THE BLOG
09/24/2014 01:30 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Creative Tension: Hillary and the Progressive Movement

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

When I worked in the Clinton White House, our first big blowout of a fight was the 1993 budget battle. We ended winning every vote by the narrowest of margins, but in the end that budget was probably the most progressive budget passed since LBJ's heyday in the mid '60s, and arguably the most progressive passed since. We cut taxes on low-income folks and raised them on the wealthy, and we pumped a lot of new dollars into domestic programs. But there were a lot of things the could have been better, like there always are in politics, and I've always remembered Bill Clinton telling Bernie Sanders after we passed the budget that maybe if he and other progressives had raised more hell early about how the initial Clinton budget wasn't good enough, that maybe we could have gotten an even better budget deal.

I think about that conversation a lot when there are rocky moments between progressives and Democratic political leaders. We all need to understand that in the modern American political system, there is going to be a lot of tension between leaders of the progressive movement and Democratic politicians, but that in this era of crazy Koch-controlled Republicans, we also need each other. The wing of the Democratic Party closer to big business and Wall Street is wrong about a lot of things, but when you see the Koch philosophy of the world and understand how much they and their money controls the Republican Party, it couldn't be clearer that Democrats and progressives need to work together to stop the dystopia the Koch agenda would bring.

I say all this in part because we are in the fall of a huge election year, where the Republicans could well take over the Senate. If you want a taste of what McConnell is promising the Kochs he will do (said behind closed doors) if the Republicans get a majority, check this ugliness out. McConnell promised the Kochs and their billionaire friends that he will shut down the government through attaching riders to the budget that would stop companies like Koch Industries, Wall Street banks, and health insurance companies from getting any government oversight. And he said he would end debate on minimum wage, extending unemployment, and reforming student loans.

I also say all this because there was a ridiculously over-hyped article recently in The Hill by Alexandra Jaffe that quoted me and some other progressives from a private e-mail conversation we were having about Hillary Clinton. The article shamelessly linked some representatives of organizations on the private lists to an e-mail thread consisting entirely of individuals speaking for themselves, implying that all these groups were unhappy with her. Jaffe didn't include any of the positive comments a lot of us had expressed about Clinton because she wanted to do a melodramatic story on how progressives were unalterably opposed to her.

In these private e-mails, I expressed concern that Hillary is too close to Wall Street and too hawkish in her views on national security policy. Given that I have said those things in multiple blog posts published over the years, it wasn't a big surprise that I would have said them in a private e-mail chain as well. But what Jaffe chose not to quote was when I expressed my admiration for the toughness and passion I had seen Hillary show on the health care reform fight in the 1990s, or on numerous budget battles over children's programs, or for her high level of political skill. I told Jaffe that while progressives had plenty of concerns, that the Hillary Clinton I knew was smart enough to know she needed to court progressives in her campaign, and that if she were the nominee, most progressives would support her strongly given that the Republicans will nominate an extremist conservative for president.

That is the nature of politics in America right now. Progressive leaders are going to have disagreements with Democratic politicians, but to keep the Koch-controlled dystopians from office, we need the Democrats to win. And for the Democrats to win, they need to understand that they need us, too. Without the progressive movement's money, staff, and volunteer hours, without our being excited enough to convince our friends and get them out to vote, the Democrats cannot win.

So what happens to progressive causes when centrist Democrats win? Well, sometimes we will win and sometimes we will lose. Sometimes we will make progress, but only modest progress. But at least we will win some of the time, as opposed to being governed by Koch Republicans, where not only will we never make progress, but we could see truly horrible policies enacted.

