Who Represents the Progressive Movement?
Obama supporter Chris Bowers - whom I respect highly - wrote the following as part of a longer piece yesterday (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
The argument against superdelegates just ratifying the popular will is a legalistic one. I have talked with a number of insiders about superdelegates, both in public and in private, and they all agree that the original purpose of superdelegates was not simply to ratify the popular vote. Various explanations of the original spirit include finding a way to encourage members of Congress to attend the convention, preventing a messy brokered convention, and stopping insurgents who rose on the back of independents and / or voters of other parties. However, here's my thing: I don't give a rat's ass what the original purpose of superdelegates were in the minds of the framers of the DNC convention rules. This isn't 1982. I am not a strict constructionist of DNC bylaws, and I even find that interpretation of the bylaws slightly offensive when coming from Democrats who are supposed progressives. The Democratic Party is a living institution that changes through time, and it must change to adapt to the changing nature of its membership. This is a progressive era of mass engagement in politics, and for superdelegates to defy the popular will would deal a generational body blow to huge sections of its new activist corps, not to mention give it a black eye nationally for years, and would also simply violate progressive principles of democracy.
This isn't about the original purpose of superdelegates. Really, this isn't even about just superdelegates themselves. This is about a political system that simply is not responsive to the popular will, and where many political professionals too often forget that they live in a republic. If the argument over superdelegates is one of the few areas where insiders think they know best, but won't actually act on that belief for fear of defying the popular will, then all the better for democracy. And if the people know that they only reason the insiders changed their minds is because they were scared of the people, then that is even better. Politicians should be afraid of the people. An easy way to know that the better argument is winning the day when the great mass of the people are able to prevent a small group of insiders from defying their will.
Josh Marshall was also Deeply TroubledTM by the Clinton campaign's position that superdelegates should make their eventual choice based on how they were asked to make their choice by the DNC prior to the start of this campaign:
Josh Marshall, perhaps the ur-blogger for online Democrats, writes at Talking Points Memo that Mrs. Clinton is “carving a path to the nomination through the heart of the Democratic party.”
Here's the thing. As much as I have defended Sen. Clinton from unfair and baseless attacks and criticized Sen. Obama repeatedly for his hypocrisy and mendacity, one thing has been very clear to me from day one - namely, that I will support the eventual Democratic nominee regardless of who that is because supporting that nominee over the GOP candidate is a no-brainer. I'm firmly in favor of unity within the Democratic party because the end goal is more important than a particular candidate. Nothing has changed my view on that.
However, the kinds of comments I've quoted above are the proverbial last straw for me. After all, as Bush-AWOL researcher Paul Lukasiak has shown, Sen. Clinton actually leads the popular vote cast by Democrats. She is trailing the overall popular vote right now because of independents and Republicans who cast votes for Sen. Obama in the Democratic primary - not because Sen. Obama won the popular vote among Democrats (because he did not). So, for Bowers, Marshall or others to claim that Democratic superdelegates or DNC Chairman Howard Dean or the Democratic candidate (Clinton) who has the support of the majority of Democrats who have voted so far are the ones splitting the Democratic party by insisting that superdelegates follow the rules set by the Democratic party - is beyond nonsensical. It borders on sheer arrogance. If anything, posts like theirs only give me reasons to question my continued association with segments of the so-called "progressive" movement, especially after having observed how a decent, fellow Democrat (Clinton), who is largely similar to their favored candidate (Obama), has been treated by this movement over the past couple of months.
In fact, I'm going to use this opportunity to point out that it is rather fitting that some of the leading lights of the "progressive" movement now have a lot more in common with Lieberman/DLC shill Dan Gerstein - who wrote the following in the Democrat-hating Wall Street Journal op-ed page:
The Kossacks and their activist allies -- who skew toward the Boomers -- believe that Republicans are venal bordering on evil, and that the way Democrats will win elections and hold power is to one-up Karl Rove's divisive, bare-knuckled tactics. Their opponents within the party -- who skew younger and freer of culture war wounds -- believe that the way to win is offer voters a break from this poisonous tribal warfare and a compelling, inclusive vision for where we want to take the country.
The country got an initial taste of this tactical tussle in 2006 when the Lieberman-Lamont Senate campaign in Connecticut went national -- and an initial test of the relative merits in the general-election portion of that race (in which I was Joe Lieberman's communications director).
With a discredited Republican candidate in the race, the choice came down to two Democrats who actually agreed on most issues outside of Iraq, but differed on the kind of change we need in Washington. Mr. Lieberman called for a new politics of unity and purpose; Mr. Lamont mostly called for Messrs. Bush's and Lieberman's heads.
The hope candidate soundly beat the Kos candidate -- Kos actually taped a commercial for Lamont -- by 10 points. More importantly, Mr. Lieberman won independents (the biggest voting bloc in the state) by 19 points, which is all the more remarkable because they opposed the war by a margin of 65%-29%.
