On American politics and policy.
When he ran for president, Howard Dean always told his supporters, “You have the power.” That line—and its message of citizen empowerment—became the mantra for Dean’s insurgent campaign (and the Tea Party). Someone should tell President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress that it still rings true. For past two years—and until the Christmas holiday—Democrats control the presidency, the Senate and the House. Starting in January, they’ll retain command of the executive branch and the Senate, which is more than they had for three-quarters of the Bush Administration. Memo to Democrats: start acting like it. As Robert Kuttner put it in the Huffington Post: “Backbone, Please.”
The first order of business: hold a vote only on extending the Bush era tax cuts for the middle class, which even John Boehner once said he’d vote to approve. Democrats can force Boehner’s hand and make him oppose a tax cut for 98 percent of Americans so that he can defend the 2 percent who’d benefit from extending the tax cuts for the wealthy, at a cost of $700 billion over ten years. Nancy Pelosi is considering such a vote this week in the House; Harry Reid, if he actually wanted to show some leadership after surviving his re-election bid, could follow suit. If Democrats really felt the need to compromise with Republicans, they could write the language so that only those making $1 million or more would see their taxes return to Clinton era rates (when, I might add, the economy was booming). But simply extending the tax cuts for the wealthy because the GOP demands it is not compromise. It’s capitulation. And it’s hard to see how Democrats will be rewarded for caving on such a core issue, when the public clearly wants those tax cuts to expire.
On to the next order of business: repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The military top brass wants the law to go; ditto the public (58 percent favor repeal in the latest Pew poll, while only 27 percent oppose allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military). That includes 62 percent of independents and 40 percent of Republicans. That means that at least a handful of Republicans should, theoretically, support DADT repeal, especially once a long-awaited military report, to be released Wednesday, shows that repealing it will have no effect on troop morale (especially when compared to the physical and psychological impact of four or five war zone deployments). But even if the GOP stands united in opposition, Democrats can attach DADT repeal to the defense authorization bill and force those who oppose it to round up fifty-one votes, which they’ll be hard pressed to do. And the Obama administration can actively lobby for repeal, rather than continuing to defend a policy in federal court that it claims to oppose. (A quick addendum: the Center for American Progress recently released a very detailed report on how Obama can use the power of the presidency to pursue a change agenda, something George W. Bush never shied away from.)
There are other issues to be considered in the lame duck Congress—and more fights to be had—but these two will set the tone for how Obama and Democratic leaders plan to deal with an energized and emboldened Republican Party moving forward into 2011 and 2012. The bold and decisive party usually tops the meek and insecure.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Sure, she’s easily caricatured as an elitist West Coast liberal at odds with the salt-of-the-earth denizens of Middle America. And now many pundits are pointing to the re-election of Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats as a clear sign of all that’s wrong with the Democratic Party. It’s not. Nor is she to blame for the party’s recent woes or current identity crisis. The fact that Democrats are increasingly spineless, cannot communicate or defend their agenda and refuse to fight for their core belies—as illustrated most recently in the debate over the Bush tax cuts—is not Pelosi’s fault.
Despite her polarizing image, Pelosi has been one of the Democrats' few effective leaders, having steered nearly all of Obama's agenda through the House in the past two years. Obama subsequently failed to effectively sell those policies while the Senate dithered on so many of them. Yet for some reason Pelosi gets the blame for the sins of Obama, Reid, Emanuel, Summers, Geithner, the Blue Dogs and all the other actors who contributed to the party’s blowout in the last election.
“We didn’t lose the election because of me,” Pelosi argued recently. She’s right. Republicans tried and failed to tie Democratic candidates to her in 2006 and 2008. It worked in the past election only because of the economy and the country’s sour anti-incumbent mood. Interestingly enough, after Republicans lost the House in ’06, no one called on John Boehner to resign as leader of the House Republicans. He was well-suited to the job of steering the minority—keeping his caucus in line, drawing a contrast with the ruling party, funneling money and resources to promising candidates; all skills, incidentally enough, that Pelosi excels at. (Also, for all the talk of her unfavorable ratings, she is still better liked among the public than Harry Reid, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. The public hates all the Congressional leaders!)
