Yesterday, Dan’s excellent collection of links included one post in particular that caught my eye for its perfect summation of Obama’s political failure, from Mike Konczal at Rortybomb, “Biggest Surprise of Last Two Years: Bad at Losing:”
I expected Obama to be a better loser, specifically to be better at losing. There were a lot of items on the table, a lot of them weren’t going to happen, but it was important for the new future of liberalism that the Obama team lost them well. And that hasn’t happened.
By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.
I think this statement perfectly captures the essence of Obama’s political failure and deep disappointment of his base. It includes, but goes far beyond, his failure to really fight for anything, as well as his habit of giving away the store in advance, both of which have been cited countless times. And it’s this more comprehensive view that really gets to the heart of the matter, because it’s both about long-term movement-building and the immediate experience of politics. Because building for the long-run is what makes a movement, and while Obama created the feeling of a movement during his campaign, it’s the actual experience of being part of a real movement that makes the immediate experience of politics rich and rewarding enough to draw in the people who will make the long-term movement possible.
To make his argument concrete, Konczal used the example of immigration–a key issue in the long-term building of a Democratic majority that has Latinos as a key component:
Here’s my major memory of the Obama on immigration:
Whenever Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and other immigrant-rights advocates asked President Obama how a Democratic administration could preside over the greatest number of deportations in any two-year period in the nation’s history, Obama’s answer was always the same.
Deporting almost 800,000 illegal immigrants might antagonize some Democrats and Latino voters, Obama’s skeptical supporters said the president told them, but stepped-up enforcement was the only way to buy credibility with Republicans and generate bipartisan support for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
On Saturday, that strategy was in ruins after Senate Democrats could muster only 55 votes in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act…
This is losing poorly. It makes major concessions without getting anything in return, conceding both pieces of flesh and the larger narrative to the other side. This unnecessarily splits those who support the Democrats on whether or not to support these action. It doesn’t name the opponents of the effort to figure out ways of deploying pressure to change things. Without an obvious fight it’s not signaled that it was a priority. And the ultimate problem is that it doesn’t leave the coalition in better shape for the next battle.
Exactly! And Konczal goes on to point out, it was typical of how a whole host of issues were handled….
It wasn’t just that Obama failed to engage the millions who were on his campaign email list, as chief campaign blogger Sam Graham-Felsen, recently called attention to, Konczal says:
I’d go further and ask where are the newer and/or stronger liberal groups that have emerged in the past two years? So many seem demoralized and confused and few new ones seem to exist at all, which is disturbing given the volume of people Democrats had in Congress going into this session.
He goes on to note that whatever your view of Obama and his politics
Regardless of where the Democrats want to go they need people and institutions to help them get there, and it’s not clear that we are any closer to getting those in place.
He quotes briefly from Ziad Munson’s ethnography of the Pro-Life movement, “mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion.” and adds:
Politics is a process, and a person’s political habitus is created by engagement in institutions based on their views that in turn change those views and push on the institutions themselves. If we want a dominate liberalism, institutions to engage people need to be grown and nurtured.
It’s a very compelling piece, not least because his case can’t simply be dismissed as “professional left” “purism”. The point the makes applies regardless of what you think the content of Democratic Party ideology should be, as long as you think it should be something different from Republican Party ideology.
And here, I think is where we finally get down to the nub of things. Because the ultimate reason that Obama seems to be so bad at losing is that he doesn’t want to fight in the first place. As K said toward the beginning of his piece:
By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers.
But does anyone really think that Obama has had any desire to “[take] a pound of flesh from [his] opponents and [leave] them with the blame”? Sure, on occasion he’s shown flashes of wanting to “[convince] those on the fence that it is an important issue for which [he had] the answers”, but they were only flashes, and they quickly faded from view, seeming all the less credible for having actually been stated out loud, and then abandoned.
These are not the actions of a man who wants to fight for anything. They are the actions of a man who wants to be the great conciliator, bringing together all sides, transcending all differences. The actions of a man who would be King, not President. Over and over again Obama has expressed his desire for bipartisanship almost as religious faith, and by now we ought to finally take him seriously.
This is why Obama’s politics are not the same thing as Bill Clinton’s–even when Clinton was in his famous “triangulation” mode. When all was said and done, Clinton really was a fighter, he knew the Republicans were his enemy, and he wanted to make the Democratic Party stronger–even though the evidence is pretty darned overwhelming that he weakened it instead:
Clinton’s moves to the right often were corporate friendly, of course. There is continuity between Clinton and Obama, expressed in their shared neo-liberalism. But there are important differences as well. And this can be seen in another aspect of Clinton’s moves to the right–they were almost always intended to capture the center and deny it to the right, to leave them either sputtering with rage, or playing “me too” with him, whereas Obama’s aim is to share the center with the right in a triump of “bipartisanship”–and to exclude the “professional left”, which as Konczal explains, actually means the party’s activist base and associated organizations.
I believe that Konczal has hit the nail on the head, so far as Obama’s political failures of his first two years are concerned. But I also believe it’s about to get much, much worse, precisely because of Konczal’s analysis. Anyone who could be as heedless of his party’s long-term health and political destiny as Barack Obama has been in his first two years could very well take on the dismantling of the American welfare state–his party’s signature achievement of the past 75+ years–and see that task as his own personal legacy. After all, if he could succeed at that, could he not become the first 100% business-friendly Democratic President since Grover Cleveland? And wouldn’t that finally make his dream of bipartisan bliss a reality?
Well, no, not exactly. It’s far more likely to lead to decades of one-party GOP rule. But fighting our way back from that abyss is going to be a lot harder this time around without the natural dynamism of a growing newly-industrialized economy at our backs.
As my last diary of the year, I’m tempted to end by wishing everyone a “Happy New Year!” And on a personal level, I whole-heartedly do. But politically, particularly in light of what I’ve just written, it seems utterly foolish to say, “Happy New Year!” The words would barely be formed before my inner ear would hear the voice of Chief Wiggums saying, “Yeah, what are the chances of that?”
And so, instead, I leave you with the wisdom of the I Ching: “Perseverance furthers.”