Time for Team B - And a Movement

In the 1970s, the CIA appointed a "Team B" to challenge prevailing
assumptions about national security. Since then, there have been other Team B exercises to question prevailing views.

This is a smart move. An in-group of experts often becomes an
echo-chamber, reinforcing their own prejudices and excluding people with
different views. If you are inside, you demonstrate your own loyalty by
not frontally challenging the top people, no matter how disastrous.
This, of course, is the road to foreign policy debacles like Iraq and

But the same thing happens in politics and domestic policy. As we've
just seen, Obama's A-Team of political advisers did not exactly shine.

It's not that others failed to warn of the disaster in the making.
Countless posts and articles in the past year have pointed out that
Obama had no coherent narrative. That he failed to squarely place the
economic blame on the Republicans. His own signature initiatives did not
do enough to restore jobs and prosperity for him to credibly campaign
on them. His health bill may have represented incremental progress on
insurance reform, but it was a political albatross. And he got much too
cozy with Wall Street at the expense of his credibility with Main

Columnists like Frank Rich and Bob Herbert, public opinion experts
like Drew Westen and Stan Greenberg, scores of bloggers, as well as
labor leaders like Rich Trumka, have been flagging these problems since
mid-2009. I've been known to argue something of the same. And you heard
this complaint privately from many Democrats in Congress.

This failure spans policy, politics, and messaging. So here is an
idea: Obama should do a Team B exercise. He should invite in about six
or eight smart people who have a very different view of how he should be

He should give them an extended opportunity to make their case,
without his usual advisers in the room. Then David Axelrod, Pete Rouse,
Jim Messina, Valerie Jarrett et al. should be given a chance to rebut.

But Obama needs to hear the B-Team views, directly, uncensored,
without the team that failed him undermining the critique. Then we'd
have a real Team of Rivals, and maybe save his presidency.

And that's not all. If any team was a bigger disaster than the political team, it was the economic one.

Larry Summers, now back at Harvard, and Tim Geithner have been fond
of arguing that their strategy in early 2009 of propping up insolvent
banks (and bankers) rather than cleaning them out was vindicated by
events. It wasn't. The policy kept Wall Street rolling in profits, but
bequeathed a Japan Scenario of prolonged stagnation to the rest of the
economy -- and of course gave a huge political windfall to the
faux-populist Tea Party.

So let's bring in an economic B-Team to do the same exercise:
Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman; Rob Johnson of the Institute
for New Economic Thinking; Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO; Larry Mishel
of the Economic Policy Institute; Jamie Galbraith of U Texas; Bob Reich
of Berkeley; Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute; and Jane D'Arista
or Robert Pollin of the Political Economy Research Institute, to name a

Even Paul Volcker, to whom the President turns only as a last resort,
is an honorary B Team member. Several of these would make a better
treasury secretary than Geithner, and Obama needs to hear their views
unfiltered through appointees who have every reason to be defensive.

A final thought: I am weary of writing pieces whose theme is "Here's
what Obama needs to do." Just between us, I'm not sure the man is paying

So my next posts will be about what we need to do. And here is the
general point: We need to build a movement--a movement that politicians
and the media can't ignore.

If you are like me, you have been in dozens of conversations lately
in which smart people ask each other, "How come there is no real
grass-roots progressive movement?"

Among plausible answers I've heard are these:

Ordinary people are beaten down and fearful. Remember the expression,
"a revolution of rising expectations"? This is a counter-revolution of
depressed expectations.

Young people got their hopes sky high during the 2008 campaign. They
built a movement. But then the Obama presidency extinguished O for A as
an independent movement by bringing it under the Democratic National
Committee, while Obama himself was far less inspiring as president than
as a candidate. You think that's inevitable? Think Franklin Roosevelt or
Ronald Reagan.

Young adults are so economically stressed that they don't have time
for a movement. If you want to find a place where economically pummeled
people logically should be organizing, look at community colleges. But
there people are juggling work, family, and classes, and have no spare
time go to meetings.

Young people who do have spare time think that volunteering for charitable causes is the same as movement building. It isn't.

Movements are passe. It takes an unpopular war plus a draft; or a
once in a century cause like civil rights. Folks today are too busy
being entertained with social networking.

And speaking of social networking, the internet, absent strong
political leadership, is not the medium of a real movement though it can
be tactically useful. MoveOn, in its prime, was the germ of something
real. But progressives have too many parts, and no coherent whole. The
Colbert-Stewart sanity rally was a hoot, but no movement.

The one enduring mass movement on the progressive side, the labor
movement, is still feisty but because of corporate union-bashing it is a
shadow of its former self.

There is a formidable immigrant rights movement, a model of
progressive movement-building, but it speaks for only one segment of the
economically vulnerable.

Okay, fine. But somehow, none of this stopped the Tea Party from
working with Fox and Limbaugh on one side, and the billionaire Koch
Brothers on the other, to organize a mass movement.

Sure, the Tea Party phenomenon is partly a fake but it's also partly
real. There is a lot of anger out there, and the right is capturing it.
The right is more demagogic, more disciplined, more in synch with its
media messaging, more relentless.

So all of the alibis on the progressive side are only partial truths.
In circumstances like these, it is possible to build a movement. The
Tea Party proves it, and what's doubly galling is that most of these
people are voting against their own economic self-interest.

Given that reality is on our side, where's our movement?

More on all this next week. Comments welcome.

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