Learning The Wrong Lessons, Going The Wrong Way

Bob Cesca (via DougJ at Balloon Juice) lays out a frighteningly familiar scenario, in which the Republicans gain back control of the House, and begin impeachment proceedings against President Obama. If you’re like me, you read such predictions or musings with a sick feeling in your stomach. Sick, because you think “no WAY, they’d never do that – I mean – what possible grounds would the Republicans have to do such a thing” followed by the realization that the modern Republican party has already proven not only that it will dare to imagine such a thing, but also that it will actually have both the chutzpah and the party discipline to carry out such a travesty with a collective straight face. And that the country’s fourth estate, the media, will be either so oblivious, so mendacious or so titillated and ratings-hungry that they will follow along eagerly, if not actually pick up the banner and help lead the charge themselves.

It’s the sort of stuff that makes up Democrats’ worst nightmares, because it seems too crazy to be true, and yet we all know it’s completely within the realm of possibility. How probable is it? I don’t know; like most Democrats, I don’t really feel I’m capable of judging that very accurately, since if you’d asked me during the Clinton years, like I suspect a lot of other liberals and Democrats, I would’ve told you there was no way such a thing would happen…yet it did. That’s why DougJ’s creepy what-if is so frightening to many of us on the left. What struck me, however, about Cesca’s own commentary upon DougJ’s speculation, was what he concludes that means liberals, progressives and the Democratic party in general  ought to be doing and thinking as a result:

Admittedly, this is one thing that motivates me to sometimes appear a bit cheerleader-ish. As much as I wish we could be, we simply don’t have the luxury of being progressive purists. Blocking a Republican takeover of Congress ought to be our number one priority, regardless of whether we think the White House or the Democrats are doing the right thing in terms of progressive policy. Sorry, folks, flame me and un-follow me all you want but I can assure you, there won’t be any overturning of DOMA while multiple Republican House committees at the command of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh (who the Republicans are loath to repudiate) are investigating the president for fictitious ties to ACORN.

The calculus here simply makes me tired. I’m not going to “flame” you, Bob, and I’ll continue to keep reading your blog as I already do – intermittently, like a large number of other blogs, because you often have excellent ideas or find otherwise under-the-radar bits of news that you bring to light or cast in a new light. But I could not disagree more with your prescription for what Democrats should do to stave off such a possibility.

Never mind that of course, there are a lot of “what-ifs” in such a scenario. Let’s forget any possibility that the media or the public might actually be less gullible or easily-led, having gone through something similar so recently. Let’s imagine that it’s all true; that every one of those dominoes would fall exactly like they did last time, in exactly the same way that DougJ envisions, meaning that the only thing which would prevent such a scenario from happening is to keep Republicans from re-taking the House. Because it certainly could go down that way, very easily. However, even if we stipulate all that (and, again, although it certainly could go down that way, there are a lot of what-ifs involved) even if we operate going forward on the notion that, if we screw up and the GOP retakes the house, they’ll institute a series of witch-hunts that will make the Clinton years seem like a church picnic by comparison, Bob Cesca’s prescription for Democrats seems to me to be so familiar- and so incorrect – a response to the scenario that I wonder if it’s actually in part a reflexive response that many Democrats have learned over the past thirty years rather than a cool and carefully rational analysis of the possibilities. Because, to me, Cesca’s response feels depressingly like the kind of responses that elected Democrats in general had been conditioned to display right around the time of the 2000 election, or perhaps even more so in 2002-3, during the run-up to the Iraq war, and I think it’s worth examining some of the history behind such a response, to get a sense of how we arrived at where we are today – and what we need to do about it.

For decades, Democrats had been in the majority so consistently for so long that when the Republicans started making some electoral gains as a result of the intra-party infrastructure building  and money spent on think tanks that churned out conservative talking points all day long which they’d been doing for years, they were startled. Reagan’s election was a blow to Democrats, and the doctrine of conservatism which took hold in the public mind – that government IS the problem, as Reagan himself famously articulated – seemed so obviously wrong to Democrats that they had a hard time believing that the actual voting public, who’d been helped so dramatically by the gains of organized labor and the New Deal and even the Great Society, would vote against their own best interests in favor of a new, untested and seemingly obviously problematic system of tax cuts and feel-good “bootstrap theory” combined with an evisceration of the very programs which had demonstrably helped so many.

