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Robert Borosage: It’s up to citizen groups to drive the reforms and mobilize the public

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to the The Real News Network, coming to you from the conference America’s Future Now. And joining me from the conference is the codirector and cofounder of Campaign for America’s Future, Robert Borosage. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So during the campaign, election campaign, you vigorously fought for the election of Barack Obama. We’re now 120 or 130 days in, or whatever it is. What were your expectations then, and what do you make of them now?

BOROSAGE: Well, the one thing–one thing–that’s happened is, of course, the crisis is much worse than anybody imagined at the beginning of the campaign. And I think the Obama administration has been much bolder in response to that crisis than I would have expected. So I’ve been amazed to watch him just kind of discard the conventional wisdom that says you can only do one or two things in your first administration, and instead tee up for a vote this year kind of basic reforms, structural reforms that we need to change this economy and rebuild a new economy in the ruins of the old. It’s a much bolder agenda.

JAY: Bolder for whom? Because the critique—he’s been bold in a way that he’s funneled billions of dollars to banks, which many people say wasn’t necessary. It certainly could have been done in a way that gave more public control over that money. Bold in terms of the artistry, except bold in the sense that the risk is being shifted to retired auto workers. So what’s the bold?

BOROSAGE: Well, the recovery plan, which was $800 billion when he started, made real investments in poverty, the biggest poverty investment since the war on poverty of the Great Society. Doubled the education budget at the federal level. Started investment in jobs and green energy—I mean, new energy and green jobs. The new budget put real investment in education and the environment again, energy again, and 21st-century infrastructure. He’s teed up for a vote comprehensive health-care reform. We’re going to have that debate this month. The Employee Free Choice Act. The immigration reform. Taking the banks out of student loans, making student loans affordable.

JAY: Well, let’s pick up on two of the critical ones there, and we’ll start with health-care reform. What is—I know what’s not on the table. It’s pretty clear single-payer is not on the table, at least according to Senator Baucus, who says it can’t win so it’s not on the table after telling us everything’s on the table. But what is on the table? I actually can’t make sense of what Senator Baucus actually thinks is on the table, ’cause I don’t know whether even public health care is really still on the table. Is it?

BOROSAGE: Well, what’s on the table is a hybrid plan where people—if you like your health insurance, you get to keep it, and if you don’t like it, you have an option of a public plan. And the public plan is, hopefully, something like Medicare-for-all that gives people an affordable—.

JAY: You’re sure that still is on the table?

BOROSAGE: That’s still on the table [inaudible]

JAY: ‘Cause, I mean, that’s not very clear from Baucus what—.

BOROSAGE: Well, it’s in the house plan; it’s in the House bill; it’s in Kennedy’s bill, which is half of the Senate process. It’s not clear what’s in Baucus’ plan. When he started, he was good on it. He’s now been in discussions with Grassley and he’s taken positions all over the place. So this is the battle. The entire insurance lobby has said, “We don’t want the public plan.” Republicans have said—.

JAY: Yeah, they’re asking for a regulated, private plan.

BOROSAGE: Right. Republicans have said it’s a deal-breaker. So it’s not going to be easy, but it is still [inaudible].

JAY: So where is the president? ‘Cause why hasn’t he—there—no one has more political capital than him. If he’s committed to a public plan, when does he weigh in on this with everything he’s got?

BOROSAGE: Well the president’s style is very different than that, and for better or worse; that is, what he’s clearly done is he’s said, “I’m going to put these reforms out. I’m going to lay out my principles. Then I’m going to have my aides deal in the back rooms, put everybody at the table, cut the deal. I’m not going to spend much capital publicly trying to change the balance of forces in the Congress,” which we can agree is probably a mistake, from my perspective, “and instead I’m going to embrace what comes out of the process as a victory and move on.” So you saw that in the recovery plan, where he put—he started out with an $800 billion plan that had real investments in infrastructure, etcetera. Then the conservative Democrats and Republicans got a hold of it in the Senate and they put—$200 billion got wiped out and put into ersatz tax cuts that weakened the plan dramatically. The president didn’t object publicly. He accepted that as 90 percent of what he wanted and embraced it. And that’s the style that he’s got. And his mortgage plan, you know, the banking lobby cut out the heart of the mortgage reform, which was “cram down”, allowing bankruptcy judges to reset mortgages for families in distress. President didn’t weigh in on that, accepted what came out as 90 percent of what he wanted, and embraced it. So—.

JAY: But 90 percent is not—when you lose your heart, even though it may be less than—a small piece of the body, you lose your heart and you’re dead.

BOROSAGE: The response to that is: then it’s our job, the job of citizen groups, these big coalitions that have been built to try and drive these reforms, it’s our job is to mobilize the public to make sure that the Congress knows that they’re going to pay a price, you know, on this, and to put real pressure on them against the entrenched lobbies. It makes it harder thing. On the other hand, it does force us to do a lot more mobilization work.

