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Kay Hagan should lead with her ideals, not her pragmatism

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Last week, when I wrote unfavorably about state Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller, I mentioned that he was working at cross-purposes with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat whose re-election in 2014 is of critical importance for a Democratic majority in the Senate.

This prompted Jim Senter, a progressive Democrat and former Person County party chairman, to shoot me a scathing response—about Hagan.

"Enough already of this fool's game" of voting for "so-called Democrats" like Hagan, Senter wrote, just because they're "the lesser evil" compared to a Republican.

Senter pointed out Hagan's support for the Keystone XL pipeline project ("game over for climate change" if it's approved, he said) and for Senate Bill 1881, the "war on Iran bill."

His note hit my inbox the same day as Bill Moyers' interview with Adolph Reed, the political scientist whose cover story in this month's Harper's has progressives nodding. In "Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals," Reed argues that too many liberals have abandoned our ideals to throw in with a Democratic party dominated by corporate interests.

I thought again about Hagan's press conference when she filed for re-election, claiming the mantle as "the most moderate senator." I thought of Texas Democrat Jim Hightower's famous warning that "the only thing in the middle of the road is yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

Was I wrong about Hagan?

After diving into her record, I remain convinced that Hagan's re-election is merited and critical, so much so that I'm going to offer her some free political advice. And yes, I am cutting her slack on Keystone, about which she is dreadfully wrong, and Iran.

It's also important to keep in mind that Hagan thinks like a legislator. She carefully weighs each sub-paragraph before taking a stand. On major issues from gay rights to immigration to the Affordable Care Act, she's been slow to embrace the Democratic view, let alone the progressive one.

And yet, on each of these issues, she's come to a progressive position—and she was strong from the start on women's rights and gun issues, for which the loonies running the National Rifle Association give her an "F."

I agree with Reed that progressives need to fight harder and be uncompromising about the ills of unrestrained capitalism, and the imperative of a living wage for workers. The fact that full employment is now seen as fantasy—or socialism—shows how far the Democratic party has fallen since Senter and I were young.

Hagan should say boldly why and how full employment can be achieved—and how a $10.10 hourly minium wage will help, as it will.

But Hagan is also right that nothing gets done in Congress, our corrupt, contemptible Congress, without bipartisan support. As long as the Republicans hold the House, Democrats must compromise. That's where Hagan, the moderate, comes in. She's very—her favorite word—"pragmatic."

Can these conflicting approaches—being uncompromising, but willing to compromise—be reconciled? They can if you fight harder first, before giving ground. The other way around, saying you want to be in the middle of the road, only emboldens the other side to move the road.

My advice to Hagan: Lead with your ideals. Only then should you add how pragmatic you can be.

Several questions at Hagan's press conference were about the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare. Hagan is being bombarded by attack ads about the law, including an astounding $8 million pumped in by Americans for Prosperity—a Koch Brothers' creation.

The ads are full of lies; there's no other word for them.

The central lie is that people who had good insurance are losing it. The truth is, a relatively few people who previously bought only catastrophic coverage, either because that's all that they could afford or because they're wealthy enough to self-pay for basic services, are now required to buy comprehensive policies. For well-off folks, these policies may cost more. For most, including middle-class purchasers, they'll cost less—after the subsidies—for better coverage.

Hagan got defensive immediately when asked, in effect, "When did you know?" that the central lie about Obamacare was truth. What's the answer to that?

You could label it a lie. She didn't. You could say that millions of people who couldn't afford good insurance previously—remember pre-existing conditions?—now can. And are.

Hagan did get around to saying that last part, but not with enough force or clarity to step on the lie.

I'll pause here to say that another lie whipping around in right-wing circles is that Hagan refused to answer and ran when a reporter chased her into the parking lot with his question. The reporter did chase her, but not because Hagan hadn't responded to him at length; in fact, she stopped and answered him again. In North Carolina, people will be able to keep those catastrophic-coverage policies if they want them for one more year, she said. A bill she's sponsoring would allow them to continue beyond that.

My problem with Hagan's performance is that she gave a legislator's answer, but this a political campaign. The Affordable Care Act isn't the law that progressives wanted, but it's a major step in the direction of universal health care—which is the ideal.

So be affirmative, senator. You voted for the law. Say why. And why it was the right vote, given that compromises were made. One of which involved these catastrophic plans.

Speak for us, not to us. And please don't lead with how flawed the ACA website was in October.

And do remember to say that N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, the leading Republican candidate for your job, won't tell us what he's for when it comes to health care, only what he's against.

But that's the Republicans for you—they're the against-party. Which is why it's critical that they not control the Senate too. And why Hagan should be re-elected.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The most moderate Senator."

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