House Democrats Keith Ellison, John Conyers, and Maxine Waters loudly and defiantly shout that they will not vote for a health care reform bill that doesn't include the public option. The three congresspersons are African-American, on the far left side of Congress, and at one point President Obama's biggest cheerleaders. Their loud grumble and possible defection from backing Obama on health care is not a fatal blow to the bill. No matter what bill ultimately comes out of the House, it will pass overwhelmingly. But their noisy opposition to a health care reform sell-out points to a far bigger threat to Obama than the GOP could ever pose. That threat is the active and passive drift of progressives away from full throated support of his policies.
The brutal reality is that Obama desperately needs progressives to be the shock troops in Congress and in the field to sell his program and his administration. Red dog Democrats, bankers, corporate CEOs and lobbyists can't and won't do it even though he is the consummate Beltway centrist Democrat. They can't and won't put the passion, energy and, most importantly, the bodies out there to do the grunt political work to sell his program, and to spearhead his re-election battle in 2012.
The progressive bodies to do this are there. There were 120 million voters in 2008. The Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, and the Progressive Democratic Caucus, the third parties, left leaning labor unions, and left independents together represent an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the overall vote. That's 12 to 15 million voters. However, it's not just the numbers. It's also where the numbers are. The bulk of the voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida traditionally are Republican, and independent moderate and conservative Democrats. With the exception of Pennsylvania, Bush won these states in 2000 and 2004, and bagged the White House. Obama did not change the voter demographic in these states. He did, however, drastically rev up the numbers of black, Latino, and youth voters, generally more socially and politically progressive, and self-designated progressive voters that turned out. This made the crucial difference and cinched his win.
The 2000 election debacle was a near textbook guide to how a small number of bloc votes can tip an election. A significant number of the nearly 100,000 votes that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader got in Florida almost certainly would have gone to Al Gore. This turned a contest that shouldn't have been close into a Bush win or steal. In Ohio in 2004, Bush got 18 percent of the black vote, or nearly 100,000 black votes. In times past, most of these votes would have gone Democratic. If they had in 2004, the vote would have been close enough that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry almost certainly would have challenged the election result in Ohio.
Progressives within and without Congress scream at the top of their lungs at Obama to remember the promises he made on health care and that is to back a single payer plan. And even though he's backpedaled from that, they implore him to not to back away from the public option; take off the gloves, play hardnosed politics, nose thumb the GOP, and shove a real health care reform bill through Congress. A hard uncompromising fight would do much to reassure distraught progressives that there is still some semblance in him of the progressive Democrat that many thought they were voting for. So far, there's little evidence of that happening. That's really no surprise. In fact, it was inevitable.
Obama had the standard liberal reservations that the stimulus bailout gave too much away to bad behaving, profligate spending banks and Wall Street greed merchants and that massive tax cuts wouldn't do much to help the poor and the middle class unemployed. But he backed the bailout and tax cuts, albeit modified, to get the support of a handful of congressional Republicans.
He opposed the Iraq war, but he calculates that if he pushes for a quick and immediate withdrawal the military brass and conservatives will howl and dig in their heels to resist. He now solely talks about flexible timetables and a phased withdrawal. In the case of Afghanistan, he's sent the strong signal that he'll rush even more troops into the quagmire. This virtually assures that just as Iraq was seen and pilloried as Bush's war and folly, Afghanistan will be seen and pilloried as Obama's war.
The health care retreat and other Obama shifts aren't the things that are making droves of progressives shut down on him. It's the great fear and expectation that he'll perform more infuriating back flips or do little to expand civil rights, and liberties protections, gay rights, end the wars, and rein in corporations and Wall Street abuses in the next three years.
This will draw more howls of betrayal and add up too even greater disillusion, despair, and defections among progressives. The defections will be a far greater lethal blow than anything the GOP can deliver.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 AM Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com