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November 26, 2012 4:27 PM Campaigns, Lobbying and Social Movements

By Ed Kilgore

One of the big mysteries—and sources of progressive angst—during Barack Obama’s first term in office was the virtual disappearance of Obama’s powerful and technologically enabled supporter network during the long agonies of the Affordable Care Act debate, the stalling of cap-and-trade legislation, and—well—everything after the 2010 GOP victory.

As Brother Benen explains, this is a mistake people close to the White House swear will not recur:

As far as the White House is concerned, the debt-ceiling crisis in 2011 offered valuable lessons. Obama stayed in Washington, met repeatedly with congressional leaders, and made every effort to reach some kind of credible agreement with Republican lawmakers who were threatening to crash the American economy on purpose unless their demands were met.
A deal was eventually struck, but not before the crisis itself took a severe toll on the economy, policymakers’ political standing, and the public’s tolerance for gamesmanship.
Now, Obama wants to apply the lessons. The president argued behind closed doors in 2011, so he’ll take his arguments public in 2012. He stayed in D.C. in 2011, so he’ll hit the road in 2012. Obama tried to navigate the political landscape in 2011, so he’ll try to change what’s possible in 2012 by taking advantage of his activist base.

Sounds good, and keeping the “activist base” involved can certainly do no harm. But are campaigns and legislative lobbying efforts really congruent?

It’s one thing to hit the campaign trail in support of votes, or even hold public rallies in support of an initiative like health care reform, but going on the road to get people excited about slightly higher marginal tax rates on income above $250,000 is a little trickier.
For that matter, it’s not altogether clear whether Republicans will care. GOP lawmakers have routinely rejected proposals with overwhelming public support in recent years, and don’t much seem to care about a potential backlash. That’s especially true now — they know the next election cycle is 24 months from now, and the electorate will have long since forgotten about this debate by the time the midterms roll around.

I’d add to Steve’s observation that Republicans have plenty of reasons to assume that 2014 will be a good election year for them, given midterm turnout patterns and the vast precedent (broken in living memory only once, in 1998) of the “six-year itch” afflicting the party holding the White House.

But there’s a more fundamental issue that progressives need to think about: the need to build social movements supporting major policy objectives that are not tied to particular presidents and which, indeed, need to be independent of parties or politicians, even if the initial goal or even the ultimate outcome is to support them. As my Democratic Strategist colleague James Vega argued at this exact point after the 2008 elections, there is a “natural division of labor” between progressive social movements and political actors that may not seem ideal, but that has accompanied most of the great progressive achievements of the past.

So no one should expect—or even wish—that all the energy that went into re-electing Barack Obama on November 6 can be channeled into every tactical twist and turn of his fiscal negotiations or nomination battles. It’s important to keep many eyes on larger prizes—whether it’s action on climate change, economic inequality, LGBT rights, or voting rights—towards which Obama and other politicians can be pushed and pulled, in stages that will probably transcend any four-year term, much less any congressional session. That’s worth keeping in mind as disappointment over the dissipated power of the Obama network inevitably returns.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on November 26, 2012 4:45 PM:

    When Reagan invited the Manichean Christian Dominionist Christians into the electoral process, they didn't hesitate to keep the foot to the necks of Democrats and Liberals.

    And there's no reason, now that the demographics favor us, to take the boot off the the Republicans and Conservatives necks.

    KEEP THE PRESSURE ON!!!
    Keep it on - every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year!

  • Cynthia on November 26, 2012 5:09 PM:

    I agree with most of your analysis here, but there is one point that I take issue with:

    "But there’s a more fundamental issue that progressives need to think about: the need to build social movements supporting major policy objectives that are not tied to particular presidents and which, indeed, need to be independent of parties or politicians, even if the initial goal or even the ultimate outcome is to support them."

    On the one hand, you're absolutely correct that we need to have an infrastructure that isn't directly tied to a party and/or politician. The implementation of that goal becomes messy, though, when activist groups don't work in tandem with the official campaign. I did a lot of volunteer canvassing for OFA leading up to the election, and the biggest challenge that I faced was in correcting misinformation that had been disseminated by an outside group. The group's intentions were good--they were promoting the president--but their canvassers weren't focused on the mechanics of GOTV. When I would knock on a door, I'd sometimes get "The Obama campaign has already been by here today" as a response, even though I knew that no one from our office had been there. I had to speak quickly to get the voter's attention and make it clear that the other group was *not* OFA. At the end of those conversations, the typical comment was "I'm so glad that you came by here. I learned something new." Our goal was to make sure that voters knew when and where to vote, and the other group wasn't providing that information. I spent a lot of time doing damage control because of their inefficiency.

  • Doug on November 26, 2012 5:13 PM:

    "...they know the next election cycle is 24 months from now, and the electorate will have long since forgotten about this debate by the time the mid-terms roll around." Steve Benen cited by Ed Kilgore

    First off, starting from NOW, it would 23 months. By the time Congress acts on anything there will be even less of a gap between whatever happens in DC and the mid-terms. I also have to take exception to the idea that the electorate has such a short memory as to almost suffer from a form of political Alzheimer's. They don't, but if the Republicans wish to base THEIR plan of action on that idea, let'em.
    President Obama barnstorming the country in order to rally his "activist base" would, I would think, be a sine qua non for any hope of the Democrats retaking the House in 2014. If the base isn't riled up and ready to go, and presuming the positions are popular beyond that base, how does anyone expect non-base voters (whoever THEY might be) to support Democratic candidates?
    One of the major complaints about President Obama and the Democrats in regard to the ACA was that they didn't go out and fight for it - now we're complaining because the President is planning on doing just that? Nor would the President and fellow Democrats be trying so much to drum up support FOR a tax increase as AGAINST those preventing one; the results might be the same, but the method taken to get to those results aren't.
    I haven't read Mr. Benen's article yet, but if this IS what the President is planning it tells me that HE, at least, is not planning on any "Grand Bargain" over the "fiscal speed-bump" or anything else.
    Mr. Obama's a good speaker, but there's no way he could sell THAT to his "base"!

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on November 26, 2012 7:04 PM:

    The "six-year itch" doesn't apply during Democratic administrations when Republicans overplay their hand. The constant Republican attacks just don't allow voters to conclude that the incumbents are fat and lazy. Add to this the almost preternatural cleanliness of the Obama administration, and there won't be an itch.

    There will, however, be two meta factors that are important: demographics and economics. The demographics of off-year elections are worse for Democrats. But an improving economy would be good for the Democrats. I think that the Democrats have a real chance of taking over the House in 2014 if the economy improves, the Republicans continue with their crazy, and the Democrats work like hell.

  • gratuitous on November 27, 2012 2:57 PM:

    Obama "will take his arguments public in 2012"? Whatever for? I have been solemnly assured time and again over the last four years that there is no such thing as a "bully pulpit," and that it's foolish to think that by rallying public support for his proposals the President would gain any kind of edge or leverage with the rigid ideologues on the Republican side.

    David Broder's Ghost will surely rise up and haunt our land. And it will be all the fault of the libruls!