But after Reagan’s election, and especially after his landslide re-election, Democrats could no longer doubt that the public did, indeed, buy it. In droves. Even though many of Reagan’s more out-there policies were specifically unpopular, the popularity of the man himself persisted enough to get his VP elected. And it was only the combination of a fairly severe recession coupled with a surprisingly strong independent challenge from Ross Perot which siphoned off enough of the votes which would otherwise have gone from the more libertarian, independent-minded group of conservatives to whoever the Republican candidate was that year, that got Bill Clinton elected.

Even then, before he’d made any kind of a name for himself, the writing was on the wall about what kind of Democrat Bill Clinton was going to be. This was the era of the dominance of the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council, and Clinton was – at that time – their star product. He was such a charismatic President – and had so many other personal attributes, both positive and negative – that many people on all sides of the political spectrum took a while to notice that the way Clinton won was essentially to reprise Reagan as a Democrat. His policies, while more socially liberal in many ways, were as pro-business and anti-regulation and even as just plainly conservative in many areas, as Reagan’s had been. For example, Cesca warns us that DOMA won’t be overturned if the Republicans regain control of the House, but he doesn’t bother to note that it was under Clinton, remember, that we got ourselves DOMA – and DADT – in the first place. Also the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, both of which were instrumental in the near-total collapse of the financial system last year. Yes, those things were dreamed up in the Republican think-tanks, and pushed forward aggressively by Republican congressional leaders…but Clinton signed each and every one of them, and it’s worth remembering that, if for no other reason than the massive detrimental effect each of them had on our country.

I write the above facts not to retroactively bash Bill Clinton – he managed to shepherd the economy to a very rare surplus by the time he left office, and he did other good things as well…but does anyone on the progressive or liberal side of the Democratic party truly doubt that each of those Clinton-endorsed items I mention did incalculable harm to our country, and that there were plenty of progressive voices at the time saying exactly that? To be fair, I don’t know what’s in Bill Clinton’s mind, and I certainly can’t say what would have been in his mind back then, when he was making the crucial decisions about whether to sign various pieces of legislation that came across his desk. But I do know that in the years since he’s left office, Clinton has commented in regard to more than one of those items I mentioned that he “didn’t have enough cover in Congress” to proceed in any other way than the way he did. We can debate whether that’s in fact true – whether he could have been an obstinate SOB, and gotten results from doing so. Certainly, a mountain of anecdotal evidence from the Bush years exists to support the idea that even a fairly unpopular President with razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress – or sometimes not even a majority in one or both houses – can be quite effective indeed, by simply being an implacable force for those ideas he wishes to see enacted into law (or defeated).

For my purposes here, though, it’s little more than a sideshow to speculate about whether Bill Clinton personally really wanted to enact different policies than some of the ones he did wind up enacting, or whether – if he did – his calculations that he couldn’t do so without additional “congressional cover” were accurate. He did what he did, we live with the results, and we’ll never know what might have been if he’d decided differently. What does matter is that Bill Clinton, especially after the drubbing of the 1994 midterms, started to make such calculations with greater frequency, and so did the Democrats in Congress. Much of the time, to the extent that Clinton lacked “congressional cover” to do anything more-progressive than he did, the reason was because the Democratic Senators and Representatives were themselves making calculations very similar to the ones made by Clinton, calculations which boiled down in essence to “I’m gonna get crushed – lose my seat – by Republicans here if I try this, unless there’s a huge group of others with me.”

Thus, the same frightened crouch that puppies who’ve been beaten too often for misbehavior learn to adopt every time they think they’re threatened became the almost-reflexive functional operating position that Democrats have taken for years when confronting contentious issues. Unfortunately, the Republicans know it, too. It’s not at all by accident that the 2002 vote on the AUMF to go to war in Iraq was held in late October, just before the 2002 midterm elections. That vote was scheduled then as a consciously pursued strategy for getting it passed. In retrospect, there are plenty of Democrats who regret their votes for war in Iraq; many, like John Edwards, have admitted it publicly, while others, like Hillary Clinton, stubbornly dug their heels in and refused to admit they’d made a huge mistake…and in her case, it arguably cost her the Presidency.

The problem here, though, isn’t the strategy behind the Republicans’ scheduling of contentious votes, or their cynical manipulation of elected Democrats’ decreasing willingness to stand and full-throatedly advance the values and passion behind their progressive ideas. You can’t really blame the Republicans for seeing a political advantage and jumping all over it. The problem is that the Democrats keep letting Republicans get away with it; keep ceding the momentum and the passion. I wish Democrats had learned different lessons than they did from the drubbings they’ve taken, stretching back to the Reagan years and right up through the Iraq war vote, but they haven’t – yet. And it is perversely that very response by Democrats – the same one Cesca prescribes here – which has led to yet more defeats, in a tightening spiral of losses. That’s why I’m appalled all over again to see that same kicked-puppy crouch being urged on Democrats today as if it is some sort of pragmatic necessity, by people as smart and articulate as Bob Cesca and too many others.

