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The progressive case against Jim McDermott

Seattle's most popular politician hasn't served his constituents well. In fact, he's done little more than attract national ridicule. Meanwhile, he's taking up space — preventing the rise of potential new leaders of the Democratic Party.
U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle.

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle. None

For nearly 20 years, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott has been one of Seattle's most popular politicians.

He's been seriously challenged just once — in 1988, when, in his first race for Congress, he received 38 percent of the primary vote, with the remainder split between future Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, King County Assessor Ruthe Ridder, and four others. Since then he's received an average of nearly 78 percent of the vote.

"He will be re-elected as long as he wants to run for office," state Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz told a reporter.

Progressives have praised the 7th District congressman for voting against the Iraq war, and he became a minor national celebrity after appearing in Michael Moore's antiwar film, Fahrenheit 9/11.

But does a progressive veneer make up for below-average performance? Do good intentions excuse a lack of judgment that undermines his effectiveness and make him, in some corners, a laughingstock?

Health care

McDermott's signature issue is health-care reform. The psychiatrist has long advocated for a single-payer system to the exclusion of virtually any compromise or incremental plan.

His latest proposal, the American Health Security Act of 2007 (HR 1200), would eliminate Medicare, Medicaid, and the health plans for federal workers, military dependents, and military retirees. In their stead, McDermott would pool payroll taxes, require the states to create basic health plans, and ban private insurance companies from offering their own plans that duplicate the basic health plans.

It's the kind of sweeping change that McDermott has failed to persuade others is the right change.

And with McDermott, it's all or nothing. In 1993, at the Clinton administration's request, he deferred pushing his single-payer plan, even while attacking Clinton as "going down the wrong road." The next year, as the Clinton health-care reform plan sank under the weight of its own complexity and alarmist attacks by special interests, McDermott urged Congress to abandon health-care reform. "He evidently expected a more favorable political environment after the 1994 elections and, like many, was surprised by the result," wrote Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, authors of the Almanac of American Politics.

But the Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1994, and McDermott's assessment turned out to be a bad judgment call.

Meanwhile, in 1993, Washington state had developed its own reform plan that would have achieved universal coverage by 2000. The state worked hard with then-U.S. Rep. Mike Kreidler, who now is insurance commissioner, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to persuade the federal government to grant a waiver from a federal law so large employers could be required to participate. But the state reform would have had many of the managed-competition elements of the Clinton proposal. Since that didn't reflect McDermott's single-minded approach, he was invisible, other than to offer a lukewarm endorsement, saying state officials "did the best they could."

By 1998, while McDermott continued to advocate single-payer, others had begun working for incremental change. McDermott served on a bipartisan Medicare reform commission co-chaired by U.S. Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Breaux negotiated a proposal to get a Medicare prescription drug benefit that would be tied to structural changes and competition to hold down costs. Breaux got 10 of the 11 votes he needed. McDermott (and other Democrats) dissented, saying the cost controls would bar access for some people. Reform was stopped dead again, and Breaux was bitter, directing his comments to McDermott and his allies. "More and more people in Congress have an all-or-nothing attitude," Breaux said. "All-or-nothing attitudes generally wind up getting nothing."

Is McDermott right in insisting on a single-payer model? Single-payer proponents argue that ending privately funded health insurance would eliminate an expensive middleman, redistribute money more coherently, and reduce costs. But it doesn't change the financial incentives in the system so that they encourage keeping costs down while increasing quality — a key element of the managed-competition reforms that the Clintons and state reformers worked toward.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

"He works for a regional healthcare system": Translation: Don Glickstein is the flack for Group Health. No wonder he rails against single-payer and its most outspoken advocate.

Nice try, flack. Nice try, Crosscut. Nice try at redefining "progressive." When the "progressive" case against Jim McDermott is presented by profiteering parasites, then the word has little meaning indeed.

Jim gets my vote and my active support for as long as he runs, and advocacy for single payer will be one of my litmus tests for whoever succeeds him.
ivan

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

McDermott's a buffoon: Unlike Chris Wedes, who knows he's a clown, McDermott takes himself very seriously, but he's in a distinct minority in that regard.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I was with you until the last line: McDermott is exactly the kind of ineffective representative this ineffective city deserves.

Sean

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 10:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Has he ever?: Has Big Jim ever done anything other than attract national ridicule? He single handedly shut done the ethics committee for years. He is interested in Africa, but ...

Hebron

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Progressive Against McDermott: I am a die-hard liberal, progressive voter. And I oppose Jim McDermott. His principled stands are laudable, but I agree that he is not a get-it-done kind of politician, and a true progressive must first and foremost be someone who can get things done, otherwise there is no progress.

McDermott's time is at an end. I have not voted for him in the past two elections, and I won't this time around either--and I hope more and more Seattle Democrats wise up and see that getting some fresh blood into his seat will be the best thing both for Seattle and for progressive ideals. (Frankly, it'd be the best thing for McDermott, too, since he could then devote himself more fully to third world charitable enterprises rather than deal with the "distraction" of holding a House seat.)

