Progressives must embrace a third party

“Some of us have compromised our compromised compromise,” said New York Democrat Representative Anthony Weiner. “We need the president to stand up for the values our party shares.”

Weiner is right on the first part and wrong on the second. After seeing the 2004 Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign Democratic Party platform, I concluded there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans, and switched my party registration to California’s Peace and Freedom Party. More recently, I’ve concluded that there is a difference.

That difference is on display with a badly watered down health care reform package. There was strong popular support for a public option which was not reflected in Congress, and particularly not in the Senate. Now, “a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Americans are generally fearful that a revamped health-care system would bring higher costs and worse care.” And they’re probably right.

A CNN poll last month also revealed concerns:

“Roughly one in three Americans opposes the House bill because it is too liberal, but one in 10 oppose the bill because it is not liberal enough,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. “That may indicate that a majority opposes the details in the bill, but also that a majority may approve of the overall approach taken by House Democrats and President Obama.”

The story was different in August, when “support for a public option [was] at a robust 77 percent, one percentage point higher than where it stood in June.” Wording of the questions is important: “Earlier in the week, after pollsters for NBC dropped the word “choice” from their question on a public option, they found that only 43 percent of the public were in favor of ‘creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies.'”

So people were afraid of a single-payer system, but strongly supported the very feature of health care reform that has now been eviscerated. As host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough put it yesterday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Obama “had a mandate. He had 52-53 percent. He has sixty Democrats. If you can’t win under those circumstances, when can you win?”

The St. Petersburg Times dredged up the specific language of Obama’s campaign promise, that the plan would “create a National Health Insurance Exchange to help individuals purchase new affordable health care options if they are uninsured or want new health insurance. Through the Exchange, any American will have the opportunity to enroll in the new public plan or an approved private plan, and income-based sliding scale tax credits will be provided for people and families who need it.” The Times thinks this promises an exchange, not a public option. I parse it differently: a “new public plan” is among the choices to be offered in the exchange. Consider this, another of his campaign statements:

We will break the stranglehold that a few big drug and insurance companies have on the health care market…. It’s become clear that some of these companies are dramatically overcharging Americans for what they offer…. We’re not going to get change unless we can overcome the resistance the drug companies, the insurance companies, the HMOs, those who are making a major profit from the system currently.

In a capitalist paradigm, the way you “break the stranglehold” is to introduce competition. As Obama said more recently, “I continue to believe that a public option within the basket of insurance choices would help improve quality and bring down costs.”

It hasn’t happened. As Scarborough asked, “If you can’t win under those circumstances, when can you win?” If nothing else, this episode has shown that the Democrats don’t really have sixty votes in the Senate and, as Mike Barnicle argued, don’t impose the kind of party discipline they did under Lyndon Baines Johnson. Scarborough argues that unlike Obama, George W. Bush treated members of congress “like dirt,” that they feared Bush.

Co-host Mika Brzezinski, who was mostly drowned out in the segment, tried to suggest that we haven’t seen the last of this, that Obama has a different leadership style. The proxemics on this program are eye-catching; Scarborough and Brzezinski sit very close together, he mostly ignores her, and at this point in the segment, Scarborough had his back to her while he was speaking in a highly animated fashion apparently at The Nation‘s D.C. editor Chris Hayes. Given the opportunity to serve as something other than “arm candy,” she might have pointed out that “different” does not mean inferior.

But as the Daily Kos put it two months ago:

[Former Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist never had 60 votes. Bill Frist never cared. Republicans ran the Senate as if they owned the place, even when enjoying razor-thin majorities.

Yet when Democrats took the chamber, the first thing [current Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid did was complain that he couldn’t do anything because he didn’t have 60 votes.

Even with Joe Lieberman, who’s been attracting so much attention lately, and Al Franken in the caucus, Reid still doesn’t have sixty votes.

Something needs to be acknowledged here. While the Republicans are seeking purity, the Democrats are seeking political control. I have interpreted the Republican strategy as not being an electoral strategy. The Republican Party is representing an extremely narrow, social conservative base, most prominently in the South.

But I have also heavily criticized the Democrats for shifting rightwards, adopting increasingly conservative positions that seemed to me to have particular appeal in the heavily evangelical Protestant South. There’s a logic there: though socially conservative, the South is a swing region. This is the 2004 electoral cartogram, when George W. Bush stole a second election for the presidency:

And this is the map from 2008, when John McCain couldn’t steal the election and Obama prevailed:

As you’d expect, the 2008 map is a lot more purple–representing shades from Republican red to Democrat blue–than the 2004 map, but particularly in the South (and along the length of the Mississippi River), bright blue Democratic areas appear to have shrunk or to have submerged in surrounding seas of purple. Republicans appear not to have turned out as strongly in the rest of the country, but the patterns appear largely the same.

In response, Republicans have apparently focused even more tightly on the South, at the expense of support in a large part of the population in the rest of the country. Democrats thus claim the center and take progressives for granted. As Joy-Ann Reid wrote, “[The White House and compromising senators have] obviously calculated that with time, the anger of liberal Democrats (whom they believe have made too much of the whole “public option” thing anyway) will subside, and the sheer magnitude of the achievement will boost the president’s approval ratings. After all, where are liberals going to turn? Sarah Palin?”

Progressives need another party. Because in a two-party paradigm, the Republican Party is the only alternative and Democrats have no reason to fear losing our votes. We have a choice: we can continue to be disappointed or we can choose another path.

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