Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Posts Tagged ‘health care’

Bernie Sanders: The Most Disappointing Senator

Posted by Kevin on February 15, 2010

Many people on the Left would probably look at me like I’m crazy for saying this, but I think Bernie Sanders is a major disappointment as a Senator. I don’t mean to suggest he’s a bad Senator, on the same level as, say, Joe Lieberman, from whom I doubt many progressives expected good things. I hate Lieberman as much as anyone else, but it’s not exactly shocking when he’s an asshole. Sanders, on the other hand, is someone for whom I had high hopes, and it therefore hurts to watch him fall short, as he did most recently in the healthcare debate.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sanders is a hero to much of the Left, well-known even far from Vermont. That’s why Robert Greenwald gave him a web series, for instance. I noticed this most recently on my trip to back home to Illinois over winter break, when I visited my friends in the Peoria Area Peace Network. Every time his name came up, half the room would gush over him. At one point, I would’ve done it too. I agreed with (and still agree with) his positions and thought it was awesome having a socialist in Congress. As a supporter of third-party and independent candidates I liked that Sanders was an Independent and would potentially be less beholden to the Democratic leadership that so successfully corrals other progressives.

And yet I’m increasingly frustrated with Sanders. He seems more concerned with maintaining cordial relations with the Democratic Party than with supporting progressive policies. Like most progressives in Congress, he talks a good game but doesn’t really follow through on it.

This was something I first noticed in 2008 with his vocal support for Obama. I thought it was odd that Sanders was coming out so strongly for one of the primary backers of the Wall Street bailouts, of which Sanders was one of the primary opponents. And in fact I have yet to see any criticism from Sanders directly targeting Obama on that or any other issue. Instead, he frequently goes out of his way to avoid criticizing Democrats, or pulls his punches with them.

For instance, take this article by Sanders in The Nation. I more or less agree with the recommendations in the article, but notice who Sanders blames things on: the Republicans. The problem with the Democrats, he says, is that they “have absurdly continued to stumble along the path of ‘bipartisanship’ at exactly the same time the Republicans have waged the most vigorous partisan and obstructionist strategy in recent history.” In this and other public statements, he isn’t afraid to mount a frontal assault on the GOP, but when it comes to the Dems the problems get blamed on someone else: Wall Street, lobbyists, Republican obstructionism, and so on.

I question how much of Sanders’ support for Obama and the Dems is calculation versus what he really believes. If he were more hostile to the Dems, it would probably cost him a lot of support from the progressive movement; indeed, his coziness with the Dems is probably a necessary component of his hero status with the movement, as opposed to the outcast status of someone like Ralph Nader.

Also, it’s pretty much an open secret that Sanders has an unofficial deal going with the Democratic Party: he doesn’t overtly antagonize them, and they don’t run anyone against him. Nader discussed this issue in Crashing the Party, his memoir of his 2000 campaign. Sanders had agreed to introduce Nader at a campaign stop in Montpelier (although he wouldn’t give an endorsement). However, Nader also invited Anthony Pollina, then the Progressive Party candidate for governor, to speak at the event. Sanders apparently wasn’t happy about this. From the book:

When I arrived at the bustling high school auditorium, with its tables, volunteers, and incoming audience, Bernie Sanders took me aside and in grave tones expressed his concern at my having invited Pollina to speak with us. Clearly he was worried that the Democrats, who had agreed no longer to seriously challenge Bernie (with one exception in 1996), thereby sparing him a three-way race, would see his association with Pollina as a hostile act to their party and their governor.

I expressed surprise. “Bernie,” I said, “Anthony was once your staff member, and there are no positions that I know where you are in disagreement.”

He acknowledged that but repeated his displeasure nonetheless. Going up to the stage with Bernie, I thought to myself that an Independent should not have to worry about such matters. Bernie graciously introduced me and described our work together. But he left the stage and departed in the middle of my speech before I asked Pollina to come up and give his precise, factual stem-winder. […]

[Brief aside: As I’ve written before, Pollina ran for governor again in 2008 (as an Independent, but for all intents and purposes still aligned with the Progressives). Sanders refused to endorse a candidate in that race, saying that he was too busy working to get Obama elected. Pollina came in second, ahead of the Democratic candidate.

Also, I couldn’t think of a way to work it into this post, but I stumbled on this 2008 video featuring some sharp criticism of Sanders from Nader. It also features a defense of Sanders from Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who inadvertently did a great job of convincing me not to vote for a Democratic Party hack like him if he gets the Dem nomination for governor this year.]

