JONATHAN CHAIT SEPTEMBER 10, 2010
A few days ago I wrote about the bizarre sense of disappointment among liberals with the Obama administration, which has rung up the most impressive list of progressive domestic achievements since the Johnson administration. A reader who would like to withhold his name for professional reasons has a thoughtful reply. I'm posting it here, with my own thoughts hopefully to follow next week:
What I found frustrating was the claim that the "sheer sullenness of the liberal base does seem to be avoidable and puzzling," which echoes the views Allen & VandeHei attribute this a.m. to the Obama WH: " Obama aides are mystified and irritated by how ungrateful the progressive base has been with its constant carping about Obama in the face of the most far-reaching legislative accomplishments since FDR."
There are many possible responses, but rather than re-litigate the entirety of the past two complex years, I offer just two:
1. First, it is unquestionably true that Obama was inaugurated into enormously difficult circumstances -- two wars, a massive economic crisis that legitimately threatened to grow into a full-blown Depression, as well as an executive branch hollowed out by 8 years of Bush-Cheney.
And given those circumstances, it is fair (even if I disagree) to argue that it was hard for Obama to accomplish more than what he did, which was 2 B-, more corporate lobbyist accommodating than ideal versions of of the five key elements of the progressive agenda (climate change/clean energy, universal healthcare, banking reform, immigration reform, and EFCA).
[Sadly, he also gave rise to the new CW that the other three items are dead for the foreseeable future.]
Bigger picture, however, is that those goals would have energized the modern left much more if there was a sense that Obama was acting upon an appreciation that the modern GOP is an extreme and irresponsible gang of bullies that needs to be fought hard.
For the modern left, there are 3 seminal events in which Establishment Dems (e.g.,Joe Lieberman) let them down by not fighting hard -- impeachment, Florida recount, and the Iraq War. The left's takeaway is the need for leaders who recognize the truth about the GOP and fight hard based on that recognition. If Obama's postpartisan efforts had yielded greater legislative success (e.g., the abilty to get appointments through in a reasonable manner, at least modest progress on more of the key agenda items, etc...) or political returns, maybe the base would be less "sullen" about Obama's refusal to offer partisan raw meat. But instead, we have a presidency that has had no strategy to combat the GOP's predictable filibuster and obstruct agenda, which has managed to put the GOP on the verge of a massive electoral win without a single new idea or, frankly, the GOP even improving their brand at all. #EpicFail
At times people like Jim Webb and other non-lefties have had lefty enthusiasts because they embodied the tenor the left seeks, even if not every agenda item. Obama's literal unwillingness to publicly say the words "Bush" or "Republican" in 2009 is indicative of the absence of a national message that would engage Dems.
I think there will be minimal consequences to this turnout-wise bc, as I'll slightly expand on below, I think the fixation on turnout is mistake of both some of my peers on the left as well as more centrist Dems such as yourself. But fundraising, volunteering, tenor, attitude? Enormously consequential. Obama hasn't been partisan, so why should he expect to readily rally partisans?
2. And by focusing on NBC/WSJ turnout modelling, there is some cherry picking at work. Consider:
"At FiveThirtyEight, we’ve found that the gap between registered and likely voter polls this year is about 4 points in the Republicans’ favor" (link)
There is a lot of other evidence out there that GOP turnout is going to be at its highest level ever in modern midterms politics, and I bet Dem turnout will matches 2006 and exceeds 1990, 1994, 1998, and 2002. I bet the identifiable activists of the left -- labor, the Netroots -- will turnout in great numbers and donate to progressive heroes in significant chunks as well.
But Democratic turnout always lags the GOP in midterms -- Democrats *always* do better among registered than likely voters in a midterm. And the gap 538 found stroikes me as perfectly consistent with history.
If Dem turnout is strong by historical midterm standards, which with hard work is likely, then I think we should be focusing on persuasion.
As Charlie Cook wrote today, "Independents voted for congressional Democrats by 18 points in 2006 but by 8 points in 2008. Anecdotal evidence followed by polling data began suggesting problems for Democrats, and it culminated in gubernatorial losses in New Jersey and Virginia last November and the loss of the late Edward Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in January. [. . .] In recent months, the national data reflecting a reversal of the 2006 and 2008 trends -- namely, independent voters swinging strongly toward Republicans and a strong partisan enthusiasm gap favoring Republicans -- began arguing that Republicans were in line to win a majority in the House with significant gains in the Senate."
To me, it is clear that the issue is anger by Independents -- as you note, Obama has tried to govern as a centrist, and that has failed to convince anyone, because the anger of Independents is not coherent ideogolgy but a frustration that Obama's Washington is not working for them. Populist anger started with the bailouts, and the failure of Obama to identify the villains behind the economic collapse (Bush & the banks) and hammer away at a coherent narrative for the past 18 months has left angry people no home but the GOP. A Democratic agenda that speaks to the understandable anger of Independents needn't be conservative to be timely or persuasive.