Obama, Teddy, & the Perils of Governing Without Conviction

On the one year anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama, and the day after Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat was lost to a conservative male pinup with a pickup truck, my fears about the dangers of trying to govern without referring to fundamental principles seem to be coming true.
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Four years ago, I wrote a pair of meditations on my irascible old blog, VichyDems, warning of the harm that would occur if Democrats regained national power without first abandoning the incrementalist, centrist approach advocated so unsuccessfully by the Democratic Leadership Council and instead returning, consciously and assertively, to their traditional, liberal roots. On the one year anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama, and the day after Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat was lost to a conservative male pinup with a pickup truck, my fears about the dangers of trying to govern without referring to fundamental principles seem to be coming true.

In the first of those posts, dated March 17, 2006 and titled An Overlong Dissertation on Courage, Strategy, Populism, and Respecting the Base, I expressed my fear that governing without boldness and conviction would do more harm than good to Democrats' electoral longevity. I began by explaining why the conventional distinction between "pragmatism" and "purity" is misleading:

Some "liberal" bloggers and commenters (and many, many "concern trolls" who love to give bad advice to the enemy) express "concern" (it's almost always that word, "concern") that targeting and ousting "Vichy" Democrats will cost us seats we need to win back one or both houses of Congress.

My usual response is this: I don't believe that's the case, because [politicians like] Joe Lieberman ... are more trouble than their seats are worth and if we unseated them, the rest of the caucus would sit up, take notice, and start acting cohesively again, which ultimately will win us a lot more seats than we lose.

The Republicans won complete control of government not by running to the center, but by running to the right and persuading the media and the American public to shift right with them. They don't tolerate defections from the party line; they stick to centrally-distributed talking points and abide by rigid party discipline enforced by a man nicknamed "The Hammer." They don't fall silent when discourse turns discordant; they trot out the Big Lie and repeat it so often that it becomes Truth in the same way that big mountains create their own weather. They won by doing the exact opposite of what the DLC crowd preaches we need to do to win.

It's as if the Democratic leadership doesn't understand how mirrors work: the key to Republican success wasn't in the fact that they ran to the right (and that we similarly must shift right if we want to win); it's in the fact that they ran AWAY from the center -- became more extreme -- and in doing so earned both the support of their base and the trust of centrist voters, who respect people who can articulate and adhere to principles even if they don't agree with all of them. Copying the Republican formula for success doesn't mean becoming more conservative.... [I]t means becoming more liberal and being proud of it. Articulating, and expecting some reasonable degree of adherence to, a unifying party platform is a good way to articulate principles and win elections, and if that means tossing one or two enablers like Lieberman overboard, good riddance; they're dead weight anyway.

Then I pointed out the danger of Democrats winning power without first reinventing their party along more principled, and more vigorous, lines:

But in addition to the above response, which I believe is true, I have a second reaction to the concern that attacking Vichy Democrats will cost us a potential majority: that until our "leaders" start listening to their constituents and acting like Democrats again, they (and we) don't deserve to be in power. Until we have our act together and are prepared to govern in a coherent, articulate, unified way, we should stay the hell out of it.

Our nation is facing tremendous problems; only a drastic change in course can possibly reverse them. If we Democrats are not prepared to change America's course, however, then it's better for the inexorable collapse to occur on the Republicans' watch than on ours. My preferences, in this order, are: (1) a dialed-in, unified, energized, liberal Democratic Party in power, correcting American's course and restoring her fortunes; (2) a faltering, dissipating, weakening Republican Party in power, living or dying with the consequences of their past actions while real Democrats continue to rebuild our party in the wings; and (3) a faltering, dissipated, weak Democratic Party in power, demonstrating once again to voters that we aren't ready for prime time and possibly being blamed for a nationwide economic, military and social collapse created by the Republicans but foisted on us.

A lot of intelligent, energetic grassroots activists are working to make sure that (1) above comes true. Most of the Democrats in Congress are working hard to see that (3) above comes true, even though they're too struck with Beltway Blindness to realize that's what they're doing. If they don't catch a clue and start working with us, (2) above is going to occur again in November, and then either (2) or (3) will occur in 2008. And that's simply not good enough. Democrats deserve better. America deserves better.

The reckoning is coming in 2010, not 2008, but otherwise, the crumbling of the national party is occurring exactly as I feared -- and for exactly the reason I predicted. On healthcare, Afghanistan, Wall Street reforms, LGBT rights, and every other issue where they hold both the moral and the policy high ground, the White House and Senate have waffled and compromised.

Even worse, they not only have allowed Joe Lieberman to continue pretending that his interests and goals are even minimally aligned with theirs -- letting him caucus with them, retain his chairmanships, and counting him among the fetishistic "60 votes" Reid supposedly possessed until Tuesday -- but they also have allowed his rebellion to infect others in the caucus. (The reason you remove bad apples from the barrel is that they ruin the apples next to them; Ben Nelson would never have the courage to block healthcare reform by himself.)

