Tuesday :: Oct 28, 2003

Matt Bai on the Center for American Progress


by pessimist

Marc Brazeau at Blogonaut has selected the Matt Bai article in the New York Times Magazine on John Podesta's new Center for American Progress think tank as the initial discussion topic to a new forum he's starting. After following his links to his site, this Bai article, and his response to the Bai article, I chose to participate.

This post is my set of responses to the Bai article.

Bai thoughts


Emulating those conservative institutions, he said, a message-oriented war room will send out a daily briefing to refute the positions and arguments of the right.

The problem with this idea is that the definition of the contest remains within the control of the conservative think tanks. Reacting to the Right has not worked - ever. What needs to be done is to redefine the contest in our terms, to show how our programs are being thwarted by the actions of the Right. If we have nothing to stand for, then there is no reason for anyone to stand with us. This was amply demonstrated in the 2002 elections.

An aggressive media department will book liberal thinkers on cable TV.

This is an admirable goal, but the Democratic Party seems to not have many liberal thinkers to book. Those that do exist may be too far away from the center, such as Kucinich or Sharpton, for this task. Carville has other priorities (some of them political), and there is only so much that either Clinton can do.

The other main problems with this idea are that the Democrats have yet to display much in the way of agressiveness, and that cable TV is, as Newton Minnow claimed that broadcast TV was 40+ years ago, a vast wasteland. After all, is there not a popular country music tune 500 Channels And There's Nothing On? This isn't an accidental inspiration. Because there are so many choices, how does one grab the target audience long enough to make a point? The GOP knows this well and tailors all of its campaign items to the simplest terms possible for brevity in transmission and understanding.

''The question I'm asked most often is, When are we getting our eight words?'' Podesta said. Conservatives, he went on, ''have their eight words in a bumper sticker: 'Less government. Lower taxes. Less welfare. And so on.' Where's our eight-word bumper sticker? Well, it's harder for us, because we believe in a lot more things.''

By these statements, Podesta recognizes this situation, but like most social nirvanists, can't come up with the solution with all the pieces staring him in the face. We don't need to express every single political idea on our bumper stickers if we select the best phrase that covers an overaching meme of our positions.

Take for example my modified phrase from the 1960s: Peace is good for kids and other living things. How many of our issues CAN'T find cover under here? Every issue that is important to liberals requires that peace be a part of the environment.

We can also by this phrase take possession of an issue which the GOP cannot use to assail us directly. Any attempts to disclaim the truth of this statement displays the unhealthiness of the disclaimer.

Most of the questioners seemed to assume as a matter of faith that the liberal message would naturally triumph in America if not for Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and a president who, they insist, has lied. One guest urged Podesta to concentrate on briefing liberal TV guests before they appeared on talk shows; another thought Democrats were losing because they used the wrong language.

All of these points should be seriously considered. As bad as Fox News is, why are they watched so much? This needs to be examined before anything can be done to counter its success with the public.

The idea that Podesta should brief those about to appear on TV is unrealistic. He might as well take the seat himself! Trying to accomplish this idea is a recipe for disaster. Only those who truly know their topics can counter the twisting that a Limbaugh or an O'Reilly can make of their positions.

The belief that the Democrats lose because they use the wrong language is absolutely on target. The Democrats need to return to ths sort of language that has traditionally belonged to them since FDR's New Deal and abandon GOP-Lite.

There will be an ''edgy'' Web site ...

All well and fine, but what about the rest of us who HATE animated .gif files and Shockwave graphics as a waste of bandwidth? Try dumping this off to me on a slow dial up account and see how often I return to your site! The appeal of the Internet is not limited to just my kids (who also aren't too fond of the aforementioned graphics formats). Give me a neatly tailored site, easily navigated, with clear links to those topics I'm interested in, and you can leave the video games to the kids who like that sort of thing.

... and a policy shop to formulate strong positions on foreign and domestic issues.

Did I die and go to Liberal Heaven here? If Podesta can pull this one off, the Democrats might still have a future in American Politics.

In addition, Podesta explained how he would recruit hundreds of fellows and scholars -- some in residence and others spread around the country -- to research and promote new progressive policy ideas. American Progress is slated to operate with a $10 million budget next year, raised from big donors like the financier George Soros.

Finding the scholars shouldn't be too difficult, especially if they are recruited the way we on this forum have been - we have posted on the Web and someone liked what we did enough to approach us. We already know this can work.

Finding big financiers, however, will prove to be more difficult. Kudos to Mr. Soros, but he is something of a recent recruit to liberal issues, mostly because he could see the logical result of current conservative thought proving to be bad for his business. This, in my opinion, is what True Conservatives should think. And, taking the steps that Mr. Soros has (putting his money where his thoughts are) is also, in my opinion, what a True Conservative should do. There is no reason that this should be rejected by the Left in any way. Society requires that all opinions have their outlets if it is to remain healthy, as for the lack of which ours has become so ill.

