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The Take Away: Political Lessons from the Health Care Debate

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I wanted to use this as an opportunity to share my perspective on political lessons that we can take away from the health care debate. I arrive at the following conclusion: unless progressives change how we do politics, we will never get what we want from Washington.

As Congress prepares to pass health care reform (now that the Senate passed its bill), most talk among progressives centers on whether we should be satisfied with a piece of legislation that has been diminished and compromised. But regardless of what we make of the final agreement, the real lesson from the health care debate is a political one: Unless we change how we do politics, we will never get what we want from Washington.

It is not insignificant that 35 million Americans will be receiving something more than they had before in terms of health care. Yet even with a progressive president and a supermajority in the Senate's Democratic caucus, we are left to quibble over piecemeal legislative victories, passed only with huge concessions to corporate interests.

The health care agreement will do little to hold accountable the middlemen most responsible for driving up costs--the insurance companies. As a result, the bill coming out of the Senate does only a minimum to meet the needs of the working poor and actually punishes the middle class by taxing those union members and small business owners who provide decent health coverage for their families.

Not only does this make for bad public policy, it also makes little sense from a political perspective. Unless Democratic lawmakers are willing to take on corporate power and advocate policy solutions that can benefit both the working poor and the middle class, they are simply not delivering for the core constituencies that make up their electoral majority.

Doing Politics Differently

A simple concept should be applied here: When something doesn't work, don't do more of it.

Progressives can and should organize "netroots" citizens groups and community organizations. But in terms of institutions that have the numbers and resources to take on the power of organized money, unions are still the biggest game in town. And yet the labor strategy of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours into Democratic campaigns, with only a vague idea that we will "hold politicians accountable" later if they win, is a big part of the problem. Simply electing more Democrats will not solve things.

If we're going to start getting what we want from elected officials, labor and other progressive groups in America have to shift the role that they play in politics in three crucial ways:

1) Change What Political Action Means

First, we need to redefine political action, so that when we talk about politics we're not just talking about the mechanics of getting people elected. Instead, we're educating people who are running for office about the policy proposals and strategies that we believe are the best ways to solve social problems.

Right now, Democrats come to the labor movement for endorsement sessions where they are expected to proffer the proper platitudes about standing with working people. This is the wrong place for labor's engagement with prospective political leaders to start.

Our movements need to invest in having our policy strategies ready and being able to communicate them effectively. Long before local leaders ever run for office, we must ask them to sit with us in order learn the approaches we have crafted. In this way we would define our policy proposals up front, rather than making endorsements first and lobbying on the back end.

When we do interview for endorsements, the substance of the conversations should center on how well a given candidate understands our specific policy solutions--and how hard he or she is going to fight to put those into action.

2) Creating a Partnership in Governing

There's no question that candidates love to have progressive movements do the "heavy lifting" of campaign mobilization. But rarely do they think of us as a partner in the "heavy thinking" of public policy. We need to create the expectation among candidates that if they want our help in campaigning, they should expect to extend their partnership with our movements into policymaking once they get elected.

In places such as Los Angeles and San Jose, local union federations and community-labor coalitions have positioned themselves at the heart of generating proposals for local and regional governance. They have established themselves as a place that politicians can go when looking for ideas, and they have trained candidates to draw on them as a resource in crafting their platforms.

With this partnership firmly in place, progressive groups are not considered by elected officials to be special interests trying to pass pieces of pet legislation. Rather they are considered an essential part of the governing process--representatives of a democratic majority of poor and working people.

3) Build Our Own Coalitions First

Finally, progressives need to act collectively as one movement as opposed to everybody going their own way. We have plenty of rhetoric celebrating coalition building, but not a lot of discipline putting it into practice. In the same way that we should invest energy educating candidates about our issues, we should spend time understanding one another's interests so that there can exist a real basis for alliances.

Labor approached health care with anything but a single voice. Going forward, we have to make a decision about whether we are going to lead with our own policy positions or wait for the president's leadership. Our experience during the Clinton years was one of waiting for the White House to take the lead. We waited and got little. Learning from the past, we must recognize the need to develop clear public policy solutions in advance of a political fight and to devote the resources needed to build a unified coalition around them.

If we accept a model of politics that subjugates progressive movements to the role of being fair-weather friends when politicians need campaign support, the compromises and disappointments of the health care debate will only foreshadow more of the same to come in the future. We demonstrated that we have the capability to do politics differently by electing Barack Obama. We must now do that once again if we are to get real reforms, rooted in social vision, that can restore fairness in our democracy.

NOTE: I originally posted this column to Crooks and Liars a few days ago and got hundreds of comments there, on Facebook and elsewhere.

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