By allowing Lieberman to block passage of an institutional public option instead of affirmatively blocking his games by using reconciliation or by mimicking the Republican threat to declare filibusters unconstitutional, as they arguably are; by increasing troop strength (twice) in Afghanistan instead of bringing our troops home; by deferring a decision on Don't Ask Don't Tell, and naming Wall Street insiders Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to oversight posts; by constantly courting the center, placing comity above principle, triangulating instead of leading, and seeking incremental advances instead of bold new deals -- by all these concessions, Obama and Senate leaders have forgotten that courage begets voter confidence and voter confidence begets electoral success. To the extent the debacle in Massachusetts is a referendum on anything besides Martha Coakley's execrable and lazy campaigning, it is a referendum on Democratic leaders' failure to hew to liberal principles.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who knows no legislative strategies besides "compromise", bears much of the blame, as do other senior Senate Democrats. (The House side's coffee is noticeably hotter than the Senate's these days.)

But the ultimate responsibility for the Democratic Party's tepidity, and its electoral setback Tuesday, rests with Barack Obama, who for one year now has governed with an unseemly timidity. In his first year, Obama did not issue an executive order eliminating discrimination against gays in the military, as the Commander-in-Chief unquestionably has the right to do (and as Democrat Harry Truman did to desegregate the military in 1948). He did not go to bat for the public health insurance option when it was on life support in the Senate Finance Committee and again on the Senate floor. He elected (twice) to increase troop strength in Afghanistan instead of acknowledging that Afghanistan is no longer Al Quaeda's base and bringing our troops home. Instead of appointing agents of real change, he named Wall Street insiders Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to key oversight positions and appointed a consummate triangulator and centrist, Rahm Emanuel, as his Chief of Staff.

The bragged-about fact that Obama passed 97% of his Congressional agenda this year demonstrates merely that he played it too safe. As Robert Browning wrote over a century ago: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

There is a divide among Democratic activists today, between those who urge unity and support for Obama, and those who advocate dissenting at least enough to stop Obama from taking his base for granted and force him to shift left. What some people don't realize is that this divide, between progressive ideals and the pseudo-pragmatic impulse to compromise, is part of Obama's nature itself. The man himself doesn't seem to know which camp he belongs to.

In Joe Lieberman: Barack Obama's "Mentor In The Senate"?, which I wrote on April 3, 2006 in response to then-Senator Obama's embrace of Joe Lieberman over challenger Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary, I discussed the contrast between Obama's progressive potential and his predilection for overcautious triangulation. The questions I asked about Obama's political soul back in 2006 -- about whether Obama would choose the old-school Democratic path of triangulation and compromise, or would save the party by leading a resurgence of Progressive ideals and courage -- are even more pressing today:

I want to like Barack Obama. His riveting, energizing speech at the last Democratic National Convention converted him from an attractive Senate candidate into the leading Democratic candidate for first African-American Vice-President and, eventually, President. His statement that "we worship an awesome God in the blue states" not only articulated the beliefs of that misunderstood, underrepresented and vital majority of Democrats and Independents who possess some sort of religious faith, but his use of evangelical "code" language -- "awesome God" -- reclaimed territory we had ceded to the Republicans and showed that not all Democratic politicians are tone deaf to religious nuance. I really want to like Barack Obama.

But then I read things like the following, which comes from an otherwise-delightful New York Times article about Democrats ignoring and even booing Joe Lieberman at a recent event:

[H]owever, the audience was riveted as Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the guest speaker at the $175-a-plate dinner, stood on the podium and began the customary round of recognition of candidates and incumbents in the room.

When he got to Mr. Lieberman, who is his mentor in the Senate and who helped recruit him to speak at the event, the applause again was muted.

"I know that some in the party have differences with Joe," Senator Obama said, all but silencing the crowd. "I'm going to go ahead and say it. It's the elephant in the room. And Joe and I don't agree on everything. But what I know is, Joe Lieberman's a man with a good heart, with a keen intellect, who cares about the working families of America."

Then, with applause beginning to build, he finished the thought: "I am absolutely certain that Connecticut's going to have the good sense to send Joe Lieberman back to the United States Senate."

Joe Lieberman -- gutter of bankruptcy protection for working people facing disastrous health emergencies, supporter of an illegal war that's killed over 2,000 working-class Americans, apologist for hospitals that deny birth control to rape victims -- secretly has a "good heart" and "cares about working families"?

Yow. Here's what's good about Barack Obama: despite his relative youth and political inexperience, he is in the first ranks when it comes to political astututeness. He understands the game, plays all the angles with a skill approaching genius. The last political operator we saw with Obama's skill was an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Hell, Obama may even be better than Bill Clinton.