But wait, how can I say Democrats are currently in a “tightening spiral of losses?” Aren’t Democrats today in a historic majority in both houses of Congress, even with the loss of the sixty-vote supermajority due to the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts?

Yes. We are. And how’s that been working out for us?

Have we closed Gitmo? Passed health care that wasn’t a watered-down pile of awfulness (with a few good things sprinkled in) – heck, have we passed health care at ALL yet? You get my point. Though no one – least of all me – would argue that things are better today than if we’d elected John McCain in 2008, it’s equally true that numerical majorities don’t mean much if you can’t – or won’t, for whatever reason – accomplish most of what you told voters you’d like to do with those majorities. For the last two elections, Democrats have been, by default, on the receiving end of a large chunk of public goodwill as a result of simply not being George Bush and the Republicans. And that’s led to Democrats being on the administering end of a couple of historic drubbings of the GOP, across the board. But the further away we get from the years when BushCo were actually in power, the less public goodwill (and therefore fewer automatic votes for “anyone but the GOP”) the public memory of their disgraceful and disastrous time in office will automatically earn us. In short, despite all the renewed vigor on the left since the early 2000s, we’ve mostly been coasting on the power of forces not truly of our own making since 2006, and those forces aren’t going to last forever on their own. If we want to continue our winning streak and implementing our agenda, scaling that agenda back and adopting a “lets try not to lose” strategy is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Our most recent loss is the MA-Sen race. There are always a multiplicity of factors involved in any one election as large as a Senate race, and sometimes it’s not easy to determine what the results of any given election mean in terms of what the sentiment of the voters is. But if the election of Scott Brown tells us anything, it’s that voters are still not happy with the way things are. We – the progressive political junkies – can agree with them or not, but it doesn’t really matter if we agree; if voters still aren’t happy, they’re going to display that at the voting booth. And in Massachusetts, they did. But what both the Republicans of 2002 and of today are hoping we Democrats won’t notice is not that our ideas are, in fact, better than theirs are. Most of us already know our ideas are better than the Republicans’ lunacy. In fact, virtually nobody but wishy-washy faux-Democrats like Evan Bayh believe otherwise, either before or after Scott Brown’s election. No, what the Republicans are hoping we continue to miss is the very thing that has allowed them to run rings around us, even when they are in the minority, to beat us like rented mules even though our ideas are better than theirs are, and that is that the voting public MUST see repeated evidence, enough to restore or continue their confidence, that we, the Democrats, have enough faith in our own ideas not only to propose them, but to be willing to fight hard for them, to win or to lose on them, as well. That’s what inspires confidence in the electorate:  not a careful strategy of triangulation designed to not-lose, but seeing that a candidate or party believes enough to shout their ideas from the rooftops because they believe in them even if there IS a possibility they might not win. Compromise is essential in governing, but it’s what you do AFTER you get elected, and only if the other party is dealing in good faith. As Obama himself said during his recent Q&A with House Republicans: if you’re expecting 80% or 100% of your ideas to be enacted, before you’ll call it “bipartisan” enough to play ball, well, that’s not how Democracy works. If we start giving away the store, compromising on Democratic values and goals before even having a fight over them, then there’s no place to go during negotiations, except even further towards the GOP position. Sadly, that is what Democrats have all-too-often advocated in recent years, and it’s what Cesca explicitly advocates here, even if that was not his intention.

As I said earlier, DougJ is right that Democrats ought to be paying attention very carefully, and choosing our next plays with great care, because the results of miscalculating now could be very, VERY disastrous at an extremely fragile time in our country’s history. As a rallying cry – for voters – how inspiring is a strategy like the one Cesca’s essentially advancing here: one that has as its highest virtue, essentially, “let’s try carefully not to lose”:

Blocking a Republican takeover of Congress ought to be our number one priority, regardless of whether we think the White House or the Democrats are doing the right thing in terms of progressive policy.

Boy, can’t you just FEEL the energy and enthusiasm radiating off THAT? Yeah, me either. Imagine, for a moment, how many of the Scott Roeder-like shock troops would turn out to vote for Republican candidates, let alone do the hard, dirty work of on-the-ground campaigning for him, if Republicans’ main message to the electorate amounted to nothing more than “we’re going to try not to lose this one, so let’s not go too large on the conservative ideals, gang.” The reason that Republicans have won as many elections as they have over the past thirty years, even with demonstrably worse – often catastrophic – ideas is due partly to the simple fact that they’ve rediscovered an ages-old truth in politics, which is that people respond to candidates and parties that passionately articulate both a vision of what the country (or state, etc.) is about AND a set of more concrete goals about how to make as much of that vision a reality. But Republicans’ legislative victories in that time frame are also due in equal measure to the fact that our side has, during the same time frame, lost track of the very same idea.

