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Today's Top News
How the White House Misjudged the Political Landscape
As progressives on and offline continue to debate the future of the health care reform bill, attention is finally shifting to the underlying factors that have gotten us into this mess in the first place: namely, the mistakes of the White House. Meteor Blades at Daily Kos asks the right question - why is it that progressives are getting blamed for this? Others reply that Obama does the best he can, and that to avoid a collapse in the 2010 elections, Democrats and progressives need to "point out all the good" that Obama has done so far.
But that isn't enough. The fact is that Democratic electeds, the president first and foremost, have completely misunderstood American politics in 2009. I'm not talking just about the failed and senseless efforts at bipartisanship, though Obama's underestimation of the level of control Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the teabaggers have over the Republican Party hasn't helped.
Instead I'm talking about the inability of the White House to understand the changing nature of the American left. The late 20th century experience of a marginalized and weak left has been replaced during the 2000s by a much more powerful and popular movement. The White House's unwillingness to treat that movement as an equal partner is damaging not only the health care bill, but the political fate of Democrats in 2010 and, potentially, 2012.
The collapse of support for the bill reveals a deeper and growing divide, an unwillingness of most Americans to embrace a flawed process. In particular, progressives - activists and voters - need a clear, signal victory in order to avoid complete 1994-style demoralization. Something big and bold, something clearly progressive that forced moderates and conservatives to concede something important, something that will give more people a reason to rally to Obama's defense when he is in a difficult place.
Comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of the Grijalva proposal would achieve this. Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell would achieve this (and repeal of DOMA would be a grand slam). Firing Geithner and Summers would achieve this. Breaking up some of the big banks would achieve this. And yes, a public option of some kind would have achieved this.
Instead we have a White House and a Senate Democratic leadership that still believes we live in the 1990s, where the "left" is weak and has little popular support. They've not understood the transformative effect of the 2000s and Bush in particular, who helped create a genuine American left with real and widespread popular support for the first time in 40 years.
The White House does not view progressives as equal partners, as people who have legitimate concerns and priorities that need to be included in any deal. They still take the Clintonian view that the "left" can be appeased either through a few nice words in a speech, and if that fails, can be crammed down by being told they're wreckers, being told this is the best progressives can get, being told that progressives are irrelevant (even while the WH's defensive actions show they're anything but irrelevant).
The White House hasn't yet grasped that some basic and timeless rules of politics still apply: that you have to deliver something to your supporters to keep them on board. Something that excites them, something that gets them motivated. Ever since 1993 Democratic presidential Administrations have assumed those rules are in abeyance, where supporters will stay on board out of fear of Republicans, unwilling to act on their beliefs or frustrations out of an internalized belief that America is a conservative place hostile to progressive values.
The Bush years destroyed those internalized frustrations. Congressional Democratic support for the Iraq War destroyed what existed of progressive acceptance of that Clintonite strategy, and freed the left to actually feel confident in asserting its own values regardless of what the Democratic leadership says, because any trust in that leadership was destroyed in 2002. Obama understood this out of necessity during the primary, when he had to embrace this to defeat Hillary Clinton. But once that was achieved, he went right back to the old Bill Clinton strategy of appeasing the center-right and assuming progressives would simply go along with it - and once elected, Obama surrounded himself with old Clinton hands who espoused the same basic view of politics.
There were a number of instances in 2009 that showed Obama doesn't quite grasp political realities, and the snowballing collapse of health care reform is just one element of that misunderstanding.
Until he sees progressives as genuine partners, Obama will face declining political fortunes. That's his problem, something he and his team should and eventually will address. For our part, progressives should concern ourselves with how to further build up our own institutions and power, instead of wasting time trying to prop up a weak president who views us and our views and our work with contempt.
Robert Cruickshank is the Public Policy Director at the Courage Campaign, a 700,000 member organizing network based in California that pushes for progressive change. He is also an editor at Calitics, a blog focusing on California politics.