Tepid reforms demand that progressives mobilize

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Rearm," says Sarah Palin, who resigned as Alaska's governor to run a constant campaign against public office rather than for it. Tea Partyers are planning events around the country to "repeal and replace" the health-care reform law. "Mobilize," counters Organizing for America, the keeper of the 2008 Obama campaign's list of millions of activists. The president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, MoveOn.org, Health Care for America Now and others are holding events to thank legislators who voted for reform.

But while Palin's posse indulges in unbridled opposition, celebrating the reforms has progressives feeling a bit like Kentucky fans at a West Virginia University rally. We applaud the achievement, but we wish our team were still in it. Pelosi is right: Health-care reform is historic, surely the most significant social legislation passed since Medicare. But it is a flawed and conservative bill, akin to the reforms Mitt Romney championed as the Republican governor of Massachusetts. It gives the insurance companies millions of new customers with no public option or Medicare buy-in to help put a lid on costs. It sustains the outrageous law that prohibits Medicare from negotiating bulk discounts for prescription drugs. It sustains the exemption of insurance companies from antitrust laws.

This reality -- a historic reform that isn't strong enough to get the job done -- is characteristic of the Obama administration, a progressive-centrist government in a moment that demands fundamental reform.

The recovery plan was the largest ever -- but too small to generate enough jobs and get the economy really moving. Financial reform, if passed, will be the most comprehensive since the Great Depression, yet it is not likely to shackle the big banks sufficiently, much less provide consumers with an independent agency to protect them from predatory lenders. The climate and energy bill that passed the House was disappointing; the Senate is making it weaker. Even the magnificent achievement of direct lending on student loans, the largest investment in student aid since the Great Depression, saving over $60 billion to subsidize Pell grants for low-income students and limit loan burdens for graduates, flies in the face of brutal cuts and tuition hikes in public colleges and universities that will make college less affordable.

This discordant gap -- between the need and the reality -- is one reason the right seems more energized than the emerging progressive majority that has been trying to remake this country. The Tea Party right sees America itself at risk: "government takeover" of health care and industry; record deficits; bank bailouts; and not so unstated, a black man in the White House. Progressives see a moderate administration proposing comprehensive but compromised reforms in areas vital to our future, which are then diluted and delayed not by the Tea Party right but by the entrenched corporate lobbies that influence both parties.

But isn't this Congress's fault? Not entirely: Real reform is frustrated because the administration sets the bar too low. And then so-called moderates -- such as Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) -- do the real damage.

That leaves progressives in a dilemma. We can't abandon reform to the rabid right, but we don't believe the reform going forward will do the trick. That's why progressives must organize independently, not as an arm of the administration. We need to push the administration to be bolder than it is. This was exemplified this month by the movement for immigration reform. When the conventional wisdom in Washington wrote off immigration reform this year, activists and their allies didn't mourn, they brought tens of thousands to Washington and made it clear to Democrats that it will cost more politically to ignore immigration reform than to embrace it.

Politicians -- even those as gifted as President Obama -- have to deal with the balance of forces as they see them. Movements can change that perceived balance. Conservatives in both parties are blocking any significant action on jobs, even with 25 million people unemployed and underemployed. That could change if labor mobilized an army of the young and unemployed demanding jobs. The banking lobby is master of the cloakrooms. But even the Tea Party rightly loathes the big banks -- and a citizens' movement demonstrating on Wall Street, challenging the lobbyists representing the big banks and those legislators who pipe for their Wall Street donors, could help make the banks' money toxic.

"Which side are you on?" is the famous union rallying cry. But before asking the question, people have to know what the sides are. Impassioned and creative citizen movements can make that clear. Surely that is the first task for progressives as we begin the run-up to the elections this fall.

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