I tend to prefer courageous politicians, and my frustration with Sanders stems from the fact that he isn’t one. Many progressives would disagree with me; they admire “practical” politicians like Sanders and accuse people like me of being naive dreamers. They are adamantly opposed to drawing lines in the sand and instead say things like “We have to take what we can get,” or “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” They frame the conflict as one of pragmatism versus idealism. Often, though, I think it’s better framed as a conflict of courage versus cowardice, with all too many progressives ending up on the latter side because they won’t stand up for their beliefs. I would argue that all of their “practicality” hasn’t accomplished very much, instead empowering the proponents of fake reform (who, unlike progressives, aren’t afraid to play hardball).

In the healthcare debate, such “practicality” might have sanded a few rough edges off of a terrible bill, but nothing more. A few dials will be fiddled with, but the same system will stay in place; the insurance industry gets a massive subsidy, the pharmaceutical industry gets a sweetheart deal, and we’re no closer to single-payer than we ever were. (Oh, and preserving the Hyde Amendment became the official position of the Democratic Party. That’s one of the less-noticed but most-important parts of the healthcare debate: how the Dems basically dropped all pretense of being a party that supports reproductive justice.) “Practical” progressives shrug and say that it’s the best we can do. My response would be that this is a self-fulfilling prophesy; as Cenk Uygur put it, progressives “got rolled on healthcare because they had no intention of putting their foot down – and everyone knew it.”

Regarding courage, Dennis Kucinich’s conduct in the healthcare debate contrasts starkly with that of Sanders. Kucinich was one of only a couple progressive Dems to vote against the House bill because he thought it was a giveaway to the insurance industry disguised as reform. For the grievous crime of voting his principles instead of his party, he took a lot of shit from progressives. I remember seeing comments on his Facebook page actually accusing him of being right-wing and in league with the GOP. However, he can’t be accused of not trying to improve the bill. If the Kucinich amendment had been part of it (which would have made it easier for states to enact single-payer), I might have been willing to grudgingly support it. But Nancy Pelosi decreed that the amendment be taken out, and “practical” progressives didn’t protest at all.

Another interesting comparison can be drawn with Howard Dean. I was never a huge fan of Dean; I didn’t think he was as liberal as advertised. I did respect how he opposed the war in Iraq before it was fashionable to do so, but didn’t support his campaign. And my from what I’ve heard of his time as governor of Vermont, he was virtually indistinguishable from a moderate Republican. Oddly enough, one of the best descriptions of Dean comes from Bernie Sanders, quoted in David Sirota’s book The Uprising: “If there’s a lesson of the Howard Dean campaign, it is that the younger generation’s definition of ‘progressive’ is anyone who rips apart the other side. Dean was a moderate, yet he became the progressive candidate for president because people get off on stridency.”

So imagine my surprise to find Dean to the left of Sanders on healthcare. Dean, of course, was probably the most prominant member of the “Kill the Senate Bill” movement. And, like Kucinich, he took a lot of shit from progressives and from the Democratic Party.

Sanders, on the other hand, seemed unwilling to take a serious stand on much of anything. One positive thing I’ll say about Sanders is that he was one of the only progressives in Congress that actually extracted something tangible in return for his support, in the form of increased funding for community health centers. And according to that article, he was pushing a version of the Kucinich amendment, although I don’t know what ever became of it. Still, he voted for a bill that forces people to buy private insurance with virtually no cost control mechanism. No amount of money for community health centers will change that fact. It doesn’t change the fact that he backed down from a threat to vote against a bill without a public option. And it definitely doesn’t change the fact that Sanders cowardly withdrew his single-payer amendment in the face of Republican obstructionism (because heaven forbid he inconvenience the Democratic leadership by delaying passage of the bill).

People like Sanders are progressive in their beliefs, but not in their actions. It doesn’t matter very much how progressive a politician’s beliefs are if he or she won’t stand up for them. This is what makes Bernie Sanders no different from most of the other progressive Democrats in Congress who promise great things and then predictably cave in the end. That doesn’t mean I think progressives should never compromise, but the reason no one in Washington takes progressives seriously is because everyone knows that they will accept a bad deal rather than stand and fight for something better. Sometimes it’s better in the long run to fight for what’s right and lose than to cave and pat ourselves on the back for our “pragmatism.”

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Thoughts on the “public option”: bad policy and bad politics

Posted by Kevin on August 30, 2009

“I also understand the term used often by our hero Ted Kennedy, that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. However, in this case, I’d like to turn that spin around and say that, in the instance of the public option, half-assed and inadequate is the enemy of the necessary and the acceptable.” –Steve Steffens [article link]

In comments to my last post dealing with healthcare, I was criticized (rightly, as I’ll explain) for supporting a public option. I thought it would be a good idea to expand on my thoughts on the issue.

