Monday, January 4, 2010

Uniting the Base and Swing Voters


[...] Democrats win by uniting their base with swing voters, not by playing the two off against each other. I am not one of those progressives who argue that you can win only by motivating progressives, but I do know it's essential that Democrats have them fighting hard on their behalf, as opposed to fighting with Democrats trying to win elections in a challenging year.

President Obama should be the President who gets this instinctively. He won by energizing volunteers and small donors hungry for change, people who gave and raised hundreds of millions of dollar and knocked on millions of doors. Those progressive activists successfully reached to swing voters in neighborhood after neighborhood, and with a message of hope and change won the Presidential election by the most decisive margin in 24 years. By taking on the big issues progressives have been passionately wanting to take on, he should have been able to keep that dream, and that fire, alive. But Democratic approval ratings for Obama have been dipping, online donations are down, it was very tough recruiting volunteers for campaigns last year, and Democratic base turnout was way down in the off-year elections. Most dangerous of all, the passion progressive activists have for helping and defending Obama in water cooler and neighborhood conversations with their friends is missing.

How did it come to this? Yes, expectations were too high to be immediately fulfilled. And some of the policy decisions have gone the conservatives' way, such as Afghanistan, banking policy and some of the compromises in the health care bill. But I think the paradox of a President working for universal health care and regulation of Wall Street and a huge new government role in climate change and comprehensive immigration reform finding himself with big problems with his base is too complicated to be easily explained away.
The explanation probably lies somewhere between "hungry for change" and "expectations too high."

Anyone who voted for Obama thinking there would be a vast redrafting of political institutions and procedures in the first year of his administration is probably feeling a bit disappointed right now. But was that ever a real possibility? No. Is it a goal worth voting for then and still? Yes.

Progress sometimes comes much slower than we would all prefer, and there is something deeply and justifiably frustrating at seeing certain things squandered to the likes of Lieberman and Nelson with health care, hypocritical "fiscally conservative" Blue Dogs with the stimulus, and Wall Street with the bank bailouts, etc. Corporatism and careerism hold the Democratic Party back, and no President was going to change that in a single stroke.

There is room for criticism, of course. Some concessions made have been unnecessary, at best, counterproductive at worst. But had Obama lost the election, or had the GOP kept control of the House, we would not even be having this discussion. We would not be debating the loss of the public option, because reform would not even be on the table. We would not be discussing the economy and job market on progressive terms, we'd be trying to stick a little stimulus into a GOP/Reagan love-fest of a tax-cuts-and-no-more "stimulus" akin to the policies that got us in the mess in the first place.

I understand "baby steps" isn't a winning message for engaging the base, but I think progressives need to acknowledge what transition has occurred. We may be disappointed with the policy being generated, and who is or isn't still getting a bullhorn to influence the debate, but we shouldn't lose the forest for the trees.

Instead of fighting bad policy, we have the opportunity now to influence mediocre policy. That's a baby step. And a choice between this situation -- frustrating as it may be -- of fighting to make policy better, rather than just fighting to stop bad policy is endlessly preferable. Progressives need to keep fighting for a voice, and Obama needs to rediscover his spine.

But in 2010, the "base" (how do you even define that?) and progressive activists have every reason to fight, even if we're only fighting for the opportunity to push for change, not for the change itself. That's not to say we should ever settle for what's "possible" as opposed to what is "best." But baby steps forward are at least still a forward movement.

Sitting this one out would be backward (in every sense of the word). Jim Duh-Mint and John Boehner are still out there. A President and a House we may be disappointed with is still a step above an administration and a House dominated by tea party politics.

That's enough to get me fired up, despite my various complaints about the lack of change.

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