I feel that there is an important aspect of the Obama era that is slipping away, being forgotten; and in so being, laying the groundwork for a similar mistake.
Let’s go back to the year 2009, when the O. administration decided to go with the most conservative plan for national healthcare, the one made up by the Heritage Foundation and promoted by Newt Gingrich in the 90s.
Much infighting on various progressive blogs ensued. The progressive blog conclusion – expressed most forcefully, I believe, by Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein – was that those who wanted a more radical form of healthcare were politically unrealistic. By this phrase, “politically unrealistic,” they meant – well, they seemed to mean that other legislation couldn’t get passed.
As we now know, if you are in majority, you can change the rules and pass what you like. The GOP suffers from no problems with political realism in that sense. Back in 2009, there was many a valiant single-payer who dashed up to the walls with the same slogan: abolish filibuster, abolish the barriers to passing progressive legislation! And was forced back, as such was the horror of our great institutions that no majority would dare, would ever dare, to touch the sacrosanct rules, which had lent a bipartisan aura to everything from the Fugitive Slave Act to the Great War on Terror.
I sensed, then, and still sense that there was something more behind the political realism slogan. That more was, I felt, a sort of shared but unspoken mood, among both Republicans and Democrats, that Democratic politicians were, to an extent, illegitimate. The legitimate ruling party of the U.S.A. was the GOP. Hence, to legitimate any piece of legislation, you had to get Daddy GOP to sign up for it, or at least one of the “stars” of the party.
This sense of legitimacy is one of the great inheritances of the Reagan era. It haunts Dems. The so-called moderate wing of the Democratic party does pretty much buy the neo-liberal ideal – the era of big gov being over, you gots to pay for your college education, boys and girls, we can’t afford Medicare for all, everything can’t be free free free – but I think that they have been sold this bill of goods under the soothing notion that the old, McGovernite Dems were the ruin of everything, and that we all have to adopt to the idea that the Republicans really represent the establishment, and we want to be part of the establishment in the end, don't we?
If we keep an eye on this sense of latent illegitimacy, we can sort of see what was going on in that fight in 2009. Two politically realistic dimensions seemed, then, to have quite disappeared. The one is that the most politically unrealistic thing you can do is deflate your followers with half-hearted results after promising them something as absolute and sexy as Hope. From birthday parties to elections, this is the recipe for a downer. And if you lose the election, your calculations about political realism go out the door: you will just spend your time in a defensive crouch.
The other dimension concerns acceptance. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continue to exist because, although they came out of the Democratic Party, they so quickly became part of the social knitting that the GOP couldn’t get rid of them. Political realism, then, consists of making policy that similarly becomes the new normal.
Unfortunately, the Dem strategy from 2009-2016 was based on bipartisanship and executive action. Since there was no bipartisanship, after 2010, Obama’s politics were peculiarly top down. But the major act of the administration, Obamacare, had huge problems politically. It depended for its continuance on a complex mechanism that required legislative input. Social security didn’t fundamentally change until the 1980s – it had a good forty year run – and it changed much for the worse in the 80s, but it is still there. Obamacare, though, unlike, say, Medicare for all, is very much subject to malign neglect. If the Congress can’t get rid of it, they can quickly make it odious to the people it is meant to help by simply not repairing it – and this is what is happening. So, not only did the call for political realism in 2009 not result in a bipartisan vote for the ACA – it resulted in a wounded half system that is very vulnerable to GOP shutdown, in ways that Medicare and the Social Security system is not.
What is funny about the whole 2009 debate is that the “political realist” commentariat were very very smug about what was “realistic” and what was not. It was like they knew all the answers. In fact, they generated that odor of certainty that hung around the Bushites in 2003 about the Iraq invasion – you’d have to be crazy to oppose a cakewalk and the obvious competence of an occupying force directed by the likes of Rumsfeld – who at the time was feted as a reforming genius at the Pentagon. Similarly, Obama’s administration was playing multi-dimensional chess on the ACA thing, and us carping mortals just didn’t understand.
Well, we understood. And if, as might happen, the Dems take over the House, I hope they understand that political realism is not pre-compromising your campaign promises – it is making the other side swallow them. The Ds of 1940, 1950 and 1965 understood this very well.