Book of the Month

Doctor Cleveland's picture

What the Left Should Do About Obama

2009 was a frustrating year for liberals and progressives, and 2010 is off to a bad start. After electing the first unapologetically liberal President of the United States in forty years, with large majorities in both the House and Senate, liberals have seen our agenda diluted, stalled, and now seriously set back. It shouldn't have happened. And now, of course, there is rage and confusion and we are circling into our old firing squad. But as I see it, there are only three questions, and they all have simple answers.

1) Who should we blame?

A. The Republicans, dummy.


You can blame Rahm or Obama or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi if that makes you feel better. You can despise the weaselly Blue Dogs and Senatorial drama queens; I know I do. But being angry at those people won't do anything. We're just kicking them because they're ours to kick. The people who did this are the Republicans, every one of them. They are the ones who voted in lockstep against even the most reasonable laws, they are the ones who insisted on compromise and voted against it, they are the ones who put party in front of decent or just policy. And turning anger against Rahm, Reid, Pelosi, Obama, or Evan Bayh only empowers those Republicans further.

In fact, the Blue Dogs and Ben Nelsons and Joe Liebermans behaved more or less normally, just as they have always behaved. What was exceptional was not their usual unlovely behavior, but the fact that none of the Republicans would compromise or cross the aisle. You can lose Lieberman and Bayh if you pick up Snowe and Collins. But for the last year Snowe and Collins wouldn't consent to an up-or-down vote on
whether or not the sky is blue. Why did Snowe and Collins do this? Simply to bring the Democrats down. And it worked.

If that's not satisfying to you, here's a harder and colder answer. Whom should we blame? Ourselves. The teabagging lunatics out-organized us all year. We got complacent at the end of 2008, and they got organized. They've been calling their Senators and Reps, demanding a stop to health care reform, for a solid year and a day. What have you been doing? If we want to beat the other side, we have to beat them at the grassroots too, not just at election time but every day. Progress is an every day job.


2) What should we do about Obama?


A. Help him, dummy.


Disappointed in him? Frustrated with him? Wishing Dennis Kucinich were President instead? That's all fine. allow yourself to experience your feelings. But when you come back from your angry chair, let's deal with the basic fact:

He's all we've got.


But, you may say, Hillary would have been better, and you always said Obama was blahdedeblahdede dah. Fine. Your improbable and unprovable counter-factual claim is absolutely right. But this isn't about being right. This is about getting results. Obama is what we have. If that's not enough for you, you can have less.

Obama has basically been saying, all year long, that he's been getting the best results he can based on the practical politics of Washington, the Constitutional separation of powers, and the entrenched resistance from the right. What, in the last two weeks, has proved any of that wrong? And what have any of us done about it?

Seriously: it is very clear that the Right is united in unreasonable, unprecedented, and highly disciplined resistance. What have any of us done to break up that resistance? When Obama claims that he's moving as far to the left as he can, jeers go up from various quadrants of the blogosphere, but what have any of us done to open up more room to his left? His liberal detractors like to claim Obama wouldn't take that extra space if it were there. But you know what? It's not there.

And sure, plenty of people (including a few who are concerned with vindicating their primary votes) are so frustrated that they want to start over and try for a "real" liberal. But we can't turn him in for someone more progressive. Our choice are the guy we've got now, or someone to the right of him. Here is the crucial lesson of American politics for liberals:

You can bring down LBJ. But you will replace him with Nixon.

LBJ not liberal enough for you? Great. You are a pure and ardently burning soul. Enjoy President Nixon.

But, but, but, didn't defeating LBJ eventually strengthen liberalism in the long run? Sure. By electing a more moderate Democrat for one term, and then Ronald Reagan for two, and twenty-four years after LBJ electing a triangulating Democrat who cut back social services and signed DOMA. So, in other words: no.

If you think attacking Obama from the left will get you a more liberal President, terrific. By I, personally, need a political plan that goes into effect before 2048. Everyone I love is going to need some health care between now and then. I can't wait forty more years to elect a more "genuine" liberal. It's got to be now.

3) What about that awful health care bill?

A. Take what we can get today. Start campaigning for more tomorrow.

Yes, it's a flawed bill. But we don't get a better one by turning it down. We take what we can get, and we work to get more next time. Step by step into the future: that's what progress is.

Joke post, right?

No?

Shit.

Ok. In order - No, and no, and no.

1. The #1 force working against the grassroots machine/movement built up during the election was.... Obama (and Rahm.) They dismantled it when they could grip it, and belittled it when it was outside their reach. Blaming ourselves is fine, hating Republicans is necessary, but to ignore this is to stick your brains in a jar.

2. Obama's been doing the best he can... and what has been proved wrong about that in the last 2 weeks? Did we have a nice nap? Come on Doc. 24 hours after the Massafiasco, suddenly Obama's all kicking bankers asses and rejoining the Fight Club. Didja hear?

