09/07/2010 10:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Progressives in America: It's Time to Revive Our Party's Values

From the Obama administration's stunning exclusion of abortion coverage in high-risk health-care insurance pools to Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' straw-man excoriation of the "professional left," the accumulating disappointments with the Obama White House have crystallized an important truth: Progressives should never let themselves be seduced by administration bright lights such that they overlook broken campaign promises.

As committed progressives, we need to shift our focus -- and, with it, our time, money and organizing -- toward building a sustainable grassroots movement that turns promises made to us into positive outcomes. We need a unified strategic vision, we need to develop and promote our progressive ideas and policies, and then we need to oppose and contest anti-progressive candidates, "Blue Dog" Democrats and obstructionist Republicans alike.

It's not for us to "jump ship" or start third parties. Those who would consider such options have, I hope, learned the painful Ralph Nader lesson. Nor, as some suggest, should we sit on our hands in this up-coming election in order to send a message. We ought simply to refocus our emphasis to the hard work of building a movement that's not wholly dependent on a single political personality.

Since the thunderous election in November 2008 and the cresting of our hopes on Inauguration Day, progressives have been stung repeatedly by a litany of disappointments. Many of these bore at least a patina of expediency, counter-balanced by internal pledges of future support. Perhaps that's why the administration's ban on abortion coverage in high-risk pools was so clarifying.

The administration had no reason to go so far and to so cruelly single out the women with the most fragile health. The fact that it did this under the guise of upholding a deal with Rep. Bart Stupak makes its decision less, not more, "clarifying." The decision to pursue this policy reached well beyond the "Stupak compromise." In the end, the White House negotiated with itself, further compromising its own position and the health and well-being of vulnerable women.

The White House's assurance that the order would be watered down with subsequent acts is less an excuse than just the latest in a disappointing pattern of "head-patting" and "excuse making." Even the most accommodating progressives understand that it's disingenuous in the extreme for the administration to promise to water down a potion cooked up in the administration's own kitchen.

But it's the whispering from the White House that deserves the most attention, for it's the most revealing. Progressives have repeatedly been implored to accept the limitations of the political environment -- on abortion, on the public option, and on the shameful abandonment, without even the pretense of a fight, of Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

The Obama campaign generated so much excitement among progressives because it seemed to be embracing a principle which many of us have argued for years: namely, that the American people support progressive policies under the right circumstances. Progressives also thought they saw in Mr. Obama a leader who would take stands and fight on principle. Unfortunately, Washington conventional wisdom -- and now "Obama practice" as well -- have concluded that fighting for "hope" and "change" doesn't mean actually fighting the battles for abortion rights, LGBT rights, and civil rights.

Well enough, I say.

For two generations, Americans have favored a woman's right to choose. It seems almost wistful to recall that in the 2000 election candidate George W. Bush lost the support of millions of pro-choice Republican women and thus the overall popular vote. Nor should we forget that even with Newt Gingrich as an adversarial Speaker of the House, Bill Clinton had the political courage to hold a White House conference featuring women who had had late-term abortions.

The belief within the Obama White House is that it can't win civil rights fights writ large and that it shouldn't even try. There is now an established practice of reacting to issues on an ad hoc basis rather than providing voters with an overall narrative and a values-driven context for understanding them. But it's not only the White House that deserves our frank critique. Progressives also made an enormous error in assuming that Democratic majorities in Congress signaled the advent of a progressive agenda.

The reality is that the large Democratic majorities in Congress today were achieved by recruiting candidates who were not themselves progressive and who in fact opposed key elements of the Party platform, including a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Progressives were sold a bill of goods by Democratic leaders who claimed that while these "blue dogs" were key to building a significant Democratic majority, they posed no threat on the policy front because the leadership would always be "with us."

Indeed, if one were to select the single moment when the opportunity for a truly progressive agenda was lost, it was when the Democratic Party campaign committees set their sights on majorities built on candidates who did not support the fundamental principles of the party.

Looking forward, it is essential to understand and then remember what a progressive movement is and what it's not.

A progressive movement is ideas and policies. It's the ability to convey those ideas to an electorate that in the past has seen little more than caricatures of progressive politics. And it's the courage to challenge opponents whether they be phony Democrats or conservative Republicans.

A progressive movement is not compromising your core beliefs for electoral outcomes, which more often than not lead only to broken promises and shattered principles.

Kate Michelman is President Emeritus of NARAL Pro-Choice America and author of "WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose" (Penguin Hudson Street Press, 2005)