The New York Times profile of Senator Max Baucus and his role leading the Finance Committee towards a healthcare reform bill contains an infuriating nugget of strategic hindsight.
He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a “single-payer plan,” not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama’s proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.
God God, man! It’s like Baucus had never heard of physics before he fell down.
Seriously, the lack of strategic understanding by Democratic elected officials is mind-boggling. That Baucus is only now realizing the strategic value of keeping a single-payer system on the table from Day One, even only as a means to provide political space for something like a political option, is simply stunning. Of course Baucus, and likely the whole country, willpay for his strategic error as the public health insurance option doesn’t survive the Finance Committee’s draft process. After all, while Baucus may be making noises about not being able to keep the Obama-backed public health insurance option on the table because of this error in strategy, he is also conceding it as a means of winning the support of at least one Republican on his committee. Not because he needs the vote to pass legislation out of the Finance Committee, but because he thinks bipartisanship is more important than providing working Americans with universal health care.
Baucus’s statement about the strategic error he made (though in fairness this is a mistake that every Democrat in the Senate save Bernie Sanders has made, as well as most members of the House caucus and Presidnet Obama) is a rare admission by a senior Democrat that there is political value in the party maintaining strong liberal positions. The simple fact is that if the Democrats want to achieve their moderate goals for quasi-liberal, pro-business policy, they can’t have quasi-liberal policies as the left flank. This leaves them coming to the table with only one direction to move: away from their goals and towards the Republican position. This amounts to making concessions before you even start negotiating, by the simple fact that you have no margin for concession short of not getting what you want.
A strong liberal flank of the Democratic Party enables more moderate, but still Democratic, policies to be enacted. Even if the left exists to provide political space for compromises towards the more moderate, it would still enable more Democratic legislation to pass with fewer concessions to Republican positions. That, in itself, would amount to moving the country to the left, even without seeing hardline progressive legislation coming through.
Everything we know about Democratic elected officials is that they are ready to concede their values if its politically and legislatively expedient. There needs to be space for this behavior to take place without hurting actual Democratic policy efforts. The best way to create this space is by fostering the Democratic left and treating it as a serious policy option, worthy of consideration. In this case, having a vibrant discussion of a single-payer healthcare system in the Finance and HELP committees of the Senate could have facilitated moving conservative Democrats and even some moderate Republicans to support a public health insurance option. Single-payer would have created the space for the public option. It would have given Obama, Kennedy, and Dodd a left flank to lean into and eventually give up, while making the public option appear what it truly is: a moderate position that is widely appealing to the American public.
The one question that merits consideration in the discussion of how single-payer could have been used to facilitate the public option becoming law is why would progressive activists allow themselves to work tirelessly for a policy that will only, in the end, be conceded? I say for the same reason we work tirelessly to support Democratic candidates, largely regardless of their specific policy positions. It’s the
only best way to get anything close to progressive policies enacted into law.
Creating space on the left for Democrats to work could have enabled something great on healthcare reform. It’s nice to see Baucus recognize the error of his ways (after it’s likely cost us the public health insurance option), but how will this mistake inform his future legislative strategies? Will he embrace the role of strong liberal policy pushes in the future, in recognition of how they enable other Democratic legislation to pass? Or will he just move along and keep looking for that bipartisan sweet spot that makes him sleep comfortably at night, regardless of how policy concessions made before he even begins negotiation hurt working Americans?