LBJ? Jeez, before Mass all you jokers were busy trying to scare us with Nader. Now we gotta put up with an LBJ scare?

P.S. Remember this? Cleveland's bet: Coakley (D) by 4.

P.P.S. Try to wait at least 4 hours after a really bad prediction before turning the Scary Political Scary Scare Machine machine back on.

In fact, the Blue Dogs and Ben Nelsons and Joe Liebermans behaved more or less normally, just as they have always behaved. What was exceptional was not their usual unlovely behavior, but the fact that none of the Republicans would compromise or cross the aisle.

Doctor, the question that you did not ask but should have is why none of the Republicans would cross the aisle. I highly doubt that they're afraid of a letter writing campaign. They're afraid of tough primary challenges if they compromise with Democrats. The Tea Party's chief accomplishments have not been letters but rather elections like NY-23, in which they forced out the moderate Republican nominee. From the electoral point of view that you're advocating, NY-23 was a failure for conservatives. The Democratic candidate won in a reliably Republican district. But it is precisely because the right wing has been willing to punish Republicans who stray from the party line, even at the expense of losing seats, that they've been able to achieve such remarkable discipline.

Democrats have taken the opposite approach, broadening the range of views that they tolerate within the party for the sake of maximizing seats. But I'm beginning to wonder about the wisdom of this strategy. What's the use of a large legislative majority if the members don't actually vote for the party's agenda? There is a point at which the constituents do the party a favor by punishing members who fail to support its agenda.

Well, yes. Fear of primaries from the right is one of the factors. But it's clearly not the only factor. Are the Senators from Maine both afraid of a teabag challenge in their primaries? That would be odd. Committee assignments are also part of the deal.

But my bigger complaint is with the logic (by no means unique to you, Genghis), that we need to pressure Dems with primary challengers. Let's review how that's worked in the Senate so far:


1) The Republicans try to keep Arlen Specter in line with a right-wing primary challenger. Specter defects across the aisle. That's where the 60-vote supermajority came from.

2) Grass-roots liberals try to bring down Joe Lieberman, beat him in the primary, but can't beat him in the general. And that's where the 60-vote majority went to hell, turning Lieberman from a hawk who voted for health reform to a hippy-puncher who threw sand in Democratic gears. So I'm not a huge fan

Discipling the Blue Dogs through fear won't work, because they're in Red districts. And letter-writing campaigns do work on them ... not from liberals but from conservatives. A moderate ina district that naturally aligns with the other party is easily spooked by constituent anger. Ben Nelson wants to placate the teabaggers and the townhall mobs.

But running a real progressive in the Nebraska Senate primary won't get us a more progressive Senator from Nebraska. It will get us an embittered and even-less-loyal Ben Nelson.

Here's my point about the Blue Dogs: taking a punitive approach to Democrats in red-leaning districts won't ge us what we want. We have to go after the Republicans in blue-leaning districts. Collins and Snowe need angry phone calls from their constituents. They need outside groups running ads against them. And they need to live in mortal fear of serious Deomcratic challengers in Maine.

Actually, Snowe may well face a tough primary challenge in 2012. But it's interesting that you mention the two senators from Maine, for these are the only two Republican moderates remaining in the Senate. The rest have been purged over the years. Specter would have been purged if he hadn't bolted first. I don't think that there's any question that Republicans have been much harder on their moderates than Dems have been.

The question is--which strategy has been more beneficial? Dems certainly owe their current majority to the big tent policy. Your Specter example is correct. Pressure from the right helped the Democrats. I actually made the same point with respect to NY-23, which also helped Dems. The intolerance for dissent has hurt Republicans' electoral opportunities more than a few times.

But the strategy has also helped Republicans by unifying the votes that they do have, which means that they can do more with less. The Democrats, by contrast, can't pass their signature issue with a large majority. If they hadn't had to haggle with the holdouts, health care would have been passed last year.

And what really worries me about the big tent vs. small tent discrepancy is that I believe it has gradually ceded ground to the right. Take abortion for example. Once upon a time, all the Democrats were pro-choice, and the Republicans were divided. Now, Democrats have an anti-abortion Senate majority leader, while Republicans have a couple of pro-choice senators senators from Maine and an anti-abortion position that's more extreme than ever. A response to changing perceptions among the electorate? Possibly--but you can't exclude influence of the anti-abortion movement which has been pressing an intolerant party position for years.

Now if Democrats had been gaining power as the Republicans moved towards the extreme, I would say OK, it's worth it. But Republicans controlled both houses and the presidency until 2006, and I have no confidence that Democrats can hold onto their recent gains. Which means that Republcians have (on average) more political power than they used to AND they're more extreme, whereas Dems have (on average) less political power than they used to AND they're more moderate. In other words, while Republicans may have lost seats in the short term, they've done pretty well with their small tent strategy in the long term.

I hate to be seen as piling on, doctor, but you are totally wrong on No. 1. Not that the Republicans haven't been hypocritical, un-American saboteurs of the public good from Day 1, spurning all offers of bipartisanship. But they did what they did in full light of day and for a full year. Why did the White House and congressional leadership not figure out where things were heading?

