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The Leftward Shift of the Democratic Party Revisited

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Following up on the exchange between Meyerson and Reed, I reiterate my position that the Democratic Party is clearly well to the left of where it was in the 90s:

Reed would presumably argue that much of this legislation, even if it reflects the priorities of the left rather than the right in some broad sense, is so compromised in the execution as to be more of the same timorous neoliberalism in practice. But I can’t agree. My strongest disagreement with Reed’s essay and its follow ups are his implicit and explicit dismissals of the importance of the comprehensive health reform that eluded not only Bill Clinton but (during times of much greater labor power) Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. I’m frankly baffled that anyone could argue that legislation that, among other important achievements, expanded Medicaid from a program that required states to cover only a subset of those well under the poverty line to a program that requires states to cover everyone within 133 percent of the federal poverty level doesn’t represent “anything that a left would want.” The Supreme Court’s appalling decision to strike down the ACA’s funding mechanism for the Medicaid expansion has thrown the inadequacies of the original Medicaid into sharp relief—but would anyone assert that it didn’t constitute an accomplishment for the left? Nor, I think, is it accurate to describe even the exchanges established by the ACA as “neoliberal.” While actual conservative reform proposals leave health coverage to the market with the exception of minimalist catastrophic insurance, the ACA tightly regulates the content of insurance, provides extensive subsidies, and creates a right to the guaranteed issue of health insurance. To call this “conservative” would be like calling the Clean Air Act “conservative” because it merely regulates industries rather than nationalizing them.

This does not mean, of course, that the Affordable Care Act is an unmitigated liberal triumph. It addresses a longstanding priority of the left with a combination of genuinely progressive provisions and others that are less so in order to attract the support of conservative Democrats (each of whom had an effective veto over the bill) in the Senate. While a major improvement on the status quo, it still leaves the United States with a health care system more inequitable and inefficient than any other liberal democracy. The stimulus passed in 2009 looks good compared to an austerity-gripped Europe (particularly remarkable, in retrospect, given that the Democrats did not yet have a filibuster-proof majority), but was still inadequate to the scale of the economic collapse. Dodd-Frank is even more suboptimal, and reflects the increasing influence of the financial sector that remains perhaps the central problem of American politics. But it must also be remembered that unmitigated liberal triumphs are the black swan of American politics. If the ACA doesn’t count as any kind of victory for the left, neither do the social programs of the original New Deal, which combined relatively meager benefits with intentional racial exclusion. We can’t criticize the limitations of LBJ’s comprehensive health care reform because Congress didn’t pass one, settling for cherry-picking the insurance industry’s least profitable potential consumers instead. What Reed cites as the high point of the labor-liberal alliance in 1944—the year of FDR’s proposed Second Bill of Rights—was a period in which the conservative coalition of Republicans and Democrats already had a hammerlock on Congress and was about deliver Taft-Hartley, filibusters of civil rights legislation, and HUAC witch hunts rather than progressive reform. The high veto-point structure of American politics creates a huge bias to the status quo, and at the federal left-wing reform in the United States has almost always required compromise with conservative elements and buying off vested interests. Even compared to legislation passed during rare periods of high labor influence the ACA isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.

One additional point is that while I think Reed overstates when he calls Obama a “neoliberal cipher,” it’s true enough that Obama per se is not the key part of the story. If Bill Clinton had become president in 2009 all things being equal, I’m not sure the results would be all that much different, although both the agenda and the results were much more liberal than what happened under him in the 90s. Reed is right about this: presidents are coalition leaders, who will be pushed in the direction of the forces within the coalition. Where I disagree strongly is with the assertion the Obama administration has left no progress to build on. The radicalism of the Republicans is a national crisis but it’s also an opportunity; the progressive forces inside and outside the party need to keep things moving in the right direction.

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