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Liberals must choose: Purity or victory?
The health care bill and Copenhagen prove yet again that Obama knows how to win on important issues. His detractors on the left should be taking notes
 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum

From the Copenhagen negotiations on global warming to the Senate negotiations on health reform, it was a week of historic gains for progressives. So what was the response? Predictably, Republican obstructionists, climate-change deniers and flat-earthers reacted with scorn.  More surprisingly — if you forget for a moment the ocassional temptation among liberals to exalt purity over practicality — there were voices on the left who also condemned Barack Obama, even as he neared a century-delayed breakthrough on health care and had just returned from an hours-long trip to Copenhagen that transformed the dismal weather at the climate change summit.

The President’s success at the U.N. conference was obviously and inevitably incomplete — but it was undeniably a turning point.  By his personal and insistent intervention, he forged a climate deal that includes the first ever emissions limits for China and India, new commitments from the U.S. and other advanced nations to reduce greenhouse gases, and the creation of a $100 billion fund by 2020 to help developing countries transition to higher growth, lower carbon economies. He also persuaded a previously intransigent China to accept international monitoring of emissions. There is, as the President has said, more to do. But already he has saved a process that George W. Bush sabotaged and has offered new hope that climate catastrophe can be averted. 

There are environmental groups — for example, the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund — that agreed with the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope that this was “a major step forward.” But some of the hardest hits against the president came from a different pew in the same church. Friends of the Earth accused Obama of concocting a “sham agreement.”  Then there was Bill McKibben of 350.org. The one-time New Yorker writer, whose worldwide online community is named for what he and others see as the permissible level of CO2 in the atmosphere (as measured in parts per million), raged that Obama sacrificed “everything progressives hold dear.”  The president, he asserted, had “wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.”  You don’t have to dishonor McKibben’s idealism or commitment to wonder what planet he is living on. What “tougher” agreement was in the offing? Would he really prefer that Obama had let the talks crash?

Perhaps there is some psychic satisfaction in that kind of purism. But, in reality, anyone who takes such a position is no friend of the earth.  Still, McKibben’s view was widely echoed. For instance, Britain’s fervently green Independent derided Obama’s rescue mission with a bit of purple plagiarism: “A Historic Failure That Will Live in Infamy.”

Both before and after the Copenhagen trip, the President was also being assailed for another betrayal of “progressive values.” With a compromise version of health reform nearing passage in the Senate, there are liberals for whom a public option or a Medicare buy-in is such an article of dogma that they are advocating the defeat of “this monstrosity,” as the Daily Kos’ Marcos Moulitsas recently called the bill on Twitter.  MoveOn.org has asked, or told, members of Congress to “block” the bill. Before he gingerly backed-off last weekend, the same call came from Howard Dean, who won MoveOn’s primary for the 2004 Presidential nomination.  What’s striking about Dean’s — and MoveOn’s — criticism is that his health care plan that year contained neither a public option nor a Medicare buy-in, covered fewer of the uninsured than the Senate bill, and was easier on the insurance industry.

In essence, Obama’s being blasted for not pushing the Senate to produce more than the current compromise, which already goes beyond anything Dean or any other Democratic candidate proposed in the 2004 presidential campaign.  Last week, New York Representative Anthony Weiner put it pungently — and pugilistically — when he said, “It’s time for the president to get his hands dirty.” How, exactly? Mud-wrestling Joe Lieberman?  In a practical sense, this kind of criticism is worse than useless and empty. It’s not the path to legislation, but a road to defeat.

The critics have an answer here, too. On “Bill Moyers Journal,” journalist Matt Taibbi recommended: “Lose on this issue and then… regroup, maybe eight years later, six years later, and try again and do a better job.” That’s fine, I guess, if you have health insurance, don’t have a pre-existing condition, and don’t have your coverage canceled when you get sick. But the 31 million additional people who will be covered under the Senate bill, and the vast majority of Americans who now lack basic protections against insurance industry malpractice, can’t afford to wait eight years or two decades or however long it might take. That’s too high a price to prove an ideological point.  As Ted Kennedy said last summer, to pass health reform we have to compromise — and we should.

Kennedy understood that change is not presidentially ordained, but presidentially led — and as the historian James MacGregor Burns wrote, a president who leads must be both “the lion and the fox.” FDR waited for Congress to debate and shape Social Security before he embraced a final version, just as Obama has on health reform. JFK settled for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that didn’t cover underground explosions; Obama has said he's ready to forgo the public option.  LBJ compromised on payments to doctors in order to pass Medicare; Obama has compromised with the pharmaceutical companies.

There are two distinct progressive traditions in America: getting things done and letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m all for the public option and the Medicare buy-in, and I want to see them both written into law — hopefully in the filibuster-free reconciliation process next year. While I support a single-payer system, I also know it wouldn’t pass. Above all, I am for health coverage for all Americans — and yes, with 94 percent coverage under the Senate bill, we are almost there.

Liberals could insist on the pure or the perfect. But then we would lose on health care. And lose on climate change. This is the recurring temptation which Tom Lehrer, the witty troubadour of the 1960s, captured in his lyric about the left’s defeat at the hands of Franco in the Spanish Civil War:

              He may have won all the battles,
              We had all the great songs.

Obama’s on a different course, and progressives ought to be there, too. This time, let’s win the battles rather than defiantly singing the anthems of proud defeat.

 

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