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David Sirota Headshot

What Should Progressives Demand From Candidates - Sizzle or Substance?

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Over the last week, there has been much attention paid to the 2006 U.S. Senate Democratic primary in Ohio between longtime champion Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) and Paul Hackett (D). Parts of the blogosphere have loudly billed Hackett as the true progressive in the race, despite his lack of concrete positions on various issues - a tactical move to try to prevent Brown from marketing his long history fighting the lonely fights in the trenches in Congress for the progressive cause.

The debate, while seemingly confined to one state, actually brings up a fundamental question for all progressives: are we going to reward with support our ideological heroes - the people who have fought the lonely, unglamorous, unsexy fights over the years for our cause? Or are we going to abandon these fighters for flavor-of-the-week candidates whose image/profile looks great at the moment, but whose position on issues we know little - if anything - about? And if we abandon the people like Brown who have gone to bat for us over the long haul, what message do we send to all of our other allies in terms of what they can expect in return for sticking their necks out and taking the tough votes?

It's true - Hackett has said "you bet I'm progressive." And he has said "we need more straight-talking, straight-shooting politicians." But even when you look at his statements in his very short time in politics, it's difficult to see that he says those statements with much substantive conviction. For instance, Hackett has been billed as a star of the anti-war movement, with bloggers saying he has had been steadfast and outspoken in his opposition to the conflict in Iraq. And its true, now running in a Democratic primary where anti-war positions are politically potent, Hackett says ""If I were the president, I'd tell the military to figure out how we systematically and in organized fashion get our troops out of there, because the war's over. It's not going to get any better. I think that the administration has got to permit the American military over there to fight..."

It's great that Hackett now, finally, supports proposals to withdraw - proposals that Brown has been pushing for months. But just this summer, as Brown and his colleagues were pushing such an exit strategy on the floor of the House, Hackett came out against that kind of proposal in a very high-profile, public way. Mimicking President Bush's derisive language towards those who support an exit strategy, Hackett told one reporter we "can't cut and run." In August, it was the same. In a radio interview he said:

"Are we going to do [withdraw from Iraq] tomorrow, or are we going to accomplish the bare minimum and allow the Iraqis to survive within their defined government and social structure? And right now, I don't think that any form of security force in Iraq is capable of providing that for the people. And, while it may seem difficult to comprehend on this side of the world, at this point, I believe that Iraq will spiral out of control. And even though it's in a terrible condition today as a result of the insurgency phasing into civil war, perhaps, I don't think it's currently today as bad as it will be if we were to pull out tomorrow. I think that the administration has got to permit the American military over there to fight..."

Whether you agree with Hackett's rationale back then, or his rationale now, one thing that is not debatable: he's clearly changed his position. And that should raise at least some questions for progressives about a guy who is being billed as an longtime anti-war leader - especially when he's running against a longtime progressive champion like Brown who has been a consistent voice on the issue.

Make no mistake about it - Hackett's "fluidity" (that's putting it nicely) isn't confined to just the war. For instance, he bills himself as a champion of the left, but is now attacking Brown for being "too liberal." Similarly, in an interview this week, Hackett was asked about America's energy crisis, and he responded by saying "We should be asking Americans to buy fuel-efficient vehicles." Who could argue with that, right? Right - except for the fact that Hackett is piously preaching this personal sacrifice, while ignoring his own advice. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, "[Hackett] bought a $130,000 motor home for campaigning around the state." As Better Homes and Gardens magazine notes, drivers "get less than 8 miles per gallon" in a typical motor home. Isn't that the kind of inconsistent "what's good for society isn't good for me" behavior that Democrats have been pummeled for in the past? And doesn't it stand in at least some contrast to Brown, who has had the guts to stand up to the Big Money interests and push legislation that would force better fuel efficiency and a crackdown on the oil industry's profiteering?

The point of all of this, of course, is not to denigrate Hackett at all (I mean that). He is a hero for his service to our country, ran a great special election race this summer, and it is great to see him becoming more rhetorically progressive, whatever the reason. But that does not negate the important point here (a point I made more conceptually in a magazine piece last week): the simultaneous hyperventilating about Hackett's candidacy and downplaying of his inconsistent postures illustrates how parts of the grassroots left (perhaps confined to the blogosphere) are becoming all-consumed with this or that candidate's "profile" or "image" rather than substance.

To be sure, Hackett supporters on the blogs might scream at me for noting these very public facts about Hackett and the Ohio race (as if they were really a secret). They will say I am being mean, or unfair (paraphrasing Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross here's a good question for these folks - if you can't take these very fair questions, how can you expect to take the onslaught of attacks that the Republicans would throw at Hackett in a general election?). They may also even brazenly lie and try to desperately ascribe some nefarious motive by saying I work for Sherrod Brown (it is a complete lie - I don't work for Brown, and never have worked for him).

But I have been attacked before, and, more importantly, I make no apologies for advocating for progressive values and ideology (isn't that, in part, what primaries are supposed to be all about?). The truth is, all of this kind of criticism from Hackett supporters negates the fact that the bigger underlying point is not about Paul Hackett and is not just about one primary in one state. It cuts to one of the key reasons why progressives have been so locked out of the political process in recent years: because we don't make substantive demands of our leaders and back those demands with carrots and sticks like the grassroots conservative movement does with their candidates/officials.

If we progressives are ever going to do anything more than aesthetically change the political establishment; if we ever are going to move the system; if we are ever going to enact substantive changes in policies, we must focus with laser-like intensity on the actual substance of candidates when awarding - or withholding - our support. It may seem great to some if we only elected Democrats who were big macho cowboys or hardened war veterans or burly truck drivers. But would we have really changed things on a substantive policy level if these candidates only looked the part, but ended up not being willing to substantively challenge/change the political establishment once elected and thus empowered to do so?

In other words, if we want stronger stands and more concrete positions from Democratic candidates/officials, we have to resist the temptation to look at politics as just some sort of infotainment based only on things like looks, glitz, and image. Instead, we must look at where our leaders actually stand and support those who have been fighting and have been consistent on issues even when we weren't looking. Because if the grassroots doesn't do that - and simply rewards style and sizzle over actual substance - we offer no incentives for our political leaders to do anything in office other than try to look cool, but ignore our concrete demands for them to change our country for the better.