Is Too Little Better Than Too Late?

Right now, on two different fronts, political progressives face a horrible choice: Accept a severely compromised political agreement or stick to their guns and run the risk of getting nothing. Sure, this is a recurring question for activists and advocates of all stripes but—unlike the so-called "death tax"—in these two cases the question really is a matter of life or death.

On one front is the US healthcare debate. After months and months of fits and starts, obstinateness, fear-mongering, grand standing, and countless rounds of compromises, it looks like Senate Democratic Party leaders plan to give up two key provisions that were absolute musts for progressives: a public plan and the medicare buy-in option that’s been floated recently as an alternative to the public plan.

Faced with stonewalling by Senator Lieberman, it seems clear that President Obama is more interested in getting some kind of legislation through before the end of the year than getting the kind of robust healthcare reform for which he campaigned. And Senate Democratic leaders are apparently going along with him.

Mr. Durbin [Assistant Majority Leader] conceded that many liberals — including himself — are unhappy with the way the negotiations have gone. But they appear willing to swallow that unhappiness, he said, even if the bill loses a provision that would have allowed people as young as 55 to buy into Medicare.

"We had a caucus yesterday,” he said. "Many of us who are on that side of the caucus really felt we had to weigh on balance what remains. And what remains is dramatic, and we just don’t want to lose the opportunity, the once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, sees it very differently. In a scathing commentary today, Dean called for progressives to kill the bill.

"This is essentially the collapse of health care reform in the United States Senate. And, honestly, the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill and go back to the House and start the reconciliation process, where you only need 51 votes and it would be a much simpler bill."

On the other front are the climate negotiations taking place at COP15 in Copenhagen. By all reports, little progress is being made on reaching a substantive agreement. Like at previous meetings, it seems that talks are getting bogged down in disagreements over emissions limits in the industrial vs. non-industrial world and financial aid for "developing" countries (a really poor term, when you think of it).

Not being there myself, I’m a bit reluctant to paint things with too broad a brush but it sounds like frustration levels are rising, fueled by leaked memos indicating backroom deals on the part of western governments, mass arrests at reportedly peaceful protests, a supposed deal between France and Ethiopia that would undermine the position of the G77, plans to limit the number of NGO permits into the negotiations over the course of the week from 12,000 down to just 90 on Friday (all of these down from the estimated 45,000 permits originally granted), and the arrest today of a high-profile activist by plain clothes police as he left the Bella Centre.

Climate activists are understandably split as to what’s the best course of action. This tension is sure to escalate tomorrow, when a mass protest is planned by some activists to disrupt the talks. Protestors intend to break through the line outside the Bella Centre with some on the inside marching out to join them in halting the negotiations. While it’s debatable if this protest will work or just serve to shut out all the NGOs from the negotiations (leaving no one outside of official government and business interests there to bear witness), journalist and author Naomi Klein summed up the reasoning in a video message today:

“What’s so important about this protest tomorrow is that it’s a chance to say very clearly to politicians that we don’t just want any deal. The point is not just to sign a deal. You know this is the way politicians think when they’ve started negotiations, that the end goal is a deal and they don’t really care what is in the deal as long as they get 192 countries to sign on the dotted line. Normal people who are not politicians have a different standard for success. The deal actually has to be good enough to meet our climate crisis and it also has to be a just deal. So, that message is somehow getting lost inside these climate negotiations where the politicians believe that we just want a deal, any deal, seal the deal. And that’s not what we want. We want a good deal. And that’s what tomorrow is going to be about.”

It’s not a pretty picture, either in D.C. or Copenhagen. A lot of focus on COP15 is the whole north vs. south divide, but I think there’s something else at play there, which is also at play with the healthcare debate here at home. And that is whether the voices of the multitudes—those that are strong in numbers but weak in political or financial power—will sit by and let their futures be determined behind closed doors by a small few who are there, ostensibly, to represent them.

Put aside for a moment the issues themselves. There’s clearly something wrong with our political system when a handful of individuals (and in the case of healthcare, one… Senator Stonewall Lieberman) can wield so much control over the fate of millions, and billions, of people. I can’t say that I have any wisdom to impart on whether too little is better or worse than too late for either healthcare or the climate crisis. But what is abundantly clear to me, as the sun sets on this day and the clock sets on this year, is that our current balance of access is broken. And it’s up to each of us to own our democracy.

painting: Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis by Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1794


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