Let me give you an example, from a fight I was deeply involved with, the battle to keep Obama from agreeing to a "grand bargain" with the Republicans that would involve cutting Social Security benefits. Obama was seriously considering this in the first term, and it came close to happening, but between tea party Republicans not wanting to agree to any deal with Obama and progressives strongly protesting any benefit cuts, the deal fell apart. It was a proud moment for those of us who had stood up to the White House when they were close to making that deal. If there had been a Republican president and Congress, though, the Ryan budget, which gutted Medicare, Medicaid, and most other domestic spending -- along with giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy -- would have become law. We would have had no leverage, no ability to stop anything. So even though it was frustrating and irritating to be fighting with Obama, and we had to fight him tooth and nail, it was far better to be fighting him than to have the Republicans be in charge of everything. As upset I have been with Obama at times over the last six years, I am so glad that I gave money and knocked on doors and did everything else in my power to help him win.

Having said all that, my friends in the Democratic establishment who have been sending me warning shots across the bow lately for saying these negative things about Hillary Clinton, or for criticizing the work of Emily's List to elect a conservative Democrat over a strong progressive incumbent in Hawaii in an article a couple of weeks back, need to understand a couple of things as well. One is the factor President Clinton highlighted in that conversation with Bernie Sanders: the tension between progressives and centrists in the Democratic party is a healthy thing. It gets us far more than Obama's compromising with himself before saying what he wants in a legislative package. Progressives should be loudly, annoyingly fighting with the powers that be for the best possible policy, or progress will never happen.

The other thing that the Democratic establishment needs to understand is what I learned while losing on health care reform in the Clinton White House, or when crafting a strategy that surprised party elders in taking back the House for Dems in 2006: passion trumps just about everything else in politics. You can't win an election or a legislative fight without it. Mark my words: No matter how much money she raises, no matter how many wise establishment operatives she has working for her, Hillary Clinton will need progressive passion to win in 2016. I do believe she understands that, and will run a campaign that reaches out to progressives just like Bill Clinton did in his campaigns and in his White House.

I am going to close with another story from that Social Security fight. There was a moment, when Obama decided he did want to push for Social Security benefit cuts and the White House started leaning on people to back off, when a lot of the liberal establishment in D.C. did look like they were starting to cave. I was having a ton of disturbing conversations with people telling me it was too bad, but the President had made his decision and it was time to stop fighting. Fortunately some major forces, led most strongly by the AFL-CIO and Moveon, refused to buckle and were rallying the troops. I wrote a blog post that my friends at MoveOn widely promoted, which, from the calls I got from the White House, really made the administration upset. It talked about an elderly woman I had met 30 years before who ended up freezing to death because she lived only on Social Security and couldn't afford her utility bills. I said in that post:

"But here's the deal: I didn't get into politics to help the Democratic party. I came to the Democratic party because they more often wanted to help the people I cared about helping -- the poor, the disabled, the middle class folks fighting for a decent life for them and their families. When forced to choose, as it looks like I will in this case, I will choose the people I got into this work to fight for.

My first loyalties are to my middle-class family, who will depend heavily on Social Security because they mostly won't have lots of savings or generous pensions; to the kids I grew up with in a working class part of Lincoln, NE, who are getting ready to retire and mostly don't have those savings or pensions either; to the people like my late brother Kevin who have lived with serious disabilities, who may or may not be taken care of depending on what is negotiated away next; and to the poor people and seniors who I got to know as a young organizer, like the elderly woman I made a promise to that I would keep fighting for her."

My first loyalties will always be those kinds of folks. What that means is that I have in the past, and will in the future, sometimes get into fights with Democratic politicians. I will always believe and continue to say that President Obama and the Clintons are too easy on Wall Street. I will never be a fan of a hawkish national security policy or permanent war. I will fight against every policy proposal that cuts benefits for the poor and elderly. But I also am keenly aware of how breathtakingly terrible the policies of the Kochs and their wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican party, are. I disagree with my old boss Hillary Clinton on some important things, but I also agree with her on a great many, and know there is much to admire in her. If she is the Democratic nominee, I won't have a moment's doubt about doing everything I know how to do to help her win, just as I am doing everything I know how to do to help the Democrats stay in control of the Senate. I think most progressives will end up in the same place, but they will need some show of respect from Clinton to get there.