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Exacting Change | The Nation

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Exacting Change

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The Progressive Challenge

About the Author

Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage is president of the Institute for America's Future.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is a frequent commentator on American and...

Also by the Author

The irony of American politics is that the right is far weaker than it appears and the left far stronger than it asserts.

Liberals are pushing a range of measures that challenge Obama administration policy.

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The Detroit Water and Sewage Department plans to shut off water for delinquent customers at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 this summer. 

While Obama has begun to act on what the country needs, Republican obstruction refuses to pass bills and solve problems.

Obviously, progressives can have the greatest impact by mobilizing voters to challenge those who stand in the way of reform. Legislators too often are more attuned to the needs of their donors than to those of their constituents. Many conservative Democrats seem wedded to old arguments, oblivious to the impact of the crisis on the people they represent. Independent organizing can have a significant effect, particularly in a time of dramatic change.

To forestall crippling compromises, reform coalitions must define the scope of the campaign early. Clear red lines must be drawn around the heart of the reform, putting everyone on notice that compromise beyond a certain point is a deal-breaker. Progressives should also be exposing the lobbyists, pointing out the parochial concerns and wrongheaded ideas of those opposing change, and mobilizing support in targeted states and districts. The pain of standing in the way should be made greater than the benefit.

HCAN has exemplified this strategy. The coalition helped to introduce comprehensive healthcare reform into the presidential campaign--itself a compromise from the single-payer plan designed to appeal to the 90 percent of voters who have some kind of coverage. HCAN then focused on the public plan, detailing its importance and anticipating that the insurance companies and Republicans would target it. When key Senate Democrats like Max Baucus and Ben Nelson began raising doubts about the public plan, HCAN worked with Progressive Caucus leaders to change the calculus. The caucus polled its members and released a statement that the majority of them would vote against any reform that did not include a strong public plan. They were soon joined by the Hispanic, Black and Asian-American Caucuses. At last count, more than 100 liberals have pledged to vote against any reform without a public plan. This provides a counterbalance in the negotiations and may help stiffen the leadership's spine. At the same time, HCAN has sponsored ads in recalcitrant legislators' districts, often singling them out by name.

The Obama administration prizes coordination of message and mobilization, and prefers that disagreements be aired in the back rooms rather than in the streets. White House aides argue that going after legislators--particularly Democrats-- publicly could make it harder for the administration to deal with them. This is, of course, particularly true for Organizing for America, run out of the DNC. But conservative legislators are likely to be skeptical of any White House claim that this most popular president couldn't curb the activities of progressive groups if he chose to.

At this point, most of the national constituency groups--labor unions, environmental groups, MoveOn--have organized independently to drive their causes. But they've chosen to co-operate with the White House, often muting disagreements on message or tactics.

Driving Progressive Change

The fate of the climate bill, cramdown, credit card and healthcare legislation, along with the fight over the rest of the agenda, suggests the limits of this strategy. Clearly, the balance of forces remains biased against significant reform. With Republicans committed to obstruction, only a few Democrats are needed to force major concessions or block key legislation.

We need a grassroots uprising against business as usual in Congress. The White House won't find it easy to spark that and may not support it. But without a movement that exposes legislators to the fury of their constituents, and challenges the cozy relationships between moneyed interests and incumbents, we risk blowing the greatest moment for reform in decades.

Moreover, independent organizing is vital because Obama's agenda--as he admits--is a beginning, not the end. Though it is ambitious, it is, not surprisingly, both imperfect and incomplete. Although reluctant to challenge a popular president, progressives have begun to question some of his initiatives. Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and a range of economists have criticized the bank bailout and sounded a call for a second round of stimulus spending. Fifty-one progressive House members voted against funding for escalation in Afghanistan, and many are calling for a clear exit strategy. And when Obama reversed his position on military tribunals and releasing the torture photos, this magazine and the human rights and civil liberties community responded with an uproar.

We also need to expand the agenda for reform. For example, if we are to make the investments vital to our future, as the president has called for, a sustained expansion of public investment is essential--and that will require a far bolder tax policy. Under current projections, domestic discretionary spending will decline to the lowest percentage of the economy since the early 1960s. We need a campaign for sustained investment linked with progressive tax reform to pay for it, featuring a higher rate for high-income earners, a tax on stock transactions to limit speculation, a crackdown on tax havens and taxation of income from wealth at the same rates as that from work.

Similarly, Obama has largely embraced America's role as GloboCop and calls for sustaining military budgets that are nearly as large as the rest of the world's combined. As the escalation in Afghanistan indicates, the American posture virtually guarantees involvement in constant wars and interventions across the globe. Changing this unsustainable strategy will require creative thinking about security and how to argue for it.

The struggle over financial regulation has only begun. The contrast between the treatment of bankers and the treatment of autoworkers and suppliers--between those, in Steelworkers president Leo Gerard's phrase, who shower before work and those who shower after work--has not gone unnoticed. Congress has passed legislation to set up an independent commission with subpoena power to detail what went wrong in the financial collapse and demonstrate the fraud, greed and regulatory malfeasance that drove us into this mess. Progressives should be pushing hard for aggressive hearings to help provide the popular mandate for fundamental reforms: restructuring firms "too big to fail," limiting leverage, outlawing exotic financial instruments, controlling consumer and credit card gouging and returning finance to its position as the servant, not the master, of the Main Street economy.

At the beginning of the administration Rahm Emanuel famously said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." With Obama's leadership, Washington will produce reform. But even with coordinated efforts to support his agenda, it is likely to be deeply compromised unless an independent movement challenges business as usual and forces far bolder changes than Washington now thinks possible.

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