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Fred Wilson is the Director of Strategic Planning at Unifor. He volunteers with the Council of Canadians and serves on its Board of Directors. Twitter @fwilson2

The Kucinich decision

| March 22, 2010

A remarkable political drama has been unfolding in the United States, and it has touched me both as an epic struggle for change and a poignant discourse on the collision of pragmatism and principle for progressives.

The drama, of course, is US health care reform and the nail biting end game that saw President Obama and the Democratic house leaders whip just enough votes to pass the legislation.

But the scene in this drama that brought this together for me was the decision of US Representative Dennis Kucinich to switch his vote and support Obama's bill in the US Congress. His decision was the signal to other progressive Democrats to come on-side with Obama and cast the decisive votes.

Mr. Kucinich, a Congressman from Cleveland, Ohio, is arguably one of the most influential leaders of the American left, a strong and reliable voice on issues from US wars to labour rights and trade issues to single payer health care. Last November he voted against the health care bill because of its lack of a strong public option and its requirement that millions of Americans buy private insurance from the for-profit health care insurance companies. After a flight from Washington to Cleveland on Airforce 1 with the President, Kucinich decided to change his position.

Watching Kucinich explain his reversal made me very uncomfortable, but I could not help feeling empathy for the Congressman. He squirmed with the acknowledgement that the Obama legislation is "not a step towards anything I have fought for" but rather a regulation of private, for-profit health care.

His decision to support the bill was based on these factors: first his determination that a public option was not attainable at this time, and there was a political need to accomplish something; second, his conclusion that Obama's presidency may hang in the balance of the health care vote; and perhaps most important, his decision that neither he nor progressives can allow themselves to be held responsible for a setback that would empower and embolden the Republicans, and likely take health care reform off the table for another decade.

In one debate over Mr. Kucinich's decision, he squared off with Ralph Nader on the alternative news documentary Democracy Now. Nader seemed to take pleasure in excoriating Kucinich for "caving in to threats of retribution" and demanded to know if Kucinich would return the donations he received from citizens who supported single payer health care reform. (Kucinich said he would return donations, if requested.)

The exchange annotated the collision between principle and pragmatism for US progressives. The two shared common ground in their critique of the Obama bill - a critique that Kucinich maintains even after agreeing to vote for it. The difference is that while Kucinich will continue to play a role in US electoral politics, Mr. Nader decided some time ago to step outside the politics of governance and play a different role. Having been on both sides of this divide in my political life, I understand and appreciate the role that each play.

I was struck by the very public and meaningful character of this debate between progressives, and I believe that the American left will be strengthened because of it. By holding out to the end, Kucinich did move the debate. In the campaign rallies during the final days leading to the vote, Obama himself launched populist attacks on the health care insurance companies, when a year earlier he embraced these same insurers as partners in health care reform.

The decision about when to support questionable public policy or imperfect reforms is one that thousands of progressive politicians in municipal councils and in our legislatures face almost daily. But it has been a long time since Canadian progressives have been challenged by any decision as important or fundamental as the one Mr. Kucinich was forced to make. Discussing these issues with a friend, the perceptive comment was offered that in Canada it is conservatives, not progressives, who are more likely to struggle with decisions that compromise political principle.

To me, the ultimate relevance of the Kucinich decision is his prominence as a left, progressive politician which placed him in such a pivotal role. If not for his leadership role on this and many other points of principle, his decision would not have been particularly important. But because the American left has a voice in Kucinich, the health care vote is not only about what Obama accomplished, but also about what was abandoned, and what must still be done.

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Glen Ford wrote:

The last Left Democrat in the U.S. Congress has folded his hand, crushed by Wall Street's servant in the White House, Barack Obama.

Until Wednesday morning, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich was the only opposition from the Left still holding out against Obama's private insurance subsidy bill - a massive redistribution of wealth to Wall Street masquerading as health care reform. The bill was long ago stripped of any fig leaf of a "public option," and now awaits passage in its pure form - the formal establishment of a private health care system in which the people are forced to finance the profits of some of the biggest players in the Wall Street casino, the insurance corporations. Far from a step forward towards a society in which health care is every person's right, the Obama bill is a huge step backward in the opposite the direction from which the entire industrialized world has been traveling. Obama's so-called reform is in fact, a defeat of the dream of universal health care.

Read more at Black Agenda Report

I will not be sucked in by this disease of fake progressivism, fwilson. Your post is infuriating.

You have not made any case. You only serve to demonstrate how to dissemble. Now, Either you 'are' dissembling or you're imitating others who are doing it. Either way, It's not helpful.

Here's the core of your pitch for us to forgive Kucinich:

"His decision to support the bill was based on these factors: first his determination that a public option was not attainable at this time, and there was a political need to accomplish something; second, his conclusion that Obama's presidency may hang in the balance of the health care vote; and perhaps most important, his decision that neither he nor progressives can allow themselves to be held responsible for a setback that would empower and embolden the Republicans, and likely take health care reform off the table for another decade."

The first factor isn't one, really. The 'political' need? Only a public that is sleeping, and willing to suck up dissembling whenever it's offered by fake progressives, needs to be patted on the back and told that everything is all right, even while the evidence of their own eyes and experiences tells them differently. But is that the right way for political leaders to operate? Please the indifferent, uncaring, overworked, distracted, (successfully) propagandized masses and screw those citizens who cared enough to know (by thinking critically) that Obama, like the democracy his class gives us, is fake? Screw the citizens who perhaps go even further and try to actively bring about change by telling others what they need to hear about plans for health care 'reform' pushed by special, capitalist, interests and by protesting against the foes of a system that works for everyone rather than just a few?

I'm sure I've got that right, because you go on in your itemization of big reasons to mention that "Obama's presidency may hang in the balance." And losing Obama, a friend of uncaring special interests (as you well know; while you're implying that his angry words toward them are sincere!) who have just consigned millions of Americans to greater insecurity (and in some cases, worse) with his help, is a problem why?!!!

Speaking of another decade, With so many 'progressives' leading the remaining left-leaning citizens over to the rightwing camp, I'm sure it'll be more like forever. (Fortunately, That won't be the case, but not because we can count on betrayal.)

What's going on Rabble?

Fred Wilson wrote:
Mr. Nader decided some time ago to step outside the politics of governance...

Was this before or after he ran for President in November 2008?

Fred Wilson misrepresents Ralph Nader's position in the Democracy Now "debate". Nader did not say that Kucinich had made the wrong decision. He sympathized with the plight of Kucinich and the other left Democrats who were being "crushed" by the Democratic Party machine and the insurance lobby. He recognized that Kucinich was being put into an impossible position, and his scorn was rightly directed at the Democratic Party, not at Kucinich. He urged Kucinich to "go all over the country" to continue the fight after the bill passes, even though the Democrats will want to forget health care for another 10-15 years. It's up to people like Kucinich to try to keep public pressure building for a proper medical care program in the United States.

Kucinich's decision to vote for the bill was not made because he felt "there was a political need to accomplish something", as Wilson suggests. Kucinich has no illusions that this bill will "accomplish something". He made it quite clear that he only decided to vote for the bill because to defeat it would be a huge victory for the right, and would likely make it harder for the left to continue to build support for real health care reform.

Kucinich is a defeated man. The fraudulent Obama health care reform is an historic defeat for the cause of socialized medicine. Both Kucinich and Nader recognize that. The only difference between them is that Kucinich still hasn't gotten the message that the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the left.

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