A few weeks ago Jonathan Bernstein asked liberals “As the 111th Congress winds down, what’s your biggest disappointment of the things you expected to happen?”
Bad at Losing
I expected Obama to be a better loser, specifically to be better at losing. There were a lot of items on the table, a lot of them weren’t going to happen, but it was important for the new future of liberalism that the Obama team lost them well. And that hasn’t happened.
By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.
Let’s take an example of a lose: immigration. The assimilation of Hispanics into a central part of the United States is a long-term project, one that will go on beyond this Congress and any bill it may have passed. Securing Hispanic votes is central to any theory of an emerging Democratic majority. And it was going to be possible that any bill wouldn’t pass, given how difficult immigration bills were to move in the Bush years.
So this should have been something that was lost well. Here’s my major memory of the Obama administration on immigration:
Whenever Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and other immigrant-rights advocates asked President Obama how a Democratic administration could preside over the greatest number of deportations in any two-year period in the nation’s history, Obama’s answer was always the same.
Deporting almost 800,000 illegal immigrants might antagonize some Democrats and Latino voters, Obama’s skeptical supporters said the president told them, but stepped-up enforcement was the only way to buy credibility with Republicans and generate bipartisan support for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
On Saturday, that strategy was in ruins after Senate Democrats could muster only 55 votes in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act…
This is losing poorly. It makes major concessions without getting anything in return, conceding both pieces of flesh and the larger narrative to the other side. This unnecessarily splits those who support the Democrats on whether or not to support these actions. It doesn’t name the opponents of the effort to figure out ways of deploying pressure to change things. Without an obvious fight it’s not signaled that it was a priority. And the ultimate problem is that it doesn’t leave the coalition in better shape for the next battle.
This is true of many issues, ranging from unions fighting for the ability to unionize easier to the technology groups fighting for Net Neutrality. Why should these groups be happier with the past two years, even if they thought on day one that they wouldn’t win anything? How are either stronger for the next battle?
Candidate Obama’s chief blogger, Sam Graham-Felsen, recently asked Why is Obama leaving the grass roots on the sidelines? by not engaging those on the unprecedented email list Obama was able to create. I’d go further and ask where are the newer and/or stronger liberal groups that have emerged in the past two years? So many seem demoralized and confused and few new ones seem to exist at all, which is disturbing given the volume of people Democrats had in Congress going into this session.
This is a problem regardless of whether or not you think Obama is a progressive boxed in by failed institutions, a centrist Democratic in awe of Rubinomics who accidently stumbled into the largest downturn since the Great Depression, or a political neophyte who never fought a battle and, as an old-school liberal told Bill Greider “”was rolled by the bankers, then he was rolled by the generals, then he was rolled by the Blue Dogs and other Democrats who had no interest in going along with what he proposed.” Regardless of where the Democrats want to go they need people and institutions to help them get there, and it’s not clear that we are any closer to getting those in place.
In my book, this matters. As Ziad Munson’s ethnography of the Pro-Life movement argued “mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion.” People aren’t simply acting out unconscious political codes and rules like a processor, and people aren’t simply rational consumers maximizing a matrix of orthogonal political preferences by choosing among competing parties. Politics is a process, and a person’s political habitus is created by engagement in institutions based on their views that in turn change those views and push on the institutions themselves. If we want a dominate liberalism, institutions to engage people need to be grown and nurtured.
The Other Surprise Disappointments
As for specific issues: In 100 years the thing that will matter the most is our failure to get started on combating global warming and carbon in the atmosphere. Oceans will acidify, the Earth will heat, hopefully it won’t become a cascading process that feeds itself, and by that time change will be much harder. Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece on the bill failing in the Senate is excellent at showing why it’s difficult to get a 60th vote, as well as the executive branch stumbling over any hopes of this bill in some major ways (giving away off-shoring drilling, which Senators were hoping to trade for votes, for instance). Like immigration, the plan seemed to be “hoping Lindsey Graham is a decent guy” rather than planning out for the next decade of what will need to be done.
My biggest disappointment was the continuation of the Bush-era policies regarding the Unitary Executive, expanded powers regarding detention and other civil libertarian issues. I look at it from the point of view of people working on the front lines and in the middle offices. You can have good or bad people, conscientious versus authoritarian people, but they largely work within a framework they inherit. If the framework and institutions are corrupt, then the final practices they produce will be as well.
Imagine a military analyst who joins in 2001 at age 25, perhaps in response to 9/11. If Obama goes a second-term, that analyst will be around 41 when the next President comes, and our current policies of black sites, wiretapping, etc. will just be “the way things are.” We’ll have a generation of military and information bureaucrats that has entered into that atmosphere that won’t know anything different and that will then continue to perpetrate that apparatus, regardless of who is in charge. This worries me more than any specific transgression (though the specific ones do worry me). Hence why a cleansing of policies was necessary, and we didn’t get it.