At the moment, as you may have noticed, the Republican Party is engaged in a particularly bitter internecine battle over whom to support in the 23rd Congressional District of New York. This upstate district, which has the distinction of not having gone Democratic in a House race since the Civil War [the real Civil War, not the one the Republicans are now waging], was carried by Obama something like 52-48 in 2008. After Obama named the long time Republican holder of the seat as Secretary of the Navy, a relatively moderate Republican woman won the seat for the remainder of the term. Now the fanatical right-wingers, frantic to shoot themselves in the foot, have thrown their support behind the nominee of the Conservative Party, with the result that in the latest polls, the Democrat is actually leading the three way race with barely one third of the declared voters.
Why do I allude to this obscure race, save for the schadenfreude it affords? Because as we come down to the wire in the epic battle over health care reform, countless ostensibly knowledgeable commentators are making absurd claims about Obama's wimpishness, or his betrayal of liberal principles, or his unwillingess to wield the hammer when it is needed. "The Democrats control both houses of Congress and have sixty votes in the Senate. Why, save for Obama's bizarre lust for bipartisanship, can they not simply pass the bill he says he wants?"
Let me connect up these two matters, as lawyers say. Howard Dean and the Democratic Party made a deliberate decision to broaden their electoral efforts in 2006 and 2008, contesting districts and even states that had previously simply been conceded to the Republicans. They went out of their way to find moderate Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats, who might actually have a chance of taking safe Republican seats. They sought out Iraq War veterans, military men and women with impeccable records of war-time service. They were under no illusion that these candidates, should they win, would morph into flaming liberals. But they made a judgment -- one which, I believe, was incontestably correct -- that it would be better to control both Houses of Congress with a broad coalition of left and centrist Democrats, among whom compromises would have to be struck, than to pare down their numbers to a core of reliably liberal stalwarts, and then try to make compromises with a more and more right wing Republican contingent.
Well, the strategy was a brilliant success. We won a commanding majority in both houses, even slipping into sixty votes in the Senate. And so the inevitable compromising began. Had the Democrats followed their customary practice of writing off supposedly Republican districts, we would be nowhere near 60 votes in the Senate, and we would probably have no more than a slender majority in the House. The Republicans, Lord love them, have opted for purity, and for their trouble, they now are a hairsbreadth away from being a regional faction in a permanent minority. America really is a center left country, which means that realistically, the most we can hope for, with all the skill and luck in the world, is legislation that is canted a bit more to the left than to the center.
How then can we get the truly progressive legislation we desire? The answer is obvious.