Finger-Pointing in Massachusetts

The polls haven't closed yet, but the finger-pointing has begun.

In a post on Talking Points Memo headlined "Who's To Blame?" Bernard Avishai answers his own question: YOU ARE. Progressives, he suggests, are responsible if the Democrats lose Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in today's special election:

"The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's seat has to speak so defensively about?" Avishai writes. "And we can look no further than Howard Dean, and MSNBC, and Arianna Huffington, and, yes, some columnists at the Times and bloggers here at TPM--you know, who have lambasted Obama again and again since last March over arguable need-to-haves like the "public option," as if nobody else was listening."

That's right: by daring to suggest that lobbyist-pleasing health care legislation is less than the dream of universal health care the Democrats promised during the last campaign season, we progressives have sunk the Democrats' chances of ever passing health care reform.

According to Avishai, we have betrayed Obama by being insufficiently enthusiastic about Joe Lieberman's health care bill: "Meanwhile the undecideds are thinking: 'Hell, if his own people think he's a sell-out and jerk, why should we support this?’ “

On the other side, there is Jon Stewart, who mocks the whole narrative of the Massachusetts race: that the Democrats need a super-duper filibuster-proof majority in order to pass this weak, watered-down excuse for reform:

"Let me see if I have this straight," Stewart said last night. "You need to replace perhaps the most beloved liberal in the history of the Senate with a candidate that believes Curt Schilling is a Yankee fan. Because if this lady loses, the health care reform bill that the beloved late senator considered his legacy will die," Stewart said. "And the reason it will die is because if Coakley loses, Democrats will only have then an 18-vote majority in the Senate. Which is more than George W. Bush ever had in the Senate when he did whatever the fuck he wanted."

For all the handwringing over the Massachusetts Senate seat, it is worth pointing out that the Democrats have not exactly made aggressive use of their majority status in Washington so far. Just the opposite. Blaming progressives for giving voice to their disappointment is ridiculous. It's not our fault the Dems didn’t grab hold of massive public support for universal, publicly financed health care. Nor is it the rank and files' fault that the Democratic Party leadership can't seem to summon the courage of its convictions.

In Massachusetts the irony of the Democrats’ running-scared attitude is particularly thick. Ted Kennedy was always a big direct-mail fundraiser for Republicans: he called himself a liberal long after Ronald Reagan made the word taboo, and he unapologetically championed government-financed social programs to help the poor, powerless and uninsured.

It shouldn't come as some sort of shocking surprise that the Tea Partiers are bashing the Democrats' "socialist" health-care plans. Kennedy endured these kinds of attacks for his entire career.

Remember the campaign against Obama as having a Senate record that was more liberal than Ted Kennedy's? Kennedy showed that drawing a lot of fire from his enemies could be an asset, not a liability.

But just as Kennedy's colleagues have compromised away the high ground on health care, in Martha Coakley, the Democrats are running a cautious, centrist, anti-populist who sounds apologetic when she talks about the issue.

Even more telling, the Republicans are running in Massachusetts in part on that state's universal, taxpayer-financed health-care system. Since Massachusetts voters already have nearly universal health care--and like it--the Republicans argue, why should they pony up for a national program?

Mark Shields pointed this out recently on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Scott Brown, he explained, has been telling voters, "we in Massachusetts already have health insurance. . . . Mitt Romney's plan, which he owned and then disowned during his campaign for the Presidency . . . 96 percent of the people in Massachusetts have health coverage. He said, why should we pay our taxes to cover people in Texas? So, I mean, there is a certain sense of pride, as well as provincialism, as well as anti-tax in his message."

As Shields sees it, the Republicans have won in Massachusetts no matter the outcome of today's election, just by forcing the Democrats to bring the President to the state to try to squeak out a victory, and by turning the race into a referendum on health care and the Obama Presidency--not to mention spending a half million dollars on this formerly safe seat: "I mean, what does that mean they are going to be spending in Nevada and Arkansas and Ohio and Missouri in October?"

Instead of mourning the possible loss of a 60-vote majority, the Democrats should figure out how to work as aggressively as their opponents to use their opportunity to pass real, progressive reform. Otherwise, whether they are a supermajority, a plain old majority, or the minority just won't matter to most ordinary Americans.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive magazine. To subscribe for just $14.97 a year, just click here.