Friday, February 22, 2008

Democracy can be bad for your health

In the aftermath of Wisconsin's finally relevant (though not nearly so relevant as we'd hoped) primary, the whining has commenced. Hillary Clinton lost in a landslide and so perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a great hue and cry from . . . Obama supporters? Yes, it seems that the edifice of democracy is crashing down about our ears. Tammy Baldwin might still vote for Hillary at the convention! GASP!

As everyone is, by now, aware, Tammy is one of the Democratic party's 842 super delegates, not bound by primary results. Russ Feingold is reportedly poised to pledge his support to Obama but Baldwin seems likely to exercise her prerogative to vote her own will as opposed to that of her district.

Four years ago, when the toppling of the Bush administration seemed like a real possibility, I saw Tammy speak at the UW. Her primary issue then, as now, was health care. For almost her entire tenure in office, Tammy Baldwin has been working toward universal health care. So why would she still be committed to Hillary Clinton? Because Clinton is the better candidate on health care.

Yes, the Obama and Clinton health care plans are very similar but Clinton's at least makes an attempt at universality, something that's actually necessary to keep individual costs down. Obama has indicated his willingness to impose penalties instead of Clinton's "mandate" thus punishing you for trying to game the system only if you lose said game. In trying to set himself apart on this issue, he's actually been attacking Clinton from the right, even going to so far as to resurrect the horribly distorted Harry and Louise ads that became emblematic of the right's efforts to sink universal health care the first time Hillary tried to make it a reality. So Baldwin has made her decision, for now.

But what of democracy? Isn't Tammy Baldwin an elected official, bound to the people's will? Well, not in the primary. One of the reasons the primary election system in this country is such a hodge-podge is that primaries are a relatively recent development. The Democratic party isn't a public institution. It's a political party and political parties can nominate their candidates any way they want. Less than a century ago, party nominating conventions had nothing to do with the results of public elections.

Progressive reformers began to push for primary elections in the early twentieth century as a way to lessen the influence of corrupt party bosses on candidate selection. As a vestige of the old system, superdelegates would do well to keep the progressive heritage of primary elections in mind. That being said, Tammy Baldwin is hardly a political fat-cat making unaccountable decisions in smoke-filled rooms. She's a well-loved and well-respected public official who feels very passionately about the need for health care for all Americans. We would all do well to respect that.

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