Democrats today look like their pre-2004 selves, afraid to stand up for what they believe in and meekly hoping for compromise with a Republican Party that wants nothing of the sort. Instead of trying to undermine her, Democrats should study the victories Pelosi achieved in the past Congress: swift passage of healthcare reform, the economic stimulus and financial reform, and, unlike the Senate, approval of the Employee Free Choice Act, cap-and-trade, the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," pay equity for women, an audit of the BP claims fund and a plethora of critical jobs bills. When given power, she aggressively wielded it, which is more than you can say for Obama or Senate Democrats. Ironically, she is the one now in the minority. But Democrats still control the presidency and the Senate. They should take a page from Pelosi and start acting like it.
Postscript: I debated this topic on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan Show yesterday with Dave Weigel of Slate and Alicia Menendez of the New Democrat Network; if you’d like to hear more:
Having seen their numbers severely reduced after the 2010 election, Blue Dog Democrats are trying to maintain their influence within the Democratic caucus by backing Blue Dog whip Heath Shuler for House Minority Leader over Nancy Pelosi. "If…she doesn't step aside, then I will challenge her," Shuler told CNN yesterday. He stands virtually no chance of unseating Pelosi—and has admitted as much—but the mere fact that he's willing to challenge her is indicative of the current divide within the party. Despite her polarizing image, Pelosi has been one of the Democrats' few effective leaders, having steered nearly all of Obama's agenda through the House in the past two years. One can debate whether she's the best public face for Democrats, but Shuler is a terrible alternative. In fact, he epitomizes much of what is wrong with the party today.
A chiseled ex–football star and devout Southern Baptist from the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina (WNC), Shuler was the prize recruit of Rahm Emanuel's class of '06. Despite his conservative stances on guns, abortion, immigration and gay rights, Democratic activists in WNC rallied behind Shuler, who ran as an economic populist and promised to fight for new jobs and better healthcare for his mountain constituents. "The Democratic Party helps those who cannot help themselves," he said. "That's the Christian that I am."
Instead, Shuler became one of the most outspoken dissidents inside the Democratic Congress, voting against the stimulus, healthcare bill and Consumer Financial Protection Agency. He roomed with conservative Republicans like Tom Coburn and disgraced Nevada Senator John Ensign at the controversial C Street house in DC and became best known in Congress for sponsoring a draconian border security bill. "No Democrat has done quite so much in so short a time to arouse Pelosi's disdain," Politico reported.
His voting record didn't sit well with the Democratic activists back home who worked so hard to elect him. I detail this testy relationship in my new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (pages 208–214). "We're so disappointed in Shuler," said former Polk County Democratic Party chair Margaret Johnson. "We laugh when we think about all that we did for him." Kathy Sinclair, the former Democratic chair in Buncombe County—the largest in Shuler's district—was even more blunt. "I'm not sure he is really representing his constituents of Western North Carolina," she told me last spring. "I didn't vote for him last time, and I won't vote for him next time."
Unlike some of his Blue Dog counterparts, Shuler survived his re-election bid—based largely on his personal popularity as a hometown football star—and claims he's voting in sync with his conservative district. Maybe so, but his antagonistic relationship with local Democrats suggests he'd be a poor fit to lead House Democrats, especially as they try to combat the extreme agenda of House Republicans. The last thing John Boehner needs is an ally across the aisle.
Shuler said over and over in his interview Sunday that he wants the Democratic Party to have a "big tent." But the party already has a big tent—that was its principal electoral strategy in '06 and '08—and Pelosi has been more than accommodating to the Blue Dogs in her ranks. That, in my view, has been one of the Democrats' problems.
By refusing to articulate or campaign on a bold legislative agenda, Democratic candidates deflated Democratic activists in 2010. That is one reason so many Democratic candidates lost in the past election. Elevating Shuler to the Democratic leadership would only severely exacerbate that problem.
Did the 2010 election repudiate the political and ideological strategy pursued by conservative Blue Dog Democrats or validate it? That topic is currently a point of heated debate within the Democratic Party, as recriminations fly in the wake of Tuesday's electoral "shellacking."