Let's take, for example, the Liberal Rich. Just within the last few weeks, I've received pitches from Stephen Stills, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, and read the opinion piece by John Mellancamp. All of this is a good start, but these folks could show me that they are willing to put their money where their celebrity is.

Barbra Streisand has taken some actions on her own initiative, but my problem with this is there was no coordination to any other effort extant at the time. I see this as wasted, if well-meaning, effort on her part.

The Center for American Progress, Podesta said, was concerned with articulating these principles carefully, over time, rather than rushing out an agenda to help win an election in 2004. ''We're trying to build an idea base for the longer term,'' he said, to bring about ''an enduring progressive majority.''

Podesta truly has The Vision. We may yet find our way to return to the promises of Camelot.

This is precisely the challenge facing Podesta. Just about every leading Democrat in Washington agrees that the party could use a new Big Idea, something to compete with the current conservative agenda of slashing programs and toppling rogue regimes. But what kind of idea? Is it as simple as an image makeover? Is it a left-leaning TV network to fight back against a right-tilted media? Or does the party need a new and bolder policy agenda, even if it means years wandering in the wilderness to find it?

Let's answer these GOP-slanted questions. Narrowing down an entire agenda to a single Big Idea plays into the simplistic strength of the Right. This can't succeed. The image makeover? Actions will speak louder than images. We've already looked at the media question.

We're down to the new and bolder policy agenda. This is the path to success, and we don't need to wander about the wilderness in order to find it. Just as US Grant realized that he had another path to follow besides retreat after the brutal battle of the Wilderness (sorry, too obvious to avoid!), so too do the Democrats have to face that same realization.

We liberals have taken some serious hits in our strength, as did Grant, but we don't have to retire to a safe corner and lick our wounds until we once again become brave enough to venture forth once more. We instead can quickly resume the assault on another field, renewed and reinforced, for we have the numbers to win victory if we have the leadership to pursue it. This isn't to say that, like Grant, we won't have a Cold Harbor in our future, but the ultimate victory will be ours if we keep to the task of returning control of America to the American citizens.

[Bai then proceeds to recount the victories and strengths of the Right though relating its history, but he couches his statements in the glowing terms made popular for use in presenting Republican Conservatives. This use of language as an image builder is VITAL to any future success of the Democratic Party. Need proof? See how the language of the Right tears down their opposition. Listen to Rush Limbaugh if you can stand the abuse.]

The disarray Podesta faces as he tries to build a counterweight to this behemoth is not so different from the landscape Weyrich and Feulner surveyed in the 1960's. Not only have Democrats lost their hold on Congress, but they also seem to have lost their hold on a larger vision for the country.

TRUTH! The Democrats lost their vision with the fall of Richard Nixon. Were this not so, Ronald Reagan would have been shown to be the empty fraud he was and lost in 1980. Much of the resultant history could not have happened.

At least in these early stages, the 2004 presidential campaign highlights the stagnation of the Democratic idea pool. The leading candidates spend their time debating questions that were put on the agenda by Republican think tanks, like tax cuts and pre-emptive first strikes, while proposing programmatic variations on old ideas, like universal health coverage and national service -- worthy notions, certainly, but no worthier than they were when Clinton put them forward 12 years ago.

''In my view, the ideas are most important,'' he said. At a meeting of liberal interest groups, most of whom were chiefly concerned with message, Podesta put it this way: ''We're constantly operating on the way Bush has set the table and on the way conservatives have set the table. We need to reset that table, and the only way to do that is to start with the substance.''

More TRUTH! Can you begin to see that we don't have to wander the Wilderness to see that Truth stares us in the face? All we need do is realize this and act upon it.

Transformative agendas spring from the emotion of a national moment. The New Deal seized on the anxiety of the Depression; the so-called Reagan and Gingrich revolutions played off a growing distrust of government among a newly prosperous middle class. Given the extraordinary current moment in world affairs, the conversation among Democratic candidates thus far is as notable for what has not been offered as it is for what has: no new framework for the Middle East, no clear doctrine on when and where to undertake military or humanitarian missions. While the Democratic candidates uniformly attack Bush's plan for ''personal savings accounts'' (which is another way of saying the privatization of Social Security), no one seems to have an alternative, 21st-century retirement plan that would save the nation from what looks like an inevitable fiscal crisis.

Still more TRUTH! Are we to expect our candidates to ask Matt Bai to run their campaigns for them? WHY DON'T THEY SEE THESE POINTS THEMSELVES?

