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On the Meaning of the New Left

With the healthcare reform debate (presumably, momentarily) behind us, it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on the significance of the New Left as a political and governing force. Cutting to the chase, let me start with the main point I hope to convey: Although it is perfectly reasonable to question the Left’s methods and its ability to forge policy consensus, it is becoming comfortable once again to incorrectly depict policy victories not merely as happening despite meaningful contribution from liberals and liberal policymakers but even as somehow having benefited from liberal consternation. This view is wrong—on the merits and as a long-term form of political posture.

Here’s a fairly typical example, from an AP wire story, of how the mainstream media covered liberals’ objections to the healthcare reform bill as it worked its way through the Senate during the late stages of the legislative process:

Obama resists as liberals attack health care bill

Washington–The White House and its allies scrambled Thursday to quash a growing liberal assault on a much-compromised health care proposal, hoping to keep President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority from being crushed between the political left and right.

In Senate speeches, TV appearances, blogs and other outlets, Obama’s supporters said the latest attacks are exaggerated and troubling, because Senate Democratic leaders can’t spare a single vote in trying to overcome fierce GOP opposition.

But some prominent liberals, led by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, say the Senate bill is so diluted that it’s worse than nothing at all. Powerful labor unions were equally disenchanted but urged lawmakers to press on, hoping to improve the bill in House-Senate negotiations…

Top White House adviser David Axelrod disputed Dean’s claims and urged party activists to embrace an important if imperfect bill.

“We’re on the doorstep of doing something really meaningful,” Axelrod said in an interview. No one is entirely satisfied with the bill, he said, but it includes long-sought health insurance regulations and other items too important to lose.

Former president Bill Clinton said in a statement it would be “a colossal blunder” to let the measure die. “America can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said…

This storyline is part of a broader narrative about the Democratic Party’s cohesiveness and governing skill. There is a long-held and oft-vindicated notion that because the Democratic Party contains a base of liberals who are more unmanageable and assertive than compliant conservatives are within the Republican coalition—itself is a debatable point of party comparison, but one we’ll aside—the party struggles to win elections, and has as much or even more trouble governing once it does attain power. Here’s my friend Joe Klein, who always has his fingers on the pulse of Washington wisdom, raising anew a question he’s more or less been posing for a quarter century, this time in context of healthcare reform and upon hearing news of Howard Dean’s opposition to the Senate compromise bill:

[D]eaniacs are now campaigning against the individual mandate, an absolutely central and crucial part of health care reform. This, and assorted nonsense from left-bloggers in high dudgeon, and assorted dilatory narcissism from the likes of Ben Nelson and Roland Burris, calls into question the ability of the Democratic Party to govern this country…

Universal health care is predicated on two mandates: The insurers have to provide it to everyone regardless of a pre-existing conditions….Those who stand against these essential principles because of an ideological conceit–whether it be Joe Lieberman’s opposition to a public option, Ben Nelson’s opposition to abortion funding or Democracy for America’s opposition to an individual mandate–are proving a point that conservatives have long made: that Democrats are too feckless to govern.

Not all commentary revolves around the ideas that liberals were bulwarks and perfectionist enemies of “the good,” to borrow Clinton’s overused phrase. And politicians like Ben Nelson and, especially, Joe Lieberman, were targets of significant scorn. But as healthcare reform moved toward resolution, liberals endured at least their share, if not more than their share, of abuse.

So let’s be clear about a few things. First, members of the Progressive Caucus in the House, along with senators boasting very liberal ADA scores, provided more in number and a higher share of votes for reform than the smaller group of centrists in the middle did. Those centrists in the middle also extracted far more concessions and changes. In other words, in the end, at roll call when it matters most, a defecting few won out over the loyalist many in terms of attention but the loyalist many were crucial. Liberals complained and liberal bloggers threatened to kill the bill, yes. But liberals in Congress, whose voices matter most when it comes to legislation, carried this reform to passage. They were its progenitors and protectors. To depict this policy victory as somehow happening despite their views and inputs, or as a the triumph of sensible, reasonable moderates, is to misrepresent what happened here.

Second, as for having those votes in the first place, let’s also remember how President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid obtained their power, namely, through a surge in support from liberals and the consolidation of power in the Northeast, with growth in the Midwest and especially the libertarian Far West. Not every Democrat is a liberal, but more of them are liberals than in the past Democratic majorities. And although Obama has disappointed liberals on some policies, including healthcare reform, I for one find it hard to imagine that President Hillary Clinton or President John Edwards would have done better. (Though I’m more confident of that statement with Clinton than had a non-scandal-tainted Edwards somehow won the White House.)

I say all of this with the intent of reminding those who are tempted to be cheered by liberals’ disappointment with key parts of healthcare reform as well as to those liberals who are disgruntled. This was a liberal victory. A perfect, pure victory? Nope. But a liberal defeat? No way.

All that said, Democrats (including some liberal Democrats) are going to suffer electoral punishment this coming November. But, presuming that will happen, the rebuke will be for something accomplished, rather than nothing accomplished, as was generally the case in 1994. (Clinton’s 1993 budget compromise was a major accomplishment, of course; I’m speaking here of healthcare parallels.) In that regard, Democrats have proved they can govern and build consensus around a shared agenda. Whatever one thinks of those policies–on stimulus or cap-n-trade or healthcare–they are policies, not half-formed ideas beached on the shoreline of Democratic dissensus. And that says a lot about the national Democratic Party–and yes, it’s New Left backbone–today compared to just 15 or so years ago.