Just today, I sat down to my computer to check my email, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but political begging (it’s that time of year). This time, the money-request was from Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s ex-press secretary. You can read it online here.
Well. Clearly, such a well-considered request deserves an equally thoughtful reply. So I sat down to think of how best to put things to Mr. Gibbs. Here is the letter I sent him in reply. I know – due to its length, if nothing else – he almost assuredly won’t bother reading it. It’s more of an exercise for me in simply getting it off my chest than anything else, coupled with the knowledge that others might read it up here at PTL. So, join me after the fold for the full, er, Monty (probably shouldn’t put it quite that way, after the last few weeks’ Weiner-events, LOL):
Thank you for your kind offer to have me chip in $10, $20 or more to the beginnings of the President’s re-election campaign!
As all political veterans know, early money is indeed like yeast, and those politically savvy and involved liberals who follow policy doings even when it’s not within two months of election day are the ones who will staff the phone banks, knock on the doors, and – especially important – contribute the early money to the campaign which really allows things to get flowing on the ground in not only key battleground states, but all across the country. In short, the real ground-level, grassroots work of getting a national candidate elected.
So I thank you for doing me the honor of including me in the select group of people who received the invitation to get in on the ground floor of what I know you folks in the West Wing were calling “the re-elect” even before you resigned your position there. So normally, I’d be all over such a thing; my first election was in 1984; I was glad to be able to cast a vote against Ronald Reagan. And the first campaign in which I actively participated, on a level that went far beyond simply voting, was only four years later, and it hasn’t let up since.
It’s just…well…I happened to notice this article a couple of days ago at econ professor Mark Thoma’s blog. I know you’ve probably been way too busy to read the piece, so I can give you a quick summary. It quotes at length from Nicholas Confessore’s New York Times article, Obama Seeks to Win Back Wall St. Cash (you may have read this one, since it’s in the paper of record, but again – if not, here’s a quick sum-up):
A few weeks before announcing his re-election campaign, President Obama convened two dozen Wall Street executives, many of them longtime donors, in the White House’s Blue Room.
The guests were asked for their thoughts on how to speed the economic recovery, then the president opened the floor for over an hour on hot issues like hedge fund regulation and the deficit…
One Democratic financier invited to this month’s dinner, who asked for anonymity because he did not want to anger the White House, said it was ironic that the same president who once criticized bankers as “fat cats” would now invite them to dine at Daniel, where the six-course tasting menu runs to $195 a person. The donor declined the invitation.
I found myself thinking: “I think I know how this big-time donor feels,” despite the fact that it would be difficult for my wife and I to come up with $400 for a dinner out (without even a movie or drinks or live music or anything! just dinner…). Since the donor who was quoted insisted on anonymity based on not wanting to piss off your former boss (or you either, though I doubt (s)he was thinking specifically about you at the time), I’ve no way of even knowing the donor’s identity, let alone his or her feelings and motivations. But I have to tell you that it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn (s)he declined the invitation to contribute a lot of money for a chance to hobnob with the Prez because it just didn’t feel right to sit in a room and listen to the “first people-powered President” grub and scrape for cash from the very people who wrecked the economy in the first place under George W. Bush…all after having called them “fat cats” not long ago. Whether one considers oneself pro- or anti-banker (or agnostic on the subject), that sort of a public record just gets to feeling insincere, no matter where one stands. Especially after learning of this (from The Economist, via Brad DeLong):
Whether or not the move toward [immediate] austerity was heartfelt, the administration has now embraced the policy choice. At a White House forum on the economy yesterday, I heard from several administration officials who defended the present policy path in no uncertain terms. Austan Goolsbee, outgoing chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, played down the May employment figure as just one data point and touted administration efforts to support entrepreneurship and facilitate private investment. I asked him whether his comments could be taken as indicating that the administration no longer felt fiscal stimulus could or should be used to support aggregate demand. Not at all, he replied, before talking more about the investment incentives and regulatory initiatives the White House has supported. These were, almost exclusively, supply-side policies. The administration’s business-support efforts look like useful steps to me, but they’re clearly not designed to provide a direct boost to aggregate demand. The time for that has passed, or so Mr Goolsbee seemed to imply.
