President Obama’s reignited healthcare campaign faces two burning questions. Will it succeed, after so much skirmishing and compromise, and why did it take so long for Obama to settle on the most direct route to legislative victory–the unapologetic pursuit of a majority vote through the maneuver formerly known as reconciliation?
Everyone has their theories, of course, but a recent conversation with one former Obama campaign adviser offers some provocative insights. Marshall Ganz, the veteran United Farm Workers Organizer who advised the Obama and Dean campaigns, is speaking out on the record–a rarity among Obama’s circle of disciplined political aides.
"The job of those trying to create change is actually to create crises that require a legislative solution," says Ganz, who now lectures on public policy and organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School. "Now, a crisis that is felt by the powerless isn’t a crisis, because the powers that be don’t experience it to be a crisis. And so the challenge of the powerless," he argued in an interview last week, "is how to create the urgency."
Ganz was reflecting on the Obama administration’s struggle to summon public support for healthcare reform. He believes Obama’s team forgot the Saul Alinsky maxim that good organizers have split personalities–they polarize audiences in order to mobilize for a cause, and after building power, they depolarize to settle for negotiated gains.
"You have to create the urgency and the need for action, which inherently involves a process of polarization," Ganz explained, "but then, to actually settle anything, you have to shift and be able to negotiate." Obama, whether on the public option or lowering the age for Medicare, often seems to settle first. Ganz argues that tendency drives a "government strategy that is curiously non-assertive." He blasted both the administration and progressive groups for investing in a healthcare approach that was not only fatally flawed but obviously so, based on his reading of history:
The Obama Administration seemed to try…to mobilize by depolarizing…. it seemed like an effort to compromise your way to deep reform. I’ve never seen that that has ever worked in the history of this country, and I doubt anywhere, because it’s a contradiction. So, on the one hand, the administration was not being clear, aggressive…as it had been in the campaign…and more culpably, the leadership of the reform movements, the people who were fighting for healthcare, for labor law reform, for environmental reform, for immigration reform, all bought in to this strategy. They all bought into "let Obama do it. He knows what he’s doing."
Contrary to the conventional narrative, both in traditional and progressive media, those "reform movements" were not always outgunned. Some even had budgets that rivaled the healthcare industry. Health reform groups spent $23 million on advertising alone by last summer, for example, topping industry advertising at the time, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Yet rather than building independent support for initiatives beyond Obama’s plan, such as the public option or single-payer, the big players like Health Care for America Now (HCAN) spent their resources backing the administration’s lowest common denominator. Now, rhetorically, HCAN remains strident–or polarizing, in Ganz’s taxonomy. As Obama moves forward with reconciliation, the top priority on the group’s website is a call for a "mass citizens’ arrest of the Insurance Companies" on March 9, to hold them accountable for the "criminal healthcare system." Of course, this is the same group that spent money to defend Senator Blanche Lincoln, despite her threat to join GOP filibusters of the health care bill. It’s like having Stokely Carmichael as spokesman for the DLC. Meanwhile, the crucial task of pressuring wayward Democrats has been left to much smaller, upstart groups that rely on grassroots donations. (See Chris Hayes’s new report on that effort, "CPR for The Public Option.")
Ganz confronted this disconnect, and outlined its costs, in a Washington Post essay last summer that roiled Obamaland. Matt Bieber, a Harvard graduate student who interviewed Ganz last week, asked about the reaction to that article.
"I think our piece sort of struck a chord, but not enough of the chord," Ganz said, though he detects a growing awareness that "unless people who want to see deep reform mobilize and fight for it, it’s not going to happen, and that what Obama offers is an opportunity to do that." Returning to "Rules for Radicals," Ganz added, "It’s like Alinsky once said, ‘The liberals need radicals.’… Unless you have that pressure out there, it’s not going to happen."
Apart from interest group politics, Ganz has concluded that Organizing for America, the 13 million-person network from the 2008 campaign, has been reduced to redundancy:
By keeping [OFA] tied directly to the President, then it was like if the President was pursuing a strategy of, "Let’s compromise with everybody, and I’m not going to define what I’m for…" And you’re out here in the field trying to mobilize people around "we don’t know what, from who, under what circumstances"–you can’t mobilize that way. You can’t organize that way.
So [OFA] wound up being in a very weird position, where they really had no program, that there was nothing they were clearly fighting for…. So there was no strategy. So they were reduced to getting people to make phone calls to legislators who already supported their position, and act as if that was mobilizing something.
Finally, Ganz ended with a note of resigned speculation. "You know, it almost makes it appear like what they wanted to do was keep the machine on for the next election."