Why It's Essential to Pass the Health Care Bill, Then Improve It
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Lesson #4: Watchdog the media.
The mainstream media made it very difficult for Obama, the progressive Democrats and health reform advocates. During the past year, the mainstream media gave right-wing activists a megaphone that gave them a much larger voice than they deserved. The ultra-right -- including the "tea party" lunatics and reactionary Republicans like Senators Jim DeMint and Charles Grassley, egged on by Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and their Fox News colleagues -- got much more attention than they should have. As Todd Gitlin and I noted, the media covered the right-wing protests AGAINST health care reform, but barely reported on the protests sponsored by health care reform activists like HCAN.
The mainstream media acted like stenographers, repeating the right wingers' lies about the health care plans, without trying to verify them or put their outrageous statements in context. At the same time, the mainstream media completely shut out the voices of the left wing of the health care debate, the advocates for a single-payer system. With a few exceptions, the media repeated the right wing's lies about Canada's health care system without correcting them, and allowed them to frame the mainstream Democrats' public option plan as "socialism." Trudy Lieberman, the nation's best media critic, has been keeping tabs on the media's misreporting of the health care debate all along. It is worth reading her regular columns and blogs to see how much the media set the public agenda and framed the debate in ways that undermined progressive activists and President Obama.
Lesson #5: This isn't just about health care.
Last summer, Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said out loud what most Republican members of Congress were thinking and plotting. DeMint called the president's health care proposal "D-Day for freedom in America" and said that stopping Obama's plan for health care overhaul could be the president's "Waterloo," a reference to the site of Napoleon's bitter defeat in 1815.
What DeMint meant, and what his Republican colleagues and their allies like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others intend, is that defeating Obama's health care reform would undermine his presidency and set the stage for major GOP victories in the 2010 elections and again in 2012, including defeating Obama's re-election bid.
DeMint, a fervent reactionary, is now almost in the mainstream of his party. Over the past 30 years, the Democrats have shifted slightly to the left, but as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson documented in their book, Off Center, the Republicans in office have moved dramatically to the right. According to political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, there are now very few "moderate" Republicans in either the House or the Senate. Most Republicans in Congress have no interest in bipartisanship or compromise. They simply want to destroy the Democrats and their liberal policy agenda.
They have understood that if the unholy alliance of medical industry muscle, right-wing mob tactics, Republican Party hardline unwillingness to compromise, and a handful of conservative Democrats' obfuscation are able to defeat Obama's health-care proposal, it will write the conservative playbook for blocking other key components of the president's and progessives' agenda -- including action on climate change, immigration reform, marriage equality, a second jolt of economic stimulus, pro-consumer bank reform and updates to the nation's labor laws. So progressives like Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich who say, "Kill the bill" are doing more than dooming tens of millions of Americans to health care hell; they are setting the stage for a Republican resurgence.
Obama has certainly disappointed many progressives on a number of fronts, including the Wall Street bail-outs, the weak foreclosure program, the timid stimulus plan, and most recently by expanding the war in Afghanistan. What's missing from these criticisms is the failure of progressive forces to mount an effective grassroots movement to push Obama and the Democrats -- and counter the power of big business, the Religious Right and the NRA. Both grassroots groups (including unions, enviros, community organizing groups, gay rights groups, peace groups and others) and the Obama administration haven't yet learned how to play the inside-outside strategy game as effectively as they could. Like FDR, Obama's success depends on the existence of a progressive movement that organizes, protests, influences public opinion, lobbies, and keeps the heat on so that the inevitable legislative compromises are stepping stones to further reform. When activists asked FDR to support progressive legislation, he told them, "I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it." Obama has sent the same signals.