In his New York Times column today, Matt Bai defends the Blue Dogs, echoing the argument made by the centrist Democratic group Third Way before the election. Both Bai and Third Way take issue with a New York Times op-ed I wrote before the election, "Boot the Blue Dogs," which argued that Democrats would be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority.
I wasn't arguing that every Blue Dog be purged from the party, nor that Democrats would benefit from losing sixty seats in the House, but rather that a handful of the loudest and staunchest apostate Democrats, who voted against nearly every one of Barack Obama's signature priorities, were doing more harm than good. They brought the party nothing in terms of legislative votes and only undermined the broader Democratic message and brand. Interestingly enough, these Democrats, like Bobby Bright of Alabama and Walt Minnick of Idaho, seemed to believe that if they just voted against the president frequently enough, they'd be able to differentiate themselves from the national Democratic Party and retain their seats. But that didn't happen—the Blue Dog coalition was slashed in half on Election Day. So while the election was certainly not a validation of liberalism, it wasn't an endorsement of Blue Dog–ism either. Obama could have done everything the Blue Dogs wanted and still Republicans would have called him a socialist and voters would have punished the party in power for a bad economy. And the Democratic base would have likely stayed home in even larger numbers as a result.
Bai also takes issue with the idea that Democrats paid a price for their political timidity. "The theory here, embraced by a lot of the most prominent liberal bloggers and activists, is that centrist Democrats doomed the party when they blocked liberals in Congress from making good on President Obama's promise of bold change," he writes. "Specifically, they refused to adopt a more populist stance toward business and opposed greater stimulus spending and a government-run health care plan. As a result, the thinking goes, frustrated voters rejected the party for its timidity." But polls showed that the healthcare bill would have been more popular—and easier to understand—had it included a public insurance option, since a majority of Americans wanted a structural check on the insurance industry in the legislation. And John Judis of The New Republic makes a very compelling case that Obama's aversion to populism severely weakened his political standing.
Moreover, Bai asserts that there's no historical precedent for a more ideologically cohesive Democratic majority. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean it's not something Democrats can aspire to. Republicans never controlled more than fifty-five seats in the Senate under Reagan or Bush II and were able to get a number of sweeping pieces of conservative legislation passed. Yet Democrats allowed Republicans or a few renegade Democrats to water down or thwart nearly every progressive piece of legislative proposed in the Senate. The difference between the parties has more to do with temperament than geography. Republicans are very skillful at convincing their moderate members from blue states, like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, to vote with their caucus on most big issues—whether it be through friendly persuasion or outright threats. Democrats show no similar resolve, especially when it comes to fighting Republican filibusters, and usually agree to compromise before the big fights have even begun.
Bai notes that many Democrats, including Dean, once embraced the idea of an ideologically diverse big-tent party. But that doesn't mean that views on this issue can't evolve and change. Dean, in fact, had some frank words to say about the legislative blowback that resulted in part from the success of his own fifty-state strategy, as I detail in my new book, Herding Donkeys. I write on pages 215–216:
Despite the continued defections of red-state Democrats in Congress, Dean didn't question his original electoral strategy. "I'd never back off from the fifty-state strategy," he told me. "If you want to have a majority, you have to be a big tent party." But he'd recently beenponderingthe flaws in the tent's construction. "Having a big, open tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done," he said."Bipartisanship is wonderful but not at the cost of passing legislation that doesn't do anything."
The Republicans had become obsessed with ideological purity, losing their majorities and staggering in the wilderness as a consequence, but Democrats, if anything, weren't ideological enough. Their red state contingent had so blurred what it meant to be a Democrat that the party itself could barely see. A whole crew of Democrats now roamed the halls of Congress—and, increasingly, the corridors of the White House—standing for little else but political expediency. "That's what makes me nervous about the political process right now," Dean admitted, "because there's always been a streak in DC of, do what it takes to get elected and if that means abandoning issues, go ahead. And that's dangerous because it makes any incumbent worthless." He'd recently been thinking that Democrats might be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority—the type of arresting admission you rarely hear from an influential member of the ruling party. "If you have a majority of say sixty people in the Senate, but you can't deliver anything, why not have a majority of fifty-five and not have all this intraparty feuding?" he wondered.
