Winning to Change or Changing to Win: Obama and the Progressive Dilemma

07/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Sen. Barack Obama is risking his brand as a political reformer, according to reports today in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. In recent weeks, he has moderated or changed positions on a number of politically-charged issues, leading to criticism from demoralized Democratic activists and charges of "flip-flopping" from conservatives." Obama Undercuts his Brand

"The harsh reality is, Barack Obama can and will tack towards the center on issues that are important to progressives during the general election. We can argue until we're blue in the face that this is not a smart thing to do, and by extension, that the country is ready for real progressive leadership, but Obama will do what he wants to do. Unless we are willing to actively work against him, we have no leverage." Jason Rosenbaum, The Obama Problem

After a sad week of listening to the hiss of air leaking out of the Obama balloon, we perceive the horns of the progressive dilemma. On the right horn, there is a strong and familiar argument for pragmatic cynicism: barring a world-historical event (or the well-manufactured simulacrum of one) it is likely that -- if only the Democratic Party avoids indulging its penchant for self-immolation -- the political landscape will be much changed in January 2009. With comfortable majorities in both houses, the Democrats in Congress will no longer have an excuse for inaction. For example, Joe Lieberman, no longer control of the Senate in his hand, will be forced to skulk off to embrace the minority status of the caucus he deserves. President Obama will start sending non-apocalyptic judicial nominees to Senate confirmation, the Department of Justice will once again be populated by folks who have read the constitution, and regulatory agencies now either supine or acting as apologists for the rapacious practices they were established to police, will begin again to regulate. We should, therefore, be patient.

Taking this wizened approach, we can write Obama's rightward lurch off as just politics -- as just doing what he has to do to get elected, or, more clear-eyed and less cheerful, we can, as Jason Rosenbaum argues, shake our heads and bide our time for a fight to come. We can say, yes, our office holders, and even our nominee, are mired in a broken system, but, when the Republican bogeymen and bogeywomen are gone -- in just a few short, summer months -- the political scene will shift. The blue dogs will be the new Republicans and we, the people, will hold the newly elected feet to the fire. This is by no means an unlikely scenario. With the coming vacuum on the right, incumbent and unresponsive conservative Democrats will have to begin looking over their left shoulders -- just ask Al Wynn.

Given the risk of undercutting such a change of scene, and severe consequences should John McCain become president, actively working against Obama is certainly not an appetizing option. Without that option we have, as Rosenbaum says, no leverage, and with it, we face irreversible disaster.

This accommodate-and-wait strategy, however, may leave us impaled on the left horn of our dilemma. What if pragmatic cynicism, the old game of moving to the "center" (no matter how clumsily) to win a general election is, this time around, based on false assumptions? What if the old politics are now also bad politics? The assumption that fuels the strategy of taking your base of support for granted and courting the so-called center assumes that 2008 will see another in a series of very close elections. The assumption is that if 47% of the electorate will vote Republican no matter what and 47 % will vote Democratic no matter what, the 6 % in the middle -- perhaps the most oblivious 6 % of the electorate -- will decide the winner. What this assumption does is project the state of the senate onto the country at large. But is it wise to imagine and pander to the swing voter as a sort of collective Lieberman darting erratically across the aisle with the key to majority control clutched in his bony hand? Is it answerable to the facts?

This trimming strategy is grounded, I think, in expectations of very low voter turn out. Take for example the Reagan "landslides" of 1980 and 1984 (Voter turnout in 1980 Presidential Election; Voter turnout in 1984 Presidential Election). In 1980 and 1984 about three out of four registered voters -- or slightly more than half the voting age population -- actually cast ballots. Reagan received 58.7% of the votes cast. These numbers suggest that he conservative tide voting in 1984, when Reagan won 49 states, represented about 60 % of the roughly half the voting age population that actually voted: 54,455,472 out of a potential 174,468,000 votes for a landside victory of approximately 31% of the voting age population. In 2004 56% of the voting age population and 72.9% of registered voters turned out. Doubtless there are other ways to work these numbers and other sources that will provide somewhat different numbers, but the basic point holds: American Presidents can and have been elected with large mandates by a minority of the potential voters.

More or less overt Republican efforts to suppress voter participation aside, it remains legitimate to wonder in what degree low voter turn out is an effect as well as a cause of the rush to the ever-rightward-drifting-center electoral strategy. I bring this up because of the record turnouts in the Democratic primaries in 2008 and because of the huge crowds Obama drew on his way to the nomination. What if, in 2008, they give a presidential election and the voters show up? What if those voters, personally distressed by rising gasoline prices and plunging real estate, an unending war, more and more obviously waged for private profit than national interest, and the crude antics of a political class that has made us a laughingstock among the nations are not of a mind to be manipulated by formulaic sound bites on hot button issues? Is it wise for Obama, who captured his fiercely contested nomination with the incantations of change and empowerment to suddenly pull up and advertise his restraint -- to court our putative national Lieberman -- with the promise that plus ce change...?

So, those of us who want, real, systemic and enduring change, those of us convinced that the status quo is crisis, must hold with one hand to the absolute necessity of an Obama victory and with the other to the possibility that pragmatic cynicism may be precisely not the road to achieve victory.

If steering a course between supporting the candidate, whose victory one believes to be imperative, and preventing that candidate from blundering by calling him continually to account for his actions were easy, it wouldn't be a dilemma. But faced with dilemma; that is, with the demand for apparently contradictory actions -- support and condemnation, unity and resistance -- we might do well to engage a different perspective. What is this election is less about the candidates than about the voters? It strikes me that the deeper dysfunction of our government is that it has become unresponsive to the voters. Benefiting from gerrymandered incumbency and a clubby aversion to real competition, our office-holders have been free to fry their fish outside the electoral kitchen -- collecting campaign funds, cultivating revolving door relations with powerful lobbies and focused on the intramural machinations of becoming powerful. For too long the voters' reaction to unresponsive government has been cynical resignation and disengagement. The enthusiasm and intensity of the Democratic primary cycle this year was, however, marked by a real and consistent jump in turn out -- to vote and to caucus. This sudden and participatory attention to electoral process, rather than the candidate it produced, may be the harbinger of change.

The antics of the Democratic Congress since 2006 ought to have shown us that change requires more than electing different individuals. As long as our office holders continue to regard remaining in office as their ultimate life goal, we have one clear path to change: we have to make them more afraid of the voters than of any of the other interests they serve. A reengaged and enlarged electorate, paying attention and determined to turn out unresponsive incumbents must take responsibility for government. Expecting a charismatic leader to do the job is a drive down the road to disillusionment, disaffection and government that perceives itself as having more important things to do than attend to our needs and desires.

What behavior follows from this realization in the current electoral context? We should neither condemn nor indulge our candidate. Rather we need to speak to him clearly. We need to tell him that we are building a movement that is not about him. We offer the next president the opportunity to be the instrument of this movement for a reinvigorated and participatory democracy, but we do not predicate our movement on his skill, his charisma or his good wishes. We are not waiting for a leader to bring us out of the darkness. We are offering a hand to one who will follow us into the light. It means resisting the myth that this election will be decided by a handful of people who, for some reason difficult to imagine, have difficulty deciding between McCain and Obama. Our message should be that we are choosing a responsive approach to the voters over a paternalistic and manipulative one. We also need to confront the fact that if Obama has to become like McCain to win, then we will, indeed, have a President who is rather more like McCain than we had hoped. There is, however, another way. We can articulate as thoroughly as possible what we want from our next president and let each of these guys try their best to convince us he is the one who will deliver it.