Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party
I read with interest your recent discussion regarding my comments on the floor(1, 2, 3) during the debate on John Roberts' nomination. I don't get a chance to follow blog traffic as regularly as I would like, and rarely get the time to participate in the discussions. I thought this might be a good opportunity to offer some thoughts about not only judicial confirmations, but how to bring about meaningful change in this country.
Maybe some of you believe I could have made my general point more artfully, but it's precisely because many of these groups are friends and supporters that I felt it necessary to speak my mind.
There is one way, over the long haul, to guarantee the appointment of judges that are sensitive to issues of social justice, and that is to win the right to appoint them by recapturing the presidency and the Senate. And I don't believe we get there by vilifying good allies, with a lifetime record of battling for progressive causes, over one vote or position.
I am convinced that, our mutual frustrations and strongly-held beliefs notwithstanding, the strategy driving much of Democratic advocacy, and the tone of much of our rhetoric, is an impediment to creating a workable progressive majority in this country.
According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party. They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda. In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda. The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.
I think this perspective misreads the American people. From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. They don't think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent. They don't think that corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work in corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs. They don't think America is an imperialist brute, but are angry that the case to invade Iraq was exaggerated, are worried that we have unnecessarily alienated existing and potential allies around the world, and are ashamed by events like those at Abu Ghraib which violate our ideals as a country.
It's this non-ideological lens through which much of the country viewed Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings. A majority of folks, including a number of Democrats and Independents, don't think that John Roberts is an ideologue bent on overturning every vestige of civil rights and civil liberties protections in our possession. Instead, they have good reason to believe he is a conservative judge who is (like it or not) within the mainstream of American jurisprudence, a judge appointed by a conservative president who could have done much worse (and probably, I fear, may do worse with the next nominee). While they hope Roberts doesn't swing the court too sharply to the right, a majority of Americans think that the President should probably get the benefit of the doubt on a clearly qualified nominee.
A plausible argument can be made that too much is at stake here and now, in terms of privacy issues, civil rights, and civil liberties, to give John Roberts the benefit of the doubt. That certainly was the operating assumption of the advocacy groups involved in the nomination battle.
I shared enough of these concerns that I voted against Roberts on the floor this morning. But short of mounting an all-out filibuster -- a quixotic fight I would not have supported; a fight I believe Democrats would have lost both in the Senate and in the court of public opinion; a fight that would have been difficult for Democratic senators defending seats in states like North Dakota and Nebraska that are essential for Democrats to hold if we hope to recapture the majority; and a fight that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations -- blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.
In such circumstances, attacks on Pat Leahy, Russ Feingold and the other Democrats who, after careful consideration, voted for Roberts make no sense. Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn't become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a President, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments. Like it or not, that view has pretty strong support in the Constitution's design.
The same principle holds with respect to issues other than judicial nominations. My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully - and voted against - the Iraqi invasion. He isn't somehow transformed into a "war supporter" - as I've heard some anti-war activists suggest - just because he hasn't called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn't become anti-choice because he or she isn't absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn't become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn't become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.
Or to make the point differently: How can we ask Republican senators to resist pressure from their right wing and vote against flawed appointees like John Bolton, if we engage in similar rhetoric against Democrats who dissent from our own party line? How can we expect Republican moderates who are concerned about the nation's fiscal meltdown to ignore Grover Norquist's threats if we make similar threats to those who buck our party orthodoxy?
I am not drawing a facile equivalence here between progressive advocacy groups and right-wing advocacy groups. The consequences of their ideas are vastly different. Fighting on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable is not the same as fighting for homophobia and Halliburton. But to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.
Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority. We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice. The Bush Administration and the Republican Congress may have made the problems worse, but they won't go away after President Bush is gone. Unless we are open to new ideas, and not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds to initiate a serious energy or fiscal policy that calls for serious sacrifice. We won't have the popular support to craft a foreign policy that meets the challenges of globalization or terrorism while avoiding isolationism and protecting civil liberties. We certainly won't have a mandate to overhaul a health care policy that overcomes all the entrenched interests that are the legacy of a jerry-rigged health care system. And we won't have the broad political support, or the effective strategies, required to lift large numbers of our fellow citizens out of numbing poverty.
