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David Sirota Headshot

On Dave Obey, "Idiot Liberals" and Ending the War

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The blogosphere is abuzz with talk of Wisconsin Rep. Dave Obey's (D) frustrated outburst about Iraq caught on YouTube. Antiwar activists are high-fiving each other, almost as if catching Obey's outburst about "idiot liberals" is as big a YouTube feat as catching George Allen saying "macaca." This is deeply troubling on a number of levels, and an opportunity for a bit of constructive self-reflection about where we as a progressive movement are.

I'm going to say a few things here that some of my readers aren't going to like - some things that I've been pondering as I am writing my new book. But it's important at times to look at ourselves and our movement critically if we are to continue advancing. Here's the deal folks: There are some "idiot liberals" out there, and this episode actually highlights that reality.

Dave Obey represents a pretty conservative district that is not exactly easy for a Democrat to represent (this is why the NRSC can't wait for him to retire). He originally voted against the war, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of the war, and he has repeatedly used his position as Appropriations Chairman to try to get the situation in Iraq under control. These are the facts, and I witnessed it first hand, having worked for him a few years ago.

Now, you can argue whether his tactics right now are smart. You can have a reasoned disagreement about whether he should be pushing a supplemental appropriations bill that includes new money for veterans medical care and binding language to end the war by March of 2008. There is a very legitimate case to be made that Democrats shouldn't support any money to continue the war and that the supplemental appropriations bill that Obey is carrying does also do that.

However, berating one of the antiwar movement's longtime leaders and then trying to mount his head on the virtual YouTube wall over a debate about the best WAY to end the war suggests that the antiwar movement fundamentally does not understand the very power structure it is trying to influence. It's the same fundamental misunderstanding we at the Progressive States Network experienced when a few antiwar activists attacked us for pushing resolutions in state legislatures that "only" call for Congress to defund the Iraq escalation, as opposed to ending the war entirely (which, by the way, many of these resolutions do - Progressive States, unlike some other organizations on the left, is not in the top-down habit of dictating to state legislators what they exactly have to do - we provide models and templates and support so the effort is actually homegrown, and in that process our models and templates are customized).

Dave Obey is an ally of the progressive movement on almost every issue, and on the war in specific. Go ahead and try to claim I'm only saying that because I once worked for him, but then take some time and look at his voting record and his actions. By any standard - other than those of a tiny group of, yes, "idiot liberals" - Obey is a progressive hero. Spending time and energy attacking him, as opposed to the true obstacles to ending the war, is both a waste, and potentially couterproductive, because someone like Obey, representing the district that he does, could easily just walk away (he won't, because he's Obey, but conceptually he certainly could).

The real news out of Obey's outburst is that, as the Associated Press confirms, he really doesn't have the votes in the Democratic caucus to cut off funding for the war, and that he courageously broke traditional etiquette by implicitly calling out the faction of pro-war Democrats who are standing in the way of stronger action on the war. These are the obstacles that the progressive movement should be focusing on pressuring. Obey's frustration clearly comes from his perception (whether right or wrong) that he, an antiwar stalwart from a "tough district" is being unduly harassed at the very time he needs the progressive movement to help him whip votes out of other Democrats who are the real problem. And his frustration is grounded in reality - fairly often, progressive activists, and the Netroots in particular, give passes to conservative Democrats because they come from the same kinds of "tough districts" Obey comes from.

I'm in no way excusing Obey's behavior that was caught on film. He didn't take time to communicate properly, he got way too angry way too fast and his frustration translated into him mistreating the people who were asking him questions. That is unacceptable, and I'm happy he apologized. He needed to.

However, the troubling thing out of the spat is not Obey's behavior: it is the reaction to it by the progressive movement, and what that reaction really says. The idea that Jack Murtha - the guy who voted for the war, the guy who was one of the most outspoken pro-war Democrats, the guy who has never seen a defense bill he didn't try to increase - is now an antiwar saint beyond reproach, but Dave Obey is some sort of pro-war villain is so fundamentally absurd it suggests that at least some who liken themselves as progressive movement leaders really are "idiot liberals" because they have positively no idea how the hell basic movement building or power works (mind you - I'm not saying Jack Murtha hasn't been courageous in opposing the war of late- he has, which is why I thought he should have been Majority Leader - but the point is that the basic understanding of "allies" and "enemies" can be wholly misunderstood).

If those working in professional movement politics really want to end the war - and not just be in a perpetual state of unproductive contrarian outrage - they can start by remembering the need to target pressure and the need to apply both the carrot and the stick. Shoving a stick up the rear end of an ally is the behavior of "idiots" - whether liberal or otherwise - because it only puts our goal farther out of reach.