Brownstein on the Netroots and Matt Bai
In The American Prospect, Ron Brownstein reviews Matt Bai's book on the Democratic Party and the battles ongoing within it - battles on policies and political strategy. Brownstein is a very good reporter and observer, but it seems to me he accepts some conclusions that are faulty. In particular, he often mixes what was (at least I thought it WAS) a good understanding in the Democratic base and the Netroots that policy is beholden to politics. You can't enact a progressive agenda unless you can elect progressive representatives. Brownstein reserves that understanding to the "savvy" like himself:
Bai's plea for a more ambitious, transformative Democratic agenda, also seems disconnected in another key respect. Visionary ideas detached from a strategy to move them into law are like balloons without strings. (As John F. Kennedy once put it when an aide urged him to promote a policy he knew he could not pass through Congress, "That's vanity … not politics.")
I can't imagine there are many thinking persons who care about politics that do not understand this. The Argument, as it were, in the Democratic Party, has been two fold - whether a substantively progressive agenda can be enacted in the United States; and how to get such an agenda enacted. Most in the Netroots (me included) believe that it can but that it must occur through the Democratic Party. That means transforming the Democratic Party - most particularly in its political strategy and style. More.
I think this focus on strategy often confuses political reporters and here Brownstein misunderstands some of the critique of the DLC and the Bill Clinton Presidency. Brownstein writes:
Bai accepts the bloggers' cartoon version of Clinton's presidency. Although he doesn't fully identify with the sentiment himself, Bai sympathetically quotes liberal critics who argue that Clinton "had stripped the party of its moral authority, and … brought the country itself to the edge of ruin.
This may be the version of some bloggers, but I can not believe it represents the consensus view of the Clinton Presidency amongst the Netroots. At least for me, given the political climate, Bill Clinton was the greatest politician of his generation and the Clinton Presidency was an absolutely necessary precursor to to a Democratic rejuvenation that is possible today. Clinton reestablished Democratic bona fides for executive governance of the nation. In addition, Bill Clinton, in the post 1994 period, also presaged the Fighting partisan Democrat that has become the ideal of the new Democratic activist. Bill Clinton fought well against a hostile Congress and political environment and was able to hold the line in defense of core liberal programs like Social Security and affirmative action. He practiced a politics of constrast and negative branding that allowed him to push through some parts of his agenda and to stymie the radical agenda of the Newt Gingrich Republicans.
The question today, as I posed here is:
'[D]oes Clinton think his Third Way/New Democrat approach, that worked so well for him (did it work for the Dem Party?) in the 90s (of course since he is the best politician of his generation it is not clear that using of other approaches would not have worked for him) is the right political approach in today's hyperpartisan age of Bush Republicanism?'.
I think Clinton understands we are in a different political climate now. Judging from Hillary Clinton's campaign (and it is amazing that those in the blogs who react so virulently against her can point to almost nothing she has done in ths campaign to explain their disdain), it seems clear that the Clintons recognize the change in political climate and the opportunity for a progressive agenda.
Brownstein and Bai also appear to misunderstand Netroots pragmatism in support of less progressive Democrats in certain regions. I believe the Netroots understnads implicitly the concept I call political space time curvature:
I would like to expand on this idea, incorporating "political space-time curvature." Let's recall T&H's 5 postulates:(1) The starting point for all political organizing and campaigns should be: "What are my core beliefs and principles and how do I best explain them to supporters and skeptics alike?"As general themes and principles, these postulates can be applied in every region of the nation. But they will not lead to uniform specific issue positions for Democrats everywhere. The political gravity or, "political space time curvature" in Nebraska or Mississippi is different from that in say, Rhode Island. But the progressive or Democratic position in each of these locations can clearly be discerned and is the position for Democrats to follow in each of them.
(2) Every political battle, both proactive and defensive, should represent a basic statement of progressive character and present a clear, concise contrast with conservatives. Do not blur lines.
(3) All issue campaigns and agenda items are not equal. Progressives should focus their efforts on issues that can simultaneously strengthen the base and appeal to centrist voters. Progressives must be willing to make sacrifices and tradeoffs -- in terms of coalition building and budgetary concerns -- to achieve their most important agenda items.
(4) Escalate battles that expose the extremism of the right or splinter their coalition. [Follow-up: When confronted with the right's social, cultural, or national security agenda, the absolute worst response is to fail to combat these caricatures or to explain one's position directly to voters, regardless of the popularity of the position.](5) Every political action should highlight three essential progressive attributes: a clear stand on the side of those who lack power, wealth or influence; a deep commitment to the common good; and a strong belief in fairness and opportunity for all.
Indeed, to me Brownstein and Bai entirely miss what has become the biggest problem the Netroots current has - its inability to bring itself out of "horserace" mode and to learn how to pressure Democrats while simultaneously working for expanding progressive Democratic majority. I have written about this before, most recently here:
MoveOn and many of the leading left-wing blogs have become nothing but appendages of the Democratic party - defending every initiative, no matter how wrong-headed, cowardly and obviously ineffective. And since the Iraq supplemental fight, where the netroots did such a horrible job, the discussions of what congress should do to end the Iraq debacle are practically nonexistent in the leading left blogs. They have seemed intent on confirming Bai's view that the netroots are more interested in being kingmakers than in dealing with the issues. A review of the leading Left blogs shows very little coverage of Iraq issues and what congress should be doing. Instead, they are obsessed with 2008 presidential horserace blogging.
Fighting on issues has become the Netroots' Achilles heel. The change from horserace to fighting for issues has become extremely difficult for it. This should concern us all.
One last point about the Brownstein and Bai views really does peeve me, as someone who invokes and has written about Abraham Lincoln, Jacksonian levelling, Richard Hofstadter, FDR, the New Deal, the Taney Court, Chief Justice John Marshall and various other important historical events, this part from Brownstein is truly galling:
Bai is also keenly aware of the movement's limitations, such as a studied, even defiant, aversion to history. To most bloggers, he writes, anything that had occurred before Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998 "felt as ancient … as the underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War, and about as useful."
I do not think this is true for most or even a few bloggers. I think Bai and Brownstein do not understand what the arguments have been about when they write that. It really mars everything else they write for me.
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