrophic warming. How did encouraging fracking and allowing exploration for new reserves square with leaving 80 percent of the already known reserves in the ground?

Answer: it didn’t.

The fact is, Clinton and the neoliberals controlling the Democratic Party vehemently fought inclusion of the kind of policies and positions needed to actually avoid cataclysmic climate change in the Democratic Party platform.

And with the midterms less than six months off, the neoliberals in charge of the party are continuing  to fight their increasingly progressive base, instead of mobilizing them.

Lesson Three: Not showing up for the national debate translates into losing elections. This refusal to actually stand for something, while relying on poll-driven, spin doctored split-the-difference politics, is one of the major reasons the Democrats have been losing elections and the support of the people for more three decades now.  It explains why fewer then 35 percent of eligible voters believe the Democrats stand for anything.

The result of this is that the winner in most elections is “none-of-the-above.” For example, in 2016, Trump got about 27 percent of eligible voters, Clinton a little over 28 percent, and no shows won in a walk with nearly 45 percent.

This equivocating, corporate-placating, value-free approach to politics has virtually killed the party . It’s the reason Trump is president, it’s why Republicans control both Houses of Congress, the courts, and the majority of governorships and state legislatures.

Again, the health care “debate” is illustrative. The 2014 midterms featured the lowest turnout in 72 years (and it was lower in 1942 only because folks were a little busy with a World War). Just over a third of the voters showed up, and those who did were motivated by fear, greed, anger, hate and bigotry which were integral parts of the conservative campaign.

This was the year, you may remember, when Democrats ran from the ACA, not on it.  It took the Republican’s attempts to repeal and replace it to make it popular, but a less cowardly, equivocating and corporatized Democratic Party could have done it just as easily, and turned it into a winning issue instead of an albatross.  A push for single-payer would have been even more effective in the long term.

Because of these lower turnouts the passionately ignorant – and mostly conservative – minority have an outsized role in deciding elections. Basically, the dirty little secret that neoliberals don’t want you to know is that, on an issue-by-issue basis, the majority of Americans are well left of center.

But Democrats are relying on tactics, not values.  And when the Democratic Party checks its ethics, morals, and principles at the empty façade that is number 23 Wall Street in exchange for caches of cash, the progressive-leaning majority stays home, and Democrats lose.

And it’s pointless to criticize people for not voting, if you refuse to run candidates worth voting for.

Lesson Four: Embracing a progressive brand is the only way for Democrats to win.  When Republicans – with only about 25 percent of eligible voters identifying themselves as members of the party – continue to dominate elections and governance, even the most obtuse neoliberal Democrat has to understand that their attempt to hold onto the party is leading to complete defeat.  Indeed, thanks to the failure of the neoliberal establishment controlling the Democratic Party, Republicans are only one state away from being able to call a constitutional convention – something that should strike fear into the heart of any American who values science, reason, freedom and reality, and something the Koch brothers and other oligarchs are salivating over. But even if Republicans aren’t able to muster the 38 states needed to approve constitutional amendments, they will control redistricting in a majority of states, making fair elections even rarer than they are today.

In the face of these grim prospects, we see the neoliberal establishment and their corporate benefactors doing everything they can to retain control of the party. Talk about fiddling while the Titanic goes down – these folks would rather risk a government completely controlled by Republicans than relinquish their own privileged positions.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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John Atcheson

John Atcheson

screen_shot_2017-07-26_at_9.09.47_pm.pngJohn Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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