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Mike Lux Headshot

Getting Higher on the Page

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I was at a retreat over the weekend with musicians and managers of musicians regarding how to best involve musicians in making social change. The organizer of the event asked me to do a brief overview of what public policy advocacy actually means, so I drew some lines on four different pieces of posterboard to show people. Given that these simplistic, dumb-looking charts seemed to put advocacy into perspective for folks, and given the intensity of emotion we all feel about what is going on in the health care fight, I thought it would be worth reproducing them for a blog post.

Before I show them to you, I wanted to say a couple of things regarding this health care fight, and all other policy fights for that matter.

The cool thing about elections is that you can pick a side, and then you have one goal you are focused around that is simple and clear-cut: if your candidate wins, you are happy, and if they lose you are not (unless you are one of those folks who are into "moral victories" where you lose but feel good about the effort anyway. I am not one of those people). Legislative fights, especially on the big, complicated, messy issues like health care, are not like that at all. Progressive minded people who all share the same values, or at least many of them, can come to starkly different judgments on whether a bill is good or bad, worth passing or not, a victory or defeat. And beyond the policy compromises, the process itself is an utterly confusing mess, leading people to vastly different judgments about whether certain tactics were the right ones or not.

All of this complication leads to a lot of anger and a lot of angst. That's natural and it's okay -- these issue debates are worth getting passionate about. For example, while I am more sympathetic to Pelosi when she had to make a choice between health care dying vs. having to accept the Stupak amendment in this round (knowing that she could very likely kill it in conference committee), I am very glad that grassroots people are so mad about this, because we have to kill this terrible amendment and the grassroots anger helps us do that. The legislative process is such a mess, and the tactical decisions you have to make are complicated, that getting angry at each other is natural and healthy.

What I hope can happen, though, is that we can stay long-term allies in the process. I am upset at Kucinich and Massa right now for voting no on the bill Saturday night, but I still admire them as strong progressives and am glad they are out there fighting for progressive policies. I strongly disagree with those of you who don't think this bill is good enough to move forward on, and know many of you think I'm wrong for continuing to support it, but I hope as progressives most of us can agree to disagree and not question each other's motives. People in movements throughout history have always had strong disagreements with each other over specific tactics, or what compromises to make when, but also kept working together for the common goal. All of us have to figure out whether given bills do more good than harm, are a step forward or not, and on the complicated bills, those are tough calls. For me, getting everyone covered, ending insurance abuses on pre-existing conditions/recissions/lifetime caps, and getting a public option off the ground that can be strengthened over time is worth the considerable imperfections in this bill. And understanding that if we lose on this bill, it will make the Democrats fearful of ever trying to take on health care or any big issue again for a long, long time, makes it even more important to get this done. If we get a decent bill, we can build on it over time, and we give some confidence to the Democrats that something big can get done.

Which brings me to these simple drawings I did. The basic idea is that there are two lines, one representing the best policy, the other representing what is possible to get done. In my first chart, the two lines are separate from each other, never intersecting at all, which is unfortunately what happens most of the time:

The next chart is what happens the next most often, which is that they intersect near the bottom of the page: maybe you get a little bit of good policy done, but you are disappointed by the result. When the lines intersect this low on the page, you have to really think through whether it's worth it to go forward, whether it might do more harm than good even.

My 3rd chart is where the two lines intersect solidly in the middle -- you fall well short of ideal, but you still get some very good things done.

And my final chart, which happens very rarely, is when the two lines intersect towards the top. I am not aware of a single piece of legislation in the history of the country where the best policy imaginable, at the very top of the line, was passed, but every so often -- Social Security, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills, Medicare, a few other times -- you get close to the top of the page.

The goal of issue advocacy campaigns, of movements, is to get the intersection as close to the top as you possibly can.

On health care, my view is that we are somewhere in the middle of the page, and that the middle is worth doing. Your mileage may vary.