In this, you might say that Mr. Obama did not kill Kos-ism so much as co-opt it -- by harnessing its most powerful forces and channeling it in a more constructive, convincing direction for a new political moment. He recognized early on that the primary electorate was changing in the wake of Mr. Bush's departure, and that it was hungry (post-Boomer voters in particular) for something bigger and better than the same polarization wrapped in a blue ribbon.
The signs of change are unmistakable. Over the last year, the Kossacks themselves seemed to be waning -- the number of monthly page views on the site is down dramatically.
Moreover, in the last few weeks they and their avatars have been flocking to the great reconciler. First Ned Lamont endorsed Mr. Obama, a mentee of Mr. Lieberman in the Senate. Then on Wednesday, in the first Daily Kos straw poll after Mr. Edwards left the race, Mr. Obama beat Mrs. Clinton by 76%-11% (a result inflated by the Netroots' unbreakable contempt for Hillary). Just yesterday, MoveOn.org gave its formal blessing to the "post-partisan" candidate.
The best evidence that Kos-ism is about kaput, though, comes from Kos's mouth himself. Yes, the most delicious irony of this campaign is that the supposed hatemonger is supporting the hopemonger.
How did this happen? Well, Gerstein called out something which goes to the core of what this primary has devolved to in certain parts of the blogosphere and the so-called "progressive" movement:
(Not surprisingly, throughout 2007, Mr. Edwards was the runaway favorite in the regular Kos reader straw poll -- besting Mr. Obama by 21 points as late as Jan. 2, 2008.)
Now that Mr. Edwards has formally dropped out of the race, we can say it's official -- hope and unity crushed resentment and division.
That's just code for something else that's been pretty obvious in parts of the blogosphere these past few months - the "Clinton Double Standard".
Let me add what Big Tent Democrat noted at Talk Left:
The Netroots made into a force for post-partisanship, triangulation and unity? Apparently so. Certainly that has become the practical effect.
Think for a moment about the attitudes now taken on open primaries. It was long the consensus of the Netroots that Open Primaries weakened Democratic values by diluting the voices of true progressives. One of the reasons Joe Lieberman was vulnerable in Connecticut was that it was a closed primary. Indeed, if it was an Open Primary, a challenge of Lieberman would never have occurred, he would never have been defeated in the Democratic Primary, and even today, he would be a "leading Democratic voice" in the Media.
This is not to discredit the Obama wins with non-Democrats. He is operating in the system local Democratic parties have chosen. And he is winning. Winning within the chosen system is the primary consideration. But the national Democratic Party also chose the super delegate system. And appealing to these Super Delegates is ALSO a part of the system chosen. Making an argument that, all else being relatively equal, choose the candidate that DEMOCRATS prefer seems a very legitimate argument to me.
And it would be surprising that strong proponents of the Politics of Contrast, which describes much of the Netroots, would take affront at an argument they once championed.
The thing is, I actually have no problem with progressive bloggers or activists supporting Sen. Obama - and I am sure many of them are doing so for substantive and good reasons and because they believe Sen. Obama is a better candidate for President than Sen. Clinton. Everyone has the right to support whom they want - the candidate they believe best represents their values and interests.
However, what I do have a problem with is leading bloggers or movement groups - especially Obama backers - pretending to speak for the "progressive" movement or the Democratic party. In my view, the progressive movement is much less well served by Sen. Obama than Sen. Clinton and it will be a cold day in hell before I allow Obama supporters to claim the mantle as the de facto spokespersons of the Democratic party or the progressive movement. Sen. Obama is clearly a better and much more progressive candidate for President than Sen. McCain, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the often anti-progressive and thoroughly DLC/establishment campaign he has been running. For instance, he has:
- Pretended to be AuthenticTM and the face of ChangeTM even though he:
- Copied Bill Bradley's campaign again and again and again (especially in the way Bradley falsely attacked Al Gore)
- Regurgitated the campaign rhetoric of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick
- Repeatedly co-opted the rhetoric of his mentor Sen. Joe Lieberman and the so-called "centrists" (i.e., "sellouts") of the Democratic party to gain the votes of Independents and Republicans - by the repeated use of false right-wing talking points against fellow Democrats and progressives
- Repeatedly held stage-managed "interactions" with voters - aka "Calculation"
- Spent more on polling and pollsters than Sen. Clinton
- Pretended to be PrincipledTM and not a TriangulatorTM like his opponent (who he claims will say or do anything to get elected), despite the fact that he has been far worse as a triangulator and has a strong track record of falsely pandering and saying anything to get elected
- Laughably claimed to be consistently anti-war when, outside of his deservedly praiseworthy Oct 2002 speech, his actions and many of his words as a Senator have been virtually identical to that of a candidate who hasn't made such a claim - whether the topic is Iraq (here, here, here and here) or Iran (here, here, here, and here)
- Claimed to be against the "special interests" even though he has raised substantial sums of money from the same interests through his career (like Sen. Clinton), continued to tap into some of that money during his Presidential campaign - including to fund elected officials who constitute 40% of his superdelegates, and developed close relationships with lobbyists or special interests over the years - even socializing and working with them to re-write Bills (even as he simultaneously worked towards ethics reform). Further, just like Sen. Clinton has people like Mark Penn on her payroll, Sen. Obama has lobbyists and former consultants to special interests (like David Axelrod) on his campaign payroll, to round off his hypocrisy on this matter.
