09/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Constant Challenge of Creating an Effective Left Flank

I wanted to weigh in on this whole left flank for Obama issue (the idea that Obama needs a strong progressive movement pushing him from the left to get things done), because I think getting it right is probably the single most important thing in creating transformative change. Let me start by talking for a bit about my personal situation, because I think it has lessons from the broader issue.

I am blessed and cursed by this man-in-the-middle life I've created for myself.

One the one hand, I am a DC insider. I have served inside of five Presidential campaigns, two Presidential transition teams (sadly, the only two in my adult lifetime), and the Clinton White House. On the other hand, I have chosen to spend most of my life outside of government and the Democratic Party, working instead on helping to build progressive infrastructure and issue campaigns. This being connected to both the inside and outside has created some interesting dynamics.

Last week was in some ways fairly typical for me. I had one senior White house official tell me I was positioning myself in a fairly helpful way, and another who people told me was referring to me as an "(expletive deleted), (expletive deleted), (particularly gross and disgusting expletive deleted)." My blog posts prompted some of my responders to say that I was way too pro-Obama, and what could you expect from a DC insider like me, while the same posts caused another friend to e-mail me, worried that I was being too tough on Obama and was endangering my relationship with the White House.

I am sort of used to having at least some of my friends pissed off at me almost all of the time (let alone what my actual enemies -- there are a few -- think of me). In the Clinton White House, I got yelled at almost daily from people on the outside about (a) all the bad things we had done to progressive causes, and (b) other White House officials who said I was just carrying water for all the lefties outside. My job there was described by people as being the person responsible for having all my friends yell at me.

This personal experience has made me reflect a lot on what an effective left flank is for a Democratic President. First, on the definition: my view of what is effective is based on my understanding of history laid out in my book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be: an effective left flank pushes the more progressive party's President toward big, transformational changes. The abolitionist movement successfully pushed Abe Lincoln and the radical Republicans toward ending slavery and other big changes; the Populist and Progressive and suffragist movements pushed Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson toward making the big progressive era changes in the early 1900s; the labor movement pushed FDR toward the major achievements of the New Deal; and the civil rights and other movements of the 1960s pushed the Kennedys and LBJ toward the big achievements of that era.

Moving toward transformational change is especially urgent when the nation is in crisis. Lincoln would not have won the civil war without the Emancipation Proclamation, and FDR would not have led us out of the Great Depression without New Deal economic policies. In both cases, the country was too broken, and needed big changes to fix it. And the reason that Buchanan, Hoover, and LBJ ended up as failed Presidents is that they stayed with conventional wisdom and weren't bold enough on the biggest crises of their times (respectively, the lead-up to the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War).

I believe we are at that kind of crisis moment now, and that we can only get ourselves out of it with big, bold, progressive policies. Lincoln, FDR and JFK/LBJ on civil rights all started out in more of a conventional wisdom mindset, but the combination of progressive movement pressure and the crisis itself moved them toward making the major changes needed to solve things.

So how do we create an effective left flank? Given that (per the above stories), I tend to get everybody I know mad at me at some point or another, I'm sure there will be a lot of disagreement on this, but here are some principles I believe we ought to follow in creating that left flank:

1. Understand that whether we like it or not, the progressive movement's fate, at least for the next few years and probably longer, is inextricably tied to Obama's. As mad as many of us progressives get at Obama over certain policy or strategic failures, we have to understand that him failing as President hurts the entire progressive cause. In case you didn't notice, LBJ's and Jimmy Carter's failed Presidencies did not usher in eras of progressive reform, they moved the country inexorably to the right. As President from the more left party, most Americans saw them as liberals even though LBJ was decidedly un-liberal on Vietnam, and Carter was the most conservative Democratic President on economics since Grover Cleveland in the 1800s. But progressives were struck with their failures anyway and paid the price. People who think Obama is failing because he's following a more moderate path, and that eventually helps us move in a more progressive direction, are fooling themselves.