There are a lot of die-hard liberals in Seattle who agree with me, and know our numbers are starting to grow...
smacgry

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Single-Payer: Incidentally, McDermott is correct on the issue of a single-payer health care system. Look at every other industrialized country, and you'll see one form or another of a single-payer system (with or without private insurance options on top of it).

People who oppose single-payer systems lack any rational argument based on evidence from other countries.

But McDermott is not the politician who can get a single-payer system rolling in Congress.
smacgry

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Tired, old Jim: Jim McDermott has fought (and lost) the good fight for Seattle liberalism for many years, but it's perfectly reasonable for the locals to wonder what might happen if we had a real powerhouse in his seat (a la Norm Dicks or Patty Murray). Some established D should have taken him on this year--and the same thing goes in 2010. Give the voters a better choice and Sunny Jim will sail into the sunset.

J.R.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 1:04 p.m. Inappropriate

True Enough - but there's more: Let us not forget that Seattle does not have any effective mass-transit system, such as a light rail project, or a monorail, that could cover at least the transportation needs of Seattle residents. In the last 20 years, you would figure that any responsible progressive would have worked within Congress to have secured the federal funding to get Seattle the mass-transit system it wants - and have something up-and-running by now. Instead, more people are using their cars, spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Nor, has he pursued any funding to help resolve the Viaduct problem.

Given that there will always be Republicans and conservatives in Congress, you need to avoid antagonism whenever possible. That doesn't mean not standing up for your values and voting accordingly, but that means finding the solutions that will create the least resistance (such as getting universal care without insisting on single-payer only), or pursuing dubious causes that may affect your honor (the Bonior lawsuit was more about invasion of privacy than first amendment rights). In this manner, you can get more accomplished that will advance your agenda.

It is time to replace McDermott. With the Top-Two primary in place, and with more moderate voters moving into that district, he is no longer a "Congressman for life". What has been provided in this article is more than enough information for a more moderate Democrat, like Bob Ferguson, to run against him - and win.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 4:19 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Single-Payer: "People who oppose single-payer systems lack any rational argument based on evidence from other countries."

I suppose the fact that most of those countries have long waiting lists, and many of their citizens who can afford to opt to come the the US and pay cash, aren't rational arguments. We need to fix health care for those who don't have it, not break it for those who do.
dbreneman

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 8:44 p.m. Inappropriate

A false sacrifice: Seattle could have a Rep who's just as liberal as McD, but who more effectively advocates and delivers for the region. McD HAS gotten some viaduct money, but very little ($14m-ish I think). Rick Larsen (and Dave Reichert, and Norm Dicks) lifted a heavier load and were more influential in the Republican Congress on behalf of viaduct funding. Given McD's seniority he should have been delivering year after year for transportation projects (roads, transit, bikes, ped) across the district. His near-refusal to work across the aisle dooms Seattle to ineffective representation. It doesn't have to be this way. Seattle is full of smart, experienced and very liberal public servants who would battle the GOP but will still be effective for the region. It's a shame.

eelsongs

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 8:53 p.m. Inappropriate

carrying H2O for Group Health: yes, yes, yes he's a flack for Group Health and not a very good one. But the main point is that he is just plain wrong about the facts. The British and Canadian systems are not 'riddled with inefficiences...' He repeats the corporate health care-industrial complex nonsense as if it is fact. McDermott is no saint, and Crosscut hates him (this is not the first article attacking McD), but why should we give a guy like this any credibility. Can't Crosscut get anyone legit to criticise McD?

Uncle Mike

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 9:20 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: carrying H2O for Group Health: Someone legit to criticize Baghdad Jim?

Try Steve Beren who does an excellent job of it every day and who has the guts to bring the truth of the values of liberty and freedom into the heart of darkness.

Go to www.berenforcongress.com and learn about a genuine political hero.

The Piper

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 10:27 p.m. Inappropriate

A correction from the writer: From Don Glickstein:

Just to correct a couple of commentators: I was the official spokesman for my employer---a nonprofit consumer-governed health care system---in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Currently, I work part-time in an office cubicle in Tukwila, and speak for no one but myself.

My comments about the Canadian and British health care systems come from monitoring their media and their parliaments' Question Periods, where MPs from all parties---NDP, Liberal, Parti Quebecois, Conservative, and Greens; Labor, Tory, and Liberal Democrat---rarely let a week go by without bringing up yet another horror story. They love their health care systems, but they all agree that they face serious challenges.

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 7:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, big whoop!: Well, that's just great, flack. You monitor the MEDIA, so you KNOW!

Well, here's a clue. You can't go a day in THIS country without hearing yet another horror story about the system WE have.

Maybe you can tell me why the greatest costs in our system are administrative -- costs that the UK and Canada don't have.

