The Art of the Whip Count and the Strategic Referenda


photo: AldoZL (flickr)

It has often been said that politics is the art of the possible. The heart of this concept is the whip count.

You don’t allow votes to proceed if you know from the start that your whip count shows you will not prevail in some way, shape or fashion. Why? Because the worst thing in the business of legislative politics is to always be the symbolic loser. (Think of politicians like FDR, LBJ, and Teddy Kennedy — people who Got Things Done. They all knew this instinctively, without having to be told it.)

The whole thing about whip counts is why Jane Hamsher (you may have heard of her) decided to go with the public option rather than single payer when Obama and Congress started on the health care reform legislation, as there was no way in hell single payer would have come close to passing. We almost got the public option through, despite Obama and Rahm’s cutting the $150 million ad deal with industry stakeholders in May of last year; we couldn’t have come close with single payer and we knew that from the start, thanks to having ears on the ground. And even though we didn’t get the PO, the fight was close enough so that the organization Jane put together was able to pivot on a dime and successfully press for student loan reform, which turned out to be a nice consolation prize once the stake was buried in the public option’s heart. Now, that same organization has joined up with coalitions like LEAP (Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition) and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, to push for marijuana legalization.

Here’s the thing about legalization: It’s not just a way to undo the hideous damage wrought on this country and its Constitution by the War on Some Drugs. It’s to us what gay-marriage referenda were to the Republicans in the last few election cycles — namely, a way to energize the base AND to attract independent voters. Once the voters are in the booths to vote on the referendum, they see the candidates from the party that back the referendum and vote for those candidates. Even if the referendum doesn’t pass, it’s already served its secondary purpose. Poll after poll shows that legalization of marijuana is perhaps the single most important issue for young people of voting age; this is also a group that tends to vote for progressives and Democrats, but also tends to get easily discouraged from voting — a factor that looks to cost the Democrats seats if nothing’s done to address this.

Will the Democrats realize what an opportunity they have to win back the 2008 voters they alienated in 2009 and 2010? The next few weeks will tell the tale.

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