JAY: But why do you let him off the hook, “him” being the president?

BOROSAGE: As I said, I think it’s a regrettable strategy [inaudible]

JAY: Yeah, because no one has more ability to mount mass support on something he—a core promise of his election campaign was a public health-care plan, you know, certainly one of the major pillars of the reasons people voted for him. I remember this moment in the debate with McCain, this critical question came: is health care a privilege or a right? And candidate Obama says a right. And a lot of people said, “Okay, I’ll vote for you.” If he doesn’t fulfill that, isn’t he giving up the heart of what he campaigned for?

BOROSAGE: Well, see, you know, I assume there are lines that he’s drawn that will bring him into the list. We don’t know what those are yet. And there’s no question they’re running a very effective backrooms operation, you know, in these negotiations with Congress. Yes, I would rather he would be more public, more driving this process, more engaged in the public thing. They clearly have made a calculation that they have so many issues on the table, they don’t want to make enemies with these legislators; they want to keep working with them on this issue and the next issue and the next issue. And so they don’t want the president, you know, embarrassing or outing the Congress people.

JAY: And when you say “those legislators,” are we actually talking about conservative Democrats more than Republicans?

BOROSAGE: Well, both. You know, you’ve got a handful of so-called moderate Republicans—an endangered species—and you’ve got a handful of blue dogs, conservative Democrats. Those are the people standing in the way. You’ve got to get 60 votes in the Senate; you’ve got to construct that somehow from that group. It’s not more than, you know, a dozen senators. You know, in the House you don’t have a problem. In the House, generally the reforms are passing almost intact, and the one exception that was on energy, where the coal state and oil state legislators had enough of a constituency to force real compromise.

JAY: And what you think of the energy—the issue—the EPA and the Obama administration made it pretty clear they’re only interested in cap-and-trade, and carbon tax is—again doesn’t seem to be on the table? And most of the environmentalists and many of the scientists and others have said the cap-and-trade just is not going to be effective, certainly not in the time frame that’s needed.

BOROSAGE: No. I think the sad thing is the cap-and-trade became the dominant environmental community position. So they’ve adopted this long ago. They abandoned the carbon tax.

JAY: A section did, yeah.

BOROSAGE: And so there are very few environmental groups that are in fact holding out or even pushing hard for a carbon tax. They thought—I mean, it’s sort of—it’s like single-payer: not possible; we’ll do cap-and-trade; we’ll be able to cut some deals and move forward. And cap-and-trade makes it easier, they think, internationally to create some kind of a global system. We may argue whether that’s true or not—.

JAY: Except it seems to be almost an impossible system to enforce.

BOROSAGE: Right. So I think the environmental community, in fact, went to cap-and-trade early, before this negotiation started. What’s alarming about the negotiation in the House is what came out was a real weak process, such that some of the groups think that it really weakened the laws and might well be right now. And we haven’t got to the Senate yet, which is likely to be worse. So that bill is, I think, troublesome.

JAY: Now, you’ve met the president and you know senior people in the Obama administration. Are they committed to a public health-care plan? Or can they live with a regulated, private plan?

BOROSAGE: I think they’ve been pretty careful about not saying what they’re committed to. I think we are going to come out of the House with a public health-care plan. I hope we’re going to come out of the Senate with one. And if we do, I’m sure the president will embrace it. If by some chance you come out of this process without a public health-care plan, will he sign on to the bill? I don’t know that, one way or the other, from what he said, but I suspect he might.

JAY: And if he does, if he would sign a bill that isn’t a real public plan, what attitude does the Campaign for America’s Future take? I mean, this was a fundamental promise of his.

BOROSAGE: We strongly don’t believe that health-care reform works unless you have a really robust public plan at the center of it. And so I think we would have a very hard time understanding how the bill works if we don’t have a public plan. And that’s why we assume we’re going to get one. We’ve got one of the House. We’ve got to just keep pushing.

JAY: Thanks for joining us for Part One. Will be back for Part Two. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Robert Borosage is the co-director of the Campaign for Americaús Future. Previously, Borosage founded and directed the Campaign for New Priorities, a nonprofit organization calling for post-Cold War reinvestment in America. Borosage writes for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Enquirer, The American Prospect and The Nation. He is the author of The Next Agenda. He is a frequent commentator for television and radio, including ?Fox News Live,? National Public Radio, C-SPAN, and Pacifica Radio. In 1988, he was senior issues advisor to the presidential campaign of Reverend Jesse Jackson. He has also served as an issues advisor to many progressive political campaigns, including those of Senators Carol Moseley Braun, Barbara Boxer, and Paul Wellstone.