I’m definitely a single-payer supporter, and while I’ve never been one of those progressives who says “Single-payer isn’t going to happen right now, so lets not even bother talking about it,” at the time of that post I thought the public option was an acceptable compromise, at least better than doing nothing. But the more I’ve read about it, the less sure I’ve been.

These days, I’m of the opinion that it might be better to just hold out for single-payer, and that as terrible as the status quo is, the substantial risks associated with even a well-designed public option (let alone the crappy bill that will almost certainly come out of Washington) could make doing nothing the better choice. I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to the public option, more like ambivalent; I wouldn’t see it as a bad thing if a decent public plan passed, but I’m not really willing to expend any effort on its behalf.

It’s amazing to me how virtually everyone who believes in the basic concept of universal healthcare agrees that single-payer is the best way to achieve it, and yet even among very progressive people it’s seen as almost taboo. If they mention it at all, it’s almost always along the lines of, “Well yeah, in a perfect world we’d have single-payer, but…”

But what? But, as “progressive” Congressman Henry Waxman put it when asked why he removed his co-sponsorship of H.R. 676, the House single-payer bill, “It isn’t going to happen.” We see this often from politicians like Waxman, and Obama as well: they support single-payer when they’re out of power, but once they get any actual ability to implement it they suddenly start backtracking, talking about how “we need to be realistic”. Gosh, it’s almost as if they aren’t really serious about it and they’re just telling us what we want to hear!

Still, he’s absolutely right; I think we can be pretty certain that a single-payer bill, even if by some miracle it passed the House, stands little-to-no chance of surviving the Senate. But instead of insisting on what they know is right, many like Waxman are rallying around a “compromise” plan that’s far more complicated and expensive, and far less effective, even in the best case scenario.

I think progressives made a huge mistake in giving up on single-payer so easily, in not even putting it on the table. There is no “right” time to start talking about it. It might not pass today, but if we want it to pass in the future then we need to be laying the groundwork now, and at least keep the idea alive until then. This is the position of Dick McCormack, one of my state senators and primary sponsor of a single-payer bill here in Vermont. Even though by his own admission the bill is going nowhere, he says it’s important to keep people talking about it, and keep its failure from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I’ve said before, if nobody’s at least talking about a given position, that alone guarantees it will never happen.

Even if you disagree with me on the efficacy of the public option, I think it’s clear that by compromising so early, progressives ensured that they’d have trouble getting even that much, that the final plan would be watered down even further. Progressives have a long proud history of ignoring one of the basic rules of negotiation: asking for twice as much as what you want in the hope of bargaining down to something you can live with. Instead, we start from a compromise position, and then we’re surprised at being expected to tone things down further. As a result, instead of single-payer being the Left position and a strong public option being the compromise, the public option is the Left position and Blue Dog position is the compromise.

But isn’t the public option at least a step in the right direction? I won’t get into the specifics of what I think its problems are, because others have done it a lot better than I could. Here is a great article from Physicians for a National Health Program explaining the problems with the public option and why we should insist on single-payer instead.

Generally, I think the public option is very hard to do right, and given the current Congress anything that could actually pass will almost certainly not be done right. In fact, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the final plan will even have a public option, or do much of anything other than funnel money to the insurance and drug companies. (Some, like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, argue that Obama and the Dem leadership were never really serious about having a public option in the bill and planned from the beginning to bargain it away in order to placate the lobbies.)

In addition, as the PNHP article points out, there’s no reason to believe that incrementalism would somehow lead to single-payer, as some proponents of the public option argue. That hasn’t happened anywhere it’s been tried; I would argue that minuscule reform of this type just has the effect of delaying real reform. Democratic politicians are the experts at this: doing just enough to shut people up for a little while, without seriously challenging the interests of their corporate backers.

If the public option does fail, then in addition to creating an enormous, entirely deserved backlash against the Democrats it will probably sour the public on the basic idea of universal health care. This is already happening in regard to the stimulus and government intervention in the economy, as Chris Bowers argues at Open Left:

Whether or not the Democratic trifecta actually passes progressive legislation, the legislation that is passed and the policies that are followed will still be perceived as progressive. We simply can’t avoid that.

For example, right now the stimulus package pretty much equals left-wing economic philosophy in the eyes of the American people. If it doesn’t produce results, we are all going to see our ideas become discredited in the eyes of the American public, even if we thought policies of the Democratic trifecta did not go nearly far enough. The country is never going to say “well, that idea didn’t work, so let’s try a more extreme version of it.” People just don’t think that way in America.