If Obama fails on health care (and, by the way, I consider failure to be either not passing a bill, or passing a bill that doesn't work for the middle class), we won't see another attempt at serious health care reform for at least another generation. If he fails at doing something big on climate change, we probably won't be able to get anything done on it until it is too late to make a difference. And if his economic policies fail, regardless of demographics moving in our favor or Republican extremism, all Democrats will be punished at the polls, and the far-right that has taken over the Republican Party will probably come into power. And this isn't just about the long term, either: for every percentage point Obama's approval drops, we probably lose another two or three House seats in 2010.

Progressives' strategy, then, should not be to attack Obama personally, to undermine voters' confidence in him, but to shore up the backbone of progressives in Congress -- and in his own administration, because I guarantee you, policy debates between more and less progressive staffers are held every day at the White House. If Obama makes a bad policy decision, we shouldn't hesitate to push back or encourage progressives in Congress to do the same, and if White House staffers are pursuing destructive political strategies (see the "left-of-the-left" quote), we shouldn't hesitate to bang on them. But our goal should be to do all this while still holding up hope that Obama will move in the right direction, and to praise the hell out of him when he does.

2. We should value the different roles we all play. The "we" in the previous sentence includes insiders and outsiders, different players in the movement, and people who work in that building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We all have (hopefully) constructive and important roles to play, even when we disagree sometimes on tactics and strategies. I think it's a mistake to assume anything about each other's motives. These are big important policy debates we are having, and it's natural that things will get heated. But we have to respect each other's roles to make this work.

Frederick Douglass excoriated Lincoln for moving so slowly on abolition even while Lincoln was inviting him to the White House for quiet conversations about how to move forward, conversations that were critical in shaping Lincoln's abolition strategy. Labor leaders loudly announced that no one, FDR included, was going to get them to back down, even as FDR was meeting with them privately and urging them to keep pushing. Alice Paul was chaining herself to the White House fence and going on hunger strikes while other feminist leaders were meeting with Wilson and other congressional leaders, and it took both tactics combined to get the vote. King and other civil rights leaders refused to back down on pleas to stop civil disobedience and the march on Washington, but met constantly with White House officials to keep things moving.

We all have roles to play. Let me throw out some specific examples:

  • DC coalitions tend, by their very nature, to be clunky, cautious, and a little slow-moving. But they still have incredibly important roles to play in terms of coordinating lobbying, field, and communicating tactics, and keeping a steady dialogue going on important details of legislation with congressional and White House staffers.

  • Some progressives chose to play an inside role so that they can be at the table on the incredibly important details of the legislative language. That is a really good thing, but to be on the inside, you have to be a team player, and you have to mute your criticisms. That can leave you open to criticism by folks on the outside, but it is an incredibly valuable and important role. Jan Schakowsky (an old friend, so I am biased) is a big example of this kind of person. She is both a strong progressive and is a loyal member of the Obama/Pelosi team. I am thankful every day she is fighting for our cause on the inside, because I guarantee you the important details of the bill would be a lot worse without her.

  • The bloggers who have been demanding that Congressional Progressive Caucus members stand firm on a public option have annoyed a lot of insiders, but their single-minded focus on the strategy of keeping House progressives united is a big reason why the public option is still alive. If the left didn't keep pushing, this health care debate would keep shifting more and more to the right.

  • The kind of silly attitude, that the "left of the left" is the problem, hurts the White House. As I wrote the other day, when progressives are being critical is exactly the time the White House ought to be cultivating them. If people are inside a tent, they generally wee-wee (as the President would put it) outward, and if they are kept out, they generally wee-wee inward. And if you can't figure that most progressives are trying to be your friends (even if, yes, we are occasionally big pains in the butt), then the White House has a very big problem.

Hopefully this discussion continues, because getting this right is arguably the single most important thing that will determine whether Obama and those of us in the progressive movement are a success. When the stakes are so incredibly high, tempers will flare, sharp elbows will be thrown, and various players will be critical of each other. All that's understandable, and can be healthy. But we also all need to understand that progressives and the White House need each other to get anything big and important done. Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass understood that. So did FDR and John L. Lewis. So did Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It's how big change happens in this country.

In the meantime, everybody feel free to keep yelling at me. I've gotten kind of used to it.