Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Constant Challenge of Creating an Effective Left Flank

The Constant Challenge of Creating an Effective Left Flank


by Mike Lux Author, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in

America Came to Be - Posted: August 24, 2009 12:33 PM


I wanted to weigh in on this whole left flank for Obama

issue (the idea that Obama needs a strong progressive

movement pushing him from the left to get things done),

because I think getting it right is probably the single

most important thing in creating transformative change.

Let me start by talking for a bit about my personal

situation, because I think it has lessons from the broader issue.


I am blessed and cursed by this man-in-the-middle life I've created for myself.


One the one hand, I am a DC insider. I have served

inside of five Presidential campaigns, two Presidential

transition teams (sadly, the only two in my adult

lifetime), and the Clinton White House. On the other

hand, I have chosen to spend most of my life outside of

government and the Democratic Party, working instead on

helping to build progressive infrastructure and issue

campaigns. This being connected to both the inside and

outside has created some interesting dynamics.


Last week was in some ways fairly typical for me. I had

one senior White house official tell me I was

positioning myself in a fairly helpful way, and another

who people told me was referring to me as an

"(expletive deleted), (expletive deleted),

(particularly gross and disgusting expletive deleted)."

My blog posts prompted some of my responders to say

that I was way too pro-Obama, and what could you expect

from a DC insider like me, while the same posts caused

another friend to e-mail me, worried that I was being

too tough on Obama and was endangering my relationship with the White House.


I am sort of used to having at least some of my friends

pissed off at me almost all of the time (let alone what

my actual enemies -- there are a few -- think of me).

In the Clinton White House, I got yelled at almost

daily from people on the outside about (a) all the bad

things we had done to progressive causes, and (b) other

White House officials who said I was just carrying

water for all the lefties outside. My job there was

described by people as being the person responsible for

having all my friends yell at me.


This personal experience has made me reflect a lot on

what an effective left flank is for a Democratic

President. First, on the definition: my view of what is

effective is based on my understanding of history laid

out in my book, The Progressive Revolution: How the

Best in America Came to Be: an effective left flank

pushes the more progressive party's President toward

big, transformational changes. The abolitionist

movement successfully pushed Abe Lincoln and the

radical Republicans toward ending slavery and other big

changes; the Populist and Progressive and suffragist

movements pushed Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson

toward making the big progressive era changes in the

early 1900s; the labor movement pushed FDR toward the

major achievements of the New Deal; and the civil

rights and other movements of the 1960s pushed the

Kennedys and LBJ toward the big achievements of that era.


Moving toward transformational change is especially

urgent when the nation is in crisis. Lincoln would not

have won the civil war without the Emancipation

Proclamation, and FDR would not have led us out of the

Great Depression without New Deal economic policies. In

both cases, the country was too broken, and needed big

changes to fix it. And the reason that Buchanan,

Hoover, and LBJ ended up as failed Presidents is that

they stayed with conventional wisdom and weren't bold

enough on the biggest crises of their times

(respectively, the lead-up to the Civil War, the Great

Depression, and the Vietnam War).


I believe we are at that kind of crisis moment now, and

that we can only get ourselves out of it with big,

bold, progressive policies. Lincoln, FDR and JFK/LBJ on

civil rights all started out in more of a conventional

wisdom mindset, but the combination of progressive

movement pressure and the crisis itself moved them

toward making the major changes needed to solve things.


So how do we create an effective left flank? Given that

(per the above stories), I tend to get everybody I know

mad at me at some point or another, I'm sure there will

be a lot of disagreement on this, but here are some

principles I believe we ought to follow in creating

that left flank:


1. Understand that whether we like it or not, the

progressive movement's fate, at least for the next few

years and probably longer, is inextricably tied to

Obama's. As mad as many of us progressives get at Obama

over certain policy or strategic failures, we have to

understand that him failing as President hurts the

entire progressive cause. In case you didn't notice,

LBJ's and Jimmy Carter's failed Presidencies did not

usher in eras of progressive reform, they moved the

country inexorably to the right. As President from the

more left party, most Americans saw them as liberals

even though LBJ was decidedly un-liberal on Vietnam,

and Carter was the most conservative Democratic

President on economics since Grover Cleveland in the

1800s. But progressives were struck with their failures

anyway and paid the price. People who think Obama is

failing because he's following a more moderate path,

and that eventually helps us move in a more progressive

direction, are fooling themselves.


If Obama fails on health care (and, by the way, I

consider failure to be either not passing a bill, or

passing a bill that doesn't work for the middle class),

we won't see another attempt at serious health care

reform for at least another generation. If he fails at

doing something big on climate change, we probably

won't be able to get anything done on it until it is

too late to make a difference. And if his economic

policies fail, regardless of demographics moving in our

favor or Republican extremism, all Democrats will be

punished at the polls, and the far-right that has taken

over the Republican Party will probably come into

power. And this isn't just about the long term, either:

for every percentage point Obama's approval drops, we

probably lose another two or three House seats in 2010.