Even the Democratic Leadership Council, which served as the ideological springboard for Clinton's agenda, has gravitated toward electoral politics and away from policy innovations.

Might this be why? A calcification of originality? It is an idea worth exploring.

''There have been bits and pieces of an agenda,'' [Gary] Hart said recently. ''Somebody had an idea about health care. Somebody had an idea about education. But nobody's pulled it all together.''

Another item of TRUTH. I'm no political expert by any means, but it's becoming clearer what needs to be done to counter the power of the Right.

Podesta stressed that the think tank was not an organ of the Democratic Party. Rather, he pledged that American Progress would offer its voice and ideas to any policy maker or party that would have them. It was obvious that he wanted the center to be seen as an insurgent force in politics, beholden to no one, although it was difficult to imagine who besides the Democrats would stand to benefit from a revitalized liberal agenda. (Presumably Podesta isn't raising $50 million in order to take over the Green Party.)

And why not? So far, his ideas make impressive sense to me. Why waste the power of these ideas on a party that refuses to see TRUTH when it's about to fall on them? There ARE other options.

''When you've got such a radical direction of the country on the right, that's where our fight should be, and not with each other.''

More TRUTH.

The other conflict, and the one that involves Podesta and American Progress more directly, is between those who believe the party can ''message'' its way out of exile and those who believe it will have to innovate its way out.

Why is this an either-or question? The message certainly is in need of serious repair, and innovation is necessary to accomplish these repairs. There is no either-or - it's both. Too much of this artificial and unnecessary dichotomy, and the Democratic Party will be found next to the Whigs and the Progressives in the Political History dustbin.

Most Democratic insiders, like those assembled in the living room where I watched Podesta make his pitch, will insist that the party's main problem has been its inability to be heard. And this, they say, points to a lack of institutional voices. The Brookings Institution, a moderate think tank that is every bit as sprawling as Heritage and is supposed to be its counterbalance, is neither ideological nor self-promotional enough to push back against the right. The Democratic National Committee's idea of debating the opposition is to produce and post on its Web site a painfully slow and nonsensical animated video of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as Frankenstein and Igor. With no one coordinating the message, liberals rely on an array of single-issue groups -- environmental, abortion rights, civil rights -- who pursue disparate agendas, and not always effectively.

Another example of archaic thought. Those of us who are old enough remember how the ideals and art forms of the '60s spread, and there certainly was no organization about it! There is absolutely no need to institutionalize anything, for that would use up critical supplies and energies. Allow the people to become the institution. Allow them to set the agenda. Allow them to come up with the distribution strategy. Just establish the goal and they will come.

The need to imitate the tactics and the discipline of the right wing is now discussed obsessively at liberal and leftist strategy sessions and dinner parties, and leading Democrats see Podesta's think tank as a command center for a new left-wing conspiracy -- a progressive group that is, for once, both well financed and willing to get as mean as the opposition. Among them is Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader and the highest-ranking Democrat in the land, who has been known to complain bitterly about the influence of right-wing commentators. Daschle was among a small group who plotted with Podesta for more than a year to establish American Progress.
''They have a dozen think tanks, and we have none,'' Daschle said during a conversation in his Capitol office. ''We don't come close to matching their firepower in the media.''

Wrong, WRONG, WRONG!!! You cannot defeat the victors by using their strategies and tactics against them! You can only defeat the victors by using the WEAKNESSES of their strategies and tactics against them. (Just another example of how the Democrats are poorly served by retaining Daschle as Minority Leader.

It is not so encouraging, however, to some other Democrats, who say that asking voters how they feel about the party on a bunch of individual positions -- deficit spending, a patients' bill of rights -- is not the same thing as having a coherent idea of where you want to take the country 10 or 20 years from now. They want Podesta's group to function not simply as a TV booking agency but also as the kind of idea factory that Heritage, Cato and A.E.I. were in the 1970's, pumping out provocative new proposals that could eventually define in the public mind what it means to be progressive.
Senator Hillary Clinton is one of them. ''We do have to do a better job to compete in the arena with the ideas we already have,'' she told me. ''But it's also clear to me that we need some new intellectual capital. There has to be some thought given as to how we build the 21st-century policies that reflect the Democratic Party's values.''

It really does take a village. If she keeps this up, she may yet become President in her own right.

In the end, this is what most sets Podesta apart from the conservatives whose model he is trying to replicate. Their ''reason for being'' was the triumph of their ideology, and if they had to destroy the Republican establishment in the process, they thought, so be it. They were more interested in a movement of ideas than in building governing majorities.

Considering the current shape of the Democratic Party, this is very pragmatic.

pessimist :: 12:53 AM :: Comments (1) :: Digg It!