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job. After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart. It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that's our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the Democrats should trim their sails and be more "centrist." In fact, I think the whole "centrist" versus "liberal" labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark. Too often, the "centrist" label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy, education and tackling poverty, I don't think Democrats have been bold enough. But I do think that being bold involves more than just putting more money into existing programs and will instead require us to admit that some existing programs and policies don't work very well. And further, it will require us to innovate and experiment with whatever ideas hold promise (including market- or faith-based ideas that originate from Republicans).
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Finally, I am not arguing that we "unilaterally disarm" in the face of Republican attacks, or bite our tongue when this Administration screws up. Whenever they are wrong, inept, or dishonest, we should say so clearly and repeatedly; and whenever they gear up their attack machine, we should respond quickly and forcefully. I am suggesting that the tone we take matters, and that truth, as best we know it, be the hallmark of our response.
My dear friend Paul Simon used to consistently win the votes of much more conservative voters in Southern Illinois because he had mastered the art of "disagreeing without being disagreeable," and they trusted him to tell the truth. Similarly, one of Paul Wellstone's greatest strengths was his ability to deliver a scathing rebuke of the Republicans without ever losing his sense of humor and affability. In fact, I would argue that the most powerful voices of change in the country, from Lincoln to King, have been those who can speak with the utmost conviction about the great issues of the day without ever belittling those who opposed them, and without denying the limits of their own perspectives.
In that spirit, let me end by saying I don't pretend to have all the answers to the challenges we face, and I look forward to periodic conversations with all of you in the months and years to come. I trust that you will continue to let me and other Democrats know when you believe we are screwing up. And I, in turn, will always try and show you the respect and candor one owes his friends and allies.
Dkos User President Barack Obama, Sept 30, 2005
Thanks for the feedback
Let me start by saying how much I appreciated all the energetic responses to my previous post. Time didn't permit me to respond immediately, but I personally read most of them - positive and negative - and found them thoughtful and challenging.
Rather than belabor some of the points I made in the original post, let me just offer a few quick reactions to some of the responses to my message.
I completely agree that the Democrats need to present and fight for a clearly stated set of core convictions, and that we have not done so as effectively as we need to over the past several election cycles. We can insist on being principled about the ends we are trying to achieve (e.g. educational opportunity and basic health care for all Americans, honest and accountable government, etc.), without sacrificing our commitment to open debate, intellectual honesty, and civility. I think its the right thing to do and I also think it will help us win.
I also agree that it is the job of Democratic elected officials to help shape public opinion, and not just respond passively to opinion thats been aggressively shaped by the Republicans PR machinery. I am simply suggesting, based on my experience, that people will respond to a powerfully progressive agenda when its couched in optimism, pragmatism and our shared American ideals.
Finally, some of you wondered whether I wrote the post myself. I did.
Again, thanks for the comments. I look forward to continued dialogue in the future.
DKos User President Barack Obama, Oct 20, 2005
Of all of the comments posted in both diaries, none struck me as more pertinent than the comment posted by our own tireless nyceve
Obama is running for President . . . (3.33 / 3)
So I am a constituent.
And I'll tell you I hope more than life itself he is the first African-American president.
So, we should challenge the hell out of him.
Our comments, however harsh they may be, will make him a better person and a better candidate.
In the face of a non stop PR machine designed to turn public sentiment against him, President Obama needs us to hold his feet to the fire. In doing so we do a great service to our democracy, so long as it is in a thoughtful and constructive way.
I firmly believe that the recent drops in polls are due to Democrats who are losing hope. The supporters of McCain/Palin will never approve of a Democratic President, let alone an African American President. Their disapproval of such a President is rock solid. They are, in my opinion, extremists in their views and vastly misinformed on many, if not all issues.
