THE BLOG
11/23/2011 11:07 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Reasonable Complaints: An Open Letter to Jonathan Chait

Dear Jonathan Chait,

Mostly you're right, of course.

Yesterday all my fellow liberals were passing David Frum's commentary about the direction of the Republican Party around Facebook; it's one of those extremely satisfying reads that says exactly what we've all been thinking. But your piece on liberal dissatisfaction was much more interesting and, I think, a more important read.

I'm one of those dissatisfied liberals. I complain about how President Obama isn't tough enough, fantasize about how Hillary Clinton (full disclosure: I worked for her campaign) would have handled this or that battle with the GOP, and go back-and-forth on how much effort I want to put into supporting Obama's reelection.

Your article brought some much-needed perspective to these concerns. By any measure, Barack Obama has been an effective, accomplished president over the past three years. He passed universal health care. Gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military. He has rebuilt America's relationships with our allies, is ending the war in Iraq, and finally got Osama bin Laden. Thanks to his enormous expenditure of political capital, job losses have turned into (unfortunately anemic) job growth, and we have avoided a certainly deeper economic malaise.

So you've convinced me. We should in fact support Obama's reelection with all the enthusiasm and effort we can muster. He's a good president, and America needs a second term.

But (and there's always a but), we disaffected liberals do have some legitimate complaints. They aren't limited to President Obama or his predecessors. They aren't necessarily about the passage of this or that policy. Rather, we have deep structural issues with the behavior and tactics of our elected officials. We watch the Republicans kowtow to the most extreme elements of their party while progressives are held at arm's length for such radical notions as opposing the Iraq war and wanting Wall Street held accountable for plunging our economy into chaos. We watch the Republicans hold our economy hostage while Democrats balk at using basic negotiating strategy to achieve our goals.

We watch the Republicans fight -- and we want our politicians to do the same. Here are four legitimate demands liberals should make of our politicians.

1. A full-throated defense of progressive principles.

There's a reason that video of Elizabeth Warren at a house party was like Cupid's arrow through the heart of every liberal activist in the country. She stated, in clear and simple terms, a basic principle that each of us believes and none of us had ever heard from a politician before: No one gets rich in a vacuum.

It's such a simple, basic idea. Why did it take so long for someone running for office to lay it out? Why isn't it a core part of Democratic messaging? Why do we continually let Republicans bury us under ridiculous charges of "class warfare"?

Liberals want to see Democratic politicians who easily -- instinctively! -- defend the principles that supposedly inspired them to public service in the first place. Ask 10 Republican politicians what they believe in, and 90 percent of what you'll hear will be the same: smaller taxes, less government. Ask 10 Democrats, and you'll get 10 different answers, few if any grounded in basic principles.

2. Genuine respect for progressive activists.

The worst part of your article, Jonathan, was the cheap shot at John Aravosis and Rachel Maddow, who complained about Obama's inviting Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. They had reason to complain. Warren believes Aravosis and Maddow can be "cured" of homosexuality. He doesn't think they should be able to marry the partners of their choice. Would you want someone who believed those things about you being an honored guest of a president you've poured your hopes into?

But progressive activists are used to being dismissed, ignored, and insulted. "Serious" Washington Democrats are all too eager to agree with conservatives about the terms of the debate, which more often than not vary between the extreme right wing and some milquetoast brand of moderation. Our people are not at the table and our ideas are not discussed. Deep commitment to progressive causes and organizations is seen as a strike against Democratic politicians while Republicans cozy up to the most odious fringes of their party.

Give progressive activists a seat at the table and make our ideas part of your agenda. Speaking of which...

3. Leading, rather than following, on ideas.

Every liberal of a certain age has a favorite West Wing moment. Here's mine. Pollster Joey Lucas explains to Josh Lyman how poll numbers showing that people disagree with the Bartlett's administration's gun policies doesn't mean they need to dial back the rhetoric -- they need to dial it up. They need to lead, rather than follow. They need to do the hard work of convincing people.

I've watched for too long as Democratic politicians use the same tired messages, based on the same tired polls, those based on the same tired assumptions and biases. When was the last time you heard a Democratic politician speak to the American people and thought he was actually trying to convince them of something, rather than simply trying to look like he believed the same things they did?

We want big ideas. We want bold stands. And we want presidents who will work to convince the American people that their ideas are the right ones.

Since Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, he has taken a beating on it. The conservative drumbeat that it is bad for America has been relentless. Where's the fight? Where's the bold insistence day after day -- not just from the White House but from down-ballot politicians as well -- that we were right, they were wrong, and if you don't elect us again, there will be hell to pay? It's hard work standing up for your ideas, but always worth it.

4. Better negotiating.

It's a simple rule. If you want five, ask for ten. But we have watched again and again as President Obama seems to open negotiations with the position he believes he can get -- starting at five -- and watch as intransigent Republicans whittle him down again and again.

Liberal activists are not stupid. We know he is facing a Republican House. We know the Senate is deadlocked. We know that the fault for Washington gridlock lies at the GOP's feet, and that Obama's ability to accomplish more than he has is curtailed by that reality.

But we want to start from a stronger position. We want tougher tactics. Republicans are willing to hold the economy of the world hostage. Democrats are loath to shake up meaningless procedures based on outdated traditions.

Liberals want our presidents and other politicians to be tougher fighters for the ideas we all believe in. We want them to see adversity and lean into it, moving forward, instead of triangulating and backtracking. We know that no one president will fulfill all our hopes. We know there will always be fights, always be compromises. But we also recognize a genuine need for politicians who stand with us, fight for our ideas, and make us a critical part of that fight.