As the most sweeping reforms ever of our tattered health care system wind their way through Congress the majority of Americans who support these desperately needed measures must understand that failure at this crucial point will not only be a disaster for the nation, but also for the Democratic Party. The Democratic leadership, including President Barack Obama, must make it clear to the so-called Blue Dogs in both chambers that they better not obstruct, water down, or block health care reform this time around or there will be hell to pay.
So far President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders have shown they have learned from Bill Clinton’s mistakes 16 years ago and they seem determined not to repeat them. But the wild card is the Blue Dog coalition that loved spending lavishly on the Iraq war only to rediscover the evil of budget deficits as soon as Obama was elected. The Blue Dogs ought to be discredited for their Republican-lite politics and they certainly must be prevented from torpedoing health care reform. The fates of the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party are at stake. And the Republican know this.
There has been a lot of bogus analysis of why Clinton failed in his attempt to push through health care reform (the issue he had run on in 1992). This failure was so gigantic it has provided ample ground for multiple and conflicting autopsies. But the main reason, in my view, Clinton failed — in addition to the enormous amount of money the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations spent blocking it — is that he did not involve the public in a series effort to counter the predictable corporate/right-wing onslaught and he did not tame the Blue Dogs.
The Democratic leadership at that time apparently believed that by capitulating to the Republican-Blue Dog agenda on “free trade” (NAFTA), and screwing over labor unions, one of the key Democratic constituencies, the GOP and their Blue Dog brethren would cooperate on health care reform. It was a monumental error in judgment that cost the Democratic Party dearly. Health care reform was just as popular among the public then as it is today.
The Democrats showed the country that even with majorities in both houses of Congress and the presidency they could not deliver largely due to Blue Dog obstructionism. All the Democrats had to show for their efforts going into the 1994 midterm elections was a very pissed off labor movement and a failed attempt to help working people attain affordable health care. On election day Democrats stayed home and the Newt Gingrich “revolution” seized Washington launching a fourteen-year period of misrule the consequences of which we are still dealing with today.
Ironically, in the 1980s, the Democratic Party had sustained itself better than during the Clinton years because it was forced to mobilize against the administrations of Reagan and Bush the Elder. In the 1990s, once the Blue Dogs and their champion Bill Clinton was in power the Democratic Party experienced a precipitous decline in power and influence nationally, which paved the way for the Tom DeLay/George W. Bush years. These historical facts are why I was so relieved and gratified when Obama successfully sidelined the Clintons in the 2008 marathon primaries.
Which brings us back to the Blue Dogs and the current health care bills. The Blue Dogs must be tamed, trained, and neutered. We can count on the president to deploy his oratorical and political talents, and to draw upon his immense popularity with the American people, to get these health care bills passed. But the health insurance and pharmaceutical corporations are already putting the squeeze on their Blue Dog allies to block these efforts. If they succeed, Obama and the real Democrats are going to suffer in the next midterm election just as Clinton did in 1994, not because they tried to do too much, but because they did too little.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for President Obama. He derailed the Clinton-Blue Dog freight train in 2008. But if the Blue Dogs jump up on their hind legs and bite the hand that feeds them it will be a sign that the Clinton restoration that Obama worked so hard to stop has succeeded anyway. This outcome will give the Republicans just the jolt they need.
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).
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