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The Progressives’ Bad Bluff

Talk Left’s Armando has a pretty thoughtful response to my post earlier this week — part of a long series of arguments I’ve made — that the so-called “progressive bloc” strategy on the public option was liable to fail and that near-variants of the strategy probably would not have made much difference. Armando brings up the counter-example of the unions who, he claims, “were willing to ‘kill the bill’ unless they received major concession on the excise tax issue” and indeed received “major concessions.”

Let’s look at this case, because it turns out to be pretty instructive. I can think of at least three fundamental differences.

First, the unions were worried about something — a tax — that was more linear in nature than something like a public option. Although there were certainly quite a few versions of the public option that emerged throughout the debate — some much weaker than others — it is a lot more on/off and therefore less easy tweak than something like the excise tax, on which is it relatively easy to slide around any of a number of thresholds. Nor did the unions get major concessions — they got relatively minor ones like a $1,000 increase in the threshold at which the tax was applied, some of which have since been rescinded. Had progressives focused on something which was more granular in nature, such as the subsidy levels for working-class Americans, they might also have gotten some concessions, rather than coming away empty-handed.

Secondly — and this is the much more important point — the unions could make a much more credible threat to walk away from the bill. This is because, with a sufficiently cumbersome excise tax, the health care bill could reasonably be seen as a bad deal for unions, particularly for unions in the AFL-CIO family who tend to have older members with good health insurance benefits in the status quo. The unions were acting out of naked self-interest: threatening to walk away from a deal that would have been bad — for them. Progressives, conversely, were threatening to walk away from a bill that would nevertheless have accomplished objectives of enormous magnitude and for which they’ve traditionally advocated. To claim that you’ll walk away from a deal that would provide insurance to tens of millions of disadvantaged Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars of financial assistance to millions more is not credible — it would be the rough equivalent of a conservative legislator arguing that she wouldn’t vote to lower the capital gains tax unless the IRS’s budget were also slashed by 50 percent. Why would anybody take such a threat seriously? Even if you were able to make the case that a bill without a public option was worse than the status quo — and the kill-billers always struggled greatly with that — it would be such a counterintuitive one (from the standpoint of “traditional” liberal values) that the counterparty in the negotiation would have trouble believing that you were arguing in good faith.

Finally, the unions actually had the more, rather than the less, nimble position. It’s not clear that they directly threatened to kill the bill, for instance; they simply made clear to the White House that they would be very unhappy if the excise tax was not scaled down and let the White House fill in the blanks. The notion that the most daring, highest-stakes negotiating position is necessarily the best one is wrong in both theory and practice.

Progressives would do well to realize that their batting average in these situations is going to be pretty low. To assert that there should be an equivalence between those people on the left and Blue Dogs is wrong, because the position of the Blue Dogs is usually closer to that of both the median voter and (more relevantly) the median Congressperson. There are certainly exceptions — particularly as political space is not always unidimensional. But in a two-party, plurality voting system like that in the United States, the ability of those on either end of the political spectrum to exert direct influence over policy is inherently going to be limited.

That’s not to argue that progressives should just give up or cheerlead for the least-bad alternative. Certainly they have some leverage, most of which is not the product of any clever strategy but because of their importance (via fundraising, advocacy, etc.) in electing Democratic/progressive candidates. A more credible position, for instance, would have been to threaten not to donate to Democratic candidates if a public option were not included in the bill, something like what gay-rights activists have done over their dissatisfaction with the Administration’s halting progress on those issues. This strategy does not rely on the trapeze act of enlisting members of Congress as proxies. Primary challenges — although I sometimes disagree with progressives on their choice of targets — are another promising pathway, and one of the most time-tested ways by which the “far” right has exercised a check on the Republican Party.

It feels good to assert that progressives just need to be tougher — perhaps even to the point of feigning irrationality. These arguments are not necessarily wrong — a reputation for being tougher bargainers would help at the margins — but it misdiagnoses the problem on health care. The progressive bloc failed not because of any reputational deficiency on the part of the progressives but because their bluff was too transparent — they claimed to be willing to wager enormous stakes (health care reform) to win a relatively small pot (the public option). That would have been beyond the capacity of any poker player — or activist — to pull off.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.