Thursday, April 8, 2010


Comic relief during the health care debate was provided by Arizonan Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, who at the drop of a hat made empty threats to block the health care bill because it wasn't liberal enough.  To be fair -- which I wasn't when I called him Rep.Grijalva (D-OfCourseHe'sBluffingAgain) and the "worst poker player in Washington" -- liberals in the House do have to worry about activists who have bought into the idea that politics is all about toughness, and that the Bush years were a series of GOP wins because Republicans were tough and Democrats backed down.  Nevertheless, it was hardly an impressive performance.

So, since I beat on him then, I figure I should take note of Grijalva's new plan to cut out the bluffing and try to find a more effective negotiating strategy in the future, beginning with climate change/energy.  Good idea!  It's nice to see House liberals (shorthand, here, for those to the left of the party median in the House) accepting the reality of the Senate as a starting point.  Unfortunately, the real problem for those who wanted a more liberal health care bill wasn't really negotiating strategy; it was the fundamental math of where the votes were combined with the political context, and the same sorts of constraints will be there on climate change.

Basically, the compromise is: when liberals get to dictate the agenda, moderates get to win on the details that they care about, especially those that become high-profile fights (because what moderates want most is evidence that they are, in fact, moderates, and so they can't really back down in those situations).  As long as the math remains the same (large Democratic majority but slim liberal majority in the House, with moderate Republicans needed to reach 60 votes in the Senate), that's going to be the case.  That's not a bad deal for liberals, but it does yield a lot of frustration when the focus is on negotiations over the details, rather than a big-picture focus.  This yields responses such as those from liberal activists:
Progressives drawing a line in the sand for the public option was not the problem. Being weak and not sticking by their line in the sand was the problem,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Their credibility will be less than the Blue Dogs’ in every future policy battle until progressives draw a line in the sand and refuse to cave.
Of course, had liberals really refused to vote for a health care bill without a public option, they might have had more "credibility" now -- but they wouldn't have had health care reform. 

The path for liberals is, in fact, a tricky one.  They need to fight for what they want, even if they know they'll likely lose on lots of issues, because they're surely better off pressing for their ideals and then compromising than they would be if they just let moderates dictate everything.  At the same time, they need to know that the moderates are in a far better bargaining situation on liberal bills, because they can walk away a lot more easily than the liberals can.  That's not about being tough, or refusing to cave; it's just the basic political context.  The situation calls for tough negotiating, not in the sense of seeing who can hold their breath the longest, but in figuring out which substantive items really matter to the moderates, and (in what might not be the same thing) finding ways to give the moderates the kinds of victories that can give them cover in the absence of Republican votes.  And then, liberals may find that they can achieve real substantive victories on some of the details (as Bernie Sanders did on community health centers), as well as victory by actually enacting their agenda, compromises and all.

So, it's a good sign that Raul Grijalva may be starting to understand that.  This gets back to the discussion on term limits...legislating, it turns out, is really hard.  As an outsider, I can describe some of the general context, but actually doing it takes a lot more.  It takes understanding the political context, the rules of the game, and the substance of the issue, and then also learning all sorts of details about the various players, and placing them within the context, rules, and substance, and only then figuring out the right moves.  It is not, that is, about holding your breath the longest in order to get your way.  It takes time to learn all of those things. Grijalva is only in his fourth term, so it's not surprising he's still getting the hang of it.

By the way, the best book I've read about the practical side of this is Richard Fenno's Emergence of a Senate Leader, a case study of Pete Domenici.  Fenno's other books that touch on legislating, including his books on Dan Quayle and Arlen Specter, and the chapter on Chaka Fattah in Going Home, are also excellent, and I'd also recommend (political scientist and North Carolina Rep.) David Price's The Congressional Experience.

1 comment:

  1. Been looking for a long time for any writing about creating a viable progressive negotiating position. HuffPost has just done a story on this and Grijalva. There needs to be more discussion about progressive positions vs. the political realities.


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