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The Public Option and "Tactical Extremism"

Whatever else happens in the "endgame" of health care reform in Congress (and a lot obviously depends on the President's big speech next week), the drama over "the public option" within the Democratic Party is going to be a factor.  You can argue all day long, as many progressives already have, that this shouldn't be the make-or-break issue for anybody, but the fact remains that it is. 

For many Democratic "centrists," the public option is the symbol of a "government takeover" of health care that plays into conservative attack lines, and a potential threat to the survival of private health insurance.  And for many self-conscious Democratic progressives, the public option represents a huge compromise of what they actually consider necessary, a single-payer system.

 But this isn't entirely about substance, either.  The more the public option has received attention from both its friends and its enemies, the more its fate in health care reform has become a crucial test of power within the Democratic Party, particularly for progressives who have for years been livid at what they consider the disproportionate influence of "Republican Lite" Blue Dogs. 

As Matt Yglesias (quoting a Chris Bowers post) succinctly summed it up today:

[W]hile the movement on behalf of the public option certainly wants a public option and believes the public option is important, the larger goal is to “to try and make the federal government more responsive to progressives in the long-term” by engaging in a form of inside-outside organizing and legislative brinksmanship that’s aimed at enhancing the level of clout small-p progressives in general and the big-p Progressive Caucus in particular enjoy on Capitol Hill.

That requires, arguably, some tactical extremism. If you become known as the guys who are always willing to be reasonable and fold while the Blue Dogs are the guys who are happy to let the world burn unless someone kisses your ring, then in the short-term your reasonableness will let some things get done but over the long-term you’ll get squeezed out. And it also requires you to pick winnable fights, which may mean blowing the specific stakes in the fight a bit out of proportion in the service of the larger goal.

The big question, of course, is whether a my-way-or-the-highway position on the public option is a "winnable fight" in terms of enacting legislation in Congress.  And in a direct response to Yglesias' post, Ezra Klein warns progressives against playing chicken with the Blue Dogs on this subject:

This seems a bit like a firefighter attempting to out-arson an arsonist. The reason the Blue Dogs have a reputation for being happy to let the world burn is that they really, really, really are willing to let the world burn, let health care fail, let cap-and-trade die, let Iraq grind on. The reason liberals have a reputation for not wanting to let the world burn is that all the anti-burn initiatives under discussion are, in fact, items from their agenda. They really, really, really don't want the world to burn. It's possible they'll be able to do it once. But what happens then? The Blue Dogs, now distancing themselves from a party that seems to be plummeting in the polls, will happily abandon cap-and-trade, because that's their preferred position anyway. Will the liberals? What if we need another stimulus? The Blue Dogs don't want to support that bill. Attracting them will require all manner of concessions, if it's possible at all. Will the liberals kill that, too?

Klein goes on to address the frustration of party progressives about the unfairness of this disequalibrium of power within the party, which limits the ability to make "vulnerable Democrats [vote] for initiatives their voters don't obviously support in districts Barack Obama didn't win at a time when the president is no longer popular." 

Can you beat the Blue Dogs at their own game of final-stage obstruction? The reason they've chosen that game, after all, is because their incentives are well aligned to win it. Liberals need another game. Maybe it's primary challenges. That strategy has certainly worked against Arlen Specter, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Grassley. Liberal groups certainly have the money to mount five or six high-profile challenges a season. Maybe it's procedural changes meant to weaken the power of centrists. Maybe it's something else. Maybe it's all of these things. But it's hard to imagine that liberals will ever beat the Blue Dogs at their own game. The likelier outcome is that everybody loses.

I'd put it in a slightly different way: if, say, the Progressive Caucus in the House wants a final, definitive test of strength against the Blue Dogs, it might make sense to choose one in which the failure to act is entirely acceptable according to their own principles and priorities.  At the same time, Blue Dogs need to be frequently reminded that they will be the very first Democrats to suffer electoral disaster if the President's legislative agenda comes to grief.

This is crossposted from The Democratic Strategist, where Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor.