I almost never have anything nice to say about Republicans or conservatives, and I don’t sugarcoat my distaste and fear of them. I don’t shy away from confrontation with the opposite side. But I don’t expect my elected leaders to behave like I do. I think expecting them to behave that way shows a certain naivete. First of all, the Democratic Party has certain distinct leaders. There are obviously the president and vice-president, and high ranking cabinet members. There are also the Senate Majority Leader and Majority Whip, and the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader, and Majority Whip. There are the heads of the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC. These people are leaders of the entire breadth of the Democratic Caucus, and they can’t just stake out a position on one side of the Caucus and ignore the rest. In fact, because their power derives from the most vulnerable members of the Caucus, they have obvious incentives to keep vulnerable members happy and protected. That’s just an institutional centripetal force that forces all sides towards the middle (and most of the money, too).

Because majorities are made through a mushy-middle, there are real tradeoffs when the ideological center of the party (which is different from the centrist fringe) exerts itself robustly. There have been times (e.g., The New Deal and The Great Society) when the Democrats had supermajorities in Congress and the willingness and ability to use their political capital aggressively while they had it to push through major progressive legislation. But, in those cases, there was instantaneous backlash. In 1938:

When the election results were in, Democrats had lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats in what former Roosevelt advisor Raymond Moley called “a comeback of astounding proportions.” Republicans nearly matched the Democratic national House vote total, 47 percent to 48.6 percent; if one takes into account overwhelming Democratic predominance in the one-party South, the GOP clearly led the House vote in the rest of the country. Democrats also lost a dozen governorships, including such crucial states as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

…and in 1966:

When all was said and done, the GOP gained 47 House seats, three Senate seats, eight governorships, and 557 state legislative seats. Republican governors controlled 25 states, the most since the early 1950s. Republicans actually won a majority of the aggregated national vote for U.S. Senate. Of the 38 House districts where Democrats had replaced Republicans in 1964, only 14 remained in Democratic hands in 1966.

FDR and LBJ were definitely confrontational, and, jointly, they provide prototypes for what a lot of people would like to see out of President Obama. However, it isn’t as simple as that. First, it must be repeated, both FDR and LBJ started out with true two-thirds supermajorities. In the 75th Congress (1937-38), the Democrats held or controlled 79 out of 96 seats. In the 89th Congress (1965-66), the Democrats began with control of 68 out of 100 seats. President Obama has been operating with between 57 and 60 votes out of a hundred. He only controlled sixty from September 24th, 2009 to February 4, 2010. Second, FDR and LBJ lost 71 and 47 House seats, respectively, in the backlash against their policies. They also lost several Senate seats, governor’s mansions, and state legislatures. Their controversial agendas and confrontational styles did not come without high costs. Fortunately, what they were able to accomplish was worth that cost (as even most of the defeated Democrats would probably acknowledge in retrospect).

When we ask Obama to be similarly confrontational we need to keep these two things in mind: he doesn’t have the same majorities and confrontation has not historically led to electoral success (at least, not in the short term).

Now, how about progressive groups? Back in the 1930’s and 1960’s our politicians were always operating with a backdrop of civilian unrest and even riots. Today, people suffer in silence. Can progressives manufacture an outrage on the left that isn’t developing organically? Should they? And at whom should that outrage be directed? The president? Or his opponents?

Our present political culture has a different backdrop. Rather than the prospect of blood in the streets, we face the prospect of a return to power of the Republican Party. As long as the president is making good progress on a myriad of progressive issues, it doesn’t make sense to sow division on the left. Where action is stalled, or moving in the wrong direction, and the possibility for action exists, then criticism and rabble-rousing is warranted. But we can’t lose sight of what lies just beyond the horizon.

It’s in that context that we should revisit this 2006 conversation between David Sirota and Barack Obama:

But that question brings another one: whether Obama wants to challenge the club in the first place. “There’s no doubt that I will be staking out more public positions on more issues as time goes on,” Obama said cryptically. Does that mean he is going to be more confrontational? “The question is not whether you end up being confrontational,” he said in a tone that made clear he had been pondering that idea long before I brought it up. “The question is, Do you let confrontations arise as a consequence of your putting forward a positive vision of what needs to happen and letting the confrontation organically emerge, or do you go out of your way for it?”

Confrontation for its own sake is a fool’s errand, despite Sirota’s argument in favor of this strategy:

If, in fact, there are two separate and distinct political parties with separate and distinct ideologies and agendas, then going out of the way to elucidate those differences is a good thing. By contrast, pretending those differences don’t exist, or trying to totally eliminate/obscure those differences, dulls any vibrant discussion and undermines decisive legislative action.

This axiom should be axiomatic both for progressive organizations and for the White House itself. But clearly its not – and, unfortunately, it may take an bad mid-term election for the value of progressive confrontation to finally be taken seriously.

Again, confrontation is not a worthy goal but, at best, a means to an end. It is not always the best means and it has historically come with a political cost. To use but one example, Senator Olympia Snowe’s vote had been needed to pass the stimulus bill and the Wall Street Reforms. The absence of her vote caused the Democrats to water down the health care bill and to go through acrobatics to get anything passed at all. How would the president have benefitted if he had decided early on to use Sen. Snowe as an example? What if he had gone up to Maine and told her constituents she was a bad person with malevolent intent? What if he deluged her state with attack ads? Would she have felt pressure to cave in to the president? Or would she have lost all interest in cooperating?

Confrontation can be useful if the conditions are right. But safe politicians are not easily pressured, and other means such as flattery and assistance must be considered. A list of the large issues facing the president would be long and intimidating, but one of his biggest responsibilities right now is to keep the Republicans out of power. He should not put our majorities at risk the way FDR and LBJ did in their midterm elections unless he can prevail and the payoff is worth the risk.

What would you do in his shoes?