House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is disingenuous at best and engaging in crass political gamesmanship at worst in whacking Obama for back pedaling on health care reform. Pelosi maintained mute silence when Obama dumped support of a public option, uttered only tepid protest when he backed a middle class tax hike, and belatedly dinged him for not pushing for televising the House and Senate committee debates on the competing health care reform bills.
Here's the quick check list of Pelosi reverses on health care. She drastically watered down the public option, dumped the requirement that medical payments to hospitals and drug companies be tied firmly to Medicare rates, struck the single payer from a House committee amendment, allowed private insurers to set and raise rates they charge for insurance, and let stand the mandate requiring all to buy insurance with minimal guarantees that the private insurers will provide high quality and affordable prices for the coverage. She stood silent as the House lopped off abortion coverage from the bill.
Pelosi didn't stop with a mild rap of Obama for breaking promises on the public option, tax hikes, and deal cutting with insurer and pharmaceutical lobbyists. She also hinted that Obama broke other campaign promises. She could have done more than hint. Obama back pedaling on everything from Iraq withdrawal to taxes could fill up a mini phone directory. Pelosi did not utter a peep about the back slides on these issues either. The reasons aren't hard to find. Outside of Obama, Pelosi has been the favored punching bag for the GOP, tea baggers, Fox News, and the pack of rightwing talk radio gabbers. By the markedly downsized standard in the past two decades of what passes for liberal positions on issues, Pelosi can be called the consummate liberal. But it's really just a label. Pelosi knows what Obama, and every other Beltway centrist Democrat knows, and that's that they must make promises to stroke liberal Democrats and progressives. Pelosi and other centrist Democrats need them to spruce their credentials as liberal Democrats, to harness their votes, money, and crusading numbers during elections, and to parry GOP attacks on them.
But Pelosi and top Democrats don't govern and haven't governed for nearly two decades based on what progressives want. Progressives are angered and dismayed at the fetish that Obama and Pelosi have made of bi-partisanship. But there are two reasons for it. Their goal is to get bills passed, programs funded, and amendments and resolutions through Congress, and that can only be done by pandering, appeasing, and cuddling conservative Democrats, and a handful of Republicans. They bluster and saber rattle the GOP, but there is much more agreement than disagreement with GOP leaders on issues from war to taxes than is commonly believed. The health care reform bill, Pelosi and Obama's version that is, is a textbook example of their political caution and conciliation. Both have become constant Democratic trademarks.
That won't change once the health care reform battle ends. Pelosi has dropped strong hints that she will move with extreme caution, even deferring to the Senate, before tackling any issue that promises to be contentious, divisive, and potentially politically self-defeating. This puts the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" prohibition on gays serving openly in the military, immigration reform, reconciling the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) -- known as "card check" with whatever the Senate passes , and even final passage of tough cap and trade legislation, on the endangered list.
Obama did back pedal from his pledge to be a strong and vigorous advocate on health care reform and other issues that millions believed he would be; a belief so strong that they stormed the polls and turned his election into a holy crusade. True, Pelosi called him out on that. But back pedaling on issues, and some say principles as well, comes with the Democrat's political turf. A turf Pelosi knows as well, maybe even better than Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.