From No to Yes on Kerry:

Andy Stern Points to Health Care

By Greg Moses

Like environmentalists looking back on James Watt, or peace activists looking back on the draft, lefty organizers realize they will lose something if they lose Bush in November. Question is: will electing Kerry be worth the cost? While many leftists answer with a resounding no, Andy Stern this week, in a pair of reports clipped and distributed by the Portside list, answers no, and yes.

On the no side, Stern tells David Broder that a Bush defeat will leave labor feeling less threatened, in less of a fighting mood, and less conflicted among its membership. Bad signs for movement history. In effect, Stern tells Broder that he agrees with critics who allege that the left will be deflated by a Kerry win.

On the yes side, however, Stern replies in a statement at the website of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), that he is backing a $65 million campaign to elect Kerry. Why? Because Kerry has been a better friend to labor over the years and because labor does, in fact, expect better things from a Kerry administration.

Stern’s journey from no to yes is interesting to consider as an internet play made during a widely touted internet convention, where bloggers have made their official debut. With the help of the internet, Stern can spin one way in the morning, another in the afternoon, offering on one hand important concessions to leftist critics while presenting on the other hand a clear determination to get Kerry elected.

Between yes and no, Stern also offers an intriguing strategic proposal that sets out for leftists and labor activists an agenda that might help to reclaim long-lost liberal momentum in American politics. If labor is going to stand loyal with Kerry, says Stern, they expect that Kerry will stand loyal with them by fixing health care in the first hundred days of his administration.

At first glance, the Stern proposal looks neat, unwinnable, and an evasion of Iraq. But it may also deserve further consideration. The neatness of the Stern deal gives left organizers a clear deadline for their honeymoon with Kerry. If Kerry doesn’t move on health care, if Kerry doesn’t deliver a fixed health care system very early, then the gloves come back off. If Kerry does deliver health care, then left organizers can chalk up an achievement worth their while.

But fixing health care in 100 days? Haven’t we seen something like this before? Is this plan to be counted as anything more than Hilary’s revenge? Doesn’t it seem incredible to think that the empire beast of the USA government, which just roared through Iraq, is going to change its spots by Spring Break 2005, and suddenly lie down with the lambs of universal health care?

And on the question of Iraq, how can Kerry’s campaign promises on that front be nailed to the same platform as universal health care? So far, he is promising more money for the Iraq war, not less. Is the health care issue supposed to make us forget all about Iraq?

On second thought, however, there is a chance that Stern’s proposal for a health care agenda might keep the left moving toward peace under a Kerry administration. If pressures for health care can be assembled and funded, then budgets will have to shift. It will be impossible to reconcile the books of health care with the books of war. If Iraq is an empire’s elective war that can be abandoned, then Stern’s plan offers to Kerry’s activist base a way to mobilize a peace presidency as soon as the oath of office is taken.

If this strategy works, then the left can begin winning sooner than we think. Indeed, if it possible for the left to do something coherent in the coming year, Stern’s plan beats any other that I’ve heard.

But there are a lot of “ifs” here. For instance, can this empire walk away from the Iraq war? Is Kerry’s left base capable of shaking up American politics to the point where universal health care becomes a political mandate? To answer these questions would require from left and labor activists a sober inventory of what they are able to bring to the struggle at hand.

Labor Day would mark an auspicious time to launch the strategy that Stern has in mind. As he says, “Fixing the health care system in America is going to take the blood, sweat, and tears of all of us and we’ll need the energy and unity we have now to do it.” Question is: are activists willing to risk it?

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