Bringing Knives to a Gunfight: What Progressives Need to Take from the Election
When I woke up Wednesday morning, I didn’t know if I’d finally be able to let out that long-held breath or pack my bags and move to an enlightened country like, say, Zimbabwe. It turns out, from my perspective, that while things were bad, they were only pretty bad, not awful bad. This election is a cautionary tale, rich with warning, questions, lessons and opportunity.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. (paraphrase of Newton’s 3rd law of motion)
I found it impossible not to remember another recent November evening when I was also breathless… with joy. McCain was defeated (and, silly me, I assumed Palin would retreat into obscurity or at least the Alaskan tundra). My state of New Hampshire turned cobalt, with Democrats winning both House seats, the open Senate seat and the governorship. And, of course, shining like a supernova in the political firmament was Obama. O Barack! His election was the Red Sox World Championship, a miracle cure for cancer, every shelter animal adopted, and limitless clean energy rolled into one thrilling package. After eight years of unprecedented Bush/Cheney policies – preemptive war, torture and rendition, tax cuts for the richest, tax breaks for overseas corporate jobs, institutionalized corruption, reckless deficits, and on and on – Obama seemed the epitome of progress. It was like realizing that the bumbling, bullying, adolescent American persona had suddenly grown up into a wise and decent human being.
I hadn’t anticipated the vitriolic fear – or was it fearful vitriol? – that Obama’s election engendered or the cynicism with which that fear was exploited, by Tea Party ideologues and GOP pragmatists. Not to mention – oh no – Fox News opportunists. Quickly it became stupefying clear that their rhetoric’s toxic fumes of racism, religious intolerance, allegiance to Big Money and sheer ignorance were successful in obscuring the profound challenges and remarkable accomplishments of Obama’s young presidency. Think about it: when was another new president faced with such a panoply of crises: financial meltdown, regrouping terrorists, environmental catastrophe, to name just a few? And when has a new president, faced with an intractable opposition who would have accused him of kidnapping had he pulled a child from a burning building, counted among his achievements such major initiatives as health care and financial institution reform? But instead of owning the debate, progressives – and Obama — dithered while GOP pundits and Tea Party grunts appropriated the narrative.
“It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument.” (William Gibbs McAdoo)
I believe that Obama’s major mistake was in assuming that the national argument would unfold in a context of reasoned deliberation and with at least lip service to the integrity putting the country’s wellbeing ahead of partisan allegiance. He must have believed that the mandate of his election was to advocate compromise, to unite the country by moving toward the center which conventional wisdom would say most reflects the hearts and minds of the majority. In my view, he made two major miscalculations: that he could transcend the labels of his personal symbolism (African American! Kenyan! Muslim! Icon! Imposter! Inspiration! Terrorist! Savior! Socialist!) and that his progressive base would not feel betrayed by this rightward shift and rise, energetically, to support his programs even if they were more muted than they might like. I don’t believe he understood, after eight long years of Bush/Cheney and the bitter election contest, how little fight many of us had left in us.
Also, for someone who managed a brilliant campaign and won the presidency despite major handicaps of race, name, Clinton opposition, and inexperience, Obama has been unexpectedly inept at selling his agenda. As I noted earlier, he allowed the narrative to be co-opted. His eloquence failed when it came to countering the fear-merchants’ tactics – like trying to talk sense to a stone wall. In this current climate, sound bytes prevail over argument every time (until it comes to actually implementing policy) and sometimes you have to call it like you see it, such as telling the woman who famously demanded that government stay out of her Medicare that she’s a blithering idiot. Most of all, he didn’t get mad when he should have, when it would have been righteous. Cool is good, most of the time. But anger can be energy and Obama needed to be passionate in defense, of himself and his vision.
“To fail to take the battle to the enemy when your back is to the wall is to perish.” (Sun-tzu)
I daresay that this is not where any of us thought we’d be two years ago. Progressives imagined the country holding hands as we skipped across that shining bridge to tomorrow (well, some of us also salivated at the prospect of Republicans on life support). GOP apologists dreamed of a resurgent party and a take-back of the whole Congress. Tea Party fanatics figured that promoting conspiracy theories of communism and Sharia law would scare the hell out of everybody. It’s slightly reassuring to know that there was just about nobody who wasn’t disappointed.
At the moment, dark days for progressives would seem to lie ahead. The Republican majority in the House nearly guarantees gridlock. Obama has been characterized as “diminished” and a post-election poll has him losing in 2012 to any of a handful of mainstream Republican candidates. While Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell didn’t win their races, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio did.
That said, within the bleakness are glimmers of opportunity. Yes, Obama got creamed but for the majority party to lose seats in midterm elections is not unprecedented and is almost inevitable when the economy is struggling – even conservative idol Ronald Reagan experienced this woe. Obama is a very, very bright guy and I have great hope that he’ll figure out how to use his natural gifts – his intelligence, charisma and eloquence – in service of retaking the narrative lead.
Republicans now can no longer sit on the sideline and nay-say: they need to prove that their conservative agenda can actually work. As Frank Rich notes in a recent New York Times article, Republicans remain inexorably entwined with big business interests and deeply invested in the status quo: these hypocrisies – of money v. principle – are now squarely in the spotlight.
Finally, Tea Party elect-ees face the daunting challenge of not betraying the extremely narrow view of government that got them into office and yet not becoming completely marginalized. Many have said that they plan to vote with the GOP but they won’t be able to shift Republicans to their far right agendas, and what if, in the age-old way of politics, with its backroom dealings and quid pro quo, they are faced with the necessity of compromise? How will that sit with the Tea Party ignorati?
At a party last night, I met an interesting guy, Peter Brigham, with a provocative idea. He thinks Obama should announce that he’s going to be a one-term president and for the next two years will pull out all the stops in getting his prize programs through congress. Brigham thinks that would remove the Obama reelection as a Republican rallying cry and force the Republicans to do something – or not. He said, “Obama could say that he ran to change the landscape of politics as usual – and this would do it.” I’m intrigued, but I don’t agree. We haven’t yet witnessed what Obama, if he can recapture his mojo and get on top of his game, could accomplish.
I think it’s time that those of us who not only believe in progressive values but believe those values are the salvation of the future stop taking knives to a gunfight. While I don’t want to turn into any iteration of “them,” I believe we need to embrace our inner warriors and take the battle to the enemy. We can still reclaim the vision of economic and social justice, prosperity through innovation, moral leadership, and responsible environmentalism that Obama embodied – it’s a promise worth fighting for.