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Blue Dog Daze | The Nation

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Blue Dog Daze

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Washington's August humidity seems to have induced political stupefaction among White House operatives, whose sluggish reasoning has led them to denounce progressives for criticizing any Congressional Democrat in the healthcare debate. There's a war on, they argue, and we have limited ammunition--save it for the real enemy.

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No doubt progressives need to mobilize to counter the thuggery of wing nuts--aided and applauded by Republican leaders and health industry lobbyists--trying to take over town meetings. The right should be scorned for trying to "break" the Obama presidency by stopping any reform whatsoever.

But Democrats have sixty votes in the Senate and a large majority in the House. If they were unified behind their president and their leaders, significant healthcare reform would pass. That Congress recessed without agreement on a sensible bill is mostly the result of the destructive maneuvers of a handful of conservative Democrats in the House, largely from the fifty-two-member Blue Dog caucus and their allies in the Senate, headed by Max Baucus, chair of the Finance Committee and poster child of corrupt and compromised incoherence.

Baucus, mired in unending "bipartisan" negotiations with all of three Republicans, has failed to produce a bill from the Finance Committee; what eventually emerges will probably be deeply, if not fatally, flawed. Representative Mike Ross and a pack of Blue Dogs managed to force the House Energy Committee to gut the public option, while lowering subsidies to middle-income families forced to pay higher prices to insurance companies.

The Blue Dogs come largely from rural and Southern districts, and often campaign by distancing themselves from the national party. Their support comes from voters who are conservative on social issues like guns and abortion. But on bread-and-butter concerns, these legislators are voting with their contributors, not their constituents.

The Blue Dogs parade as "fiscal conservatives" and "moderates," false advertising that the mainstream press mindlessly echoes. In fact, they are the epitome of a Washington captured by moneyed interests. They aren't working to ensure that healthcare reforms are paid for; they are laboring on behalf of insurance companies to protect their obscene profits. The Blue Dogs are maneuvering on behalf of Big Pharma to make sure the government won't negotiate reasonable drug prices. They're doing their best to derail reasonable tax hikes on the affluent, hikes that would make insurance affordable for working- and middle-class families. Even on the Blue Dogs' signature issue--the "pay-go" rules, which they insist must be passed into law--they exempt reductions in the estate tax on the wealthiest Americans and, of course, the cost of any military adventure whatsoever.

White House officials apparently think these legislators can be bought off one by one, and fear that offending Blue Dogs en masse might raise their price. More destructively, they care far more about passing something called "comprehensive healthcare" than about what is in the actual legislation. Focus on those who oppose any bill, they urge. Let us make the best deals we can in the back rooms.

The problem with this strategy is that the lobbies own the back rooms. We saw evidence of that when Big Pharma announced that Obama had privately agreed to sustain the most outrageous Bush handouts to the drug companies.

The White House call for progressives to ignore these Democratic obstructionists is not much different from Lyndon Johnson telling Martin Luther King Jr. to halt civil rights demonstrations in a South ruled by segregationist Democrats. Change never comes from following such advice.

What the country needs--what Obama needs, whether he realizes it or not--is an independent, mobilized, progressive citizens' movement that takes on the corporate lobbies, from Big Pharma to Big Oil to Wall Street; challenges the legislators who are in their pockets; and demands affordable national healthcare, renewable energy, empowerment of workers, regulation of Wall Street and more. That movement should go after the conservatives and the compromised in both parties--anyone who stands in the way of reform.

The obstruction by Republicans and the right is real and must be opposed. But so should the back-room guile of the moneyed lobbies and their Democratic allies. If we are going to get the change we need, progressives will have to challenge those in both parties who can't see which way the wind is blowing.

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