Bargaining power, progressive maximalism, and Medicare for All

The HuffPo has reported on a minor dust-up between Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over the politics of Medicare for All (see here, here, here, also Paul Waldman here).  The tl;dr summary is that AOC suggested that it is good politics for Sanders to insist on MFA, because this will give him more leverage in negotiations over a final bill, but that compromising on a public option is an acceptable outcome that would represent real progress.  Sanders shot back that his bill is already a compromise.  Of course, Sanders’ reply is consistent with AOC’s comments – he may be trying to maximize his bargaining power by pretending to rule out the possibility of further compromise.

My view (here) is that the only significant effect of insisting on MFA will be to make it less likely that the Democratic candidate wins the election.  To be clear, I think that a Democrat who insists on short-run implementation of MFA can win in 2020.  I just think running on MFA will make winning less likely, and that there is no reason to increase the chances of a second Trump term since a second Trump term would be a catastrophe and MFA will not pass no matter what happens in the election.  But AOC suggests one way my theory may be wrong:  perhaps electing a candidate who stakes out a maximalist negotiating position on MFA will help get a stronger reform package through Congress.

This is, unfortunately, wishful thinking.  The hard truth is that progressives will have essentially no bargaining power on the issues that they care about most strongly.  The reason is simple.  To have bargaining power in a negotiation, you need to be willing to walk away from the table and settle for the status quo.  But on the issues they care about most passionately – health care, climate change, etc. – progressives will be the least willing members of Congress to settle for the status quo.  If Congress is trying to decide whether to 1) add a public option to Obamacare or 2) implement full-blown Medicare for All, Sanders and AOC can threaten to oppose the public option all day – but no one will believe them.  Instead, legislation on key progressive priorities will be shaped almost entirely by the need to win over centrists and swing district legislators.  The votes of progressives will be taken for granted, full stop.

Of course, it is possible to argue that “insisting” on Medicare for All may help a bit at the margins.  Perhaps.  But in addition to its electoral costs, focusing on maximalist positions has two serious drawbacks.  First, the language of progressive maximalism is not persuasive to people who are not already progressive.  Second, staking out “tough” positions diverts the attention of progressives from the really critical task of designing policies that can attract support from their more moderate colleagues.  In the case of climate legislation, I will argue that these issues are of overwhelming importance.

I suspect that both AOC and Sanders know all this.  AOC’s comments suggest she understands the importance of compromise and incremental progress and is willing to provide leadership on this issue.  This is a hopeful sign – leadership by elected progressives will be critical to building a more strategic and effective brand of progressive politics in the United States.  But – as Sanders’ reaction shows – we have a long way to go.

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