Maybe you can tell me why CEOs of health insurers are making hundreds of millions of dollars a year while people are going without insurance and care.

Maybe you can tell me why you think the for-profit health insurance system needs to continue in this country, and why you have the gall to call yourself a "progressive" and criticize Jim McDermott.

One day we will have single-payer in this country and whether Jim is around to see it or not, he will have shown us the way. You, on the other hand, haven't shown me s--t.

And as for you, Piper, Steve Beren should be an embarrassment even to you righties.
ivan

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The Local Press Ignores McDermott's Significant Accomplishments: I think he HAS done things, but has gotten little credit for it. Partly this is because I think McDermott has an ineffective staff, particularly on the communications side, and the press gives him no credit.

Here are some things to think about. Such as, he was the only member of the delegation to support Pelosi's rise in leadership, first to Whip then to Minority Leader - he is her most trusted ally in the state. All of the other members supported other candidates for both positions.

Here are a few more points to consider:

For example, Congress.com, a non-partisan service that ranks the "power" of members of congress by evaluating position, influence, legislation and earmarks, ranked McDermott the 39th most powerful house member (Dicks was 22nd, Inslee was 72nd, Baird is 212, Larsen is 236 and Smith is 258)

Another is that this year McDermott wrote and passed both the unemployment bill earlier this year and some landmark legislation around foster care. When that bill passed, Dr. Abe Bergman of Harborview who advocated for it said that "McDermott pulled this off the way Maggie used to," he said. "He slimmed down his own original bill. He sought support from his ranking member. Maggie would never bring anything to the floor where the ranking Republican wasn't on board."

But from reading the Seattle papers, would you know that? Nope. Neither piece of legislation was covered - the unemployment bill made A1 of the New York Times and the Washington Post - nothing at all in either of our dailies. I pulled the Bergman quote off of the Seattle PI blog, which is the only place that covered it - not in the dead fish edition, not in the Times (anywhere), not in the stranger, not in the weekly.
rerickson

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: A correction from the writer: Weren't HMOs like Group Death^H^H^H^H^HHealth supposed to be the public face of utopian Hillarycare? It's hard to see how such an exemplar of the Brave New Healthcare System could be railed against by those here who want government domination of that vital service, especially since most health care providers were forming HMOs like mad in 1992 in order to survive the Clintons' große Umschaltung.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 12:45 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: "He works for a regional healthcare system": ivan,

You can't just blindly defend Jim can you? You know I have love for you but Jim has been ineffective. It's up to us the folks how send him back year after year to hold him accountable for missing in action on the larger issues in our city. Where has he been on the viaduct? To rephrase something that Joe Biden said in a presidential debate. Jim comes to town and whenever he speaks you are guaranteed to hear a noun a verb and Iraq. Seattle can do better, especially when you have capable folks like Ed Murray, Eric Pettigrew, and Sharon Santos on the bench.
eprince

Posted Wed, Jul 9, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Postman on Glickstein on McDermott: David Postman today: "Another (losing) case against McDermott's re-election."

...Voters in the 7th District return him to office by consistently huge victory margins. I believe Seattle voters know McDermott's record, as well as his shortcomings, and must believe he is doing just what they want him to. I have no polling to back this up. But I'd be surprised to find that many 7th District voters are unhappy that their congressman spends so much time worrying about, for example, health care in Africa.

...Don Glickstein covers some familiar territory.... with a level of detail and a thoroughness usually missing from more strident rants against McDermott.... But Glickstein also pokes at McDermott's financial holdings... This issue, in the hands of a capable campaigner, could possibly keep McDermott's re-election numbers down to the low 70s.

Posted Thu, Jul 10, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank God He Does Not Repesent Me: Those progressives of us who live away from "The Emerald City" read about Jim Mc'D's travels and travails. Our elected's focus on taking care of their constituents which does involve a modicum of compromise. As long as Jim remains in Congress his District is getting the representation it deserves. However, his inability to work with our own State Congressional delegation, our majorty in Congress, and God forbid "the other party" dilutes our overall effectiveness and gives pragmatic progressives a bad name as he is held to national ridicule as representative of the progressive movement.

Posted Thu, Jul 10, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Single-Payer: Germans are not on waiting lists; they do not come to the U.S. for medical care.

French are not on waiting lists; they do not come to the U.S. for medical care.

Swedes are not on waiting lists; they do not come to the U.S. for medical care.

Japanese are not on waiting lists; they do not come to the U.S. for medical care.

Brits are not on waiting lists; they do not come to the U.S. for medical care.

Should I go on?

The whole "waiting list" and "they come to the U.S. for treatment" thing is a myth--actually, Americans are going abroad to Thailand and India among other places for affordable care in greater and greater numbers.

Go live in another industrialized country, any one of them, and use their health service and find out what you're missing out on. You're clearly delusional if you think health care ain't broke in this country.
smacgry

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