Harold Pollack is a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and Special Correspondent for The Treatment.
Progressive health activists have been digesting two recent stories about their health care advocacy efforts by Ceci Connolly in the Washington Post. Her July 3 story is titled, "Obama Urges Groups to Stop Attacks: Advocates should turn attention to promoting legislation." It followed a similarly-themed account titled "Health-Care Activists Targeting Democrats: Sniping Among Liberals May Jeopardize Votes Needed to Pass Bill."
It may embarrass the President that wavering Democrats such as Senators Feinstein, Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Spector, and Hagan are getting flak from MoveOn.org and from Health Care for America Now (HCAN). It's not surprising that President Obama would commiserate with them on a conference call when he may need their subsequent support for other legislative items. Yet let's face it: These senators are getting flak because they are wavering in their support for the President's own legislative agenda, regarding the centerpiece domestic policy issue of the Obama presidency.
Connolly is one of Washington's top health politics reporters. It's disappointing that she provides little context or retort to self-serving comments made by the intended targets and by unnamed "Democratic strategists," who have their own reasons to dislike what HCAN and MoveOn are doing. Not surprisingly, the targeted Senators and their political allies suggest that liberal pressure tactics will not work and will only serve to alienate them. I bet Senator Kay Hagan was saying the same things-right up to the moment she switched her stance from ambivalence to outright support for the public plan.
One more thing: these Senators are not facing irrelevant sniping from fringe groups or the ideological extreme. They are getting heat from the political and organizational base of their own party. A recent poll indicates that 87 percent of Democrats (72 percent of all voters) support a government-run insurance plan that competes with private insurers. HCAN and its allies represent a large swathe of organized labor, organizations that represent millions of people. During the 2008 campaign, they spent many millions of dollars and deployed many thousands of foot soldiers to help the Obama presidential campaign. Arrayed alongside them is a much larger corporate lobbying effort that is reportedly spending more than $1 million per day, generally in opposition to the President's plans.
Progressive groups seem unphased by the current dust-up. Not that anyone asked me, but I hope they continue what they are doing. Some-though by no means all-of these groups have already made large concessions by dropping their single-payer advocacy to support current Democratic efforts. It is not reasonable to ask more.
In my view, their efforts increase the probability that we will get a strong public plan. Even if we don't, a strong and united progressive effort raises the political price that must be paid for abandoning this component of Democratic plans, thus making it more likely that we will retain other important (though less-visible) elements of a health reform plan.
More to the point, these organizations are sending an essential signal to Democratic centrists tempted to stray: Triangulation on this critical issue could bring a real political cost. Selectively, intelligently, and respectfully, this is an important message to send.
As this goes to press, Greg Sargent notes another wavering Democrat may enter the fold:
Looks like pressure from the left might be getting results, albeit limited ones, in the case of "centrist" Dem Senator Blanche Lincoln, who has been resisting any commitment to backing a public health care option.
Lincoln, who's getting hammered by ads demanding she commit to the public option, has now shifted towards supporting one, at least in rhetorical terms. In a piece for today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, she says health care reform should include a public plan or a non-profit substitute.