Last night I produced a list of changes in health reform legislation that progressives have, so far, been able to make to the most right-wing health reform policies that passed through either a Congressional committee or a full branch of Congress. It is a pretty decent list, but the overall analysis still makes it clear that the more conservative Democratic proposals largely won the day.
Why do conservative Democrats hold more sway over the party's policy than progressives? That is certainly a question that not only needs a lot of justification (try this post by Matthew Yglesias for starters), but which also has a wide range of possible, and largely unprovable, answers.
Still, I think it is fairly safe to venture that one reason for the relatively greater success of conservative Democrats in shaping Democratic legislative policy is that, generally speaking, a Democratic President has a lot more potential leverage over progressive members of Congress from blue states / districts than over conservative Democrats from red states / districts.
Consider the case of the Progressive Block, a strategy I wrote a lot about over the summer. The goal of this strategy was to get the White House and the Congressional leadership to pressure right-wing Democrats into supporting a couple of key progressive demands. The plan was to threaten to join with Republicans and block "must-pass" legislation, such as health reform, unless one or two specific progressive demands, such as the public option, were met.
However, there was a serious flaw in this strategy: it was never the path of least resistance for the White House to apply more pressure to right-wing Democrats than left-wing Democrats. Consider the choices facing the White House when threatened by both Progressives and Blue Dogs to comply with their various demands on health reform:
If you are just looking to pass a health reform bill at all costs, as it seems like the White House has been trying to do all along, by far the easier move here is to apply more pressure against Representatives from districts where both the White House and health reform are popular. And by "pressure," I mean things like OFA, primary challenges, popular opinion, and more. Compared to Blue Dogs, it is easier for a Democratic White House to a Progressive member's constituents against him or her.
- First, the White House could pressure Progressives to support health reform even if it lacks key progressive demands. These members of Congress generally come from districts where both President Obama and health reform are popular.
- Second, the White House could pressure right-wing Democrats, who generally come from districts where neither President Obama nor health reform are popular, to support health reform even it lacks key conservative demands.
The only way to have reversed this situation would have been if health reform was more popular within Blue Dog districts / donor groups than among Progressive districts / donors groups. While some left-wing opposition to the bill materialized, those seeking to defeat the bill from the left never rose above 12-13% of the population (this is a smaller group than the roughly 35% of Americans who think the bill does not go far enough--most of whom don't actually want to see the bill defeated). Thus, it is likely that those seeking to kill the bill from the left were a minority of Democratic primary voters in every Congressional district in the country.
It is virtually impossible for a member of Congress to have leverage over the White House when the White House is on the side of the majority voters in that member's district, but that member of Congress is not. To truly have had leverage over the White House, and have received much bigger concessions, any member of Congress blocking the bill for left-wing reasons needed to convince a majority, or close to a majority, of his or her constituents that the bill should be defeated without large, left-wing concessions.
To put it a bit more crudely, one reason Progressive members of Congress have relatively less influence over Democratic White Houses is because Democratic White Houses--and their legislative proposals--tend to be very popular in blue states and blue districts. That just makes it easier for Democratic White Houses to get concessions out of Progressives than out of Blue Dogs, at least on a general level. Because of this, we raised about as much hell as we realistically could have done, and still only achieved this list of concessions.
While this is not the only cause of relative Progressive legislative failure compared to Blue Dogs, it is still an important factor.