Uh-oh. Anyone who thinks that a positive agenda for the nation will simply be realized by the election of a Democratic President or even substantial gains to the majority in Congress needs to read this report
by Ezra Klein from a health care conference today:
Mark Warner addressed the luncheon. Warner is a talented speaker, and fluent on health care [...] On the actual topic of reform, Warner promises, if he's elected, to find 9 or 10 other moderate Senators and form a "radical centrists" caucus. On the one hand, that sort of middle-of-the-road legislative work is important. On the other, you have to be clear about what you're trying to win. The deal needs to be in service of a policy. So hearing Warner start a compromise caucus before he's got something to fight for -- as compared to Ron Wyden, who's pulling in bipartisan sponsors around concrete legislation -- strikes me as a bit of a cart-before-the-horse problem.
As Klein notes, in this case, "centrism" is not being modeled around a particular policy or an issue but as a positive good in and of itself
, making a virtue of being in the middle of whatever the two parties decide, and apparently not just on health care but on everything. This might cause David Broder to throw his Wheaties in the air in great joy, but it's just death for any kind of substantive progressive agenda. It's a roadblock. Our movement won't have to only fight off hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads
from a conservative movement that will not give up in subverting progress, but from these moderate Democrats that are supposed to represent the winning margin for that progress.
However, there's a very bleak bit of daylight here. In his speech, Warner talked about how every country in the world gets the benefit of drug company R&D, while we pay for it, because we keep any kind of competition and bargaining out of the purchase of prescription drugs. Similiarly, prospective recruit for the "radical centrist" caucus Ken Salazar said at the same conference that "health care is a fundamental right."
This fetishism for moderation is disturbing, but it seems that, much like Rick Perlstein
noted that conservatism and liberalism are not random governing philosophies but actual expressions of human nature, "centrism" also springs from some deep-seated urge to split the difference and make oneself look or feel somehow superior or above political gamesmanship in the process. So the goal for the progressive movement must be to shift the political center and force those predisposed to the badges of centrism and bipartisanship to move to the left to save their political skins. And indeed, we're doing some good work, albeit limited, on that score.
Digby has mentioned Eric Boehlert's excellent piece
about the blogswarm that caught Tweety Matthews napping and forced him to apologize for his rampant sexism. This is not something the progressive movement would have been in the position to demand just a few years ago. And I would argue that the influence is far more acute with respect to the Republican Presidential nomination. Progressives have done an excellent job of very sharply defining all of the major candidates in a very negative fashion, to the extent that traditional media is using the exact same frames. I saw a few minutes of CNN with some talking heads discussing Fred Thompson's withdrawal from the race (by the way, the guy's timing is so bad, he apparently won the Louisiana caucus
after he dropped out). Every talking head was talking about Thompson's laziness, his lack of campaigning, his aw-shucks dimness, in increasingly vicious ways. Here's a transcript
BLITZER: It wasn't exactly a shocker today, Jack, that Fred Thompson announced he's dropping out of this race. But let's take a look at the political fallout.
Among the Republicans, who gains, who loses?
CAFFERTY: Well, if he hadn't announced it, I'm not sure anybody would have noticed.
CAFFERTY: I mean I -- you know, it's like he hasn't -- he's only been here what -- you know, he wasn't that interested in campaigning. I think he would have liked it if somebody would have said you can be president. But he didn't want to work to get the job. And I'm not sure it means a heck of a lot for anybody. Somebody said that he might be trying to position himself to be vice president. He'll deny that.
BORGER: ...So watch for Mitt Romney, who is also running as a social conservative, to go after those six or seven Thompson voters that are out there.
BORGER: And he'll try -- he'll try and get them.
TOOBIN: You know, Wolf, you have to go all the way back to Rudolph Giuliani to find a campaign that has been singularly as unsuccessful as Fred Thompson's has been.
BORGER: That far back?
TOOBIN: You know, I just don't think it will have any impact at all, his departure...
BLITZER: Well, it could have a...
TOOBIN: ...just as his arrival didn't.
BORGER: You know...
BLITZER: It could have an impact in new episodes of "Law and Order," though.
BORGER: It could. It could. But, you know, this was such an interesting candidacy. It was created by the Republican establishment in Washington, who felt that they needed a new horse. They needed someone else. So they created this. They took a guy who was television. They said let's turn him into a presidential candidate. He will clearly appeal to the American public. And it totally flopped [...]
TOOBIN: That was the ultimate problem.
CAFFERTY: Take a look at all the other ideas the Republican establishment in Washington has had for the last seven years.
CAFFERTY: It's no surprise to me the Fred Thompson thing didn't go anywhere.
BLITZER: I can't tell you how many people in that Republican establishment -- especially here in Washington, the beltway, you know, the Republican lobbyists...
BLITZER: ...the so-called elite, when they were even thinking of getting him in, they said this is the new Ronald Reagan. He's an actor.
BLITZER: He's media-genic. He's powerful. And he's really going to turn things around.
(CROSSTALK) CAFFERTY: If you want to look at the definition of irrelevant, look up the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C.
CAFFERTY: That's irrelevant.
TOOBIN: Fred Thompson definitely was the tallest candidate.
BORGER: But, you know, it's so...
CAFFERTY: And the baldest.
BORGER: ...it's so arrogant, though, you know, to think that you can be anointed in Washington and you're pretty good on television and you look pretty good and you -- and you have great name recognition because you're in "Law and Order," and, gee, I can then become president.
And I think they talked him into it. And I think they said to him, you know, you don't have to work that hard.
BORGER: You can actually just get this job, get in late, let the public take a look at you. You're different. You're going to win. It didn't work out that way.
CAFFERTY: He bought that part about not having to work very hard. He liked that part.
CAFFERTY: You can sit in the trailer until it's time for your close-up, Fred.
It has the usual Village cattiness, but these are themes that progressives pushed from the moment Thompson entered the race. He's lazy, he's an actor who wants to play the role of the President, he was pushed upon people by the establishment. And this is true across the line: Romney's an insincere flip-flopper, Rudy's a homicidal maniac, Huckabee's a Jesus freak, McCain wants to bomb the whole world (this narrative took hold until McCain dropped off the map and we stopped pressuring him), etc.
Now, we're aided by a really terrible slate of candidates. But it's clear that progressives have shot these narratives into the media bloodstream. Initially, Thompson was the guy you could smell the Aqua Velva on, and Romney was a guy who has shoulders on which you can land a 747. I really think the movement is maturing and deserves a lot of credit.
However, these are media narratives. We have not been able to make the same arguments in terms of policy. And that's the danger of this "radical centrist" coalition. The need is to force them into accepting ideas, in the case of health care, like the safe reimportation of drugs from Canada, guaranteed issue from the insurance companies, a public option competing with insurers, etc., as reasonable, moderate ideas, so that the debate shifts leftward. Otherwise, we're going to get a fake reform
that rewards the insurance companies by giving them a forced market, without any of the regulation or cost controls that will actually help people get affordable coverage. And on and on down the line.
It's important to highlight what Mark Warner is telegraphing here. This is what we'll be up against in the future, and it's why the office of the President is arguably less important than the health and maturity of the progressive movement to leverage change.
Labels: bipartisanship, centrism, Congress, Fred Thompson, health care, insurance industry, Mark Warner, progressive movement, Republicans, traditional media, universal health care