More than three out of every four Americans feel it is important to have a "choice" between a government-run health care insurance option and private coverage, according to a public opinion poll released on Thursday.
A new study by SurveyUSA puts support for a public option at a robust 77 percent, one percentage point higher than where it stood in June.
Polls show the President's approval rating is slipping, which should be no surprise as the Corporate Media has a vested interest in seeing an agenda of reform and accountability fail. Many of us who fought to see Obama win the Presidency have voiced our frustrations within our party and at our President, and I am no less guilty than any other here, but to do so without understanding the man is folly.
I also firmly believe that when President Obama begins to deliver on the issues we care about the most his approval ratings will soar again, despite the Right Wing Noise Machines groundless objections. The tide is turning, and many of us simply need a reason to continue to hope, and to fight.
Those Democrats and Independants who are losing hope do so because they want change, vast change, and they want it now, but they fail to understand that such is not in the nature of President Obama. Rather, I believe it is President Obama's nature to appeal to all sides first before choosing his path. Such a course of action is wise, though it may frustrate those of us (including myself) who would sooner go on the offensive, fight back, yell louder, and all of the other phrases we use when anger motivates us, when perhaps thought would serve us better.
By voting for Barack Obama for President I voted for accountability. Accountability for the war crimes and other criminalities of the Bush/Cheney Administration, accountability for the excesses and greed of Corporate America, and to right the many wrongs that still persist in modern America, wrongs of discrimination based on race, sexuality, sexual orientation, poverty and more.
The loss of hope is due to the frustration in seeing a plan we do not understand, and the powerlessness that accompanies it, as well as our own distrust of the power of the Executive office after 8 years of seeing our nation raked over the coals by the previous Corporatist and Criminal Administration.
But we can not lose that hope, that fire that drives us on. That is what we fight for, that is why we fight, for the hope of bringing about progress and change, and the hope of fixing what is wrong with this country and making it a better place that lives up to it's ideals for future generations to come.
Therefore, I advise all those who read the words of written here by President Obama, nyceve and myself to take thought. Consider the men and women who we are fighting alongside, those we are fighting for and fighting against, and consider that they are men and women just as we are.
They are either helped by our criticism or hurt by it. If hurt, it is because they are in the wrong and they will not bend their stiff necks to listen to reason or their pride doesn not allow for an honest debate. Our reason should be stronger than theirs if we are to persuade them, our ideas should be better than theirs if we are to defeat them.
In the same manner, those whom we criticize may be helped by it, and if they do so it is because they listen to all that is spoken to them, and if they falter, it is because of a desire to think first and then act, and if we urge them to act in such a way we should do so with thought, and truth and the proper tone of respect we would expect for ourselves.
I have two issues. Accountability for the rule of law, and accounatbility for Corporate America, the same Corporate America who often controls our economic well being, whether they know it or not. In the fight for the public option in health care reform I see the two issues merging into one. If 77% of the nation desire that our elected officials in Government should provide us with a public option in health insurance, it should be so. But by losing hope and giving up we defeat ourselves.
With that in mind, I advise any and all of us to reach out to our President, Barack Obama. Remember that he is a thoughtful man who listens to all sides of an issue before he makes a decision, and yet he is a man, as mortal as you and I, prone to the same mistakes, but capable of learning from them.
Offer advice, offer criticism. It will only make him, and us, stronger.
Even though President Obama is on vacation, we should use our voice and tell him our thoughts, in writing, in e-mail and on the phone.
CALL The White House at 202-456-1111 and E-Mail the WH here
A President who listens to all sides. Isn't that exactly what many of us wanted after 8 years of Bush/Cheney?
Do not lose hope. Do not stop fighting for what you believe in. Make your voice heard, and Yell Louder when neccesary.
Crossposted at docudharma.com and progressiveelectorate.com
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