Friday, December 18, 2009

You've Got To Dance With the Ones That Brung You

Meteor Blades says what I've been thinking about this whole "who killed the bill" discussion. The people who are now being excoriated for not supporting the bill, such as it is, were not part of the strategy to get the bill in the first place. Obama's actual supporters were not polled about what they wanted in the bill. The Left, whoever she be, wasn't asked what should be in the bill. And the actual progressives in the House and the Senate were, at every turn, told to sit down and shut up and take a back seat to negotiations with the all important moderates and reactionaries. I imagine this happening daily in the halls of Congress:

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

That attitude towards your voters works fine if you can deliver, in the end, what they want--and if they can see that you delivered. It won't work if you deliver something whose benefits are far less than you promised, if the benefits aren't evident, if the benefits are too long delayed, or if you look like you didn't fight. Its this last point that really seems, to me, to be important. Fighting hard, or fighting ugly, isn't Obama's style. And I certainly never expected it to be. People were ticked that Lieberman was invited to the White House Channukah party? I wasn't. I expect Obama to always be gracious and civil--I'd expect it would also be a good time for Rahm and some of Obama's more liberal Jewish guests to take Lieberman into a back room and piss on his shoes and stick his head in the toilet. (And if you think they wouldn't I have some enraged senior Jewish Democratic Donors I could introduce you to). That's the essence of good cop/bad cop--if u r doin' it rite.

This attitude towards your voters works less well when you fail to give them some respect: you don't include them in your discussions, you don't ask them for their help with the parts of the bill they care about, you strip out the parts of the bill you promised, you act like its no big deal to sacrifice key constituents (women) to placate obviously deranged and dishonest Senators (no links, anyone who's been watching knows who I mean, and why). That's ok too--you didn't think you needed your voters during the run up to the bill and you think you won't need them again until 2010. Perhaps they'll come back around by then.

But all of a sudden, in the last crunch hours before the Senate does whatever the Senate needs to do to please Nelson, Lieberman, or Snowe the cry goes up--"Its the fault of the left that we couldn't get this great/not great/disasterous/totally necessary bill all the way through?" I know defeat is an orphan and all that but this feels more like defeat is a parricide, to me. This bill is so crucial, such a once in a multi generational shot that the Democrats went into it with no clear blueprint to success--no guarantee from their own membership that all cloture votes would be pro-forma? No serious attempt to take down the cloture rule? No one ever took Nelson into a backroom with a coathanger and a copy of the constitution and choked him on the necessity of keeping local Nebraska religious politics out of other women's medical care?

There's been a lot of talk about "candidate Obama" vs. "president Obama" and I think there are lots of differences, of course, between those two styles of leadership. To my mind the most important difference isn't the difference between someone who promises vs. someone who has to govern, or someone who can be irresponsible vs. someone who is responsible (which are the various ways this has been conceived) but between someone who grasps that he is only going to get over if he really seems to want what his base wants, and is seen as fighting for it and someone who starts to act like the base were just some crazy fans who, once they've bought their tickets, have no right to say whether they like the show or not. I know I'm mixing my metaphors, here, but just one wouldn't do.

Read the Plouffe interview and see that the amorphous but passionate movement of Obama voters and supporters--people who were encouraged to get together, share their stories, build their own networks, pursue money, votes, support, local initiatives, political office--was not only entirely shut down but that Plouffe thinks this is a good thing. The weak, watery, politics of the post election Obama campaign has produced a weak, watery, confused, popular response to this tragedy of a bill. There's really nothing surprising about it. Where the campaign Obama asked people to commit to getting something specific done: deciding on Obama, contacting voters, contacting legislators, fighting for the election the President Obama has told everyone to sit back and let the grownups handle things. They asked us to be disengaged--they told the left not to have opinions about Senators or Congressmen who were going to vote against the bill. They told us not to mix in by running ads. They asked us not to advocate for policies we wanted but to accept the compromises that their right wing counterparties demanded.

This is the exact opposite tack from the campaign Obama ran in which, famously, ordinary people unleashed a ton of creative energy just reworking the logo, or making their own youtube videos and songs, or contacting their neighbors, or holding fundraisers. Well, if you run in the opposite direction from your base you have to expect that, in the end, you will get a very different response from them. Either they will accept your dicta and remain passive and disengaged, or their passion and engagement are going to go in other directions. This is what has happened. Instead of being able to draw on passionate support, Obama is fighting a headwind of apathy, disappointment, and general distrust. That's not because he is losing the battle for the bill against Lieberman and Nelson--its because he has refused to include his supporters in his strategy to get the bill in the first place. Because people were told explicitly that their contributions were not wanted they are uninvolved and uninvested. If they had been involved, and invested, as the bill started to go south they would have still felt some ownership of it, and still felt some trust that Obama and the Senate would deliver something pretty good. But months of ham handed negotiations, closed door agreements, shaving and mutilation, and contemptuous lectures have really killed people's trust in the process and its architects. In many ways Obama would have been better off if he had explained at the start that this was such an uphill battle against entrenched and corrupt interests that we had very little hope of getting anything good.

To get people to invest in the bill you have to either write the bill they want to see, pass a pretty good bill, or have a really good fall guy when the bill fails. Obama's people, if not Obama (of course), have decided that the fall guy is going to be "the left" or the "voters" for failing to appreciate all that was going to be done for them. But just as we were not involved in the writing or the negotiating for this bill we are not to blame. Frankly, I think the concept of blame is absurd. Obama and his team wanted to pursue the bill a certain way, and they did exactly what they wanted to do. They refused all offers of outside help, or criticism, or suggestion. They own this bill and they own the mechanisms that allowed Lieberman, Nelson, and Snowe to hold it up and, perhaps, to kill it. Just as they chose to exclude the base from the construction of this bill, however, they now seem determined to conclude that somehow its the base's lack of faith that is preventing the bill from being passed. Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could be more dangerous for the Democratic party. If this bill goes down I hope Obama and the Dems wise up and grasp that the fall guy had better not be "the base" for its lack of faith--the fall guy has to be Lieberman, Nelson, Snowe and the entire Republican party. Because you can't run against your own voters in 2010 and hope to win.

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