Dean had a favorite saying about political majorities. "If you don't use it," he said, "you lose it."
Dean also believed that Democrats needed to be able to articulate their core values and stand up for them across the country, which is the exact opposite of what the Blue Dogs—and many Democratic candidates more broadly—did in 2010. My guess is that, in the not too distant future, Democrats will look back on the period from 2008–10 and say, We accomplished a lot. But, given the size of our majorities, we could've done so much more.
In an otherwise dismal election for Democrats, the party fared surprisingly well out west, holding key Senate seats in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington, and winning governorships in California, Colorado and Oregon.
So why did Democrats do better in places like Colorado and Nevada than Illinois and Pennsylvania? They performed stronger with moderate swing voters and turned out key segments of the Democratic base.
In Nevada, Harry Reid won 65 percent of self-described “moderates” and Michael Bennet in Colorado took 63 percent, compared to 60 percent for Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and only 50 percent for Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois. These voters alone made up roughly forty percent of the electorate, according to exit polls.
The extremity of Tea Party-backed candidates also boosted Democrats out west. Republicans Mark Kirk in Illinois and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania were far more polished and on message than Sharron Angle in Nevada or Ken Buck in Colorado. By emphasizing Buck’s extreme record on abortion, for example, Bennet won 56 percent of women voters—a crucial 14 point gender gap in the race. And by hammering her controversial anti-immigrant positions, Reid won 68 percent of Hispanic voters in Nevada—who voted at the same level as in 2008, whereas turnout among core ’08 Obama voters dropped significantly in many other states. “In the West, Tea Party candidates, by and large, lost,” says Jill Hanauer of the Project New West, a Denver-based strategy group.
Nor was there a broader ideological shift to the right. In Colorado, for example, voters rejected three tax-slashing ballot measures, an initiative to block the implementation of healthcare reform and an antichoice proposal to define a fetus as "personhood." That’s not to suggest that everything went great for Democrats in the region. A bunch of Democratic House members lost seats, Republicans held onto governorships in Arizona and Nevada and picked up New Mexico, and Democratic state legislative candidates lost across the board. Still, given the sour national mood, it could’ve been a whole lot worse. Writes Hanauer:
Looking at the West as a whole, Democrats have made significant gains in the past decade. In 2000, Democrats had zero Governors, 3 Senate seats and only 6 of 25 congressional seats. After 2008, they held 5 Governorships, 17 of the 28 seats in Congress and 7 US Senate seats. In 2010, Western Democrats felt the anti incumbent anger, particularly towards Congress and they now hold 10 congressional seats, 2 Governorships and 7 US Senate seats.
The Western firewall bodes well for President Obama in 2012. “2010 was a live fire training exercise,” says Mike Maday, a top Obama super-volunteer in Colorado Springs. “We can now set our sights on President Obama’s re-election, the fight I found myself looking forward to during a long and often frustrating campaign season.”
Maday posted a very interesting account of his experiences in Colorado Springs this election cycle on my blog that I wanted to share below:
Our US Senate race may point the way to how things can work here and elsewhere in 2012 for progressive candidates and the President. Michael Bennet kept the race close until election day. In most polls he was even with his opponent with registered voters but down a few points with likely voters, the enthusiasm gap. That’s where the Democrat’s field effort came in. In 2008 the Obama campaign made Colorado one of the top battlegrounds in the country, pouring hundreds of trained organizers into the state. Here in conservative El Paso County, “the Belly of the Beast”, those organizers recruited 2400 volunteers. I was involved from the start but by election day I’d walk through rooms of volunteers and recognize nary a face. It was great. In 2010 the Bennet campaign used a much smaller staff to tap into that volunteer base. Many of these volunteers had never made political phone calls or knocked on doors prior to 2008.
In 2010 we did not have the numbers of volunteers we had in 08 but the group we had was ready to go. Some had become involved in the local Democratic Party or local campaigns over the last two years. Some had not been involved at all but when called upon they came out, phoned and knocked doors in the end. According to the Denver Post direct voter contact made the difference in a Senate race where the margin was less than 1%. This is the legacy of Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy and the amazing organizing efforts of the Obama campaign. If the President’s re-election campaign can tap into these volunteers using the same organizing efforts as in 2008 it may again be the difference.
