I had the honor of serving as the head of the constituencies operation in the 1992 Clinton campaign, then in the transition and finally as a special assistant to the president in the Clinton White House. I relived some of those memories when I took a position advising the Obama transition team. In both cases, my main role was to serve as the liaison to the broad progressive movement–part advocate on their behalf, part diplomat and troubleshooter with that movement. But the progressive movement of today is strikingly different than that of the early to mid-’90s when Bill Clinton was first coming to power.
During those early years of the Clinton presidency, the term “progressive movement” was really a misnomer: what there was instead was more a collection of DC-based, single-issue groups that didn’t work together much at all. There was relatively little field organizing going on and little sophistication in terms of communications.
It wasn’t that there were no progressive groups in American politics, but they were more complacent and more fragmented than what we have today. When right-wing organizations and the media hit Clinton, there just weren’t many folks hitting back very effectively. That was one of the biggest reasons we failed to bring about healthcare reform. The coalition that was organized to push for the Clinton healthcare plan was chaired by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which was so intimidated by its Republican members that it couldn’t bring itself to actually endorse the bill until it was too late to matter. The messages that were used were wimpy and uninspiring as well, even though there were populist anti-insurance company messages our polling showed would work very well. And when the healthcare reform effort failed, starved of good messaging and strong organizing, Clinton and the Democrats gave up any efforts to do anything big, bold or transformational–they became players of small ball, just looking to survive. I still remember when Dick Morris and Mark Penn were brought into the Clinton message team, and their insistence that we do no big policy initiatives and that we shy away from anything the least bit populist.
It wasn’t just healthcare, either. Where the right wing saw any opportunity for attacking Clinton as a chance at movement-building, the issue-siloed progressive groups didn’t care if it didn’t affect their specific issue. Impeachment was a classic example–the entire right-wing movement jumped on the Lewinsky scandal with passion. Our issues groups, outside of PFAW, some unions and civil rights groups, did nothing to help. When I called the Human Rights Campaign for help on the impeachment fight, for example, they told me that Al Gore was just as good on their issues as Clinton, so why should they care? That the right wing might score a huge political victory because of someone’s personal sex scandal didn’t faze them at all.
My new book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, makes the case that major progressive reform in this country comes in tectonic plate shifts that move the country forward fundamentally for generations to come, something I call “Big Change Moments.” In the 1860s, early 1900s, 1930s and 1960s, these Big Change Moments swept the country, making huge progress on a range of important issues possible. It was made possible by a combination of presidential leadership willing to be bold on major problems in our country and a big, strong progressive movement. We did not have those conditions in the early 1990s. Bill Clinton was rarely willing to be bold and big in his politics. He did not want to irritate business by using populist messages even on healthcare, his one big progressive policy initiative, even though our polling clearly showed they worked. But the weakest link of all was the weakness of the progressive movement itself. Compared to the passion, courage and strength of past progressive movements, progressives in the 1990s just didn’t have the juice to make big changes happen. Today’s progressive movement is far more unified and passionate, and with the Internet and other new media tools that we have been using so effectively, there is now critical mass that can move quickly and in big numbers to make things happen.
I hope and believe that the Obama era will be different. We have massive problems that demand big solutions. We have a president who ran on the mantra of change. And we have a rebuilt and passionate progressive movement, more cohesive, more coordinated, stronger at both organizing and media. The question now is whether we have a president and Congressional leaders who boldly seize the moment, and whether the newly resurgent progressive movement will have the strength and strategic sense to make the moment happen. I believe the time is ripe for another Big Change Moment, for another progressive revolution: we only have to seize the day and make it happen. Obama, and those of us in the progressive community, need to think big and shed the caution that too many Democrats on the Hill have let infect them in recent decades. I think it will be difficult to get Democrats to give up their habit of thinking small and cautious on everything, but the desperation of the times demand big bold solutions.
Just as the abolitionists fought with Lincoln at times, just as the suffragists fought with Wilson, just as the labor movement demanded more of FDR and the civil rights movement demanded more of JFK and LBJ, the progressive movement of our era will have to be tough on Obama at times to push him over the finish line on delivering the changes we need. But just as in those earlier eras, the progressive movement and a president who wants to make change will need to work together to make it happen. Let’s hope we are on the brink of another Big Change Moment.