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Credible Threats

Progressives have raised almost $200,000 to support the liberals putting their shoulder into the public option. Kevin Drum calls this a "credible threat." Politicians might be craven creatures, but "it's a lot harder to vote Yes after taking a very public stand against it and then accepting a bunch of activist money based on giving your word to stand firm."

That said, this seems to me more like a credible reward, which is also a good thing. These are real liberals in safe seats. None of them are necessarily scared of this debate. A credible threat would be the same amount of money -- or maybe even a bit more -- to fund a couple of high profile primary challenges against vulnerable congressmen and senators. Chuck Grassley's evident terror in the face of his primary challenge and Arlen Specter's sudden obeisance now that he's faced with Joe Sestak's campaign have served as pretty high-profile examples that this stuff works.

Update: Kevin Drum e-mails to say I've misunderstood:

This isn't either a threat or a reward *for* the congressmen in question. My point was that this money helps make the promise to vote against any bill without PO more credible. Right now, no one believes it. Everybody thinks that, in the end, liberals will cave and vote for it regardless. But with this money in place, which is going to people on condition that they vote against any bill without PO, it makes it genuinely hard for them to turn around and and vote Yes after all. It helps turn a meaningless threat into a credible one.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 20, 2009; 1:05 PM ET
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I just wanted to echo a couple of your points. Yes, it's a credible reward but it's also a fairly massive demonstration that this is a priority issue for that community and that there are a lot of people behind it. In some ways, I think that's just as important.

The stick approach also works, as you point out.

I don't want to shill too much here, but ActBlue enables both of those things to happen, as the Draft Sestak and the Standing Up page demonstrate. We're basically the only ones in this space and before we came along, the hassle of doing either of those things was much larger.

Posted by: Adr1an | August 20, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Adrian says: "ActBlue enables both of those things to happen, as the Draft Sestak and the Standing Up page demonstrate."

Not really. Primary challenges are still very much ad-hoc events, that work **once a serious primary challenge has emerged**, and stop working once the challenge has been beaten back.

What's needed is a left-wing answer to the Club For Growth - a credible threat that, IF you're a Dem that regularly votes against the mainstream of the party on important issues, then you know there's GOOD ODDS that you will be primaried from the left.

That's really one of the last missing pieces in the progressive resurgence. (The other would be a genuinely progressive big-city newspaper, but that would require a deep-pockets liberal who didn't mind losing some money, given the state of the news business.)

Posted by: rt42 | August 20, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, primary threats are part of the reason we have such partisanship, along with gerrymandering in House districts. Most Republicans are vulnerable only to primaries from the right, although I'd love to see Grassley get primaried because the winner is quite beatable.

Putting the people ahead of ambition is too much to expect. You gave two excellent examples.

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | August 20, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

This is the dilemma I discussed with the legislative aide to my Congressman (Danny Davis, IL 7th) the other week when I called to press him to sign the progressive caucus letter regarding the public option. I was told he would not do so, and the explanation was that he could not commit himself to voting against an eventual health care reform bill.

Okay, I get that, but I argued that "our" side needed the same type of strong leverage that the conservative Democrats seemed to be getting and that this kind of threat was the only way to wield that leverage. I reminded him that ours was a progressive district, and I expected him to represent our interests. All of this to no avail, even with implied threats of nonsupport in future elections (he's so safe, it's really hard to threaten).

So it was a game of cat and mouse. I don't really want my Congressman to vote against a final bill if it doesn't contain the private option: there's too much else that is important at stake. But I want it to have the public option, and I realize that will take as forceful a pushback from Congressional progressives as possible. I couldn't say to him, "go ahead and sign the letter, no one will hold you to your pledge in the end." So I feel we are in an endless spiral of insincere threats: ours to our legislators threatening nonsupport if they fail to push forcefully for the pubic option; theirs to us in promising (or not) that they will hold fast, when we know in the end they may well not.

In some small way, I guess I have to respect Danny Davis for not playing the game. Wish I could attend his "State of the 7th District" meeting Saturday morning, but I have an unpleasant date with my endodontist at the same time--talk about your insurance not covering anything: this tooth is costing me a freaking fortune.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 20, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Dont you think that is implied without bashing them over the heads with it. If we can raise 250,000 over the isssue we can do it again in anger.

Posted by: JonWa | August 20, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Your point is excellent but doesn't apply to this debate for the simple reason that Max Baucus is not facing reelection until 2014. As a result, he can do whatever the hell he wants.

Posted by: dal20402 | August 20, 2009 10:41 PM | Report abuse

It's one thing to say the money should have been raised for a primary challenger, but who? Which conservative Senator is up for reelection in 2010? Blanche Lincoln? What, raise $200,000 for a non-existant primary challenger in Arkansas?

Posted by: whiteelephant | August 21, 2009 1:46 AM | Report abuse

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