It was inevitable, following the election, that some major publication would write an article about how Obama will face a primary challenge from the left in 2012. Politico, not surprisingly, got there first, with a column by Roger Simon today wondering whether Howard Dean could defeat Obama.
Buried in the piece is the rather large caveat that Dean doesn’t actually think such a challenge is a good idea. “Nobody is going to beat him [for the nomination] in 2012,” Dean said. “All that would do is weaken the president.”
Dean’s not going to run against Obama in 2012, nor should he. But that doesn’t mean Obama couldn’t learn a thing or two from Dean’s presidential campaign and chairmanship of the Democratic Party. Those lessons just might help Obama turn his ailing presidency around.
Dean’s innovative insurgent presidential campaign in 2003–04 provided the manual—albeit a messy, imperfect one—for a bottom-up mass movement in democratic politics, and his fifty-state strategy as chair of the Democratic National Committee provided the foundation for electing Democrats across the map in 2006 and 2008. The Obama campaign embraced and expanded both of these visionary ideas. “We pioneered it and Obama perfected it,” said Dean’s former campaign manager Joe Trippi. Some even called Obama "Dean 2.0."
Yet after the election, Obama quickly dispatched the insurgents—Dean chief among them, who was excluded from a plum job—and assembled an administration that looked surprisingly like a third Clinton term. Dean's snub came to signify a broader abandonment of the party's grassroots base, especially as Obama packed his White House with well-worn veterans of previous administrations, who embodied longevity over innovation and connections over change. Obama demobilized the very grassroots political apparatus that proved so successful during his campaign. “The Obama people ran the best campaign I've seen in all my life in politics," Dean told me. "But they couldn't translate it into government." Nor did they really try to, as I detail in my new book, Herding Donkeys
In the first two years of his presidency, the dialogue between Obama and his supporters has been strictly one-way: here’s the policy. Go support it. “You can't dictate to your base what's going to happen,” Dean says. “It's got to be a two-way deal, and it hasn't been." Moving forward, Dean wants Obama to stand up and fight for some core principles, contrasting his agenda with the extremity of the new Congress, and appear like he’s committed to changing Washington, rather than just surrounding himself with the same old crew of Washington insiders.
LBJ faced a primary because of the war in Vietnam. Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter over a sluggish economy. Though Dean does disagree with Obama on some policy fronts—most notably, the lack of a public option in healthcare reform—these differences are as much about style as substance. Dean and many other Democrats liked the Obama they saw during the campaign better than the Obama they see in the White House—and want him to return to the grassroots approach he employed so effectively two years ago. It needn’t take a primary challenge for Obama to recognize that he can no longer take his base for granted. The results on Tuesday should have been enough of a wake-up call.
In 2006 and 2008, Democrats elected fifty-five new members to the House of Representatives, assembling a huge supermajority in part by winning in unlikely red states across the map.
Last night was proof that if a Democratic wave sweeps you into office, a Republican wave can sweep you back out. According to The Hill, fourteen members of the class of 2006 and twenty-one members of the class of 2008 went down to defeat last night, as Republicans posted big gains in the Industrial Midwest, Northeast and South. Only twelve Democratic reps from ’06 and a mere six from ’08 managed to hang on.
The losers included progressives like Carol Shea-Porter, Tom Perriello, Alan Grayson and John Hall, and reactionary conservative Blue Dogs such as Bobby Bright, Walt Minnick and Travis Childers. The Blue Dog Coalition was hit particularly hard, losing half of its 56 members. As I predicted, their conservative voting records deflated Democratic activists but did little to win Republican support.
