Benen’s Bill

Without “pass the damn bill,” the damn bill wouldn’t have passed. Homage to Steve Benen.

Success has many parents (of both sexes), and in this case needed more than one Godfather.  I won’t dissent from Jonathan Chait’s praise of the President, John Judis’ kudos to pressure from grassroots Democrats, or—especially, since it flatters my Whiggish sympathies and corrects for the presidentialist bias of the press—Steve Benen’s and Mike’s (Update: and James’) emphasis on Speaker Pelosi as the colossus who bestrode the whole process.

But I’d like to single out one person who deserves more praise than he’s going to claim or is likely to get: Steve Benen himself.  After Scott Brown won, Democrats’ first reaction was panic.  The analogy most often drawn, though it in retrospect seems deranged to compare the loss of a Senate super-majority to the loss of both Houses, was to Clinton’s situation, and his reaction, after the Republican victories of 1994.  Steve stepped in on January 20—just a day after Coakley’s loss, a full week before the State of the Union—with an alternative: “pass the damn bill,” and then amend it via reconciliation.  I believe he invented the slogan, though Kevin Drum picked it up a few hours later.  I know that he flogged it, immediately, relentlessly and repeatedly, through good news and bad: see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  It became proverbial.  It became the popular title—and, thanks to alert fans, the easy-to-remember URL—of Steve’s pithy, powerful strategy memo making the case for moving forward.  It cemented Democratic opinion around the idea that failure was not an option—and, more important, that incremental reform counted as failure.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately researching what Thomas Schelling called “focal points”: salient or obvious places to rally at, meet at, or aim towards.  Focal points solve what are called coordination problems, the kind of problem that when each member of a group wants to go where a lot of other people will be going but nobody has a clear idea where that might be.  There are many applications.  In warfare, or politics, the main takeaway lesson is that a determined and courageous leader, regardless of whether he or she is a brilliant strategist, can by conspicuous presence and force of example make the difference between a successful attack, a panicky rout, and everything in between.  In this campaign, Obama provided the rhetoric, Pelosi and her people the toughness and legislative legwork, and Andy Stern and others the grassroots pressure.  But “pass the damn bill” provided the focal point: not failure, not incremental reform, but the imperfect, landmark bill that the Senate had already passed.  Once that was set, and only then, incremental reform or putting off the whole process started to seem cowardly and crabbed, a strategy almost impossible for a serious Democrat to justify.  Steve’s explicit and successful model was William Kristol’s 1994 memo, which made all-out-opposition into the tragically successful focal point for Republicans faced with Clinton’s health reform plan.

Had the post-1994 Clinton Point (a.k.a. the Panic Point) crystallized and become focal, I’m not sure that all the leadership and pressure in the world could have led to more than a bitter failure.  The pressure might not even have been attempted.  (Remember the Daley rule: “Don’t back no losers.”)

Benen’s conceptual leadership wasn’t sufficient by itself.  But it was necessary.  No Benen, no bill.  Thanks, Steve.  A lot of sick people owe their future lives to you.

Update: Ken D. (see comment below) is right to give Brian Beutler credit for bringing up the “pass the damn bill” strategy before Steve did.  And another reader emailed me to say that Kevin Drum called on the House to “pass the damn bill” in this context before Steve did—in fact, on the morning of the Massachusetts election, when Coakley’s loss was a fear but not a fact.  The same reader also pointed out the role of Kevin’s great graphic in spreading the idea.  Though that graphic appeared in the link above, I honestly hadn’t noticed its influence in the debate or even its presence—because I almost never note anything visual, full stop (chalk it up to extreme nearsightedness, and no glasses until I was eight).  But the graphic made quite an impression on normal people; now that I’ve looked, I’ve seen it everywhere.  I’m a tremendous fan of Kevin’s and read his blog daily; he hereby gets big props for the slogan and the sign.

But the larger point of my post stands.  It was Benen who most tenaciously pursued the idea, argued it, explained it, built a compelling strategy memo out of it, and was most responsible for making it the focal point.  Since posting, I’ve had nothing but confirmation from email, other blog posts, and comments here and elsewhere about how influential Steve was.  It was of course a team effort, and there were many standouts on the team.  But Steve got us singing the Marseillaise.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

28 thoughts on “Benen’s Bill”

  1. Thanks for posting this well-deserved tribute, Andrew. Steve Benen *is* awesome. I'd be lost without my daily SB fix over at Washington Monthly.

