The Post-Midterms Game Plan for Progressives
Obama's Strategy: Getting Clinton Right
It is essential that President Obama dispel the mist surrounding Bill Clinton's comeback after 1994. The prevailing view—propagated by New Democrats and the former president himself—is that Clinton's recovery came from an agile move to the center, joining with Gingrich Republicans to balance the budget and "reform" welfare and embracing conservative symbols like school uniforms and parental V-chips for television.
In reality, after some public flailing about, Clinton found his footing after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing, using the occasion to speak for the country and condemn those who propagate hatred of public service. He then defended Medicare and Medicaid, education and environmental programs from deep cuts demanded by the Republican Congress. When Gingrich shut down the government, Clinton soared in the polls. "M2E2" (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment) became the centerpiece of his campaign against the lackluster Bob Dole. Clinton was ahead by double digits when he was still vetoing Gingrich's welfare repeal.
Obama faces more formidable obstacles than Clinton ever did. The economy is more likely to stagnate, and mass unemployment could easily become the "new normal." Republicans, tempered by the Gingrich flameout, are less likely to overreach. Indeed, they've been rewarded for just saying no thus far. They are likely to hold a series of symbolic votes to appeal to their base (a repeal of healthcare) and seek agreements that mean little (a moratorium on earmarks). They can achieve little and still let the president take the blame for a stubbornly bad economy.
Obama has little choice but to reach out to Republicans to gain what agreements he can that might boost the economy. This may entail debilitating compromises like the extension of the Bush tax cuts. He might be able to mobilize the business community in favor of pushing for infrastructure investment. He's pledged to try to make progress on a new energy policy, although that seems less likely. In any case, little is likely to be accomplished in Congress, which will be devoted to symbolic repeals and search-and-destroy investigations.
Given this, it is imperative that the president do three things. First, he'd be wise to focus on governing and invoke his executive authority to further progressive reform and to strengthen allies. On energy, immigration, workers' rights, fair labor standards and "don't ask, don't tell," the president has formidable powers on his own.
Second, the president must use the coming fights with Congress to show whose side he's on. He should be prosecuting the widespread fraud in the banking industry and challenging China and other trade violators. He should make himself into the defender of core programs that serve working and poor Americans, the very constituencies conservatives have in their sights. His Deficit Commission will report in December, amid establishment pressure to cut Social Security. The president should stand tall and announce that Social Security doesn't contribute to the debt and won't be cut on his watch.
Third, the president must do what he failed to do in his first two years—lay out a bold vision and program for reviving the US economy and fight for it, slamming conservatives who stand in the way. He needs to join the battle of ideas, not drift above it.
The Campaign for America's Future/Democracy Corps poll asked voters how they would react if Obama made a postelection speech committing to building a new economy for the middle class that laid a "foundation for jobs and growth" by "investing in education, research and innovation"—a classic argument for progressive reform. Two-thirds rated the statement positively, including 71 percent of swing voters. The poll then tested two major initiatives. One called for a plan to rebuild infrastructure, including a new National Infrastructure Bank; voters favored this proposal 53 to 35 percent, including a majority of independents. The second, more ambitious initiative called for a strategy to revive US manufacturing, including investment in infrastructure and science, an aggressive trade policy, Buy America procurement policies and an end to tax breaks that encourage moving jobs abroad. It was favored by 80 percent of voters, more than half of whom expressed strong support.
Americans are still looking for answers that are commensurate with the scope of our challenges. The president would be well advised to present himself not as a chastened politician but as a transformational leader, championing the fundamental reforms needed to revive America and rebuild the middle class.
A Strategy for Progressives
Progressives also need to rethink their own strategies moving forward. A majority for progressive reform can still be forged but only with a revival of bold vision, populist energy and independent organizing. Barack Obama provided a vehicle for that energy in 2008, but progressives had paved his way. We stopped Bush when he sought to privatize Social Security. We built the movement that opposed the Iraq War and brought Democrats their majority. We provided the drive for a transition to renewable energy and leadership in the green industrial revolution. Those successes gave an African-American freshman senator the sense that there was something big happening, something he could tap into. It is vital to rekindle this independent energy. To allow the corporate-funded Tea Partyers to capture the populist anger at Wall Street bailouts and special interests is simply political malpractice.
We're headed into a period of defensive struggles—against cuts to Social Security, unemployment insurance, education and Head Start; against the continuation of two wars and increases in military spending; against the climate change know-nothings. Progressives must fight these battles, but we should also be prepared to challenge the limits of the debate.
We need a broad mobilization for jobs, a call to rebuild America that challenges trickle-down economics, special-interest politics and the divide-and-conquer strategies that are destroying America's middle class. That requires mobilizing working families, the unemployed and citizens of conscience to challenge both the cautious White House and the conservative Congress.
This can be complemented with an inside-out strategy, defined not by the White House but in conjunction with progressive members of Congress. In this election, the House Progressive Caucus lost only three seats, while the Blue Dogs lost thirty, leaving Democrats smaller but more liberal. In the minority, they have no chance of passing legislation. But acting collectively, the Progressive Caucus could reinforce movement protests, defining choices with a bright line, exposing how conservatives cater to corporate interests over the common good, while putting forward an alternative direction. Outside organizing could help magnify and broadcast this agenda—insisting on withdrawal from Afghanistan, exposing the climate deniers while pushing for green jobs, detailing the reforms needed to take back our politics from corporate money and interests.
The rear-guard battle against cuts to the social safety net could be reinforced by a poor people's campaign that ends the shameful silence about poverty. Legislators should join the vibrant movement for immigration reform in pressuring the White House to act administratively, while confronting Republicans with the prospect of losing Latino voters for a generation. This effort should be complemented with a push to recruit true progressive champions and finance and staff their campaigns. Progressives should gear up to run in the primaries of the seats just lost—while putting Democrats on notice that we are prepared to challenge those who stand in the way.
With Washington more and more gridlocked, citizens must move. Americans fear this country is headed into decline, while their government caters to special interests that feed off their tax dollars. They are searching for answers that conservatives cannot supply. A majority for progressive reform can still be forged. But it will require independent action to revive the energy and, yes, the hope that the past few years have squandered.