Progressives' strategy, then, should not be to attack

Obama personally, to undermine voters' confidence in

him, but to shore up the backbone of progressives in

Congress -- and in his own administration, because I

guarantee you, policy debates between more and less

progressive staffers are held every day at the White

House. If Obama makes a bad policy decision, we

shouldn't hesitate to push back or encourage

progressives in Congress to do the same, and if White

House staffers are pursuing destructive political

strategies (see the "left-of-the-left" quote), we

shouldn't hesitate to bang on them. But our goal should

be to do all this while still holding up hope that

Obama will move in the right direction, and to praise

the hell out of him when he does.


2. We should value the different roles we all play. The

"we" in the previous sentence includes insiders and

outsiders, different players in the movement, and

people who work in that building at 1600 Pennsylvania

Avenue. We all have (hopefully) constructive and

important roles to play, even when we disagree

sometimes on tactics and strategies. I think it's a

mistake to assume anything about each other's motives.

These are big important policy debates we are having,

and it's natural that things will get heated. But we

have to respect each other's roles to make this work.


Frederick Douglass excoriated Lincoln for moving so

slowly on abolition even while Lincoln was inviting him

to the White House for quiet conversations about how to

move forward, conversations that were critical in

shaping Lincoln's abolition strategy. Labor leaders

loudly announced that no one, FDR included, was going

to get them to back down, even as FDR was meeting with

them privately and urging them to keep pushing. Alice

Paul was chaining herself to the White House fence and

going on hunger strikes while other feminist leaders

were meeting with Wilson and other congressional

leaders, and it took both tactics combined to get the

vote. King and other civil rights leaders refused to

back down on pleas to stop civil disobedience and the

march on Washington, but met constantly with White

House officials to keep things moving.


We all have roles to play. Let me throw out some specific examples:


DC coalitions tend, by their very nature, to be clunky,

cautious, and a little slow-moving. But they still have

incredibly important roles to play in terms of

coordinating lobbying, field, and communicating

tactics, and keeping a steady dialogue going on

important details of legislation with congressional and

White House staffers.


Some progressives chose to play an inside role so that

they can be at the table on the incredibly important

details of the legislative language. That is a really

good thing, but to be on the inside, you have to be a

team player, and you have to mute your criticisms. That

can leave you open to criticism by folks on the

outside, but it is an incredibly valuable and important

role. Jan Schakowsky (an old friend, so I am biased) is

a big example of this kind of person. She is both a

strong progressive and is a loyal member of the

Obama/Pelosi team. I am thankful every day she is

fighting for our cause on the inside, because I

guarantee you the important details of the bill would

be a lot worse without her.


The bloggers who have been demanding that Congressional

Progressive Caucus members stand firm on a public

option have annoyed a lot of insiders, but their

single-minded focus on the strategy of keeping House

progressives united is a big reason why the public

option is still alive. If the left didn't keep pushing,

this health care debate would keep shifting more and

more to the right.


The kind of silly attitude, that the "left of the left"

is the problem, hurts the White House. As I wrote the

other day, when progressives are being critical is

exactly the time the White House ought to be

cultivating them. If people are inside a tent, they

generally wee-wee (as the President would put it)

outward, and if they are kept out, they generally wee-

wee inward. And if you can't figure that most

progressives are trying to be your friends (even if,

yes, we are occasionally big pains in the butt), then

the White House has a very big problem.


Hopefully this discussion continues, because getting

this right is arguably the single most important thing

that will determine whether Obama and those of us in

the progressive movement are a success. When the stakes

are so incredibly high, tempers will flare, sharp

elbows will be thrown, and various players will be

critical of each other. All that's understandable, and

can be healthy. But we also all need to understand that

progressives and the White House need each other to get

anything big and important done. Abe Lincoln and

Frederick Douglass understood that. So did FDR and John

L. Lewis. So did Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King,

Jr. It's how big change happens in this country.


In the meantime, everybody feel free to keep yelling at me. I've gotten kind of used to it.




[Michael Lux is the co-founder and CEO of Progressive Strategies, L.L.C., a political consulting firm founded in 1999, focused on strategic political consulting for non-profits, labor unions, PACs and progressive donors. Previously, he was Senior Vice President for Political Action at People For the American Way (PFAW), and the PFAW Foundation, and served at the White House from January 1993 to mid-1995 as a Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. While at Progressive Strategies, Lux has founded, and currently chairs a number of new organizations and projects, including American Family Voices, the Progressive Donor Network, and Lux serves on the boards of several

other organizations including the Arca Foundation, Americans United for Change, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, Center for Progressive Leadership, Democratic Strategist, Grassroots Democrats, Progressive Majority and Women's Voices/Women Vote.


In November of 2008, Mike was named to the Obama-Biden Transition Team. In that role, he served as an advisor to the Public Liaison on dealings with the progressive community and has helped shape the office of Public Liaison based on his past experience working on the Clinton-Gore Transition, as well as in the White House.


On January 14, 2009, Lux released his first book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be. Lux's book was published by Wiley Publishing.


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