Has Rahm's assumption about progressives been vindicated?

The White House long assumed progressives would support the healthcare bill even if their demands were ignored

Published March 18, 2010 1:19PM (EDT)

President Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga
President Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga

(updated below - Update II)

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.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Healthcare Reform Washington