I agree with a lot of Peter Daou’s analysis. I especially agree on three points. First, the culture of Washington DC is absolutely toxic and really does resemble a bad movie about high school. Second, the political Establishment, including the Democratic Establishment, is not in tune with progressive politics. Third, if we’re ever going to stop losing ground to the radical right, the Democratic Establishment is going to have to learn to work with the activist base. Where I have a problem with Daou’s take on things is that he places all the blame for this less-than-ideal relationship on the Democratic Establishment and he gives the progressive blogosphere a complete pass.
Daou quotes Kevin Drum making sense.
Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we’re not going to be able to make much progress.
This is why I blame the broad liberal community for our failures, not just President Obama. My biggest beef with Obama is the same one I had three years ago, namely that he’s never really even tried to move public opinion in a specifically progressive direction. But that hardly even matters unless all the rest of us have laid the groundwork. And we haven’t. Wonks, hacks, activists, all of us. We just haven’t persuaded the public to support our vision of government. Until we do, the tea party tendency will always be more powerful than we are.
But Daou rejects this blame, arguing that the problem is that the Democratic Establishment is responsible for our failures because they don’t work with their activist base. Daou offers up a fantasy alternate universe for our consideration:
Imagine a scenario where Democrats, instead of marginalizing the netroots, treated them with the same awe and respect the tea Party engenders on the GOP side. Imagine an Obama presidency where the health care debate started with a fierce fight for single-payer; where Gitmo had been closed; where gay rights were unequivocally supported; where Bush and Cheney were investigated for sanctioning torture; where climate change was a top priority; where Bush’s civil liberties violations were prosecuted rather than reinforced; where the Bush tax cuts expired; where the stimulus was much bigger; where programs for the poor, for research, jobs, infrastructure, science, education, were enhanced at the expense of war and profits for the wealthy; where the Republican assault on women’s rights was met with furious resistance. I could go on and on.
In short, imagine an America where the Democratic establishment loudly proclaimed that they were unshakable champions of core progressive values and that they would work hand in hand with their base to convince America that their ideas were superior to the right’s.
Of course, that’s a fantasy. The unwillingness of Democratic leaders and strategists to do anything remotely close to that has virtually guaranteed that the triangle isn’t formed on the left.
The first problem with this list is that Daou is asking us to imagine a Washington DC in which the Republicans have no power. The second problem is that the list is typical of the laziest kinds of criticisms the progressive left launches at the president. Let’s start at the top. The administration is supposed to treat the netroots with awe and respect? What if I asked Peter Daou to treat the office of the president with awe and respect? How would he respond to that? How would he respond if the White House press secretary spent every day issuing statements about how Peter Daou is useless and spineless and secretly a Republican? I point this out to highlight the silliness of asking for awe and respect from people you dump on for a living. There has to be some level of mutual respect to form a healthy relationship, and I agree we need to create a healthy relationship.
Now, let’s get into the meat of Daou’s list, starting with single-payer health care. There were eight serious candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and seven of them had health care plans that did not include single-payer. The exception was Dennis Kucinich, whose candidacy was basically based on keeping single-payer in the conversation. There are think tanks all over the capital that have been drafting health care reform proposals ever since HillaryCare failed to even get a vote. The entire premise of their efforts for fifteen years was that single-payer could never pass through the Senate. They were not incorrect in that assessment. The reason Obama didn’t run on single-payer is that no one would have taken him seriously and he wouldn’t have won the nomination. Kucinich took on the job of trying to keep the issue in the conversation, the rest of the candidates wanted to win and also to be able to deliver on their promises.
As for Gitmo, no one had the president’s back on Gitmo. No one. He made the effort. His erstwhile political allies ran for the hills.
On gay rights, the president has delivered and delivered and delivered. At this point, it is almost grotesque to continue to complain about the president’s record because it isn’t unequivocal enough.
I agree with Daou about the failure to hold Bush officials, and some military and intelligence officials responsible for the crimes of the Bush administration. I’d add banksters to the mix. But we should also acknowledge the high price he would have paid for doing so. Still, I think this is a fair criticism.
Obama traded an extension of unemployment benefits, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, an overhaul of the food safety system, and the passage of the START treaty for a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts. Is there something wrong with that trade?
We can keep having a debate over the size of the stimulus, but it should be obvious by now that the president’s advisers misjudged how big the hole was that they needed to fill. His advisers have also explained ad nauseum that there was a limit to how much money they could push into the system. The hole was bigger than our ability, politically or pragmatically, to fill it.
As for the war on women’s rights, the president has appointed two pro-choice women to the Supreme Court. He just announced that health care plans need to provide a range of free services for women. This is the greatest advance for women’s health since Roe v. Wade.
I mention all this to highlight the ungrateful and uncharitable nature of much of the pervasive progressive complaints we see repeated every day. I don’t know if you are familiar with Daou’s Triangle theory (you can read about it here and here). Basically, it’s about creating a counterweight to the right that can influence the media’s coverage of politics.
If the White House and Democratic leadership were in sync with the activist left rather than insulting them at every opportunity, the media would follow and the triangle would form.
I’ve already covered the irony of complaining about insults from people you insult for a living. But there’s something else wrong with this picture. Probably several things. First off, progressives can’t or won’t behave like Tea Partiers. Progressives are not the vanguard of a populist movement. We’re a combination of the poor, the powerless, the discriminated against, on the one hand, and the highly educated, science-minded, secular-oriented, intelligentsia on the other. Throw in the unionized working class and you have the progressive movement. Most of our opinion leaders are from the intelligentsia-wing of the party. A very high percentage of progressive bloggers have advanced degrees. We’re not about to take up pitchforks or start carrying firearms to political rallies, and we’re too committed to reason to resort to lies and distortions as matter of strategy or policy.
Another problem, it seems to me, is that the progressive blogosphere arose as an opponent of both the media and the political establishments, and we seem ill-suited and incapable of forming a partnership with power. Policies we opposed under Bush, we still oppose under Obama. Perhaps, we’re quieter in our criticisms, but we’re unwilling to just get on board and support whatever the Democratic Party or the White House wants to do. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just something we need to acknowledge. Because we’re different from conservatives, we can’t be expected to behave like them.
If what we need is a true counter to the pull of the Tea Partiers, the progressive blogosphere isn’t the right place to look.
But we can have a more productive relationship with the Establishment Left. It would start by getting clear where the line is between advocacy for issues and protecting our political position in Washington. We know we cannot afford to lose the presidential election in 2012. We could improve things considerably if we reserved our attacks on our own political leaders for areas where they at least have the freedom of acting otherwise. That would be a good start.