The Democratic presidential primary has sparked a discussion on the left about the value of bold proposals vs incrementalism. In arguing for the latter, Scott Lemieux takes on the ridiculous notion that the history of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid are examples of bold change proposals.
The idea that the Social Security — which not only offered modest benefits but intentionally excluded large numbers of African-Americans — was not an example of incremental reform is quite remarkable. Even more revealing is the Medicaid example. Nothing makes it clearer that this fake-nostalgia for the REAL LIBERAL Democratic Party of yore is just a rhetorical cudgel with which to beat Democrats and not any kind of serious historical analysis than this. Apparently, a public health insurance program that required states to cover only a subset of people well below the poverty line was REAL, UNCOMPROMISING LIBERALISM while a public health insurance program that required states to cover everyone up to 138% of the poverty line is the hopelessly compromised neoliberal work of useless corporate sellouts. Right.
But then Lemieux takes on an argument we’ve heard often during the Obama presidency about how he has too often pre-compromised by negotiating with himself. This is the case Brian Beutler made not too long ago when arguing in favor of Bernie Sanders’ approach.
But if we’re imagining both of their agendas as opening bids in negotiations with Congress, why fault Sanders for not negotiating with himself? Ask a future Democratic Congress for single payer and a $15 minimum wage and you might get laughed at… but you also might get the public option and a bump to $12. Ask it for the public option and a $12 minimum wage, as Clinton might, and you’ll get a fair hearing from the outset, but you might end up with advancements barely worth fighting for. President Obama, as Sanders is fond of noting, negotiated with himself, and progressives paid an unknowable price as a result.
Here’s what Lemieux says about that:
People who think that important legislation gets passed by presidents making opening bids far outside the expected negotiating space have no idea how presidential power works. (And, for that matter, have no idea how negotiating works. If the Mariners phone up the Angels and offer Mike Zunino for Mike Trout, that doesn’t mean that the Angels will then offer to accept Leonys Martin for Mike Trout; it means the Angels GM will stop taking your phone calls.) To say that a president “pre-comprimised” is often used as an insult, but it is in fact a sign that he knows what he’s doing. The lessons of FDR and LBJ — and now Obama — are the opposite of what this faction of the left thinks they are.
Frankly, the argument Beutler makes is something that has never made sense to me – no matter how many times I’ve heard it over the last 7 years. For example, if President Obama had made single payer his opening bid in health care reform, I fail to see how that would have triggered a more progressive negotiation process. First of all, it would have negated what he ran on as a candidate and more likely would have been ignored – even by Democrats – as a serious proposal. Similarly, the President proposed raising the minimum wage to a meager $10/hour a couple of years ago. Did that spark a negotiating process with Republicans? No, they’ve simply ignored it – just as they did his “bold” proposals for things like the American Jobs Act, universal pre-K and free community college.
The truth is that cross-party negotiations in Congress are more about leverage than they are about bold opening bids. In order to get the other party to the table, you have to be willing to give them something they want. That is why – since 2010 when Republicans took control of the House – pretty much the only thing that has been negotiated is the budget and raising the debt ceiling. Initially Republicans used those “fiscal cliffs” as leverage (or hostages) to get what they wanted. For the last couple of years, both parties have eventually come to the table on budgets in order to avoid another government shut-down (which is the leverage).
Beyond what Lemieux wrote, it is important to remember that when FDR was negotiating for Social Security and LBJ for health care, they were engaged in intra-party negotiations – much as Obama did during those few months that Democrats controlled the House and had a 60-vote majority in the Senate. That is not a likely scenario for a Democratic president any time in the near future. Any “bold” proposal will therefore require having leverage that brings Republicans to the table. In other words, it will require pre-compromise.