- Claimed he would learn from history and not enable the GOP and the Republicans, despite doing so at every opportunity. He has co-opted the right-wing's false rhetoric on so many occasions in order to win Republican and independent support that I have stopped counting: whether it is the "crisis" rhetoric on social security until he got enough criticism on it, GOP/insurance industry rhetoric on universal healthcare - including running Harry and Louise type mailers or ads that will have the effect of destroying universal healthcare in the near future, using one of the Bush Dogs who worked to defeat universal healthcare in the 1990s as his surrogate, attacking trial lawyers, pandering to anti-gay bigots, attacking unions as "special interests" (despite receiving funds and support from them), anti-progressive rhetoric on religion, talking up GOP-loved charter schools as an alternative to public schools (even though studies have questioned their effectiveness compared to public schools), chiding critics of the "Unity"-driven Democrats who refused to filibuster John Roberts' SCOTUS nomination as engaging in a "quixotic" quest, portraying Democrats like Gore (and Clinton) to be "divisive", and on and on
- Claimed to be a person who would take tough stands (unlike his opponent) when it turns out that he repeatedly skipped tough votes or voted "present" (and worse, had surrogates claiming that voting present was a sign of leadership!)
- Pretended to stay above mudslinging despite being the campaign that started it all, especially with borderline racist attacks, despicable references to the sex life of his opponent's spouse, and peddling of false stories about the papers and finances of his opponent's spouse. To top this all off, his campaign repeatedly pushed false claims about the Clintons being race-baiters, even as Sen. Obama himself doesn't have clean hands on the biggest elephant in the room in this campaign.
- Claimed to be the person who stands for "unity" when employing the most divise rhetoric against his opponent (originally created by the RNC) and pretending that a key root cause of the problems in the 1990s and beyond is the "partisanship" and "division" attributable to both the Democrats and the GOP - another favorite GOP talking point
- Repeatedly co-opted the traditional media that has long been hostile to the progressive movement - and in particular hostile to leading Democrats like Bill Clinton, Al Gore and now Hillary Clinton (more here)
- Repeatedly peddled ahistorical gibberish intended to make Republicans seem better than they were and Democrats seem worse than they are - so that he can win more Independent and Republican votes
- Claimed to be the standard-bearer of HonestyTM and TruthTM who won't brook distortions or falsehoods about his own record, even though his campaign has led the pack in distortions and falsehoods
- On top of all this, claimed he has been throughly vetted - a claim even more laughable than the rest (which is not to say that Sen. Clinton won't be subject to old or new attacks on her if she is the nominee)
Despite all of this, he is still better than John McCain, but I'm not going to sit around silently if Obama supporters claim to speak for the "progressive" movement or for the Democratic party.
What is fascinating to me is that I sometimes get arguments defending Obama along the lines of "well, he's not doing much more than what Bill Clinton did in the 1990s". Actually, what Obama is doing is strategically much worse for the progressive movement than what Bill Clinton did. Bill Clinton acted as a "triangulator" during an era of conservative dominance and when fighting Republicans (like Gingrich) were on their ascendance. After Clinton's failure to pass universal healthcare, skittish Democrats were afraid of Clinton pushing for very liberal policies and Republicans went on a full-frontal attack, that included blocking legislation (even shutting down Government - a tactic that Clinton fought them on and won) and non-stop investigations against him and Hillary Clinton. During most of that era, the media was firmly in the Republican camp and hated the Clintons and manufactured stories about them, and there was no real "fighting progressive" movement online as we have today, to support and defend progressive Democrats. It was in that era that Clinton tried to keep the Presidency in the hands of the Democratic party by appealing to Independents and Republicans - and interestingly, despite some of the bad Bills he passed, he got through numerous progressive Bills because he and Sen. Clinton knew they would not take the right's attacks and obstruction lying down. In contrast, Sen. Obama's career in the IL State Senate was one where the IL Senate Republicans were much more closely aligned ideologically with the Democrats than how California (or national) Republicans have been aligned with their Democratic counterparts - making it easier for him to help pass "bipartisan" progressive legislation. Once he met real opposition in the U.S. Senate, it became clear that all his rhetoric was mostly talk. Whether it was the Patriot Act, Iraq, universal healthcare, nuclear power, and so on, all that Sen. Obama accomplished was to pass what the Republicans approved - and he has since touted this as somehow being a unique accomplishment even though Sen. Clinton's record was essentially no different in the Senate. Now, in an era where conservative dominance is declining and progressive power is increasing, Sen. Obama has been applying a strategy that was designed for another era altogether - one of conservative dominance - to this era. It is just like applying a tax package designed for a boom as a solution to a recession. What's worse is the blind acceptance of this as a BrilliantTM strategy by some segments of the "netroots" when in reality it is the exact opposite.
