I think the inherent problem with the left-leaning “compromisers” is that they are unwilling to think outside the box. They may have progressive hopes, but they are not radicals in the traditional sense. They are unwilling go the extra yard for what they believe in. They don’t realize that the only way institutions change is when they have no other option but to change. As long as you are willing to make compromises for bread crumbs, you will never force a crisis that could lead to victory. Jonathan Cohn, at the New Republic, wrote:

Just think about how the filibuster, as currently practiced, distorts and constrains the process. When corralling sixty votes depends on winning over some combination of Senators Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Olympia Snowe, passing truly liberal legislation is going to be difficult, if not possible. The only way to change that is by electing even more liberals to the Senate, changing the way the Senate runs, or some combination of the two.

That project will require time. It will also require convincing voters of something too few of them believe already: That government action can be make a difference in their lives. Passing health care reform, even a deeply flawed one, will help enormously in that regard.

This is not only wrong, but a recipe for endless progressive failure. We will never elect substantially more liberal senators. That is a pipe dream and a waste of effort. Democrats are at a historic high-water mark, and as long as there is this 60-vote myth, we literally can’t get a liberal governing majority. As long as Democrats act like they need 60 votes for legislation, it is technically impossible to get left-of-center legislation when you need a right-of-center 3/5 super-majority to pass anything.

The problem is also not that there are not enough liberal senators–it is the mindset of the liberal senators we have that is the bigger issue. Jay Rockefeller is as liberal as you can get on health care reform, but the problem is he has been in the Senate for decades. He likes his silly privileges, and has fallen in love with the hugely disproportional powers they give him. Our liberal senators now more strongly want to keep the Senate the way it is (regardless of how broken) than they want to do their actual job: passing legislation that will improve the lives of Americans.

Changing the way the Senate works is not something that will come slowly over time. The Senate, like all entrenched institutions, will only change when there is a crisis. That is how it has always changed in the past. In the early part of the 20th century, there was a governing crisis because of the filibuster, so the Senate added the 2/3 cloture vote. There was a crisis in the 60’s, so the Senate developed the tracking legislative process to be able to move two different bills at once. There was a crisis about the abuse of the filibuster in the 70’s, so cloture was changed from a 2/3 to 3/5 vote. Similarly, a crisis resulted in the creation of the reconciliation measure that could not be filibustered. In 2005, when the filibuster got in the way of Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, he threatened to create a crisis and use the “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster. (Unfortunately, Democrats backed down, eliminating the crisis needed to cause change.)

This is the perfect moment for the progressives to force the crisis needed to change how the Senate works. Health care is a huge party issue with massive support among the base. The public option is extremely popular and has become a rallying call. It can’t pass the completely made-up 60-vote threshold, but it can get the constitutionally required simple majority. If we can’t break the unconstitutional and disfucntional Senate rules on this issue, I don’t see how progressives will ever be able to. Failing to create the crisis now, will pretty much guarantee not a single piece of really progressive legislation is passed during Obama’s presidency. Given the broken state of the Senate and the massive increase in filibuster use, it is not a matter of if there will be a crisis, but simply when. If progressives can’t force a Democratically controlled Senate to fix this nonsense, I can promise you when the Republicans take back the Senate, the right-wing base will. Capitulating now for bread crumbs would be admitting progressive change is impossible. You don’t get change by saying, “pretty please, but if don’t, that is ok.” You only will see change if you demand it.


Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at http://pendinghorizon.com