Those notable survivors from the class of ‘06 include Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley of Iowa, John Yarmouth of Kentucky and Heath Shuler of Western North Carolina. Few high-profile members from ’08 remain. The voters who proved so instrumental to Obama’s election in 2008 did not turn out in large enough numbers to save the Democratic incumbents elected into office along with the president. Wrote John Judis of The New Republic:
The election results themselves did not represent a full-blown realignment, but a more modest shift in existing loyalties. Democrats retained, but at somewhat reduced proportion, the loyalties of blacks, Latinos, and professionals (evidenced in the 52 to 46 percent support among those with post-graduate degrees); and they suffered from reduced turnout among young voters. Republicans increased sharply their margin among white voters without college degrees, who made up 39 percent of the electorate. In 2008 House races, Republicans carried this group by 54 to 44 percent; this year, it was 62 to 35 percent. In other words, the Republicans did better with their coalition than the Democrats did with theirs; but the contours remained the same.
After having so successfully mobilized their supporters in support of change, Democrats and Obama became complacent, turning into the party of Washington and the status quo, former Obama organizing guru Marshall Ganz argues in a new LA Times op-ed:
Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president's transformational mission. First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in "yes we can"—he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in "yes I can."
As a result, Obama and his party had little too show for their legislative accomplishments and could not make an affirmative case for what they’d do differently if they remained in office. Based on his press conference today, the president is still holding out hope that Republicans will compromise with him on some key areas, though GOP leaders have given no indication they’ll do so. In the past two years, Obama attempted to simultaneously please the left and right of his party, along with the middle of the electorate, and he ended up satisfying neither. Before setting their sights on recapturing the House once again, Democrats will have to think long and hard about what they would do—and how they would do it—once they get there.
-Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuid the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Associated Press ran an alarming story today about how the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is cutting off Democrats in tough races who have supported President Obama’s agenda and rewarding conservative Democrats who’ve opposed Obama on key votes and won’t vote for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi if Democrats somehow retain the House.
Writes the AP:
The House campaign arm has in recent days canceled millions of dollars worth of advertising it had planned for Driehaus and other endangered Democrats including his fellow Ohioan Mary Jo Kilroy, Suzanne Kosmas in Florida, Betsy Markey in Colorado and Steve Kagen in Wisconsin. All of them voted for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and for legislation to curb carbon emissions -- only to be savaged by Republicans on the campaign trail for doing so.
The list of Democratic candidates being lavished with national party help in the final days of the race includes many of the defectors on those marquee votes: Reps. Michael Arcuri in New York, Bobby Bright in Alabama, Travis Childers in Mississippi, Larry Kissell in North Carolina, Jim Marshall in Georgia and Glenn Nye in Virginia, among others.
Bright and Marshall have even said they wouldn't vote to keep House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in her post. National Democrats are also spending freely to defend Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who opposed the climate bill and has run TV ads calling it "Nancy Pelosi's energy tax."
The situation is similar for Rep. Frank Kratovil in Maryland, Zack Space in Ohio and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota, all of whom voted "no" on the health care law and are receiving TV ad dollars from the Democrats' campaign committee in the critical final days.
The DCCC says it’s simply spending money on the most winnable races, but it seems like a terrible strategic decision to dump those members in close races who’ve supported Obama and reward those who’ve opposed his legislative agenda—and will continue to do so. EMILY’s List communications director Jen Bluestein argues that pro-Obama candidates like Markey, Kosmos and Kilroy are still very much alive. “These women are all good Democrats, good team players, running good campaigns,” says Bluestein. “They are in tough races but they are completely winnable.” But instead of being rewarded for taking tough votes to advance Obama’s legislative priorities they’re being penalized, while the party continues to prop up Democrats who voted against the president at key times and are openly distancing themselves from Obama and Pelosi—and may still lose. And Democrats in Washington wonder why there’s an enthusiasm gap.
I’ve been travelling around the country for the past three weeks talking about my new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, and the question I’ve been asked most often is: what happened? How did we get from Obama's historic election and a massive Democratic majority after the 2008 election to the emergence of the Tea Party and major Republican electoral gains in 2010?
Last night, at a book event at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, I posed that very question to Marshall Ganz, an expert on community organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a key organizing theorist behind Obama's grassroots political movement. You can watch the video exchange below:
Ganz explains how Obama moved from a "transformational" leader during the campaign to a "transactional" politician as president. Some of that, of course, was to be expected—candidates need to inspire while presidents have to govern. Governing, by nature, is often transactional. Nonetheless, transformational leaders find a way to get beyond transactional politics, Ganz argued, pointing to Ronald Reagan as a prime example. "Reagan shows exactly how to govern, which is aligning yourself with a movement outside Washington that is capable of mobilizing pressure on forces inside Washington so that you can change the rules of the game." That was also the model Obama promised to follow during the campaign, but has yet to really test as president. He played by the conventional Washington rules instead of trying to change them.
