Progressives, Fresh From Government Shutdown Victory, Revert To Handwringing

10/24/2013 06:16 pm ET
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post
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WASHINGTON -- Down the street from the White House, in the ornate Astor Ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel, hundreds of progressive thinkers, think tank leaders, and Democratic officials gathered on Thursday.

A week earlier, their party had scored a sweeping win during a standoff with Republicans over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. Conservative pledges to stop the president's health care law had been exposed as toothless pandering to the base. Even better, the crusade that shut down the government in pursuit of that pledge had made the GOP less popular and the health care law more.

But that was last week.

This week has been a mess, sparking a fresh wave of progressive self-flagellation and the return of liberal anxiety.

The problems with the Obamacare website rollout, now at the epicenter of the Washington media spotlight, were too obvious and threatening to brush aside as partisan bomb-throwing. And while Democrats won the shutdown fight in full, it was a pyrrhic victory of sorts. The government remains funded at sequestration levels, with scant hope that negotiations will change that.

And so, as the attendees at the Center for American Progress' 10th anniversary policy conference gathered around white linen-covered tables and gold Chiavari chairs, the mood was far from triumphant.

"Progressive and liberals have totally lost the debate in the sense of a positive role for government," Laura Tyson, former chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, declared at one point. "We have just lost the argument here and it is an argument we have been losing more and more for the last 30 years. Everything we have been talking about here mostly means we are telling stories where government has an important role to play, a strategic role to play, a foundational role to play for making the U.S. a competitive location in creating good jobs. It is not an argument which I think right now is the dominant argument in American political discourse."

It was enough to forget that a Democrat has been in the White House for five years or that the party has won four of the past five popular votes in presidential elections.

But this is progressive id at the moment.

Take, for example, the day's keynote speaker, former Vice President Al Gore, who earned a standing ovation for a teleprompter-free scorching of both climate change denial and anti-government nihilism, but left the stage on a dour note:

"We're going to win this," Gore said of the climate debate. "But let me tell you, we are not winning it yet."

Or take Van Jones, the former green jobs adviser for the Obama administration, now host of CNN's Crossfire.

"I think progressives just have low self-esteem. That is just my general view," Jones said. "When we punch [conservatives], they get mad. When they punch us, we get sad. We've got to get some more self-esteem."

Or take Neera Tanden, the president of Center for American Progress, who performed no victory laps after the government shutdown.

"My analogy on the government shutdown is that it was a little bit like the '67 war with Israel," Tanden told The Huffington Post. "When someone attacks you and tries to rip your heart out, it is important to stop them. But getting up and surviving is not necessarily a huge victory. It is a huge victory if [Mitch] McConnell is right and they never do a government shutdown again. Then you have changed the calculus. But we are still living with sequester. That's a big problem."

Even the day's most jubilant speaker, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.), was occasionally off-key. Amid championing the state's role in getting the uninsured access to health care, improving transportation, and providing affordable education, he declared, "Government can best solve the problems that it, at first, creates."

Quite the sales pitch!

Now, not everything at Thursday's event was gloomy political analysis or rhetorical quirkiness. The celebration of the Center for American Progress' 10th year was, in its own right, recognition of the endurance of progressive ideas. And numerous panelists noted major achievements of the past few years, including the emergence of the green energy industry, the advancement of gay rights and the passage of health care reform.

"If you compare to where we were in 2003, we have made a lot of progress," said Tanden.

But the failures of healthcare.gov left many in the room concerned not just for Obama, but also for the argument that government can play a constructive role.

"This week we have had a less than triumphant computer effort with respect to a signature program of the president of the United States," said Larry Summers, the president's former top economic adviser. "We can't think of things like that as glitches if we want to renew confidence in the public sector."

One official at the event deemed healthcare.gov's dysfunction as the Obama administration's Hurricane Katrina, because it was compelling people to question the competence of the president and his team.

Before lunch was served, Tyson took a few minutes to expand on the point she made on the stage. While she agreed with Summers that healthcare.gov was cause for concern, she told The Huffington Post that people needed to understand the hurdles the project faced.

"We under-invest in the capability of the government to deliver the services effectively," Tyson said. "We have a number of states who decided they weren't going to play, putting much more [of the burden] all the sudden on the federal government. They were in the process of trying to roll out a system, which was thought to be for a smaller population. And then when they were not given the adequate investment funds to do it, it was a very hard thing to get right."

Tyson said her bigger concern was that the country wasn't grasping how much government matters in their lives, and that Democrats weren't doing a good enough job explaining it to them.

"This has been a constant refrain of really going back to Reagan, that the problem is government itself," Tyson said. "We have not made the counter-argument."

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