Friday, January 7, 2011

Recovering the Progressive Agenda

The article “Where Do We Go from Here?” by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in the current (January 13) issue of The New York Review appears to have been completed on December 16, a good half month before the House gavel was passed and the Tea Party first flexed its muscles by requesting a reading of the Constitution (from which passages not to their liking were omitted).  Nevertheless, since the sabers have begun to rattle over undoing health care reform, the question posed by this article is extremely timely.  My personal feeling is that we need to revive what I have previously called “the Neustadt-May thinking-in-time approach to dealing with crisis situations,” which begins by asking of the particular crisis situation “How did we get into this mess?”  Fortunately, Krugman and Wells use their final paragraph to provide a way to think about this question:

In 2008, progressives fell for the fantasy of hope and change on the cheap; they believed Obama’s promise that the reforms America needed could float through on a tide of bipartisan reconciliation. It was not to be, and clinging to that illusion will only lead to more defeats. If progressives want to rebound, they’ll have to fight.

I am not sure I would agree with that “on the cheap” qualifier;  but I definitely endorse the use of the noun “fantasy.”  On the day after the last Election Day, I was not so polite.  I described those progressives as “the deluded masses who rallied behind Barack Obama blinded by a vision of secular Messianism;”  and I see no reason to soften my tone.  Indeed, that sharper tone is the one that now advocates serious attention to the key recommendation made by Krugman and Wells:

Democrats need to make it clear that if Obama isn’t going to be the leader of the Democratic agenda—and all indications are that he can’t or won’t—they will advance that agenda anyway, with or without his help. They have to be ready to delink their political fate from Obama, and make it clear that they won’t tolerate further undermining of their goals by deluded calls for bipartisanship. Progressive groups—MoveOn, for example—helped put Obama in office by mobilizing their members and followers through a variety of organizational strategies, including use of the Internet. They did so only to be ignored and dismissed once the 2008 election was won, and now they need to be revived.

One way to approach this recommendation is by revisiting my “favorite from Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies,” which is “Go to an extreme, come part way back.”  We need leadership in both the House and Senate smart enough to recognize that you start by trying to go for all the marbles, because only then do you have the best chance of getting the ones you really want.  Fortunately, we have members of both legislative bodies who are not afraid of this bold strategy and can hang tough over just how far they are willing to concede “part way back.”  These members were the heroes of the debate over health care reform;  and, if they did not prevail, they at least held out a more realistic hope of getting something done than Barack Obama ever did.

If we really want to take Krugman and Wells seriously, then we need to make sure that such legislators are not sidelined.  On the Senate side we need to recognize someone like Bernie Sanders, who is never afraid to ask uncomfortable questions about who the beneficiaries really are and why those who deserve to benefit are being ignored.  Over in the House I would suggest that we have a “dynamic duo” in Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich, both of whom I recognized back in my chutzpah awarding days.  I have to confess that I figured I had better check the list on Wikipedia of the current membership of the House to make sure that those I have just recommended still had Congressional seats.  It was nice to see that Kaptur and Kucinich had consecutive entries under Ohio, 9 and 10;  and it was all the more amusing that they follow John Boehner in position 8.  To hijack Obama’s campaign rhetoric, yes, we can make sure that our voices get heard;  but let’s make sure we find the right people in Washington to speak for us!

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