President Barack Obama at a fundraising event for Sen. Arlen Specter held Sept. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Every Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson's (that is, both of them) has followed a pattern: A fresh face enters the White House bringing new hope and big ideas, delivers his agenda to Congress, and quickly gets the back of the hand from the contemptuous grandees of his own party. With little accomplished, congressional Democrats suffer major losses in the midterm elections. Over the next two years, even less progress is made.
There are two battling story lines about the career of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy: Here at the Prospect, we recall the Lion of Liberalism, treating his 1980 convention speech as the hinge of his long career. Meanwhile, on cable news, or in the hands of Dan Balz at The Washington Post, he is the icon of bipartisan compromise, whose close working partnership with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah among others was legendary. Earlier this week, a number of Republicans including Hatch invoked a disingenuous, "if only Teddy were here" explanation for their intransigence on health reform, suggesting that all other Democrats lacked his ability to forge compromises.
As progressives mourn the likely death of a public insurance option in health care reform, it's worthwhile to trace the history of exactly where this idea -- a compromise itself -- came from. The public option was part of a carefully thought out and deliberately funded effort to put all the pieces in place for health reform before the 2008 election -- a brilliant experiment, but one that at this particular moment, looks like it might turn out badly. (Which is not the same as saying it was a mistake.)
A homeless campsite in East Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
It has been 13 years since a Democratic president's signature on the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 eliminated a flawed program that also provided the only protection against destitution. Yet that act also brought an end to the welfare wars, a long and debilitating period in which poor people were the focus of political conflict and racially loaded demagoguery, exemplified by former Sen. Phil Gramm's image of a society divided between those "pulling the wagon" and those "riding in the wagon." Even liberals stepped with trepidation, insisting that they, too, would end welfare as we knew it.
Several years ago, I spoke on a panel where an audience member posed the rhetorical question, "Can any of you envision a robust progressive movement that doesn't have organized labor at the center of it?"
The appropriate answer -- the one that wouldn't cause the labor-heavy audience to throw rotten tomatoes at us -- was, "No." And that was also the right answer. None of us could envision a vibrant liberal movement without labor because we'd never seen such a thing. From the New Deal to the civil-rights movement, organized labor has borne much of the weight of a broader progressive vision.