Posted by: JanF | July 12, 2011

Pragmatically Progressive

Today’s post is my 220 cents. Normally it would be just my 2 cents but over the past few days, I definitely have opinion inflation.

The ongoing debt ceiling negotiation has exposed a potential enthusiasm gap in the Democratic party and one that we absolutely cannot afford to have going into important elections in 2011 and 2012.

The 10-minute news cycle has all of us shell shocked and for every rumor there is an offsetting counter-rumor and very often an upsetting diatribe or two or three followed by lines in the sand and sand in our eyes. Even those of us who are seasoned news hounds have found it hard to put on a happy face reading about the negotiations and the glass is half empty as often as it is half full.

First, I want to point out that not everyone who disagrees with President Obama is an unrehabilitatable frustrated liberal. Probably no one is 100% happy with the Obama presidency, probably not even Barack Obama.

Keep in mind, however that the reaction from the left is on a continuum and I would hope that every liberal Democrat is at least willing to acknowledge that we need to work together to create the country we envision. Progressives are all about progress and our hardest job is remembering that when we have to take two steps backwards after we just went three steps forward, we are still better off than when we started. It just doesn’t seem that way some days.

I see the left/liberal continuum like this:

1. People who have Gone Hamsher. I am not even sure anymore that these are Democrats because there is quite literally nothing that President Obama could do to make them happy. Even if he dropped all his current initiatives and immediately acquiesced to everything they wanted, the GH faction would not be happy because President Obama is not Hillary Clinton. Many of them are actively trying to find a primary challenger for President Obama from the left, a strategy that seriously damaged the party’s prospects in 1980.

2. The Frustrated Ones. These people call themselves progressives but they are often not realistic about what is possible. They thought Obama sold out by not going for single payer even though it was impossible. They thought Obama sold out in December 2010 by giving in to the Bush tax cuts even though the tradeoff was twofold: unemployment benefits extension, which was not going to happen on its own, packaged with new tax cuts for the working class and middle class and a reduction in the toxicity of the Senate that allowed some pretty amazing lame duck measures to get passed. These people want a Dennis Kucinich-like Democrat to be president and will not give up until they get someone whose policies reflect theirs 100% (which unfortunately for them, reflects only less than 14% of the country). They want purity and are willing to subvehiculate the president and the party to get it. They would rather lose an election than compromise.

3. Pragmatic Progressives. I count myself in this group so it will naturally sound very attractive as I describe it. Pragmatic progressives are those who can see that two steps forward one back, three steps forward three back, two steps forward one back is still a net gain of two steps forward. It is hard to be a pragmatic progressive because we see so much that needs to be fixed but we also realize that complaining about our lack of progress is not going to make us progress: we have to work to take some more steps forward. Some of these steps forward are for changes that we as a party have been working toward for decades, to undo the effects of 30 years of conservative control of our government and usher in what we hope will be 30 years (or more) of governments that care about people.

4. The President as Super Hero. The people in this group do not want to discuss any flaws in President Obama or his administration and see anyone who criticizes him as a traitor, wanting Michele Bachmann to become president and/or getting their talking points from [fill in name of left leaning blog site here]. They feel that the best way to achieve change is to ignore any flaws and highlight only the positive parts of the Obama presidency.

Category 4 liberals may be as destructive in their own way as category 1 liberals because you cannot talk to real people in the real world if you believe that your candidate is unflawed. You need to recognize his limitations, acknowledge where there have been mistakes and suggest that he is on the right PATH if not completely on the right SOLUTION.

To the extent that we find ourselves being a blend of 2 and 3, a complete and unequivocal 3 or a blend of 3 and 4, I think we can all work together to achieve something pretty special. When we attack each other, we lose more than a sense of community: we lose the ability to help our party and our country.

Building coalitions

We have nothing to offer to those who will never be happy that Barack Obama is president. However we can do two things to help the rest of our coalition.

First, we can make sure that Pragmatic Progressives do not become Disillusioned Dropouts. We do this by helping each other get past the day to day frustrations. Just like we lived through the crafting of the imperfect Affordable Care Act and the roller-coaster that process put us on, we can live through the debt ceiling negotiations and the necessary work we need to do to shore up our safety nets and survive the worst that the 112th Congress has for us (it will get worse).

Second, as I was considering my own frustration, I realized that the difference between Pragmatic Progressives, The Frustrated Ones and Disillusioned Dropouts is matter of intensity.

Take the battle over Single Payer.

The Frustrated Ones saw the failure of single payer as a personal failure by President Obama. The argument was that he should have just “given us” single payer and staked his presidency on it. In reality, it could never have passed the 111th Congress.

I suspect that if these folks had seen the original Social Security Act or the original Medicare Act or the original Voters Rights Act or any of the “foot in the door” pieces of legislation that were passed from 1932 through 1968, they would have hated those as well. To them, “foot in the door” is caving. If the door cannot be opened all the way, then it should be slammed shut. That reasoning is short-sighted and bad for our country.

However, I personally wanted single payer and thought Medicare for All was the best long term solution for our country’s descent into medical bankruptcy. The difference is that after reading and learning and discussing, I was willing to see that it was not possible and that staking a presidency on a lost cause simply loses the cause and risks the presidency.

“Them” is “Us”

We still need to push back against the “if Democrats lose this election it will teach them a lesson” meme. No, it will teach “them” nothing … “them” is us … and the lesson should be that one lost election can seriously damage our country. We are seeing that the 2010 election may do even more damage as we seem poised to plunge into another huge recession. If President Obama is re-elected but has to spend his next term fixing the mess that the 112th Congress made by fiddling while our country burned then we make no progress and that becomes the two steps back instead of the two steps forward that we hoped for. Those lost steps mean another generation without some important protection, or even our cities literally underwater because we can’t address climate change or sustainable energy. The old saying that you can’t drain the swamp when the alligators are gnawing at your legs is true. There will be no swamp draining in Obama’s second term if we have a double dip recession. There will simply be a lot of pain.

We need to be kind to each other, to respect each others frustrations and points of view. It is going to be difficult enough to do what we absolutely have to do as Democrats in the next 14 months.

Let’s do it together.


(A version of this was originally posted on 07/12/2011 at BPI Campus)

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