Why I appreciate the Kill the Bill contingent
A lot of wonky progressives are furious at the activist base that is clamoring to kill the health care bill. One of the most eloquent critics is the New Yorker's Rick Hertzberg who accuses the Kill the Bill (KTB) left of unfairly projecting its well-founded disgust at the people and the process behind the legislation onto the bill itself. He calls it "the pathetic fallacy."
By now it's safe to say that no mater how bad the final bill turns out to be--and believe me, it will suck--the result will still be better than the status quo. Health insurance for 30 million people is a big progressive achievement, especially when you consider the history of attempts to overhaul the U.S. health care system. It's not like we can go back to the drawing board, confident that we'll get a better deal next time around. The same political and institutional foes will still be there.
Some progressives claim that a compromise would be worse than nothing because institutional subsidies for for-profit insurance will only further entrench the worst aspects of our system. Possibly. Yet, it's not clear that it would be easier to get to single-payer if Obama's health care reform crashes and burns. Health care reform has crashed and burned before and the insurers have only gotten stronger.
So, I don't want to kill the bill, but I'm grateful to the Kill the Bill crowd. Why? Because they're applying countervailing pressure. If there's nobody on the left willing to kick up a ruckus when our demands aren't met, every single policy will be further to the right than it needs to be. The right can be counted upon to push back hard. If the left won't do the same, it's always going to be easier to sell out the left.
Health care reform is no longer just an intellectual argument, it's a negotiation. KTBers understand that. Wonky progressives cringe when KTBers say the bill will be worse than than nothing. When they say that, wonks hear a ridiculous overstatement. Which it probably is. The U.S. is still a rich country. If we can afford to fight wars of convenience, we can afford to get totally ripped off on health insurance for our citizens until we figure out a better solution. But it would be nice if we didn't have to get ripped off as badly. At the end of the day, the KTBers probably don't have the power to kill the bill, but they do have the power to make life miserable for some of our so-called allies in D.C. The final bill will be better because they did.
A lot of wonky progressives are still approaching health reform as an argument. In a debate you open with your strongest points. You don't open with a stronger case than you think you can support because every point you concede to your opponent is a loss for you.
Whereas, if you're negotiating, you always ask for more than you think you're going to get because you know you're going to concede some things. After all, if you were in a position to dictate terms, you wouldn't negotiate.
The other key aspect of negotiation that's lost on many lefty wonks is leverage. Getting your way isn't just about being "tough" or yelling loudly. If you can't make credible threats, the other side has no incentive to give you anything. You have to be able to inflict some pain. That's where the Kill the Bill crowd comes in. They're the ones who yell and scream and threaten to primary Bernie Sanders.
Remember, the relevant question is not "Would the world be a better place if we primaried Bernie Sanders?" Rather, the question is whether the activist base seems crazy enough to bring down the Democratic party if it isn't placated.
Acting crazy can be a smart negotiating strategy. Suppose a union is bargaining for a contract. Both sides know that a strike would hurt the workers at least as much as the company. If the union's negotiators cared about maintaining their reputations as reasonable people, they'd suck at their jobs. The boss would know that the union would never strike. If the boss isn't afraid of a strike, she has no reason to budge on wages. So, it's in the negotiators' best interest to seem like they're willing to strike even when it would be self defeating.
For wonks who strive to look reasonable at all times, this approach is utterly foreign. In a negotiation, it's not about being right or putting forward the morally superior proposal, it's about getting what you want.
We all know that centrist Democrats are easily scared. If they see a choice between pleasing the lefty wonks and pleasing Olympia Snowe, guess who wins every time? The Kill the Billers are performing an invaluable service to the movement. They're forcing the Blue Dogs to shut them up.
Sometimes the activist base lashes out at lefty wonks, too. Wonks shouldn't take it personally. It's all part of moving the discussion to the left, where we want it to go anyway.