11/17/2010 12:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For Everything There is a Season: A Time to Compromise and a Time to Fight

There's a lot of discussion of late about bipartisanship and the need to compromise, which is natural with the Republicans now controlling the House and there being divided government. The key is figuring out when it is right to cut deals and when it is right to stand tall and fight.

Let me start by saying something perhaps surprising for an old school populist progressive like myself: compromise is not a dirty word. It is essential and inevitable in actually making a democratic (note the small d in democratic) government run. Passing budgets, continuing resolutions, debt ceiling increases, and all those basic things that keeps a government functioning will require some compromise and give and take. When politicians choose to make a great symbolic show of intentionally not compromising, all they have to do is look at how nicely that worked out for Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole in 1995. So, yes, everyone in both parties should grit their teeth and prepare themselves: some compromises are inevitable because that is the very nature of divided governments.

I also don't have a problem, as some of my fellow progressives do, with rhetorically offering olive branches to Republicans in a general way. Saying you want to work together, saying you want to talk things through, saying you would like to reach a compromise is not wrong in and of itself, and I don't think the progressive community should freak out every time it happens. It will be a very long couple of years if we do, because this kind of symbolic outreach to the other side is being demanded by voters (Democratic voters among them), and because it is a core part of the symbolic dance that is inherent to divided government.

But let's be very clear about what doesn't have to happen: weak negotiating and capitulation on important issues. Here's a sentence I haven't written very many times: George W. Bush was right about something. But on this one I agree with him: he said you shouldn't negotiate against yourself in public, and he was right. The impression left by all the way-too-early public comments about compromise on the tax cut issue has left Obama looking weak, looking to everyone that he is going to cave on everything that matters sooner rather than later. And the tax cut issue is only the first flash point because there is a growing sense of concern among a lot of the Democrats I have talked to about whether Obama is a strong leader. This Bill Greider piece on Obama has been circulating far and wide, and generating a lot of discussion, because a lot of people have fundamental questions about whether the president will stand up to the Republicans.

My advice to my fellow progressives is to not leap to judgment on all this. After the 1994 defeat, it took a while for Bill Clinton to regain his confidence and focus, and things looked very shaky for a few months. But he started standing up to Gingrich on some big symbolic issues like the school lunch fight in the early spring, and when he stood his ground on the big government shutdown battles of the summer, he rallied the base, impressed swing voters with his strength and courage, and established a big lead in the Presidential polling he never relinquished.

My advice to President Obama: don't wait as long as Clinton to stand your ground on important things. The economy is worse and not coming back fast, voters are in bad moods, and the blogosphere (which wasn't around in 1994/1995) and others in the media will eat you alive if you don't show some strength and moxie soon. Most importantly, pick some fights and stand tall on the things that matter not to DC elites but to the hurting and angry working and middle class voters that turned against us in the election. Some specific suggestions that are all both good policy things to do but also weighted with huge symbolic weight both to your progressive base and to the middle class:

  1. Side with struggling homeowners, not the banks, on the foreclosure crisis.
  2. Pick a fight and make the Republicans defend and specifically vote for extending the Bush tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires.
  3. Pick as head of the National Economic Council a person who is known to be a strong advocate for the middle class.
  4. Once the Deficit Commission has gone through its process, than thank them for their work but make it clear that you would never support raising the retirement age, cutting Social Security benefits, and ending the mortgage and health care deductions. Propose your own plan that balances the budget in the long run without transferring income from the middle class to the wealthy.
  5. Announce an aggressive new plan to rebuild America's manufacturing sector, and make the Republicans say why they don't want to do it.

Doing things like this show strength, and show the middle class you are on their side. Those are the two most important things you can do to reassure both your base and swing voters, and you need to do both to rebuild your Presidency.