The comments from Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council and a key member of the team negotiating an agreement on an increase in the debt ceiling, were clearer still. The White House believes, he said, that deficit-cutting is an important component (the emphasis was his) of a growth strategy. And he repeatedly said that deficit-reduction was crucial in generating economic confidence. Confidence—he repeated this word many times…
I have to say, Bob: that just doesn’t add up to a very pretty picture. At best, the President’s team’s thinking runs along the lines of: “we can’t afford to lose Wall Street’s influence and cash, because without them, all the money will flow into Republican coffers, and we’ll see a repeat of 2010, only with a loss at the top of the ticket, too – no matter what loon the GOP eventually nominates.” Such thinking reveals that the whole “people-powered” meme is strictly window-dressing for the rubes, undertaken so that the “si, se puede” spirit can hopefully take root in the electorate and lift President Obama to a second term of trying to not let things get too much worse, because that thinking acknowledges that, deep-down, the President’s team believes the REAL power still lies with the big money-donors. Why else court them, if they’re “fat cats?” FDR “welcomed their hatred”; President Obama welcomes their support. But – as seems clear from the Economist piece on the unanimity of the “austerity” meme among the President’s economic team – that support comes with a price.
At its worst, the conclusions which can be drawn from the juxtaposition of those two stories shows something far more bile-inducing: that the President and his team are actually fine with keeping Wall Street in charge of things BY DESIGN. After the last five years or so, it’s hard to imagine any genuine “people-first” politician being clueless enough to really think that’s a good idea, but there you have it: bowing to Wall Street’s demands in exchange for their support, or actually agreeing with their outlook. There simply aren’t many other, better ways to interpret what the President’s team could be thinking, based upon their actions (as outlined in those articles), not just those stump speeches which the President delivers so convincingly.
Your former boss still has plenty of supporters, to be sure. The Democratic machine is well and truly behind him, just as they were in the last election. And that’s good…up to a point. You all in the White House weren’t wrong when you said – both in 2008 and in 2010 – that the reason to vote for Democrats was that the alternative would be much worse. You won that argument handily in ’08 for three reasons: first (and most importantly) you won because, in ’08, “the GOP is worse” wasn’t your only – or even your main – argument. President Obama and the then-resurgent Democrats had the audacity of hope, they had “yes we can,” they had a whole host of detailed things they would do differently. The second reason the “alternative’s worse” argument helped carry the day in 2008 is because no one really needed to be reminded of that fact. The disasters of Republican governance were so recent and thus so immediately fresh in all voters’ minds that it would’ve been impossible for them to ignore or forget when they went to the polls in 2008 – heck, George W. Bush was still President, and Lehman had just gone under, requiring TARP, etc. The American voter may have a short memory sometimes, but it isn’t so short that they forget things that are still happening. And the third reason you won that argument in ’08 is that no one had had a chance yet (except, arguably, the voters of Illinois) to see how well candidate Obama’s soaring rhetoric would matched his actual record. He was applying for the job in 2008, not running on his record of having performed it.
Unfortunately (for you folks), the inverse of all three of those reasons were also the exact causes of the universally acknowledged “shellacking” Democrats took in 2010. By then, the Bush years were two years in the rear view mirror, and (as we’ve seen repeatedly) that’s often more than enough time for voters’ memories of exactly what caused various problems – and who’s to blame for them – to fade or become confused and blurred. Compounding that was the fact that voters weren’t wrong entirely wrong to wonder if, after two years with the other team in charge, some of the blame for things being still as bad as they are mightn’t be spread around to those people who’d been at the top for the past two years. There really was a groundswell of good will and support in 2008 and early 2009. Partially because of the President’s dramatic and encouraging call for citizens to get involved and for us all to roll up our sleeves and work to fix this, there was a genuine, palpable sense among ordinary voters that after things having gotten this bad, problems probably weren’t going to be solved overnight. Ordinary voters, by and large, were willing to give the incoming administration the benefit of the doubt. A honeymoon, if you will. And that was probably more true in liberal circles than anywhere else. We finally had someone who seemed not only rational and intelligent, but genuinely excited and hopeful about changing the terrible path the country had been on in so many ways for the previous eight long years.