This was an unforced error -- an own goal -- and the blame, sadly, lies with Obama. The crucial error behind both the failure of health care reform and the loss of Massachusetts occurred just two days after Obama was elected. Naming Rahm Emanuel his chief of staff meant Howard Dean was not only out as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, but blackballed as possible health secretary or even surgeon general (Rahm and Dean apparently hate each other).

At a stroke, Obama lost the Democrat who arguably knew the most and cared the most about health care reform (maybe after Kennedy). Rahm froze him out even as HRC died on the vine. Obama also lost the driving force behind the 50-state strategy, which aimed to slowly build party grass roots everywhere, not just dump money into states considered winnable. Dean's approach had paved the way for Obama's surprise victory in 2008, but congressional incumbents resented the loss to their warchests.

Dean was an activist DNC chair, often in the news and butting heads with Democratic legislators. By contrast, I had to google who his successor was: Tim Kaine, the lame-duck governor of Virginia who only actively took up his DNC duties last week. For the past year, the DNC's day-to-day operations were in the hands of executive director Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, who had run John Edwards' presidential campaign. Dillon may be extremely competent, but there is no way she carried the clout of a Howard Dean or even a Tim Kaine. The DNC had been effectively neutered, and the sudden, shocking loss of Massachusetts was the price.

To his credit, Obama seems to have recognized the colossal fuckup he allowed with the DNC leadership. He's called back David Plouffe, who ran his presidential campaign, and lent Plouffe his own deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina, to try to clean up the mess before the November elections. Not really a vote of confidence in Kaine. Notice also that Rahm isn't given any role in the salvage operation:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/us/politics/24union.html

I never did understand the freezing-out of Howard Dean by this White House. Was it a deliberate snub to "progressives?" Odd, because as governor of Vermont, Dean was fiscally quite conservative. Was it simply the price Rahm demanded to join the Obama cabinet? Whatever the answer, it was a costly mistake. And it's all on Obama. Personally, if I were president, I'd fire Rahm and bring Dean in from the cold. Volcker too. But what do I know?

I completely agree with your sentiment and your prescription, good Doctor, if not on all of the details. I do think you're fooling yourself with "unapologetically liberal President". He's either not as liberal as many thought, or very apologetic. You get to pick, but he's one of those. That said, I agree with you on (1), although I think it's also fair to blame the blue-dog Democrats. As Genghis alluded to, if they're not voting with us, what's the risk in losing them? I realize they vote with us on other issues, but I think if they're not with us on the really important issues, it's better to open the primaries up to some Democrats who will, even if it means risking losing that seat to a Republican. In some ways, I think we'd get more done with 53 Democrats in the Senate than with the 57 we currently have (58 if you include Sanders which is quite reasonable, and 59 if you insist on including Lieberman). On (2) and (3), however, I don't think you could be more right.

Let me rephrase a key point for you, my esteemed blog friends, because I should have rephrased the initial question as a statement:


Blame is for suckers.

You want to blame Obama, Rahm, Pelosi, Reid, Lieberman, Bayh, Nelson, Stills, and Nash, feel free. But blame gets us nowhere. Blame is for suckers.

I understand it can give you a glowing righteous feeling. Enjoy that feeling. And while you're at it, help yourself to a cookie. Personally, I have other concerns.

The question isn't where to point the finger. The questions are whose behavior can be changed? and How?

Punishing Nelson and Lieberman and Baucus won't get you anywhere because, as the last eight months have made excruciatingly obvious, we have no leverage with them. Our anger can only push them to the right. (Nelson and Bayh and Baucus love to present themselves as centrists saving voters from the dirty fucking hippies on the left; they actually pass that sorry act off as integrity. And Lieberman operates almost entirely from resentment.)

Punishing Snowe, punishing Collins, punishing Scott Brown at every possible opportunity, punishing Voinovich if any practical method presents itself: this is the way to get what they want. And an Obama, Rahm, Reid, and so forth who have some traction with the Snowes and Collinses will have more room to move to the left. Weakening them from our side while the GOP keeps its irrational disicipline gets us bupkis. Weakening the GOP's discipline is the name of the game.

 

The question isn't where to point the finger. The questions are whose behavior can be changed? and How?

Fair enough. That's sorta what I tried to do in laying the blame (your word) on Obama. He's got three years to turn things around, maybe seven. He's the one who has to grasp this wake-up call, and act on it. I know he's got lots on his plate and it was reasonable to think he could delegate part of the job of minding the store to his cabinet and to Congress.

Apparently not. Few seem able to see beyond their latest re-election polls, and the Massachusetts scare is going to focus their attention even more on political survival. So Obama has to add saving the party from its own self-destructive impulses to his workload.

Maybe he can pull it off. He needs to start with a barn-burner State of the Union speech.

Latest Comments