Saturday, November 28, 2009

Base Motivations
The online liberal community has its collective knickers in a twist over this poll for Daily Kos, which finds that while 81 percent of Republicans surveyed report themselves definitely planning or likely to vote in 2010 against 14 percent who are unlikely to vote or certain they will not, just 56 percent of Democrats intend to vote against 40 percent who say they probably or certainly won't. Midterm elections are won and lost on enthusiasm, and it's all on one side; that suggests near-certain doom for freshman and sophomore Democrats in moderate to conservative districts, like these folks.

This is the problem with a moderate and "pragmatic" (consider the scare quotes optional) governing course: nobody reads it that way. Supporters perceive a want of spine, and/or suspect that the promises made or implied during the last campaign were cynical plays for power; opponents meanwhile smell blood in the water. For Barack Obama in particular, the problem with raising voters' hopes to the extent that he did in the 2008 election is that doing so created much more room for disappointment. This is particularly so if you believe that Obama failed to convince his supporters that getting elected was just the first step to creating the change he called for--and the easiest.

But whether or not expectations were unrealistic--and putting aside considerations like the fact that the economic crisis was far more acute in January than most anyone thought it would be six months earlier--isn't important from the standpoint of next year's elections. The question is how close he and the Democrats in Congress have come to meeting them, and the answer, unfortunately, is "not very."

If you’d surveyed Obama voters in November 2008 about the three things they most wanted to see him do, I suspect the most common responses would have been “end the wars,” “turn around the economy,” and “fix health care.” Right now, he’s 0 for 3, and the one that's closest and most likely in the short term, health care, falls far short of what most informed liberals hoped it would be. (Moderates and conservatives who voted for Obama, meanwhile, seem to think it's unvarnished Bolshevism anyway.) Next week he's going to announce a big escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and while aggregate economic growth has returned, unemployment continues to rise and the only sector that's clearly recovered is finance.

He's also fallen way short on a range of issues that are lower-profile but perhaps closer to the hearts of what we might call "liberal values voters": full equality for gay Americans, ending or even curtailing the Bush-era terror policies (the failing that prompted me to take myself off email lists and stop donating money), and re-regulating the same financial industry that seems more deeply entrenched and as unapologetic as ever for its past, present and future excesses. Add in near-total silence on the Employee Free Choice Act--a good call, I think, considering the state of the economy, but still something likely to de-motivate labor supporters--and a relative low profile until very recently on climate change, and that's two pretty well organized and deep-pocketed Democratic constituencies that might well sit on their hands, at least relative to what they did last year.

Yet his political enemies still see the same horror to which they reacted so viscerally during the campaign. It reminds me of a great line The Navigator offered probably ten or twelve years ago now: "Why is it that my most cherished liberal fantasies only come true in the minds of paranoid right-wingers?"

So Obama hasn't fed his base, and right now it seems unlikely that they'll be there for his Democrats next November. Was this entirely foolish? I'm not sure. Ultimately a "base mobilization" strategy helps with politics but not with governance: the few Republicans who are reachable on this or that issue would be much less so if the president was serving up partisan red meat on a regular basis. He also likely recalls that this was what Bush did for his first six years; at the end of that time, he'd more or less resurrected the Democrats--and, since the base is by nature insatiable and upset about what they didn't get (war with Iran, greater oppression of gays, overturn of Roe v. Wade, privatization of Social Security) rather than grateful for what was gained (two other wars, a heavily right-wing federal judiciary, enormous tax cuts), it didn’t even save Republican congressional majorities politically.

It’s also arguable—and it’s being argued--that Obama’s first year has been, or will turn out to be, remarkably successful; it's just that his successes aren’t things that translate to political mobilization. I find the contention that the stimulus has worked--in that if we hadn’t done it, things would be far worse--convincing, but that’s not a great way to excite voters. Same with the alleged repositioning of American foreign policy and our supposed gains in global esteem: it’s probably real, but it isn’t tangible and thus not meaningful for the overwhelming majority of Americans who vote.

Maybe these things will translate later on, as the foundation lain this year for future growth, less war and fundamental reform is built upon. Another point that a friend of mine made the other night is that Obama's first year has set him up to take congressional losses in 2010, but win big for reelection in 2012. Given both the likelihood of full economic recovery by then and the ongoing unattractiveness of the Republican Party to the leftmost 80 percent of the electorate, I think it pretty likely Obama will win reelection in three years. But that kind of brings us full circle: the real value of "winning" is pretty much dependent on what is done with the victory. And in our system, you need governing majorities to fulfill that promise. The Democrats have one right now, and the perception--fair or not, accurate or not--is that they haven't done much with it. Thus they're likely to lose part or all of it in 2010. You can't make the care and feeding of your base the sole or primary focus, as Bush did, but starving it isn't smart either.


The Navigator said...

It'll be interesting to see whether we've arrived at the Californization of America, once the Dems no longer have even a theoretical 60-vote Senate majority. I strongly suspect they'll still have a majority, but with a GOP that is now almost exclusively focused on obstructionism and filibustering, what part of Obama's agenda does he expect to pass? What part of any agenda, for that matter? This is feeling very much like 1994 all over again - the progressives get told to just wait, other things have to come first, then we'll get to your issues later. But later never comes, because the Dems lose a working majority. Of course, given Obama's sellouts on things he could do on his own, esp. on civil liberties and minimizing Don't Ask Don't Tell, one has to wonder whether the administration really wants to enact the progressive agenda at all. But even given that, you can't very well substitute a centrist agenda for a progressive one when 43 GOP Senators filibuster anything short of a far-right agenda.

The Navigator said...

I disagree strongly about EFCA - I doubt that increased union bargaining power would be a significant factor in hindering economic growth, but even if it did, you could always write it to take effect in a year, or two years or whatever. But there's been no meaningful pro-labor legislation since Hatch & Co filibustered to death the last effort under Carter. You absolutely have to act when you have your opportunities. My suspicion is that Obama isn't pushing it now not out of policy concerns (I think he's on board with EFCA, notwithstanding other wobbliness)( N.B.: not Wobbliness) but rather because it just wouldn't get 60 votes. Pre-party switch Specter this year was a revelation: labor realized that even people who had CO-SPONSORED their bill, for f*ck's sake, wouldn't even support it when it had an actual chance to pass. Specter's subsequent primary-driven re-reversal notwithstanding, there are surely more like that, who only backed EFCA rhetorically when it would bring union foot soldiers on election day, and not when the business lobby's interests might actually be threatened.

David said...

No doubt that much of the support for EFCA was 100 percent cynical.

I don't know what it would take to revive labor as a political force--though, to be fair, I'm also not convinced that there isn't a better middle option between the status quo and the stronger provisions of EFCA.