It has been a really bad week for progressives. The bad news piling up on the road was like the wreckage after a Mac truck topples over in a crash on the interstate, with one car after another slamming into the mess. There were bits of good news peaking through here and there, like the deficit commission falling 3 votes short on its plan to make the middle class pay for a deficit created by tax cuts for the rich and Wall Street causing an economic collapse, but it was an ugly week overall:
- The co-chairs of the deficit commission got 11 votes for their plan to raise the retirement age, cut Social Security benefits, take away homeowners' mortgage deduction, take away workers' health care plans' tax advantage, and give corporations and the wealthy lower taxes. Even though the plan fell short of the 14 required by its executive order to be forwarded to Congress, the campaign manager for the commission's plan, the Washington Post, has proclaimed breathlessly that this is a great victory for goodness and truth -- and that is in its "news" section. And President Obama decided on a cross between no response and a positive one: not commenting on any of the specifics while praising the work of the commission way too much.
After the massive election defeat Democrats suffered in 2010, a defeat made far worse by the fact that the only thing voters understood about Obama's economic plan was that he saved the big banks, I am in a very bad mood. This week made my mood much worse, because it feels like Obama's emerging political strategy is what I have called DC centrism: things popular with the Washington Post and DC pundits that have no popularity with actual middle class swing voters or the base voters Obama desperately needs to re-energize, such as raising the retirement age and trade deals. If he chooses this course, he will get more attacks like Paul Krugman's column on Friday (which has already been forwarded to me about a 1,000 times), more angry bloggers, more ticked off Democrats in Congress, more dis-spirited and dis-engaged volunteers and online donors, fewer and fewer people to defend him against the Republicans' never ending attacks. I don't know who it will be, but politics like nature abhors a vacuum, and Obama will get someone to challenge him in the primary, and whoever it is will turn out to be as surprisingly strong as Pat Buchanan was against the first George Bush in 1992, or as Gene McCarthy was in '68.
You know what, though, after all this week's bad news: I am still answering the question in my headline with a no. Having been doing politics fulltime for 30 years now, and as a student of history, I always have to smile at all the apocalyptic talk that happens after a big election defeat. Go back and look at the commentary after the Goldwater defeat about the imminent demise of the Republican Party, or check out all the discussion after the 2004 election of the Republicans' permanent majority. Or, if you don't like such ancient history, check out the doomsday talk about how much trouble the Republicans were in after the 2008 election. The tide can turn in politics very quickly, and politicians sometimes do get their act together after making lots of mistakes.
I know. I am a veteran of the Clinton White House that was rocked by the stunning 1994 defeat. And things looked really bleak after that election, not only in terms of winning in '96 but in terms of how Clinton was reacting. For one thing, he was drifting and directionless for months, advancing no major initiatives or ideas and staying reactive and defensive the whole time. For another, he had brought in folks like Dick Morris, Mark Penn, and Doug Schoen, who were basically counseling triangulation and capitulation to Republicans on every issue. Everyone was assuming that Dick Gephardt would mount a major challenge to the president in the primary, spurred on by unions still mad about NAFTA and members/ex-members of Congress who fully blamed Clinton for the stunning loss of their majority. The new Republican majority rolled in those first few months, winning all the early Contract with America policy battles as Clinton gave in on too many things. And Clinton trailed Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee, badly all through late '94 and the first 8 months of '95.
Clinton and the Democrats started to get their traction when they organized against the Republicans on the school lunch fight, which made Gingrich look like an extremist. That set the stage for the budget showdown, on which labor and other progressives ran ads both beating up on Republicans and stiffening the spine of Clinton. Morris, Penn, and Schoen were running around town telling everyone Clinton would just split the difference with Republicans on Medicare, Medicaid, education, and environmental cuts, but when Clinton sided with labor and progressives and announced he wouldn't accept Gingrich's draconian cuts, he forced a showdown. When the dust settled, Clinton had put Dole in his rearview mirror in the presidential polling and never had to look back.
I don't know what is going to happen over the next few months. Obama may decide that DC centrism is the way to go. He may consistently negotiate with Republicans from a position of weakness, and fold on one issue after the next to the emboldened Republicans in Congress. If that happens, progressives will go crazy on him and swing voters will keep stewing as the economy stays stuck in a rut and Obama looks weak. But for all my progressive friends wallowing in despair and giving up all hope, I'd encourage you to take a deep breath and keep organizing, because we are not passive victims in all this. The Clinton White House didn't just stumble across the school lunch issue as a way to make Gingrich look like a right wing extremist with no compassion: progressives picked that issue out of the Republican budget plan and began organizing around it. Bill Clinton didn't decide to stand up to Republicans on the budget fight because he magicly grew a new pair on his own: labor and other progressive groups ran ads, pushed back, threatened him with all kinds of ugly consequences, and all of a sudden there he was wielding that veto pen on national TV.
Progressives are not helpless in all this: we have more of a megaphone and more tools and more activists than we did in the mid '90s. And this president is not without strength: his Philadelphia speech on race, his sound defeats of McCain in the debates, his standing up to Rahm when he wanted to throw in the towel on health care reform all proved that. Progressives need to re-form their lines and help Obama find his way. And Obama needs to regain his strength and start fighting -- really fighting, in a way we can all see it -- for the middle class again, not giving into conventional wisdom about what the DC elites think is the center.
This has been a bad month and a bad week for the progressive cause. But we've seen worse. There are no longer slaves in chains, being hunted down with guns and whips when they try to escape. Women are no longer arrested and mocked when they press for the right to vote. Little children are no longer having firehoses and dogs turned on them when they march for their civil rights. Those good people whose shoulders we stand on today never gave up their hope, and they faced far worse than John Boehner as speaker. We need to gather ourselves for the fight ahead, and create a center of gravity that will be powerful and appealing enough that our president is pulled to do the right thing.