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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.