There are many reasons why Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama. Self-inflicted wounds. Inferior ground game. “Epistemic closure.” The list goes on and on, and on.
But among them, as historians look back on the 2012 campaign, is the reporting of David Corn at Mother Jones. After everyone saw the video of the Republican candidate condescending to half of the U.S. electorate, “47 percent” became forever embedded in the American lexicon, and David Corn became David Corn, the Mitt-Killer.
So it was odd to see last week a hyperventilating headline from Mother Jones crafted to quicken the heartbeat of liberals still elated by Obama’s vanquishing of the existential threat. It read: “Revealed: The Massive New Liberal Plan to Remake American Politics.” For lefties who long ago accepted their fate in the wilderness, this seemed almost too good to be true.
Well, it is. Sorta. Let me explain.
Andy Kroll is the reporter, and he’s usually more restrained, but I guess he couldn’t contain his excitement. And really, who could blame him? For the first time in a long time, the leaders of labor unions, civil rights and environmental groups, and other progressive activists got together to think about the long-term political challengers they all share.
This is something of a novelty among left-of-center groups, who are renowned for their competing interests, conflicting agendas and otherwise good intentions that have trouble getting off the ground. And all of this is happening after an election and before they have a chance to be disappointed by the public servants they helped put in office.
So what happened?
Some of “the most powerful groups in liberal politics” were invited by the directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to a summit discussing ways to combat a conservative pro-corporate agenda built up over the past 40 years.
They met twice, last spring and in December, and organizers tell Kroll their number has grown to about 35 groups. They are pledging “millions of dollars and dozens of organizers to form a united front on these issues — potentially, a coalition of a kind rarely seen in liberal politics, where squabbling is common and a stay-in-your-lane attitude often prevails.”
What issues? They settled on three, Kroll writes: “getting big money out of politics, expanding the voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws, and rewriting Senate rules to curb the use of the filibuster.” A consensus emerged that none of the organizations can accomplish their respective goals if these overarching goals are not met.
The Sierra Club’s Michael Brune said he believes the Democracy Initiative, the chosen name of the coalition, will eventually have 50 or more groups. Kroll reports that people from the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Common Cause, Voto Latino, Demos, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, People for the American Way, National Wildlife Federation, the Center for American Progress, the United Auto Workers, Color of Change and others attended the December meeting.
Brune told Kroll, “This isn’t an optional activity for us. It is mission critical.”
This is good news, says democratic strategist Ed Kilgore. While campaign finance, voter suppression and the filibuster may seem irrelevant to the daily task of grassroots politics, they are critical to protecting a conservative establishment whose popular support is waning.
Voter ID laws are a no-brainer, Kilgore says. Same with filibuster reform, though time is running out. The most daunting task is money in politics not only because of Citizens United but because of other cases in which the Supreme Court ruled that money is the same as speech. All in all, Kilgore writes, this is an “encouraging” development, but honestly?
“[W]e’ve heard it before.”
Indeed, we have, which raises the question: Why did Mother Jones report this news so breathlessly? Kilgore isn’t alone in receiving the news rather blandly. So did “The Ed Show.” Producer Ned Resnikoff notes a reason to be a little skeptical. When liberals craft a grand strategy akin to that of movement conservatives, they aren’t playing to their strengths. They are playing an insider’s game when they are better at playing an outsider’s. Resnikoff says:
“National progressive organizations often miss the other side of the equation: the left’s biggest successes throughout American history have largely been the product of broad-based social movements. The civil rights movement of the sixties and the labor movement of the thirties certainly fought within the halls of power, but they’re most visible campaigns were fought in those areas of life not usually considered “political”: The workplace, the segregated diner, and so on.”
Democrats in sheep’s clothing
I’ll be honest and tell you what I thought when I first read the Mother Jones report. In revealing this thought I don’t mean to diminish the excitement of liberals who feel change is afoot. I just think that movement conservatism, which began in the late 1970s, has probably exhausted itself. Paul Krugman has said the end might have come as early as 2004 but to anyone nominally paying attention, 2012 felt like movement conservatism had come to a full stop.
If it’s true that movement conservatism has come to an end, then wouldn’t now be a good time to combat not only the vestiges of movement conservatism — the political and legal structures put in place to maintain power despite the weakening of its support among voters — but also those elements within the Democratic Party that long ago embraced movement conservatism in order to survive, and often thrive, during the years in which it dominated Washington?
For instance, we might all be enjoying the benefits of Medicare-for-all or some kind of public option to Medicare but for a handful of “Blue Dog Democrats” who said they didn’t believe government should get involved in health care. Yes, the filibuster worried Obama but remember, Democrats controlled the Senate in 2009. The problem was Democrats from a few rural western states making it impossible to get the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
I don’t mean to suggest we don’t need filibuster reform. We probably do. But by focusing on filibuster reform and not on changing the ideology of Democrats who make progressive action nearly impossible, the Democracy Initiative is focusing on the symptoms, not the disease.
‘Nuclear war on the left’
If the Democracy Initiative does choose to fight in the realm of electoral politics, a better way of doing it may be one suggested by Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Green has been one of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s willingness to entertain cuts to social insurance programs like Social Security. Green said recently that if Obama agrees to “entitlement” cuts in exchange for Republican agreement to raise the debt ceiling, there will a “nuclear war” on the left.
“If major Democrats publicly put that on the table there will be somewhat of a nuclear war on the left. We will probably have a fractured party for the next two years which will be to the detriment of this president — very unfortunate. And there would absolutely be Democratic primaries in the next round of Congressional elections.”
We usually hear this from Republicans, especially since 2010 when the tea party became a presence, but not from progressives. Green surely knows the risks of setting up primary challenges to mainstream Democrats who can beat radical tea party Republicans, but sometimes you win when you lose, and in the case of primaries, you might win by scaring the life out of mainstream Democrats who have learned to take you for granted.
Obama owes the political left
Let’s recall another reason why Obama beat Romney. The “Midwest firewall.” This was Obama’s fallback in case he lost Florida, Virginia or Ohio. As long as he held on to Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin, the president would have to lose all three to lose the race.
Labor unions, freed from the constraints of election law by none other than Citizens United, were able to knock on the doors of any household, not just a union household, and mount what they called the biggest get-out-the-vote drive in the history of presidential politics. Vote for Obama, they said, because he’ll create jobs and protect social insurance programs.
And then after winning, the president said he’d be willing to cut spending on Social Security and Medicare in negotiations with House Republicans over the so-called fiscal cliff.
Liberals are rightly relieved that Mitt Romney didn’t win, but it’s far from clear that a victory for Obama is a triumph for liberalism. And liberals are rightly excited by news that big lefty groups are getting together to think big and take big steps. But, as the tone of the Mother Jones article suggests, there may be too much attention paid to the opposition and not enough attention paid to allies. If Obama cuts social insurance programs, the bedrock of liberal governance, liberals will be forced to wonder: With friends like these, who needs enemies?