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?"

(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.
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.

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.

< Sen. Larry Craig: Idaho Statesman's 5 Month Investigation | Hsu's Lawyer Responds to WSJ's Smear Attempt on Hillary and Her Contributors >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    A really fun read (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by pontificator on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 09:55:20 AM EST
    I've finished reading "The Argument," and although I have some problems with some of its analysis and conclusions, I found it overall to be a really fun read.  It gives you a bird's eye view of the internal workings of: Moveon.org, DailyKos (through Markos's eyes), The Democracy Alliance, and the DNC at the time Howard Dean took it over.  And it provides some insightful character studies.  So, overall -- really fun and interesting book, with some conclusions that are erroneous (IMO).

    A fun read (none / 0) (#3)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 10:13:53 AM EST
    can also be a pernicious read.

    Frankly, I think a lot that has been coming from the book is very harmful and very wrong.

    I have written on it a fair but because it seems to misunderstand, as it has been described, almost everything the Netroots was about.


    Have you read the book itself? (none / 0) (#5)
    by pontificator on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 10:35:14 AM EST
    I can't tell whether you have read the book or have only read reviews of the book.

    I am reading the book now (none / 0) (#6)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:06:30 AM EST
    I am going to write a piece for the uardian about it.

    It will be interesting to compare your thoughts (none / 0) (#16)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:29:38 AM EST
    on the reviews of the book w/ the actual book.  

    I am interested as well (none / 0) (#18)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:30:33 AM EST
    But so far I think there is a "fun read" but not an accurate understanding of what is going on.

    Disclosure: I haven't read the book. (none / 0) (#19)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:31:30 AM EST
    But none of the reviews made me think it would be a "fun read."  

    What Chapter are you on? (none / 0) (#25)
    by pontificator on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 12:01:03 PM EST
    Some Chapters are better than others.  The best Chapters are the ones that document the behind-the-scenes-machinations of the movement-builders.  The ones that purport to characterize what it all means are weaker.

    I'll look forward to the Guardian review.


    I don't have a studied or even defiant (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 09:57:24 AM EST
    aversion to history.  Bill Clinton had an affair and a bl@w j@b that he lied about.  How did that affect my personal life?  Very damned little. My children still ate and received an education and I hugged them and loved them just as much before Bill's bl@w j@b as after it. Since everyone has character flaws how can I string the guy up or even remotely dislike him?  How can anyone who has ever participated in a bl@w j@b honestly give a rip?  He used the expansion of our economy into the internet age in positive ways, built an economic surplus that ushered in home ownership for many which is now being sunk like a stone by an administration who adores the CEO raping of the 401k's and looting the treasury which is forcing my U.S. dollars into a position of "worth less".  Bill Clinton did what he could with the time and resources he had and almost every American was better off when he left office than when he took office.  He managed policies that strengthened America's economy and pulled off an extremely successful American involved military endeavor at the same time.  Anybody in the oval office manage to do anything like that since FDR?  America had had twelve years of conservative idealogoy and administrations and she was in trouble for it too when he took office.  Bill Clinton fought an enormous war against a political army much better equipped than he was, but he did it and now the Democratic agenda can advance forward from there because America has not forgotten what living sanely felt like and how nice it was to not be freaked out every single day.  We all remember what it was to have some stability and be able to focus on and nurture a future for ALL AMERICANS!  So Bai can kiss my historian.......

    you know who FDR is? (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 10:14:15 AM EST

    The NYT has a letter to the editor (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by andgarden on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:17:26 AM EST
    from me on Michiko's review. I mention FDR too.

    Can't find your letter. (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:24:18 AM EST
    Oh, they HAVE IT (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by andgarden on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:25:02 AM EST
    I have no expectation that they'll publish it though.

    Oh (5.00 / 2) (#17)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:29:47 AM EST
    I thought it was published.

    Post it here.

    We can publish it.


    Ok, here's the text (5.00 / 2) (#21)
    by andgarden on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:35:45 AM EST
    To the Editor: Re "Democrats Face Online Diagnoses, but No Cure Yet" (Aug. 28):

    In her review, Ms. Kakutani reports uncritically Mr. Bai's assertion that "the way the netroots saw it, the more you knew about Democratic politics before 1998, the less relevant you actually were."