By November of 2010, though, it was well past even the lengthiest estimations of the traditional honeymoon period. Voters left, right and center had all had a chance to see, up-close and personally in many cases how the rhetoric of campaign trail 2008 matched the record of the previous two years. And in truth, there were a number of genuine successes you folks in the West Wing and at the Democratic party could point to. It was still just as true in the fall of 2010 as it was in the fall of 2008 that the alternative in both upcoming elections would be worse, likely much worse.
But here’s the first of two HUGELY important things I think you in particular, Bob, and the Obama team in general, failed to really grasp in the recent midterms (and maybe never really understood). It’s why Joe Biden so confidently predicted publicly that rumors of an upcoming shellacking for Democrats was “premature.” All those voters that Obama excited and energized in the fall of 2008 with carefully chosen, explicit messages of hope for fundamental change? They took you seriously. I think the folks in the Obama messaging shop in ’08 definitely recognized the potential power such a message of hope for fundamental change had to motivate citizens in a way few other messages could. Team Obama seemed to really get that a consistent message of that nature would serve to really get citizens engaged and looking forward with hope, and with a willingness and expectation to do their parts to work towards brighter times, because they believed Democrats and the President would be doing the same and leading the charge. What you didn’t see, it seems more and more clear with the passing of time, is that hope’s a funny thing that way: it works by engaging people’s desire for a way out of the darkness, out of bad things. But it doesn’t stop there: no one ever hopes simply that the worst of the worst of the bad things will perhaps be mitigated. No one hopes merely for things to not get any worse. They hope that the change they see is measurably – even dramatically – for the better. Such a message can work in advance once…but it can only keep working if the voters can clearly see, day-to-day, that the leaders who asked voters to put all their eggs in their basket instead of the other guy’s on election day, are delivering on making things genuinely, measurably better – or at least trying their damndest to do so, instead of just seeming to be OK with working to keep things from being as bad as they might otherwise be.
That’s the main reason why the Democrats’ consciously-chosen message (at the end of the 2010 campaign) of “consider the alternative, things could be a lot worse” failed so badly, virtually everywhere: because people didn’t vote for President Obama, nor hand huge congressional majorities in both houses to Democrats over two straight elections so you guys could get out there and keep things from getting even worse. They did those things because you told them you could – and would – make things better. A lot better. And I’m certain that if Democrats had felt both that a) they could legitimately say that they HAD made things a lot better over the previous two years, and b) that it wouldn’t be “politically risky” for their reelection chances to boldly tout those successes AS successes, they would have based their 2010 campaigns around a strategy of doing exactly that.
Unfortunately for us, the voters – especially those of us in the Democratic wing of the Democratic party (you know, the people I mentioned as being the ones who not only vote for you, but give the money and staff the phone banks and canvass the precincts – the very lifeblood of any campaign) – we were treated to months of hearing directly from the very top of the sitting Democratic power structure, the very folks who’d run on an explicit, conscious message of hope for real change, that our ideas were “fucking retarded,” or we “needed to be drug tested” (you remember that one, don’t you, Bob?), or that we ought to “stop whining,” when we actually had the audacity to hope for genuinely fundamental change…or tried to hold you to your promise of delivering on it. That’s another thing I think you never got: we weren’t actually even keeping that close a tally of the won/loss record, but we DID notice when it seemed you didn’t even suit up…or, worse, squandered your political capital in fruitless searches for nonexistent bipartisanship with an opposition party that had clearly only one goal (even stated publicly sometimes): to thwart you and remove your team from office – in four years if necessary, sooner if it could possibly be achieved. There’s no compromise, no common ground with that. Not because you didn’t want it or wouldn’t have been open to listening to the oppositions ideas. It’s just that their chief idea was to defeat YOU. It isn’t possible to get to the substance of any of their other ideas, if doing so (for them) means having to violate the very spirit of their top-priority idea.
After bearing witness to a two-year record of not just the times when your team appeared to want harmony with the GOP over progress, or didn’t seem engaged on some of the very issues you explicitly and movingly campaigned on – EFCA, anyone? – or, worst of all, as in the financial stuff with which I opened this letter, actually seemed to agree with the very people who’d been most responsible for some of the worst problems the country’s currently facing, I found it frankly mildly shocking that you folks in the White House and in the congressional Democratic leadership appeared so genuinely surprised that a message of “the other guys are worse” wasn’t resonating as we headed into the home stretch of the 2010 midterms.