Why did the country elect Barack Obama in 2008? Lots of reasons (including the just-mentioned “anyone but Bush & the GOP” reason), but the one that underlies most of the other ones (such as his positions on various issues) was the passionate manner in which he was able to articulate his ideas; to make people believe that HE believed in them. For crying out loud, do we really need any further demonstration of what I’ve been talking about than the last Presidential election? Sure, people were sick of eight years of George W. Bush and the Republican train to oblivion. But that only provided an often short-memoried electorate with a proximate reason to listen to other, different ideas. Would Obama – or whomever had won the nomination – have won the general election if he or she had come forth with more of what Bob Cesca and so many other Democrats and progressives are currently counseling: that we try to play it safe by not attempting a too-progressive agenda in order to not lose the gains we made in Congress in ’06? I seriously doubt it.

What put Barack Obama over the goal line was that he was able, in appearance after appearance on the campaign trail, to sound not only like a smart guy with good ideas, but like a guy who BELIEVED deeply in those ideas; who wasn’t uncertain about the ideas that made the Democratic party great, ideas which gave us things like the weekend and an outlawing of child labor and Social Security. And it was that belief that allowed most of us to feel carried along with Obama’s vision, to allow ourselves to imagine it as if it were already here. And that, in turn, gave many ordinary voters, Democrats, independents, even a few Republicans of the non-loon variety, the impetus to decide that they want to vote FOR Obama, not just AGAINST some other candidate, and to join Obama’s fight. It was at least as much Barack Obama’s passionate belief in a different vision from the Republicans which carried him to victory, as it was the fact that the ideas themselves were better. In fact, I say it was far MORE, for most voters, the sense Obama gave them that he believed passionately in his ideas which won him the White House. Like it or not, retail politics is always at least a little bit about salesmanship – and often, a lot about it. Only, even that’s not really true: a good salesman can, as the saying goes “sell shoes to snakes”; in other words, can use the impression of belief and enthusiasm to get people to buy things they either don’t really need, or even aren’t good for them. This is what the Republicans have figured out and used to such great effect, as they tell working-class people across America that it makes sense to vote against their own interest and in the interest of monied elites and corporations time and again.

But, although people may sometimes not be able to distinguish between a passionate advocate and a slick snake-oil salesman, they rarely fail to recognize the unmistakable pall of a candidate or a party that lacks enough confidence in their own ideas to say “you know what, I can WIN on these – and even if I can’t, goddamn it, I’m sure as hell not going to do anything less than a full-bore effort, because my ideas ARE better.” Even if voters are sometimes sucked in by a solid sales-pitch that covers up a patchwork of bad ideas about government, as one of our most trenchant modern philosophers once put it: “fool me once….shame on…shame on you…fool me – can’t get fooled again.” Present them with better ideas which are (and this is the key) as passionately articulated and defended as the other side’s, and you will have a winner on your hands far more often than not. And you will certainly have a winner far, FAR more often than if you decide that “vote for us, we’ll try not to lose” is going to be your pitch.

Yesterday, I laughed at Orrin Hatch for trying to threaten Democrats with Republican obstructionism (“outright war”), if the Democrats tried to do something about…Republican obstructionism. I pointed out that it was a pretty empty threat, which it is. In fact, the only thing sillier than Hatch’s empty threat would be if Democrats decide they really ARE afraid of more Republican obstructionism…or that, if we’re just give up enough of our goals, Republicans will vote with us once in a while. Sadly, after reading too many calculations like Cesca’s, I fear Hatch may be smarter to pursue that strategy than I give him credit for. Time will tell. In the meantime, though, it’d be hypocritical of me not to turn that same scrutiny I used on Hatch – if not the same amount of fire – on the calculations OUR side makes. Why do so many Democrats and progressives like Bob Cesca prescribe less “overreaching” and less dedication to Democratic ideals as a fix for preventing further losses like ones which were largely a result of voter perception of too little aggressive, full-throated pursuit of Democratic ideals? I’ve never been able to understand why they don’t see this – but count me as someone who thinks Cesca’s approach is folly – folly guaranteed to make the next couple of election cycles remind us of 2002 and 2004, not 2006 and 2008.