Given the inadequacy of the public option and the improbability of passing single-payer on the national level in the near future, where do we go from here? I think we need to shift attention to the state level, where there’s often a much greater possibility of getting real reform. The main thing to do on the national level is to keep the federal government from standing in the way of state efforts to do the right thing. A key part of this is making sure the Kucinich amendment, which would make it easier for states to pass single-payer, makes it into the final healthcare reform bill.

We also need to work on reforming the Senate, which is obviously the main obstacle to real healthcare reform (and progressive reform in general) on the national level, pretty much no matter which party is in charge. David Sirota points out that it’s unresponsive by its very design, giving enormous weight to a group of Senators representing an extremely small number of Americans. As a result, Sirota says, the healthcare debate is being controlled by a small handful of legislators from small, rural states. The first step to reforming the Senate, Tom Geoghegan argues, is to get rid of the filibuster, the primary weapon of the opponents of reform. This entails a bloody battle, but it’s absolutely necessary.

And, of course, we need to ignore the false promise of bullshit “incremental” reform that just tinkers around the edges, and support policies that go to the root of our problems. In addition, we need to be suspicious of politicians like Obama who care more about ensuring a legislative victory for themselves than they do about actually doing something substantive.

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“Moderate” Democrats are the problem, not the Right

Posted by Kevin on June 12, 2009

Chris Bowers of Open Left (via AlterNet) has a great post on heath care reform, the “public option,” and how it’s more important for progressives to go after the so-called “moderate” Democrats in Congress (a totally misleading term referring to Dems whoring themselves out to the health insurance industry; i.e. the Blue Dogs, Evan Bayh, Arlen Specter, and so on) than it is to attack conservatives. From Bowers:

Here is a message that progressive organizations and media outlets need to start sending to all Democratic party committees and members of Congress:

We are done attacking Republicans until you pass a public option for health care.

Until a public option is passed, I don’t want to hear about the latest hate and idiocy spewing from Limbaugh, or Tancredo, or Palin, or Gingrich, or whoever. And to tell you the truth, I don’t want to attack them for it, either. Because, right now, Republicans are not the obstacle to progressive governance. Instead, Democrats who refuse to support a public option are the obstacle.

I recommend reading the whole post, with which I couldn’t agree more.

It’s the Democrats that control most of the levers of power these days, so failure to enact progressive legislation lies entirely with them. They can’t blame opposition from the Republicans anymore, who have almost no influence at the national level (although you wouldn’t know that from media coverage). Rather, the blame lies entirely with the group of corporate Dems frequently described as “moderates” or “centrists” (thanks to whom conservatives still essentially have a majority in Congress), and with the party that refuses to challenge them.

The Democratic leadership’s excuse du jour for watering down legislation is the need to appease these “moderates,” yet they steadfastly oppose any public pressure on them from the progressive movement, let alone primary challenges aimed at replacing them with progressives. A case in point is Arlen Specter, whose reelection Obama has said he’ll support literally no matter what Specter does. Why do they work so hard to keep people like this in office? Is it perhaps because it offers a convenient way to avoid doing the right thing, like in the current health care debate?

As Bowers puts it:

We should be naming names, flying to their home states to hold large rallies, and lining up primary challengers against public-option averse Democrats. Instead, our leaders are holding fundraisers for them, pressuring their primary opponents, and hosting dinners in their honor. Kind of makes you wonder how serious even those Democrats in favor of the public option are about change. [emphasis added]

If you doubt this, then consider that the tolerance by Obama and the rest of the Democratic leadership of opposition from the “moderates” on issues like the public option stands in stark contrast to their willingness to bully progressives on war funding. As the Huffington Post reported just today, administration officials are threatening to withhold support at reelection from freshmen in Congress who vote against the supplemental war spending bill. This dynamic – coddling of “moderates,” bullying of progressives – demonstrates loud and clear the real priorities of the Democratic establishment.

All of this perfectly illustrates why I come down so much harder on Democrats and their progressive enablers than Republicans. I hate Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly as much as the next progressive, and I can see the appeal in attacking them due to the easy target they present and how egregiously offensive they are, but focusing on them while treating corporate Dems as a lesser evil isn’t going to bring us any closer to change. As I’ve said previously, the Dems are “frequently in a position to implement progressive policies, or to stop conservative ones, but choose not to.” On many issues right now, the Dems are the ones standing in our way; they’re the ones we should be fighting.

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