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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

It All Begins With the People in the Streets

A victory on healthcare. (photo: Getty Images)
A victory on healthcare. (photo: Getty Images)


By Charles Pierce, Esquire

A victory on healthcare.

ll week, the South Lawn of the Capitol had been the scene of protests of varying sizes, all of them directed at the U.S. Senate for the purposes of demonstrating how unpopular were that body's attempts to slice and dice the Affordable Care Act. There were protests in Upper Senate Park, too, across Constitution Avenue, the home of the world's most off-key carillon. On Wednesday evening, there was a big rally there supporting Planned Parenthood. Both Senator Al Franken and Senator Professor Warren spoke at that one. At odd moments, I'd wander out and talk to the people gathered there.

They were from all over the country. Some of them had been very sick. Some of them still were. All of them were very uneasy about their personal future. On Tuesday night, when it looked like Mitch McConnell had won his gamble against representative democracy, there were 15 people on the South Lawn, at midnight, chanting up at the empty Capitol. They were the stakes in McConnell's gamble, and they were shouting at a vacant building. This was a scene that seemed suitable, and sadly symbolic, to the moment at hand.

All that changed early Friday morning, when 51 senators raided McConnell's game. You could hear the cheers from outside in the halls of the Senate. Various senators, including SPW again, went outside and congratulated the people on the South Lawn.

The last (for now) attempt to chloroform the ACA formally through legislation had failed. (Watch, however, how the campaign to sabotage it ramps up now, led by the White House, whose petulant occupant will gladly pull your temple down on his head.) As I walked back into the Capitol, what came to mind were all the people I have heard over the years who told me that political activism was a sucker's game, a rigged wheel, a space for performance art with an audience of rich people. I agreed with a lot of the last part of that, and still do. But there are only two ways to go, even if you accept the latter part of the premise. You can accept that political activism is a sucker's game and give up, or wrap yourself in the robes of ideological purity as though they were suits of armor. Or, you can accept that political activism is a sucker's game and then engage in political activism to make it less so. And, as I went back and forth between the Senate chamber and the South Lawn in the dark of the early morning on Friday, I thought a lot about Alaska.

In 2010, the American people elected the worst Congress in the history of the republic. (This distinction held until 2014 when, against all odds, they elected a worse one.) One of the reasons this happened was that the well-financed AstroTurfed Tea Party movement took down a number of Republican incumbents in primary elections in favor of an odd lot of utter whackadoos. (This is how we got Sharron Angle's running against Harry Reid on a platform of putting America's currency back on the poultry standard.) Nowhere was this more clear than in Alaska, where incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost her primary to a militia-tinged meathead named Joe Miller. (Among his other deeply held positions, Miller was quite complimentary toward the late East Germany for how effectively its wall worked.) Instead of walking away, Murkowski organized a write-in campaign to run in the general election. Granted, it was better funded than most such efforts, but it was still the first successful write-in campaign for the Senate since 1954.

(And, let's be fair, "Murkowski" is tough sledding for a write-in candidate. In fact, one of the causes of action in Miller's subsequent endless litigation of the results was trying to disqualify any ballot on which Murkowski's name was misspelled.)

And that happened to be how Lisa Murkowski was even in the Senate at all this week to stand firm against the pressure from her caucus and against clumsy threats from down at Camp Runamuck. That happened to be how she was even in the chamber at all to stick to John McCain like his shadow through the long run-up to the climactic vote. That happened to be how she was in the Senate at all—because, in 2010, a lot of people in Alaska went the extra mile to keep her there. That's how political activism works—one little ripple seven years earlier becomes a kind of wave at the most unexpected time.

And that is the final and lasting lesson of this week in Washington. The primary force driving the events of Thursday night and Friday morning was the energy and (yes) persistence of all those people who swamped town hall meetings, who wrote, or called, or e-mailed various congresscritters to show them what real political pressure felt like. I remember watching town halls in Maine, to which people drove hundreds of miles to tell Susan Collins what they thought. Those people bucked up vulnerable Democratic senators so that Chuck Schumer could count on a united Congress.

They brought pressure on Republican governors, too. People like Brian Sandoval in Nevada and John Kasich in Ohio were handed put-up-or-shut-up choices from their constituents. Perhaps the most significant Republican governor was Doug Ducey of Arizona, whom McCain repeatedly said he would consult before voting. Late on Thursday afternoon, Ducey came out strongly against the bill. But it all begins with the people who put themselves in the streets, and the people in wheelchairs who got roughed up on Capitol Hill, and all those impassioned voices on the phone, just as Lisa Murkowski's continued political survival depended on all those Alaskans who took the extra time to write in her name on a ballot.

We all decide, ultimately and individually, if the country is worth saving, one heavy lift at a time, knowing that, if the country is worth saving, we never will come to the last of them.

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