The Spitting/Splitting Moment: When Obama lost the New Dealers

by Bruce Webb

There is a great deal of chatter these days about how Obama lost ‘Progressives’, what Robert Gibbs derisively called the ‘Professional Left’ or the ‘Left of the Left’, and as an example you could read this from Peter Daou How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency and the following key graph:

With each passing day, I’m beginning to realize that the crux of the problem for Obama is a handful of prominent progressive bloggers, among them Glenn Greenwald, John Aravosis, Digby, Marcy Wheeler and Jane Hamsher*.
Virtually all the liberal bloggers who have taken a critical stance toward the administration have one thing in common: they place principle above party. Their complaints are exactly the same complaints they lodged against the Bush administration. Contrary to the straw man posed by Obama supporters, they aren’t complaining about pie in the sky wishes but about tangible acts and omissions, from Gitmo to Afghanistan to the environment to gay rights to secrecy and executive power.

But a couple of things stand out here. First this is an awfully self-referential list, Digby aside it is pretty much the core of the Purity Party who were never on-board the Obama bandwagon to start with. Again Digby partially aside, these people are the modern descendants of the New Left which formed itself explicitly against the Old Liberals and organized itself around topics and principles pretty peripheral to the New Dealers and New Frontier types, anti-colonialism, the Green movement, gay rights all would have been acknowledged as important in principle, but not central. In particular you could be a straight down the line ADA Liberal without endorsing extreme environmentalism or Liberation Theology or marriage equality, there was nothing odd about a midwestern urban Catholic union worker liberal who rejected them all. That is the co-option of Progressive/New Left/Purity Party term of the term ‘liberal’ in the way Daou explicitly does here is to me off the mark, most of these people don’t meet the classic definition of ‘Liberal’ to start with.

But there is I think no doubt that Obama came into office with both New Dealers and New Democrats in his corner even as the Progressives Hamsher et al were already leery, and that we can identify what I am calling the Spitting (sic) moment that split the former two groups and mostly left the first group on the outside. And while the realities of politics today may never have allowed Obama to satisfy the FirePups entirely, the choice to alienate the New Dealers was freely made in the summer of 2009, Obama had a chance to reform the New Deal Coalition and even to drag Progressives along with him (as FDR did in the thirties,) but frankly he blew it, and badly. And the decision point was—-? To be discussed under the fold.

First the preliminary actionbuy cheap inflatables Batman Challenge. In the immediate wake of the 2008 election House Democrats made an immense move, they outsted John Dingell as Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Chairman and replaced him with Henry Waxman, the latter being thought better able to shape and put through the Obama environmental and energy policies, an area in which Dingell, diehard supporter of Detroit and its auto industry, had been a drag for decades. In return Dingell got thrown a big juicy bone, he retained ownership of his signature issue, one he had introduced legislation on for fifty plus years, and continuing a legacy his father had begun even earlier, Universal Health Care. Specifically he was tasked with being lead author of a bill to be considered by all three committees with jurisdiction: Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Education and Labor. And in due course what would be known informally as the Tri-Committee Bill and by number HR3200 was introduced to all three Committees on July 14th House Tri-Committee Healthcare Reform Bill Introduced Today

In the meantime the Senate HELP Committee at first under the daily leadership of Dingell’s comrade in arms Ted Kennedy (who had spent almost as many decades pushing health care as Dingell and who in the previous Congress(es) had introduced what was known as Kennedy Dingell: Medicare for All) and then after Kennedy’s health slipped under the leadership of his number two at HELP Chris Dodd worked away to put forth their own version Affordable Health Choices Act.

Before the end of the month HR3200 had been passed through the House Tri-Committees, although with some modifications to satisfy Blue Dogs on Energy and Commerce and AHCA had been approved by Senate HELP though watered down at the insistence of Senate moderates with the following end result:

House Tri-Committee: Ten year addition to budget $1.082 trillion. Total coverage non-elderly: 94%. Coverage for legal non-elderly: 97%
Senate HELP: Ten year addition to deficit: $597 billion. Total coverage non-elderly 88%. Coverage for legal non-elderly 90%.

