Mike Konczal at Rortybomb makes an excellent observation in his post responding to Jonathan Bernsteins’ query to liberals about what disappointed/surprised them the most about the Obama administration (which I answered here.)
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.
He goes on to demonstrate just how badly the administration fumbled their loss on immigration.
This cannot be emphasized too much. Just as wins must be political as well as policy successes in order to lay the groundwork for the next step losses should be in service of emphasizing values and clearly laying blame for the loss so the party can regroup.(I wrote a lot about this in other contexts as well.)
You can’t win them all, but you can make damned sure that when you lose your principles are out front and everybody knows where you stand. That is very helpful down the road when you try to make a case for your policies. Trying to “make the best of it” or paper over the differences or (worst of all) adopting the other side’s position as your own and saying the policy is actually a good one, will come back to bite you hard.
The Republicans are very good at this whether they are in a minority or a majority and it serves them especially well when they are regrouping after a loss. They always, always lose in a way that sets them up for a win down the road. In this way they are much more sophisticated about politics than the Democrats are and it’s one way their movement seems to be able to constantly evolve and even reinvent itself.
None of this is Obama’s strong suit. He’s a conciliator and a mediator, not a partisan leader. And I suppose in the aftermath of the big win in 2008 it was not unreasonable to think that those were valuable skills going forward. But the GOP was not the spent force people thought they were and they managed a big comeback on the heels of their loss. The Dems could stand to learn a thing or two from them.