    To the contrary, the netroots is acutely aware of the importance of history. I have seen extensive essays published on Daily Kos and other sites discussing the relevance of everything from 19th century electoral politics, to Franklin Roosevelt's coalition strategy, to the political aptitude of Bill Clinton.

    Perhaps Ms. Kakutani ought to familiarize herself with the netroots more thoroughly before she next reviews a book on the subject.

    Very civil (none / 0) (#22)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:55:13 AM EST
    Surprised you will let endgarden claim to (none / 0) (#24)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 12:00:07 PM EST
    speak on behalf of "the netroots."  Kind of like who speaks on behalf of DK.  

    A diary demonstrating your assertion (none / 0) (#23)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:55:44 AM EST
    would be most welcome BTW.

    I could cross post it here.


    I should have some time this afternoon (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by andgarden on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 12:15:51 PM EST
    I will try to remain civil, of course.

    update (none / 0) (#29)
    by andgarden on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 05:20:02 PM EST
    Diary by andgarden on Daily Kos: (none / 0) (#30)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 05:29:09 PM EST
    Matt Bai, Michiko Kakutani, and the Netroots

    pout, no linky YET! (none / 0) (#13)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:26:38 AM EST
    Artfully worded. Would you like us (none / 0) (#14)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:27:14 AM EST
    send e-mails urging publication?

    Yeah andgarden, linky if there is one (none / 0) (#11)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:25:37 AM EST
    I want to read your letter too.

    Great minds ;) (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:24:36 AM EST
    I figured your next comment would include a (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:25:48 AM EST
    complete history of the U.S., including quotes from The Federalist Papers.

    I would but , well, I have to clean (5.00 / 2) (#20)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:33:41 AM EST
    dog kennels and errrrr eye appointment and ummmmm I need to check my email.  Both of my grandparents were FDR democrats and my grandmother one of the first female party leaders in El Paso Co so I've been coached a bit.  I'm not the historian of the family, my beautiful daughter soon to be mother is though.  Honors history and all that, she has more history smarts than me, bucket loads.

    Congrats! (none / 0) (#15)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 11:29:17 AM EST
    Very interesting post, by the way. (none / 0) (#26)
    by oculus on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 12:01:31 PM EST
    It has never made sense to me that so many, at least on DK, disavow the entire Clinton administration.  

    Knee jerk (none / 0) (#27)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 12:05:56 PM EST
    But the A-List was not rejecting Clinton for the 90s, but "for the 21st Century."

    Very thought provoking (none / 0) (#31)
    by Maryb2004 on Tue Aug 28, 2007 at 07:37:22 PM EST
    And you're right.  

    I truly thought that after the 2006 elections everyone would switch to discussing policy for at least a while.  I didn't forsee that the entire netroots would slip into perpetual election mode.  I know you are primarily focused on Iraq, since it's the biggest immediate issue facing us, but I'm thinking broader than that.

    This description of yours about the two part question facing us:

    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.

    I think you're right, that most of the netroots would answer the first question "yes".  But I wonder if they aren't worried that the answer is really "no".  Because the only way to really answer the question is to talk about and define what a substantively progressive agenda really is.   And that opens up a whole can of worms.  I wonder if, by jumping into elections and just assuming that we all agree on what a substantively progressive agenda is, they aren't simply acknowledging that nobody really IS sure about the first question.  Going to elections is a way of avoiding the reality of the first question.

    That's why your point about them not focusing on Iraq policy in the here and now is very valid.  Iraq is the one thing that almost everyone has agreed on in the netroots since day one.  They don't' have to ask themselves the hard questions about what they really want. Or at least they shouldn't have to.

    This made me think about that Peter Beinart article you linked to the other day.  I didn't completely buy into his theory on the effect of the fall of communism on liberalism, since I don't think anyone but strict academics have seen communism as an alternative system in years and I think that revolutionary rhetoric has sounded absurd to the average left leaning person for almost the same number of years.  But it was thought provoking in the sense that a "progressive agenda" isn't embodied in some other political system that we can just adopt. And that means any discussion of it is going to be messy.  Don't know if that made sense - thinking aloud.