Here's what's bad about Barack Obama: at an age and place in his career where he should still be known for idealism, he instead is known for political astuteness. He has mastered the game instead of the ideals, applies his genius to playing the angles instead of changing the world for the better. The last political operator we saw with Obama's skill was an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Hell, Obama may even be worse than Bill Clinton.

NOT being a "Star Wars" geek in any way, I hate to say this, but some analogies just leap out at you: Barack Obama is the Anakin Skywalker of the Democratic Party. He's an incredibly gifted young man whose gifts who will do either incredible good or incredible harm to the Democratic Party and to the nation. ***

This incident is not the only one; Obama also spoke out against the Alito filibuster, working against us behind the scenes by trying to persuade other senators not to rock the boat, and he likewise is lobbying others not to support Russ Feingold's censure resolution. Obama looks good on the outside, but in his short Senate career he has come down on the wrong side of nearly every issue this blog's readers care about.

Notwithstanding the above, I think Obama can be saved. What's needed is for [him to take] ... a nobler path than the one outlined by Bill, Hillary and Joementum. When we progressives recapture the soul of our party, the party may recapture the soul of Obama. Then Obama may be a tremendous force for good. But we need to show him that the path he's currently walking is a dead end.

Please understand: I'm not trying to undercut Obama. As regular readers know, I supported him vigorously in both the 2008 Democratic primary and in the general election, because I believed he was the best, and potentially the most progressive, candidate. I don't regret that choice. I want him to succeed. Hell, I cried when he won in November, and again when he was sworn into office one year ago.

But that doesn't mean I've smoked the hopium. Party unity is essential, but so is competent, courageous leadership. I want Obama to be the best leader he can be; at present, he's falling short. If, as Howard Zinn said, dissent is the highest form of patriotism, then dissent with one's own party's leaders is the highest form of loyalty to that party. (That's why, in my VichyDems days, I blogged under the pseudonym "Thersites"; in the Iliad, Thersites was the courageous soldier who dared to speak the truth about the failings of his own side's leader, Agammemnon.)

For exactly one year now, Obama has been keeping his powder dry, apparently without realizing that, in fact, he has almost no powder left. Political capital unused tends to dissipate like the dew; to be preserved, let alone compounded, political capital -- which Obama had a surplus of just one year ago -- must be invested if it is to be preserved. The fact that Obama's late effort to save Martha Coakley in Massachusetts failed, and that a state that overwhelmingly elected him in 2008 just handed Teddy's seat to a conservative Republican, demonstrates the truth of this assertion. There's a reason Teddy Kennedy held onto his seat for 46 years: he leavened his practicality with principle. If Obama and D.C.'s other Democrats want to retain their seats the way Kennedy did, they need to follow his example.

It's not too late yet for Obama to deliver the change he promised -- and to salvage as much as possible of Democrats' Congressional advantage next November. For example, he doesn't need Congress to eliminate DADT; he simply needs to act like the Commander-in-Chief, order an end to discrimination, and tell his soldiers (including the general staff) to follow his orders.

Likewise, healthcare reform can be salvaged without any disrespect to Massachusetts voters by the simple expedient of pushing House progressives to pass the Senate bill as-is, with a promise to effect further reforms later this year (via reconciliation if necessary). If that fails, a bold, principled Obama could rock the GOP's world by immediately pushing a singlepayer plan through the budget reconciliation process -- which could be accomplished well before the November elections and re-establish Democrats as a party with the courage of its convictions -- after which Obama could negotiate with conservatives to replace that (to Republicans) intolerable law with a reasonable compromise, including a strong public option, that they would not dare to filibuster (because that would leave singlepayer in place) and that would not be subject to reconciliation's ten year sunset provision. (Mark Kleiman wrote brilliantly on that negotiating strategy here.)

Obama could even do what the GOP threatened to do three years ago by dispatching Joe Biden, as President of the Senate, to declare the filibuster unconstitutional and simply call a vote on any healthcare reform package that can win a simple 51 votes. That may seem crazy, and it may be overreaching, but as a lawyer who's examined both sides of the Constitutional argument, I've concluded that Kevin Drum arguably is right about this and that the "nuclear option" could be exercised -- or at least threatened -- in colorable good faith.

Most readers probably disagree with some or with all of these proposals. That's fine. The point is, bold options remain open to Obama. It's not too late.

But he's losing his window. His choice -- the direction his presidency, and his political soul, will take -- must be made soon. As he surveys the wreckage his party has made of Teddy Kennedy's legacy in Massachusetts, and embarks on his sophomore year as President, it's past time for Barack Obama to finally decide what sort of leader, and what sort of man, he chooses to be.

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