The Missed “Clinton Moment” and “Deval Moment”

Bill Scher

Robert Borosage has asked us on this site—bloggers and commenters alike—to explore “How Do We Seize The Obama Moment?” and substantively advance a bold progressive agenda, after laying out an “inside-outside” activist strategy with Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation.

Why must we answer that question now? Because we’ve seen what happens when we don’t. Moments are missed.

We missed the “Clinton Moment.” Bill Clinton was swept into office, but without a strong progressive mandate to work with on Day 1 (though there were populist elements in his signature campaign proposals of welfare reform and middle-class tax cuts). And while individual organizations fought hard for their issues, there was not a cohesive progressive movement organizing around a set of issues based on common principles.

So in Clinton’s first term, when he tried to achieve health care for all or a “BTU tax” that would discourage fossil fuel use and bolster renewable energy, grassroots activists were outgunned by corporate lobbyists, and Democratic congresspeople had no political incentive to stand with the president. When he tried to follow through on his campaign pledge to allow gays in the military, he was spooked by the conservative backlash and embraced the ugly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise.

But when Clinton pushed for a corporate-friendly NAFTA deal, or was faced with a conservative welfare reform bill that completely removed the safety net, those bills became law over progressive objections.

Here in my state of Massachusetts, we are witnessing another missed moment, the “Deval Moment.”

Deval Patrick won a massive 21-point victory for governor, after thumbing his nose at the Democratic party machine in Boston, and basing his campaign on organizing grassroots progressives. He faced typical right-wing attacks on crime and taxes and he faced them down with progressive arguments, ending 16 years of Republican governors in Massachusetts.

Patrick quickly worked to protect the state Supreme Court ruling upholding equal marriage rights for gays. But after that, his next battle was to legalize casinos, something his grassroots base was vehemently against.

Patrick’s rationale was he needed more revenue to close a large budget gap that jeopardized critical government services. But as blogger Frederick Clarkson observed during the casino debate, that argument ran counter to his progressive mandate: “Patrick got it right when he argued during the campaign that rather than debating whether we should raise or lower taxes, we should first consider what we want to do and then discuss how to pay for it. In that spirit those of us who were with him from the beginning are saying that it is time to talk.”

The result? Patrick lost both the casino battle and the enthusiasm of his base.

But the fault does not solely lie with Patrick. It also lies with the state’s progressive movement.

Beyond protecting gay marriage, the progressive activists of Massachusetts also failed to hit the ground running with a clear issues agenda to prod the governor and state legislature into action. As the Boston Phoenix noted:

…Massachusetts officeholders don’t fear paying a price at the polls for standing against the liberal base of the Democratic Party, a perception that State House staffers confirm.

Patrick’s casino initiative is a case in point. Despite mounting opposition, voiced mostly in left-wing blogs, Patrick chose to champion multiple casinos licensed by the state.

The apparent popularity of the casino plan, and of Patrick, wrote the left-wing blogger The Outraged Liberal, “suggests no one is listening to us.”

One reason these progressives are feeling marginalized might lie in their lack of unanimity on the issues. It was easy to feel united and effective on an issue like gay marriage, says [Boston progressive politician Matt] O’Malley, because all the progressive groups were working together on it. It’s been hard to find other issues that bring the left together in the same way.

That leaves progressives often splintered, working at cross purposes, or fighting losing causes.

For us in the progressive movement to realize the potential of the “Obama Moment,” we cannot be splintered. We need to have priorities and focus, while maintaining the progressive community’s strong breadth and diversity. How do we learn a lesson from these moments missed?

We must realize that even with an expected “spasm of furious activity,” as Borosage and vanden Heuvel envision, not every single issue can be addressed in the first 100 days. And we need to establish a level of coordination even though we are primarily a bottom-up community, not a top-down hierarchy with a single leader barking marching orders.

Putting a rigid game plan down on paper is no help. Chris Bowers at Open Left understandably chafed at a Netroots Platform, which invariably includes some things not everyone supports:

Platforms are where democratic movements and changes in the national social fabric go to die. Once a political movement is delineated into a specific set of planks, then factionalism, totalitarianism and stereotyping set in, while creativity, innovation and pluralism are tossed aside. Once a movement can be clearly defined by a specifically delineated set of characteristics and beliefs, any ability for that movement to grow, change or develop is lost.

Bowers is right. To thrive we must operate in fluid fashion, But to win, we also need clear direction.

I fully expect the first days of a potential Obama administration to be a crush of pent-up progressive frustration, with Washington politicians scrambling to take control of the legislative agenda—a mix of bottom-up pushing from activists and top-down agenda setting in Washington. And certain issues will break out the pack.

Instead of remaining in separate corners, the broader progressive movement will have to run with, and get ahead of, the pack.

The corporate-backed conservative movement will be itching to land a couple high-profile blows to the progressive community and make sure the “Obama Moment” only lasts for a moment. And they will have cards to play—we have already seen how a coordinated propaganda push from Big Oil and Newt Gingrich around coastal drilling shifted the political landscape, and how timely neocon posturing shaped media coverage of the Russia-Georgia conflict in a matter of hours.

We will need to marshal our forces to properly frame the debate, get ahead of the curve and win those early battles.

But since we don’t know what issues will break out of the pack, we need to sharpen our messages across the issue spectrum now. And once it’s crunch time, we will need to accept an eventual prioritization of issues, and eagerly coordinate in kind.

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