As I've pointed out before:
Nevertheless, there is something important that needs to be said about the campaign that Sen. Obama is running because it raises significant concerns about what an Obama presidency would do to the progressive movement at large. As Dodd-supporter Turkana observed yesterday:
Obama may be running a smart horse-race strategy; but anyone who cares about the direction of the Democratic Party ought to be worried.
Turkana added in comments:
..and people rip hillary for being "dlc"- obama's running on the old dlc model!
DLC or not, let me say the following. In the 1990s, there was no real progressive movement or infrastructure to speak of, period. There were just self-centered and disorganized progressive interest groups. As Paul Krugman has hinted previously, it was much harder for a Democrat to run on an unabashedly progressive agenda during that time, when the conservative machine completely dominated politics. Since 2000, progressives finally saw the first real electoral victory at the national level in a long time when Democrats captured the U.S. House and Senate in late 2006. The progressive blogosphere has also grown since 2003 and has become more influential in the last 2 years in impacting the media narrative. However, we're still a long way away from achieving parity with the Republican Noise Machine. In other words, we have started building the foundation for a progressive movement but we have a long way to go. There is also no clear Democratic "brand" that has been established and a big chunk of the Amerian public does not identify with a Democratic "brand" as much as it identifies with a dislike for the Republican "brand".
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that, today, we are at an inflection point that could result in very different outcomes for the progressive movement going forward depending on how we react to the current set of circumstances. If we really want to move towards long-term progressive success, in my view we need leaders who don't try to win elections by repeatedly throwing progressive icons, values, or positions under the bus using the talking points of the Republican Noise Machine and the conservative movement. As I mentioned in a comment yesterday:
I am ... worried about what an Obama presidency would imply. While there is no doubt he would be better to have in office than a Republican, I sense that many Obama supporters who are willing to continuously forgive his repeated throwing of progressives under the bus using GOP talking points, don't understand that the Democratic party has not buil[t] a lasting "brand" in the eyes of Americans and you can't build that "brand" - which requires the creation of broad progressive infrastructure, vision and an aggressive defense of progressive positions - with the help of someone who frequently trashes that very "brand" using the talking points of the opposition.
If Obama wins the nomination - and if he pulls off a general election victory (which is going to be very tough for him compared to Edwards or Clinton) - it would certainly be better than having a Republican in office. However, I think it will likely have significant negative long-term consequences for the Democratic party because his Presidency will likely become a Presidency of one person - and not a Presidency [of the progressive movement] that will facilitate the reconstruction of the Democratic "brand" and progressive infrastructure which is still seriously lacking compared to the massive conservative noise machine. Given that Sen. Obama feels so comfortable trashing progressive views and progressives even before we have begun the primaries, I can only imagine how much more he would be inclined to do so during the GE and after, when he is under constant attack by Republicans.
Anyway, I will be happy if I am proved wrong, but Democrats should be thinking a lot more about about the long-term ramifications of an Obama victory.
Having watched Sen. Obama's campaign closely over the last couple of months - and his relative tone-deafness to progressive criticism and the lack of any real accountability within his campaign - I get the strong impression that Sen. Obama's campaign appears to be firstly about Sen. Obama - and secondly, and often incidentally, about the progressive movement. As much as he may have a more progressive voting record than his mentor Sen. Lieberman, his rhetoric and approach to campaigning bears striking and unmistakable similarities to those of his mentor. This is, in my view, a dangerous dynamic for progressives to endorse, especially during the Democratic primary. Like many others, I've invested vast amounts of my personal time over the years to play a small but meaningful role in helping build the credibility of the progressive blogoshere - with the hope that we will finally elect a progressive to the White House who will not Sister Souljah the progressive movement to get there. So, I'm not going to sit around and continue to pretend that Sen. Obama's approach, beliefs and strategy are acceptable just because of his progressive voting record and because he is a charismatic Democrat who may temporarily attract Republicans and Independents (before getting slaughtered by the GOP in the general election), and thereby not recognize that he is on a path that will significantly compromise the paramount goal of building the progressive movement.
Let me close with that. No doubt, I'll be attacked for this post, but at this point I really could care less. This needed to be said and I've said it.