Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not the Summer of Love

Summer 1993.

Team Clinton was trying to reform the nation's health care system and things were already starting to look grim. The forces of Gingrich darkness were gathering strength. Scary ads were running on TV.

Late that summer I joined roughly 500,000 fellow progressives on the Mall in DC for one of the largest demonstrations in American history. As Clintoncare was beginning its slow death, we marched in Washington to demand. . .that gays and lesbians be allowed to serve in the military.

One result of that demonstration was the heavily triangulated and patently absurd "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Another result was the defeat of health care reform. After 1994 health-care reform vanished from the national agenda until 2008.

Never mind how inept the Clinton people were in trying to reform health care, and how much blame they deserve. They got no help from people on the left, most of whom were still in the thrall of indentity based politics. For their part, the Gingrich crowd recognized that they could occupy with left with any number of battles in the culture wars. They were thus able to win the real fights of the decade without much opposition (like tanking the health care plan, for example). In 1993 what put progressives in the streets - forget the irony of it all - was gays in the military, not health care reform, welfare reform, or a host of other things.

I've been thinking about that demonstration as I've watched the "town hall" meetings on health care being hijacked by screaming loonies. I have no doubt (though I also have no real evidence) that these "spontaneous" expressions of grassroots anger at health-care reform are in fact carefully orchestrated recitations of Republican party talking points. It hardly matters one way or the other - at the moment, the Republican party has successfully framed the debate about health care and stolen most of the national headlines.

Part of this is the fault of the Obama administration which has not yet made the case for reform as effectively as it could or as it needs to. Part of the fault, however, lies with us. There has been no groundswell of support for health care reform to match the screamers at the recent town hall meetings. No one has yet organized a big march in Washington to demand that all Americans - gays and straights, wise Latinas and dumb white guys - have access to health care.

There is much to dislike about the current proposals to be sure, but that is beside the point. Some health care reform is vastly better than no health care reform, and not just for the health of the nation. Remember that in 1994, emboldened by their defeat of the Clinton health bill, the Gingrich lunatics took over Congress and turned it into their asylum.

The question this time around is whether progressives are prepared to march for health care, or whether Joe the Plumber and all his cousins will be allowed to defeat it again.