I’ll say it again: “the other guys are worse” is indeed true today, a fact that I think virtually all politically engaged left-of-center folks can see quite clearly. It was true in 2008, as well – and, if anything, voters could see it even MORE clearly then. But it was true in 2010 too…and yet, for the reasons I’ve given you here (and others, but those are the main ones), that wasn’t enough to carry the day, and it wasn’t even enough to stave off disaster. I don’t know how many people stayed home out of frustration. Certainly a good number of them. I seriously doubt many people who were genuinely liberal in any way actually switched over and voted GOP. Even more than either of those two things, though, I think the lack of enthusiasm among potential Democratic voters over a campaign strategy from the very top of the Democratic party that amounted quite literally to not much beyond “hey, it could be worse – look at the other guys” served to make even the staunchest and most politically involved liberals feel not that they had or were considering abandoning Democrats…but that the reverse had already occurred. And so yeah, many of those disappointed, formerly hopeful people would/did still turn out to vote for you in ’10, because your logic wasn’t exactly wrong (the GOP really would still be much worse) so much as it was wrongheaded: had we not all been able to see the disappointments over the previous two years, we’d probably have been – if anything – even more fired up, ready to defeat the foot-dragging, obstructionist GOP once again, to not allow them to thwart the will of the people and its hardworking leaders. As it was, though, while “we’re not as bad as the other guys” might be enough to drag people with a conscience about voting out to the polls to pull the lever for Team D, it’s just not enough to fill the Democratic coffers with contributions, or Democratic campaign offices with bright-eyed, ready-to-go volunteer phone-bankers and canvassers. Remember the term “enthusiasm gap?” That’s where it came from and how it was expressed.
Me? I turned out on election day in 2010, just like I always do (not that it mattered this time, my Rep is Tom Price, sitting his smarmy butt in Newt Gingrich’s old seat). But I voted. What I didn’t do that time around is what I’ve done many times in previous elections: give money as generously as I thought I could afford to, and give what spare time I had. Why? Because Joe Biden’s calls to “get fired up” and “stop whining” just didn’t resonate with me. And, if you’ve read this far, you’ll also be able to understand why I say, in the same vein, that I must politely decline an offer to get in on the ground floor of donors to Team Obama 2012 that comes from the guy who not long ago told me sarcastically and insultingly that I wouldn’t be satisfied until we’d eliminated the Pentagon. Good luck with “the re-elect,” Bob. I’d say you’re going to need it, but I suspect either you already know that, or you believe – as I half-do, as well – that you won’t really need all that much luck, given the power of incumbency and the abject weakness of the GOP field. I hope, for your sake, that the economy doesn’t re-tank in the upcoming sixteen months or so, because you know as well as I that voters tend to blame the folks in charge whether they deserve it or not. If it were me, that would make me want for no other reason than my own political future to do everything I could to make sure the economy DIDN’T re-tank, and that employment started getting noticeably, markedly better (as opposed to just kept from getting truly depression-era awful). But since inauguration, your former teammates have made it clear they think they know best how things will play out and what steps to take to ensure that. I’d like to re-submit the results of the 2010 election to you as perhaps something you might want to re-examine those convictions in the light of…but I know from repeated public statements from various members of the administration that your take on it has been (and apparently continues to be) that it was liberal voters’ fault(s) that 2010 sucked so badly. To me, as a private citizen sitting in front of my computer typing this letter in our shared democracy, blaming party losses on voters’ lack of sufficient enthusiasm seems very clearly to be a matter of you folks looking through the telescope from the wrong end. So much so, in fact, that when it seems as if the entire party structure clearly disagrees with that assessment, I doubt anything I could say would serve to change that perception in even one of their minds.
But if you want to win in 2012 as badly as I think you do, Bob – you and the team who remain at the White House and in the party apparatus – or at least if you wish to avoid a repeat of the debacle of 2010…you might want to reconsider such a set-in-stone viewpoint.