Blaming the Left

by Randy Shaw on January 20, 2010

Long before the early results showed that Martha Coakley was in trouble, the media was blaming progressives for her defeat. Once again, reporters and pundits argued, the Democrats alienated voters by moving too far left. Forget that activists predicted that Obama’s caution would dispirit his electoral base. Forget Rahm Emanuel’s declaration that the left has no base, and can be ignored. Forget Obama’s failure to transform a massive campaign organizing staff into a grassroots army for change, and his preventing his “Organizing for America,” from targeting wavering Democrats.

The Democratic Party is facing a voter revolt because it once again allowed its corporate wing to set its agenda. And while the media blames the left — see its framing strategy below — Obama and the Democrats either implement a progressive agenda and shape the midterm elections around populist themes, or face further electoral “upsets” in November.

Since George McGovern’s landslide defeat in the 1972 Presidential election, the media routinely accuses Democrats of losing voters by moving too far to the left. Martha Coakley’s problems in Massachusetts revived such charges, which persist despite the left’s lacking any real power in the Obama Administration, or its absence from key presidential policy positions since the pre-1968 Johnson Administration.

The Blame Game at the Times

In a front page headline article in the Sunday January 17 New York Times, reporter Adam Nagourney offers a case study of the false arguments used to blame the left for Democrats’ political troubles.

Nagourney begins by finding a Democrat to echo, promote and reaffirm this “left is to blame” message. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh frequently plays this role, and in this case tells Nagourney, “I do think there’s a chance that Congressional elites mistook their mandate. I don’t think the American people last year voted for higher taxes, higher deficits and a more intrusive government. But there’s a perception that that is what they are getting.”

By “elites,” I assume Bayh is including Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, whose lengthy deference to Republican Senators and conservative Democrats like Bayh is largely responsible for public anger over the slow pace of health care reform. I’ve heard Reid called a lot of names, but never “progressive” or “left.”

The second part of Bayh’s quote sounds like it came from the Tea Party. Bayh knows that the health care bill will lower, rather than increase spending and deficits, yet spews the false Republican talking point on this critical issue.

Since Bayh’s quotes fit his “blame the left” thesis, Nagourney never questions Bayh about his flawed assumptions. Instead, he predictably concludes, “Still, some Democrats are wondering if Mr. Obama would be in a better position now if he had embraced a less ambitious health care proposal, as some aides urged, permitting him to pivot more quickly on the economy.”

A “less ambitious” health care proposal? Is he kidding? No public option, no Medicare buy-in, an excise tax on middle-class families instead of an income tax hike on millionaires — one year ago, activists could not have imagined such a weak final health bill.

And I hope the Times’ Public Editor examines Nagourney’s reliance on the anonymous “some Democrats” to support his chief conclusion. Since we know that such corporate Democrats as Senators Bayh, Nelson, or Lincoln, or perhaps the Congressional Blue Dogs are a minority within the Party, revealing them or others as Nagourney’s source would simply reaffirm that his thesis lacked merit.

The Left Was Right

The truth is that voters are responding exactly as progressives predicted. We argued that Obama needed to move boldly to avoid disappointing his electoral base, yet he failed to do so on almost every front.

It was President Obama, not the progressive House leadership, which delayed Senate action on health care by entrusting it to Montana’s Max Baucus and insisting on “bipartisan” support.

It was President Obama who artificially raised hopes and expectations about a public option, and who avoided passing it by 51 votes under reconciliation despite knowing that he lacked 60 Senate votes.

Polls showed throughout 2009 that the slow pace of change dispirited Democrats and Independents, yet Obama stayed the course. I described in The Activist’s Handbook how Bill Clinton demobilized his base in 1993-94 through departing from his “Putting People First” populist message that elected him in 1992, and Barack Obama — as well as far too many progressive activists unwilling to hold him accountable — repeated Clinton’s script.

A Return to Populism in 2010?

The Coakley debacle hopefully awakened Obama to the need to either start motivating his base, or else cede populist anger to the Republicans in November. Obama’s call for a tax on Wall Street banks was an early step, but will mean little if the President cannot enact other measures that he campaigned upon and that will make a real difference in people’s lives.

This means passing real comprehensive immigration reform, a meaningful version of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and a jobs program that hires people for public and cultural works rather than giving tax breaks to businesses and hoping that will spur hiring.

Yes, all those are measures backed by “the left.” But it was a progressive “Change We Can Believe In” theme that brought Barack Obama to the White House, and but for “the left” Hillary Clinton would have been the Democratic nominee.

Obama ignored what brought him success in 2009, and now he and the Democrats must aggressively and promptly move a progressive agenda — as the House did in 2009 on virtually all major issues — to succeed in November.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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