01/27/2009 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

History's Lesson: No Progress Without Struggle

Cross-posted at

As we come off the high of the Inauguration, we have to get ready for what will be some very tough fights ahead. I have been doing some thinking about the challenges of this whole post-partisan theory of change, and wanted to spend some time addressing it strategically.

As you may know, I recently did an interview with Sam Stein at the Huffington Post about my new book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, where I talked about the fact that history doesn't really support the whole post-partisan, bring everybody together theory of change--that every big change in American history has only come after a very intense and rancorous battle to the end between progressives and conservatives. That caused some heartburn for some of my friends in the Obama White House, but I stick by what I said. There are a lot of nuances and layers to what is going on right now, and we need to do some real thinking about the strategy going forward.

The first point I would I make is that I think it is a very good thing strategically for Obama to be reaching out symbolically to Republicans. Going to a dinner honoring John McCain the night before the inaugural; going to meetings with the Republican leadership and the Republican caucuses; making a point of saying over and over again that he wants to work with them: all of these gestures build good will, impress voters, and make it harder for the Republicans to be nasty in their attacks of him. And it might well help in winning Snowe, Voinovich, Collins or Specter on critical votes when we really need them.

There are two things we should be very clear on about post-partisanship, though:

1. At the end of the day, the progressive things Obama wants to do will be strongly opposed by the vast majority of Republicans. Rebuilding the economy from the bottom up, fundamentally reforming healthcare so all Americans can get reasonably priced coverage, transforming the energy economy so that we save ourselves from the worst consequences of global warming, allowing unions a fair shot at organizing, and many of the other things Obama wants to do will all be opposed by 90%+ of the Republican party and conservative movement. We already see it in the reaction from Boehner and McConnell and all of the conservative columnists Obama had dinner with the other night to his economic recovery package, even though Obama has made it smaller and put more tax cuts into it than most progressives think make sense. Making the substantive changes that actually make all of the above policy goals possible will require rejecting conservative ideas and going forward boldly where they can't follow. Key to actually achieving real healthcare reform, for example, is giving all Americans the option of joining the same public plan members of Congress get, but including that option will lose you most Republican votes. Making the massive public investments in transforming out energy economy will never be supported by most Republicans, nor will placing a tight cap on carbon emissions that isn't chock full of loopholes. 95% of Republicans will violently oppose any easing of union organizing rules. Reaching out to conservative Republicans symbolically, personally, and rhetorically can strengthen Obama for the tough political battles ahead, as long as he understands that to get the important things done that we need to achieve, they will still oppose you on virtually everything that really matters.

2. Someone is still going to have to call the charge to attack. If the upside of all this reaching out to Republicans is that it makes them look pettier when they attack you, the downside is that regardless of that, as with the economic recovery plan, they will still attack. If Obama is going to play conciliator-in-chief, someone else on our side is going to need to play the attack dog because we know the Republicans aren't going to be all sweetness and light all of a sudden. People inside and out of the administration-- a mix of cabinet officials, White House spokespeople, Congressional leaders, and outside progressive leaders and groups-- are going to have to be the tip of the spear, be very conscious and very aggressive about defending the progressive proposals being pushed and attacking the Republican ideas as being the lame turkeys that they are. Deciding who our leading aggressors will be needs to be thought through strategically and decided early on so that it is not shied away from or done sporadically. There will always be a vigorous debate when you are trying to make big change, and we need to be ready to engage in it.

In The Progressive Revolution, I quote nineteenth century abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass' great speech where he says:

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get."

Truer words were never spoken. What history shows is that nothing important was ever done; no big change was ever made, without a knock-down, drag-out fight between progressives and conservatives. Our ideas and attitudes and fundamental philosophies are just too different. One side or another gains the upper-hand politically for a while, but neither side ever gives up or goes away, and the conservatives won't this time either. We need to strike while the iron is hot, and fight like crazy to make the big changes while we can, because we will fail if we don't understand that we are still, as always, in a war of ideas.

Mr. President, I think it is great that you are reaching out in all these ways. It may well help on a crucial vote here or there in the Senate where we need just one or two Republicans to break a filibuster, and it will make the Republicans look bad when they refuse to compromise at all. But just remember those words of Frederick Douglass, because they are still true today: There is no progress without struggle. There never has been and there never will be. We have to fight with conservative Republicans to get anything good done, and they will not back down easily because they never do. The fight will be tough, rancorous, and-- yes-- partisan, because pretty much everything worth doing generally is, every time.