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.


Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is the assistant to the President of Unifor.