  2. Is his site down? If the opposition has mounted a DOS attack, that's testimony to his value too.

  3. Hear, hear! I think Mr. Benen's one of the best, most cogent analysts and aggregators out there. And I agree, he provided a real rallying cry that kept people focused. We as Democrats are so used to our leadership folding at the first contrary wind that we hungered for anyone cogently making the case to move forward. I don't know how these things are measured, but surely a sizable portion of the credit for this bill owes to Mr. Benen.

  4. Thank you for acknowledging Steve Benen!

    Since I discovered his work at Washington Monthly I find that it is the first and main place where I go to get

    political news and clear practical commentary.

    No other website matches it in simplicity, coherence and objectivity.

    I remember reading his entries in the aftermath of Scott Brown's win and thinking "This makes perfect sense!"

    Why cant we have more like him?

    Heres to Steve Benen! Thank you.

    Mark Rubins

  5. I wrote this over at Balloon Juice, but Steve Benen is one of the absolute best out there. He's ridiculously prolific, but I'm especially impressed by his ability to debunk and fact-check statements so rapidly.

  6. Credit where credit is due. My friends and I tried to make Steve's motto into a meme. He held a lot of spirit together, did our man Steve!

  7. Political Animal is a great way to start a day, enjoy and learn during the day, and end the day knowing that you know something more now that you did morning.

    Steve's leadership was necessary and critical. Thanks Steve.

  8. Ditto to all of the above comments – my only source of political news since I happened upon the carpetbagger in early 2007. Great post.

  9. I am a big fan of Steve Benen, and the kudos are justified. You may go too far, however, in suggesting that he was the inventor, as distinguished from key advocate, of the "pass the damn bill plus reconciliation" strategy. See the following from Brian Beutler at TPM on January 18:

  10. I've been reading Steve's blog for years, on a daily basis — even before his gig at The Washington Monthly. Steve's voice of civility and reason helped me, along with many others, stay sane during the Bush era (an eternity) of insanity. He's come a long way since then: from an obscure, little known blog site, the Carpetbagger, to the Atlantic Monthly and occasional guest appearances on cable TV news.

    "Pass the damn bill" is only one of the many prolific insights, but it is the one that had the most impact and that is what counts.

    Kudos to Andrew for giving credit where credit is due.

  11. I had a similar thought about focal points. The Battle of Health Care ended much like a protracted siege. If the GOP wants to spend the next six weeks siding with bankers, let 'em — Democrats can breach that wall with reconciliation if they have to, and no one will be able to act surprised.

  12. Andrew, you and the above comments are right on. Steve Benen's blog is the best place on the web keep track of the daily ebb and flow of politics without getting sucked into the fake balance and destructive horse-race narrative of the 24 hour news cycle. "Pass the damn bill" captured the feelings of committed pragmatic progressives better than any other slogan or talking point in the weeks since the MA election. Well done Steve, and well done Andrew for highlighting his role the fight for HCR.

    One other minor point I thought I'd mention: As frustrating as he can be, Andrew Sullivan deserves some of the credit for spreading "Pass the damn bill" beyond the confines of prominent liberal blogs to what I believe is the largest audience of any political blog period. Whatever you think of Sullivan, he was totally right about Benen's take on HCR.

  13. I agree. I would add more emphasis to this statement, but I am tired and about to go to bed. Please imagine me adding analysis emphatically. Thank you.

  14. Steve Benen is always the one I turn to for succinct,but insightful analysis. He's steady, doesn't go off on tangents, reins everyone in, and makes us look at the things that matter the most. All the talking heads together can't beat Benen for tenacity, integrity, and a great writing style. Love him. Love his work.

  15. Somehow, still unable to post a comment on WM site, so will post here and agree wholeheartedly, No Benan, No Bill. He was unrelenting. Well done.

  16. Not to throw cold water here, but is there any reason to believe that Benen's (completely excellent) memo and other coverage, or Drum, or any other blogger, actually impacted the thinking of Democratic lawmakers (and/or their staffs)?

    Not saying that there isn't just genuinely curious what impact it had on the actual legislative action.

  17. "Pass the Damn Bill" a five seed, beat "Kill the Bill" a two seed, and now takes on "Repeal It" an eight seed, while both vie for "This is a big f*cking deal" to play for their side.

    But yes, Benen was key.

  18. hey, i want credit, too!

    seriously, tho steve's blog is a daily read for me, i was not aware of his tenacious work behind the scenes until reading your piece. (i lurvs me some kevin drum, too). thx for pointing this out to blogtopia, and yes i coined that phrase.

    now we're all singing the marseillaise.

  19. I think Stupak actually deserves the credit, such as it is. Pretending opposition until the last moment deceived opponents as to where they stood, made them think they were in a better position than they really were. It was a master-stroke of misdirection.

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