Now in comparing the two bills a few things stuck out. One although the bills were clearly the work product of Dingell on the House side and Kennedy on the Senate side neither final product had much resemblance to the previous Congress’s Kennedy-Dingell Medicare for All, instead both bills met Obama’s campaign promise that if Americans liked what they had, they could keep it, which meant preserving the role for private insurers in the system. Two each bill included a robust public option, also part of Obama’s platform. Three each already came pre-compromised with the moderates in both parties, particularly Senate HELP. And four, and most important, the HELP Bill was missing huge chunks. Where the Tri-Committees were able to work across jurisdictional lines, each presumedly taking the lead on the section under the jurisdiction of each of the three, Senate HELP did not have jurisdiction over either the Medicare or revenue components, both under the jurisdiction of Senate Finance. Which brings us to the decision point:

Senate Finance Committee Baucus bucked. Instead of merging the appropriate pieces of the Tri-Committee and HELP Bills and then appending his version of the Medicare and funding parts, he simply asserted ownership of the entire bill. Nope he would just scrap EVERYTHING and craft his own version from scratch. What is more he would do this NOT under regular Committee order where the Senate Finance Sub-Committee on Health Care and its Chairman Rockefeller would have a major voice, but instead form a working group that would move direct to a final deal on his terms. In effect he spit right in the face of both Dingell and Kennedy, tough shit that they had spent a combined 100 years on this and that Kennedy was clearly in his last months of life, this was going to be the Baucus Bill or maybe the Baucus-Grassley Bill. And with a third mouthful he spat right in the face of Rockefeller and by extension all Democratic progressives and liberals, this bill would be shaped by what was originally a Gang of Seven that included four Republicans and then when Hatch dropped out by a Gang of Six evenly split between the parties and expressly sidelining anyone to left of center. Instead HCR would be shaped by two Conservadems, one moderate Dem, two Conservative Republicans, and one moderate Dem. I discussed the make-up of the Gang of Six in this post from July 29, 2009 Was it a Gang of Seven. Note that it doesn’t just flout the concept of majority rule, and ignores the ideological makeup of the Democratic caucus, it systematically excludes the interests of large and/or coastal and/or urban States.

It was a straight out power grab by Baucus. And out of some bizarre desire for Senate Comity above all things (Reid) or an equally bizarre belief in accomplishing some mythical, mystical Post-Partisanship (Obama) the Majority Leader of the Senate and the President of the U.S. simply turned over the keys to the HCR car to a guy representing less than 1/3rd of 1% of the American population. Which if it had worked would have been okay, although you can bet the final product would have been a lot crappier from a liberal perspective than either HR3200 or Senate HELP, but it didn’t, instead the Committee deadlocked for almost half a year forcing first Baucus and then Reid to produce their own versions just in time to get bogged down by the Christmas Holidays. What had been at the introduction of the Tri-Committee Bill and Senate HELP a one month process to be finished prior to the August 2009 recess instead dragged into the next year and with it sucked all of the enthusiasm out of the New Deal faction of the Democratic Party. A group who had spent much of that late Summer and Fall defending the Obama Administration against the Purity Party Progressives, surely in the end he wouldn’t just sell us out!

But Obama did. And along the way showed additional contempt for Liberals by agreeing to a Catfood Commission almost as loaded to the center-right and right as the Gang of Six, and seemingly devoted to tearing away the centerpiece of the New Deal in the name of Social Security ‘Reform’ and ‘Fiscal Responsibility’. The only thing lacking was a ‘No Dogs, Irishmen or New Dealers’ sign on the South Lawn. How do you get the New Dealers back on board? How do you close the Enthusiasm Gap among those who were among your biggest boosters and defenders during the HCR fiasco? How about stop pissing on FDR’s grave and telling us you are just watering the flowers?