"He shifted from a politics of advocacy to compromise," Ganz says. Once inside the White House, Obama viewed his own grassroots organization "like a tiger you can't control." The attitude toward his supporters changed from "Yes We Can" to "Yes I Can."
Yet for all the roads not taken, Obama’s political problems are, in large part, the result of a sour economy. But Ganz believes the president could’ve used the economic crisis to his advantage—as a mass teachable moment about the importance of government in a time of need. "If Obama has come in and taken control of the economic crisis, in the same way he dealt with the race issue during the campaign," Ganz argues, the Tea Party would not have flourished. But instead there existed a vacuum, and the Tea Party’s anti-government rage filled it up. It remains to be seen just how much longevity the Tea Party will have. "It’s more of a death rattle than a victory cry," Ganz said, the last gasp of a dying demographic.
You can see much more of the discussion, in six parts, on YouTube. Many thanks to Jim Moore for filming and uploading!
Over the weekend, “senior officials” in Democratic circles told Politico that President Obama is thinking of putting current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in charge of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) going into the 2012 campaign. The White House quickly shot down the rumor and it’s highly unlikely that would happen, as current DNC chair Tim Kaine’s term lasts until after 2012. Yet it’s indicative of the mindset inside Obamaworld that Gibbs is even being considered or floated for the job.
Moving Gibbs to the DNC is a terrible idea. He’s a communications honcho; not an inspirational party leader. The last thing President Obama needs is to elevate yet another inside-the-Beltway operative, let alone one who recently needlessly insulted the “professional left.” Gibbs has no relationships with the local leaders and activists who form the base of the party and the DNC.
In fact, Obama should be looking for just the opposite, someone with credibility and stature among the party’s rank-and-file base, which has often been stifled by the White House political operation. Someone like previous DNC Chair Howard Dean, who was beloved by grassroots activists but left the job after Obama’s election and was excluded from a top job in the administration by Rahm Emanuel. Dean left the DNC voluntarily—believing Obama needed his own man for the job after his term expired—and there’s no indication he’d want the job back.
Kaine has been an adequate DNC chair and, based on my reporting, seems to be well-liked by the state party chairs. The DNC is raising a good amount of money under his tenure and Obama’s post-campaign arm, Organizing for America, is starting to integrate better with existing Democratic Party institutions, though rough spots remain.
Yet the Obama inner circle is in need of a shakeup that goes beyond replacing Rahm. Installing Dean or someone like him at the DNC would signal that Obama is serious about recommitting himself to the kind of grassroots politics that defined his presidential campaign. Too often, the DNC and OFA have simply carried out whatever the White House wanted, to the chagrin of local activists who’d like to have more of a say in how Washington is run. That is, after all, what Obama promised when he ran for president. As I noted in a recent Nation excerpt from my new book, Herding Donkeys:
"I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States," Obama said while campaigning in Colorado Springs in July 2008. "This won't be a call issued in one speech or one program; I want this to be a central cause of my presidency." Only Obama entered the White House with millions of supporters who could theoretically be activated with the click of a mouse; they expected him, however naïvely, to follow through on his promise. "Our signs didn't say, Status Quo '08," remarked former top Obama adviser Paul Tewes.
Unfortunately, that White House dialogue has too often been one-sided: Here's the policy. Go support it. "The White House began to believe that they could mobilize their supporters without hearing what their supporters really wanted in terms of specific change," Dean says. "The principal problem with OFA is the same one the president's having. You can't dictate to your base what's going to happen. It's got to be a two-way deal, and it hasn't been."
As it stands, the Democratic base is restless, local party leaders are anxious and Democratic candidates are facing major losses in November. Bringing back Dean, an independent voice who can fight for the grassroots, wouldn’t right all of that, but it would show that Obama is serious about empowering a true team of rivals, not just a bunch of Washington insiders.