05/17/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Kucinich Health Care Vote

Dennis Kucinich did the right thing by indicating he will vote for the health care legislation. If his "no" vote were to be the difference in the bill's failure, millions of people never would have forgiven him. He would be known, rightly or wrongly, as the Ralph Nader of health care.

History hangs strangely sometimes on one person's vote. The failure of the current legislation would be a disaster for the Obama presidency, the Democratic Congress, and the progressive left as a whole. On the morning after, there would be nothing but recrimination on the left coupled with triumphalism on the right.

All the progressive criticism of the legislation is understandable. But the ultimate question Kucinich faced was whether he, as symbolic leader of the congressional left, was willing to take responsibility for appearing to bring the everything to a crashing halt.

It's an excruciating dilemma. If we look back in time, however, the same arguments could have been made - indeed, were made - against passage of Social Security, which excluded old people, domestic workers, and, of course, provided no health coverage. Social Security was a painful compromise for the Left, but today it would be insane [or Republican] to argue that Social Security should never have been passed.

Kucinich has moved in a few days from marginal to relevant in the spectrum of Congress. And as a result, so has the progressive left as a whole. This is better by far than to carry the burden of blame, fairly or not, for blocking a reform that millions have worked for.

This moment of sudden relevance can become more lasting if Kucinich and Congressional progressives define themselves more clearly as a voting bloc that pressures and negotiates for its objectives, as in a real parliamentary system. They could, for example, move forward in greater unity to promote single-payer legislation in states where conditions are favorable, and consolidate their potential influence as a bloc in the coming debate over Afghanistan. The slogan of progressive Democrats - health care, not warfare - might resonate more strongly in the months ahead.