Defining Progressive Success

Awhile back, I started talking about how progressive organizers define success over at Blue Mass Group during a discussion started by Charley about how 99.8% of kids in Massachusetts have access to health insurance and how we have the best access to health insurance of any state in the nation.

Something Ryan said really struck me, though. Ryan wrote:

tell me about the % of people who are getting good care, not the % of people who have crappy insurance they may or may not be able to afford to use when they need it. Any other numbers are a smokescreen.

Later he added:

Our health care system, even in the almighty Hub of the Universe, is TeH Suck. We may suck slightly less than most other states — though not by the margins many of us would wish — but we still suck.

On the face of it, I can get behind that. What matters is health care, not health insurance rates. Massachusetts’ reform, in my view, was health insurance reform. Insurance is not the ultimate end, good quality care is.

But it irritates me that the first reaction to a story about universal insurance for children has a glass half empty viewpoint. Having all but universal health insurance for all children in Massachusetts is unmistakably a remarkable accomplishment achieved in no small part because of our health insurance reform effort. Should there be improvements? Uh, yeah. Ryan, I hope to see you during the next phase of health insurance reform organizing for that. We need to improve quality and decrease costs. We’ve got everybody in the boat, now we need to make sure it doesn’t sink.

But this is not just Ryan. In the same post that Charley makes a point about how great it is that we’ve achieved this milestone Masslib writes about the need for single payer. Ryan notes that there is more work to be done. Christopher questions Charley’s motives for even supporting this kind of reform, when anybody who has followed this blog knows how important health insurance reform has been to Charley for as long as this blog has been around. Really, guys? I mean, really.

This glass-half-empty approach is not just wrong, in my view, it’s counterproductive. I think it’s extremely appropriate and important to pat ourselves on the back for this and other achievements because making progress towards our ideals helps us make the case to continue striving to reach them, rather than getting discouraged and letting the other side take control. If every achievement we make just isn’t good enough, it discourages people from getting on board. People want to win. People want to celebrate.

It’s an old conversation, but especially during a time when we seem to be having a lot of conversations about compromise, it seems appropriate to talk on the flip about how we define success.

The response in Charley’s post, for me, is symptomatic of what progressives tend to do to ourselves time and time again. Our virtues become our vice; we cannot accept a victory when we see one because we are working to always fight the status quo, always move toward our ideal, always have a healthy skepticism of what people in authority say.

Instead, let’s define our success, celebrate and disseminate it when we achieve it, then go back to work. Here are some rules of thumb that help me define success. I’m not saying this is how we should all measure our political lives, but these help me.

  • When you have a bill you’re hoping to become law, it will never, ever, ever be exactly what you want. Success means that you make progress towards your overall goals and you don’t sacrifice too much (however you define too much) to get there.
  • Success means having measurable, achievable, and aggressive goals — and then meeting them.
  • Once you have defined your measurable, achievable, aggressive goal, don’t “move the goal post” on that issue until you have properly celebrated and disseminated how you met that goal. There is always, always, always more work to be done. But let us start somewhere and move forward from a position of strength.
  • If you are going to move the goal posts, do so strategically so that it will hurt your opponents. (See for example: literally everything the Republicans ever do in the spirit of bipartisanship.)
  • When you legitimately fail, learn from your failure. Do not wallow. Voters, volunteers, donors, and frankly even your friends, aren’t attracted to wallowers. It’s a lot of fun to complain about how the world doesn’t work the way it ought to (and boy, it really doesn’t). But people will want to work with you if you act with confidence and grace, not when you question the intelligence or motives of the voters or legislators (even when you’re right).

OK. So let’s take two very different cases: health insurance reform as passed by Pelosi/Reid/Obama, and the pending tax cut/employment insurance compromise. I am a huge proponent of one, but not the other, even though a lot of my progressive friends see both as equally compromised. Obama himself said that the tax cut fight seemed like the public option fight all over again. It’s not.

I saw national health care reform as wildly successful — even without the public option and without single payer. It was the very first major upheaval in social legislation moving towards progressive ideals we’ve had since the 60s/70s. We know that the health insurance reform bill passed by Pelosi/Reid/Obama will help insure more people, eliminate pre-existing conditions, extend insurance for people up to 26 yrs old, create a more fair market for insurance in the exchanges, help protect consumers in any number of ways, achieve more equality for women in their health insurance, and more. Those are real accomplishments. Is it perfect? Hell, no. Did I want the public option? Yes! Yes I did. But it’s a great step in the right direction. Civil rights wasn’t passed in one bill. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1957, then a major reform in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And you know what? You can’t have real civil rights without voting rights, so they passed a law about that, too, in 1965. I think health insurance reform in America will be like that, if we can keep it.

Progressives should be championing this major victory, just like we in Massachusetts should be championing the fact that almost no children go without some form of insurance. It is a step, but it’s damn important. I also worry that if it is seen as a failure, then people will be less likely to want to do the hard work of defending it against Republican/conservative attacks. And should they become successful in dismantling it, we won’t make more progress on health reform because it will have “failed.” We certainly won’t have the public option and you can forget about single payer. Instead of saying that Obama caved, let’s talk about all the good that it does and will do and build on that.

The tax deal is altogether different. Ending the Bush tax cuts was a key part of Obama’s platform in 2008. We have a situation where Republicans are pretending to care about the deficit, but this will balloon it. And the argument on behalf of Republicans as to why they could not afford benefits for 9/11 first responders was — I kid you not — concern over how to pay for it, according to the New York Times.

Now, the new Speaker-Elect explicitly said that if the only option he had was to vote for tax cuts for the bottom 98% or nothing at all, he said of course he’d vote for it. This ad speaks for me.

If you can’t figure out the messaging that we need to pay for benefits to 9/11 first responders and hold down the deficit by not renewing Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest … I just don’t know what to tell you. Oh, and, by the way, saying that your agenda is being held hostage and then giving the Republicans exactly what they want is not going to deter them from holding the rest of your agenda hostage.

I know that everybody’s definition of “sacrificing too much” varies. But can we agree that compromising in order to pass the biggest piece of social legislation in decades is not the same as compromising to extend unemployment benefits and continue tax breaks and extend tax credits?

Let me get back on track for a moment. The tax cut deal doesn’t meet my criteria for success. It does not fit in with our aggressive goals, it sacrifices too much now and in the future, it doesn’t put us in a position of strength, and Obama and progressives are both wallowing over the deal.

We need to find a way to move forward productively. The stakes are too high these days to sit around criticizing ourselves and therefore weakening ourselves for the next go round.

Crossposted at BlueMassGroup.

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January 19, 2011. Uncategorized.

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