Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Sirota Headshot

Howard Dean, Movement Leader

Posted: Updated:

I want to take a moment just to recognize what has been recognized before, but needs to be recognized right here and now one more time: Howard Dean is a genuine hero.

In coming out against the Lieberman-gutted health insurance "reform" bill, Dean is leveraging every shred of power he can muster to create the political space for the final bill -- whether passed now, or later after going back to the drawing board -- to be better and more progressive. He has made a compelling case that the bill "would do more harm than good," as he says in his Washington Post op-ed today -- and in doing that he has made the power struggle between Joe Lieberman's Palpatinian forces of insurance/drug industry darkness and the progressive movement far more symmetrical.

Before Dean's move, the fight was asymmetrical, as Chris Hayes noted in my interview with him on my radio show yesterday. Before Dean's move, Lieberman had the upper hand in that he was the only one who didn't seem to care whether he alone killed the bill by joining with Republicans for a filibuster. Now, though, Dean has said to progressive members of Congress that they should be OK killing this bill if that's what taking a stand for a better bill means. And you see some of them potentially starting to follow.

This is why the White House and the Beltway media is now publicly freaking out at Dean in a way they never freaked out on corporate Dems (Lieberman, Baucus, Nelson, etc.) who were previously obstructing the bill: Because Dean is threatening to change the dynamic that the Beltway was always counting on -- a dynamic that relied on progressives ultimately capitulating to the Joe Liebermans, the Rahm Emanuels, the insurance industry and the drug lobbyists. That dynamic only exists if progressive members of Congress -- and the larger progressive movement and general public -- believes passing the bill is more important than killing it to make it better. If they and we don't believe that, as Howard Dean doesn't and as new polls show we don't, then suddenly progressive members of Congress and the progressive movement can feel free to be as cutthroat as Lieberman himself.

We can feel free to risk sending a bad bill down to defeat in the cause of making it better -- because we know that the bill in its current, non-improved form is bad. And from that stand, we may get more progressive concessions before this thing is finally done. Just as the old dynamic was based on buying Lieberman's vote with insurance/drug industry concessions, this new Dean dynamic could means progressives forcing the leadership and the White House to, say, add back a public option back into this final bill as price for progressive votes.

Of course, there's debate about whether or not we think Dean is right on the substance -- about whether the bill is good or bad. I happen to think Dean is right -- I happen to believe that passing this awful bill is not worth it even if this awful bill has a few good things in it. Why?

Because we have the same president and the same Congress for at least another year and they will be forced to go back to the drawing board.

There is certainly a substantive rush to pass reform, what with thousands dying every year for lack of insurance. But there is not the political rush that seems to be the assumption in DC right now. That's a manufactured bullshit assumption -- the same one we heard when the very same set of bought-and-paid-for politicians used a financial crisis to rush through a Wall Street bailout with the very same "must pass it immediately" rationale. Now they're trying to use a health care crisis to rush through an insurance industry bailout.

But here's the thing: It's not like Barack Obama won't be president and Democrats won't control Congress tomorrow. They can go back to the drawing board right now and have the same political topography before them when they come back to the House and Senate floors. And last I checked, when this bill was in more progressive form (ie. with a public option and Medicare buy-in) I didn't hear any of these voices in DC say the bill needed to be on a "must pass immediately" track - only when the bill was gutted are these voices now screaming for it to be immediately passed...hmm...

All of that said, wherever you come down on the substance of the Lieberman-gutted bill, it's clear Dean has created a new progressive dynamic here. He has made it more likely that something better will come out of the Congress either now or in the near future than the monstrosity Lieberman has created. How? By doing his part to create the political space and leverage for us to demand more.

Dean's move, not surprisingly, is being lambasted by the sycophantic Washington press. As just one example, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza -- one of the most perfectly calibrated barometers of Beltway conventional wisdom -- lashes out at Dean as a "health care reform spoiler" (Cillizza, of course, never said this about Lieberman, Landrieu, Nelson, or any of the other conservadems who were threatening to filibuster the bill over the last few months). And tellingly, Cillizza insists Dean's principled stand is "entirely in his own self interest" - an attempt to completely dismiss the substance of Dean's criticism. Of course, if Dean criticizing the administration was "entirely in his own self interest," he would not have been cheering on the bill before it was gutted. And so Cillizza's refrain is yet more proof that in Washington's "Church of the Savvy" movement participants taking principled stands are seen as selfish, petulant, stupid and unserious while politicians who exchange votes for industry campaign contributions (Lieberman, Baucus, etc.) and former politicians who are literally paid to lobby for Big Money (Tom Daschle, as an example) are depicted as thoughtful, selfless, "moderate" and "pragmatic" team players.

I have to say, Dean's multi-year transformation is amazing. I remember when I worked for Bernie Sanders how Vermont had a DLC-ish governor named Howard Dean. To look at him now is to stand in awe, because today's Howard Dean is not that Howard Dean. And I believe his transformation is entirely genuine because he had absolutely nothing to gain from it in the way we cynically define "gain" in today's politics. There are many things to "gain" from shutting up and going corporate -- there is little to "gain" from championing a progressive cause from a place of authentic conviction. Little to personally "gain" -- but much to gain for the country.

Here is a person who has decided not to pull the usual post-retirement dance of worshiping the Establishment and joining The Club. Here is a person whose motives cannot be attacked and who has built an independent base of power the old fashioned way - not through Big Money or through insider connections, but through grassroots organizing, unvarnished policy credibility, and a willingness to stand for principles before party. Here is a person going on television to tell sitting Democratic U.S. senators the cold hard truth to their face: namely that they've sold out. Here is a guy taking on the same obsequious Professional Democratic Elites in DC that are saying we must pass any bill, no matter how destructive, just to give Democrats a political win (the same Professional Democratic Elite that told us to support the Iraq War and the bailout, by the way).

Here is, in short, a rare movement leader in the age of cynicism showing what a movement can do -- or at minimum, have a realistic shot to do -- when it musters a little bit of courage.

UPDATE: MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and SEIU's Andy Stern pick up and carry Dean's flag. This is the Dean Movement Dynamic at work.