On healthcare, the enemy of my enemy is my friend

Progressive blog Firedoglake attacks a progressive, for maybe challenging a moderate opposed to the healthcare bill

Published March 16, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Progressive blog Firedoglake, which has been almost as loudly outspoken against the healthcare reform legislation as the Republican Party has, jumped Tuesday into what could be a primary battle between Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and Democratic operative Steve Hildebrand, a top organizer for President Obama's campaign in 2008. And in doing so, they appear to have taken the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach to politics.

Herseth Sandlin, a co-chair of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, voted against the House version of the legislation last fall, and has been talking about voting against the bill again this week. Hildebrand, who like many liberals in South Dakota, hasn't been one of Herseth Sandlin's biggest admirers for quite some time, told CNN Tuesday he would consider running against her for the Democratic nomination for her House seat if the healthcare bill doesn't pass and she votes against it.

Most of the reasons Herseth Sandlin has given for her wariness have to do with the process being used to pass the bill. She told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that she was flatly opposed to using budget reconciliation to pass the legislation. She said in a statement last month that she wanted the bill to "include ideas from both parties," and was hoping for a "bipartisan way forward" on the issue. Though Herseth Sandlin did vote against the antiabortion language that made it into the House version, and has been a reliable pro-choice vote despite her state's often extreme electorate, she's never cast the healthcare battle as a choice issue, at least not publicly.

But that's what Firedoglake publisher Jane Hamsher blasted Hildebrand for on Tuesday, without much evidence that Hildebrand or Herseth Sandlin were thinking about abortion at all. "The Democratic establishment are now out to torpedo any woman who sticks up for choice," Hamsher wrote, in a post titled "Obama against choice." Citing a letter circulated by Rep. Diana DeGette promising to oppose healthare reform if it restricted the right to choose, Hamsher blasted Hildebrand for contemplating a run against Herseth Sandlin -- even though her own blog reported that DeGette never released the names of the signers, so no one knows if Herseth Sandlin joined the effort. "If any of these women wants to keep that pledge to defend choice, Obama's deputy campaign manager -- the guy that controls the cash -- is threatening to run them out of office for doing so," Hamsher wrote of Hildebrand. "You're not allowed to stand up for choice in the Democratic party any more."

Hildebrand didn't immediately return an e-mail Tuesday about the possible primary campaign. But he hasn't made it any secret that he's been souring on Herseth Sandlin. He told Politico's Ben Smith last year that he had demanded a refund of his contributions to Herseth Sandlin's campaign, because of her support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (Hildebrand is gay), and that he'd vote for a Republican instead of backing her again. His dispute with her may go further back. Hildebrand worked for Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader who lost his South Dakota seat in 2004; some supporters of Daschle's campaign felt then that Herseth Sandlin had gone out of her way to distance herself from Daschle in order to buck an anti-Democratic wave and hold onto her own seat. I don't remember discussing the issue with Hildebrand then, but the point is that Herseth Sandlin hasn't exactly been considered a hero to South Dakota liberals.

And what's ironic about the whole thing is that Hildebrand, who publicly criticized the Obama administration last year for giving too much ground to moderates, almost certainly comes closer to representing Hamsher's political views on most issues than Herseth Sandlin. But apparently, if Sandlin opposes the healthcare bill -- which Hamsher considers an egregious giveaway to corporate insurers, mostly because it would mandate insurance coverage without providing a public option -- she's good enough for Firedoglake to defend. Even if the blog has to pick a fight that Sandlin herself isn't picking in order to do it.

"I don't know all of her reasons, nobody can -- but he's contemplating a primary challenge to her based purely on a no vote, regardless of the reason," Hamsher told Salon. "Which doesn't leave her any room to vote no on choice, does it?"

In the end, Hildebrand -- and Herseth Sandlin -- appear to be mostly bystanders in the ongoing battle between Hamsher and the Obama administration over healthcare. "There's this grand charade going on that all of this 'brass knuckles' stuff is only for the Blue Dogs, and that they're finally getting tough with the conservadems," Hamsher said. "But let's not pretend they're not doing it to Dennis Kucinich, too. They're not letting anyone off the reservation for any reason. Choice is just as much a casualty as the public option or drug reimportation or anything else on the scrap heap of Obama's back room deals."

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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