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Time to Give Thanks for Profiles in Political Courage

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A lot has been written by the pundits about the Democrats who lost their House seats in the mid-term elections.

From some you hear that the Blue Dogs -- and others from swing districts -- did not do enough to prepare for the battle this fall -- that they should have raised more money, or run more robust campaigns.

From some Progressives you actually hear that the House will be better off without so many Members representing moderate districts.

And from some conservatives you hear that Democrats representing moderate districts were stupid to vote for measures like health care reform, energy reform, the stimulus bill and even Wall Street reform.

This Thanksgiving, I want to thank those Democrats from moderate districts who voted to do what they thought was right for the country, even though they knew there might be negative short-term political consequences. They are the true heroes who made possible some of the many important reforms that were enacted since President Obama was elected, and they deserve our admiration and thanks. America needs more political leaders who will do what is best for the next generation, not just the next election.

Let me be clear that I do not mean to imply that I think their support for any of these measures was a bad political decision. Supporters of the Wall Street reform bill occupied, and continue to occupy, super high political ground. In fact, if Wall Street had been made a bigger issue during the recent campaign, most Democratic candidates -- everywhere -- would have likely received more votes.

And let us recall that the fundamental factor that cost Democrats control of the House had nothing to do with any of these issues -- but rather the broad anger about the state of the economy.

Remember that in 2008, President Obama won the votes of people who said their personal economic situation had gotten worse by a 43 percent margin. In 2010, Democrats lost those voters by 29 percent. Those numbers tell the story about what really caused so many Democrats to lose.

The stimulus bill was not a net positive for Democrats in swing districts -- as it should have been, since it helped prevent a depression. But the fact is that the one thing that could have been done to truly diminish Republican successes this fall would have been passage of a much larger stimulus package that was necessary to truly jumpstart the economy. Ironically, at the time the vote was taken, that would have been even more politically difficult for some of the Democrats who lost -- though it may have saved many of them by Election Day.

Votes for the health care bill and energy reform certainly did little to help many candidates in these districts -- and may have further damaged a few -- even though those votes were absolutely the right thing to do.

To make fundamental change, you anger those vested interests with a stake in the status quo. And the most politically vulnerable often pay the price. It's not a new story. In the mid-term elections following the passage of Medicare and the other critical "Great Society" programs of the 1960s, Democrats lost 48 seats. But who among the Democratic Members of Congress would have wanted his grandchildren to remember that he voted against Medicare?

Progressives, in particular, often forget that it is much easier to stand up straight for the progressive policies that are so critical for our nation's future if you represent a heavily Democratic district. Like Medicare, these positions represent incredibly good politics over the long run pretty much everywhere, but in the short run it's easy for Republicans and their corporate allies to use some progressive votes as cudgels against Democrats who represent more conservative districts like Southwest Virginia or Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Of course, that is especially true when you are not constrained by the truth.

The health care bill is a particular case in point. Republicans and their allies in the insurance industry spent millions distorting the provisions of the bill -- lying about "Obamacare," "death panels" and "the Government takeover of health care." They used the bill to inflame passions, and channeled the anger about the economy at Democrats instead of at Wall Street and the policies of the Bush Administration that lead to the 2008 economic catastrophe. They didn't just start attacking Democrats a month or two before the election. The Chamber of Commerce, insurance industry front groups, and the other special interests hammered on Democrats who voted for the bill for a solid eighteen months.

We went into the day of the health care vote in the House six votes short, and in the end, the first major reform of the health care system -- since Medicare -- passed with just a two vote margin. Had it not been for people like Tom Periello, Phil Hare, Steve Kagen, Dan Maffei, Betsy Markey, Mary Jo Kilroy, Pat Murphy -- and many, many others -- that historic, critically important reform would never have been passed.

It would have been easier -- at least politically -- for some of those Members to vote no. But they didn't -- and many of them have stood proudly for health care reform and the progressive agenda for their entire professional lives. Some Democrats that represented swing districts required some arm-twisting to vote yes -- but not most. Most didn't have to be convinced that health care is a right. They voted aye because it was the right thing to do. A lot of the Members who lost earlier this month ran for Congress to do something -- not be something.

The night of November 2nd, as she conceded defeat in her bid for re-election, Congresswoman Betsy Markey said: "This is where I end the discussion about whether the policy of the health care bill was worth the politics of it. It was. And I am uniquely qualified to know that."

After the health care reform bill passed in the House, I saw Congressman -- and Doctor -- Steve Kagen getting his colleagues in the House to autograph his copy of the bill. He said: "You know, this is what I came to Congress to do."

Kagen ran a terrific campaign. He stood up proudly for the progressive agenda. He framed his message in clear, populist, resonant terms. He had a massive get out the vote operation. He was beaten by the bad economy and by the millions of dollars of largely secret corporate money spent to drive home the lie that the health care reform bill had "cut Medicare."

Kagen, like many of the other Democrats from moderate districts may be back in 2012. They deserve to be. And this Thanksgiving they deserve our thanks.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.