The Audacity of Hope


  1. Shit or get off the pot: a common English language colloquial expression, used to imply a person should follow up their stated intentions, with action. It is also used to urge someone to complete a task with a greater degree of efficiency or timeliness than is observed at the time the expression is used.

    It is a fitting expression.

    There are more polite ways of putting it, of course. And John Neffinger gave it a good go (he gets A for effort - it still can't compete with the good old colloquialism though):

    One of the most telling tales in politics is the one about the progressive activist who got a meeting with FDR to explain his great new policy idea.

    As the story goes, FDR heard the fellow out, and then told him: "I agree with you, I want do do it... Now make me do it."

    FDR's quip goes to the heart of how our system works. If you want to make a good idea law, it's nice to convince your elected representatives that it's a good idea. But it's a lot more useful to go out and create the political conditions that make it easier for your representatives to enact your idea than to avoid enacting it. Talk to the public, make the idea look reasonable, make the need seem urgent, knock its opponents off balance. If instead you rely on your leaders to spend their precious political capital on your idea just because it makes sense... well, good luck with that.

    Even a brief comparison of how FDR and Obama treated the banks during their respective first hundred days in office makes clear that Obama is no FDR. But the difference in approach is even more stark in how the administration has handled healthcare. Because where FDR told progressives "Make me do it," on health insurance reform, Obama told progressives the exact opposite: "Don't make me do it. I'll handle this. Trust me."

    From the very outset of the healthcare debate, the administration told progressives to forget about expanding Medicare to cover all Americans: that was not going to happen, the administration said, and what's more, the administration did not want them making a fuss about it. Instead, the President pledged that he would only sign a bill that included the option to buy into a Medicare-like plan - the "public option"- which might lead to a Medicare-for-all policy someday. The administration invited progressives to support its position, but the administration always wanted to run the show.

    By honoring that request, progressives created exactly the political conditions that would doom the public option. By abandoning Medicare-for-all approach at the outset and instead strongly advocating the public option compromise, progressives made the public option appear to be a radical left position, instead of the moderate market-based approach it actually was. Predictably, the public option was ridiculed by conservative polemicists throughout the debate as a socialist big-government takeover. And in the end, conservative Democratic Senators (as well as Senator Lieberman) did not support the public option exactly because progressives had so noisily supported it. Conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson felt it was important politically for their relatively conservative constituents to see that they did not support the liberal position.

    Makes sense to me!

  2. This same point was made more pithily by Bernie Sanders, Congress's only avowed socialist, after Democrats failed to get fundamental health insurance reform passed under President Clinton. As that story goes, not long after Clinton's health care reform proposal went down to defeat in the Senate, Bill ran into Bernie, and Bernie approached him gravely and said "Mr. President, I am so sorry. I failed you on health care."

    Clinton was puzzled. Sanders had supported his healthcare proposal. "What do you mean, Bernie?" asked Clinton. "You were with me every step of the way!"

    "Exactly," said Sanders. "I should have been burning you in effigy on the steps of the Capitol. Then people would have understood how moderate your plan really was."

    Sanders' point is simple: The center does not hold without the left. If the left is not visible, then the center appears to be the left, and that makes moderate voters wary. Progressives could have gone out and created the political conditions to make elected Democrats reform our health insurance system - they could have advocated the Medicare-for-all approach they really wanted instead of throwing their lot in with the pragmatic center. If that had happened, we could be talking about bargaining away Medicare-for-all to end up with a robust public option, instead of bargaining away an already-gutted public option to end up with a bill that will force millions of Americans to buy from private insurance companies with nothing to control the premiums they are charged.

    More here.

  3. Tactical vs. positional chess, ongoing debate. One thing is clear, Obama is not the magician from Riga.

    Those were different times... a bolder era.

    Nowadays players have become so conservative, so careful, so scripted in their approach. For a while, Obama gave the impression that he was different; he communicated the image of a more spontaneous, more sincere kind of a man. That was before he started "channeling G.W.Bush," sir---or so some people say (curmudgeons, sir).

    Nowadays, politicians...they are another breed, sir. And Obama is no different. Actually the President has been working so hard at trying to demonstrate how "no different" he is, sir. (Most Democrats have done it. Al Gore, Kerry - which is also how usually they lose.) I feel exhausted for him. He is beginning to look like Tiger Woods (minus the "dangereuse liaisons")---just imagine how exhausting being Tiger Woods must be (no wonder he has had all those "liaisons").

    Politicians nowadays, sir, they all play positional chess (and no wonder either that most of them too get engaged in "dangereuse liaisons" of their own - no pun intended, sir - think of their lives, how boring, how vacuous, how inauthentic they are. Wouldn't you get yourself some romantic liaison in Argentina, too?)

    People were expecting a brilliant innovative inspirational leader (a political Mozart) and they got a tepid positional player instead, just like the rest. And, if that John Neffinger person is right, sir, the man, I mean the president, sir, is not all that good at that either.

    Neither is his progressive base.

    On the other hand, while Mr. Neffinger is certainly right that "it's a lot more useful [for progressive activists] to go out and create the political conditions that make it easier for their representatives to enact their idea than to avoid enacting it" and that it is vital that progressives "talk to the public, make [their] idea look reasonable, make the need seem urgent, knock its opponents off balance" (a truism if I know one), the number one handicap of progressive activists in America has always been that their corporatist political adversaries control the media - overwhelmingly so (it has always put the Democrats at a disadvantage - very much like fighting a war in which one's opponent possesses air supremacy) and they have therefore been the ones who typically are regularly "knocked of balance" (playing defensively most of the time). It is a major handicap. One that progressives, rightly so, have been trying to address. Those things take time... Ahh...the one thing they haven't got, sir. Time is a precious commodity. Far more precious than any other, in this day and age. And the world is rapidly running out of it.

    Politicians...they are worrying about 2010. There are far darker times looming ahead. That's what policy makers ought to be worrying about. But this is not how the system works. Or so I have been told.

  4. Speaking of handicap, Quinty's point is a valid one, Obama has indeed been "playing his instrument, be it a violin, harp, or oboe, in a careful cautious way."

    The reason why is plain. The handicap Obama is facing has a name. Searchers call it implicit prejudice.

    "We show that Obama’s race—--not just the ideological character of his policies—--is a factor in some of the opposition to his proposals,” says Knowles, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, and lead author of the study, which was adjusted for political affiliation."

    "Shown a single healthcare reform proposal and told it was either Clinton’s from 1993 or Obama’s, 65 percent of highly prejudiced participants supported the “Clinton” plan, while just 41 percent agreed with the same proposal attributed to Obama. Subjects who showed little bias were about evenly split on "Obama’s" healthcare plan: 48 percent opposed and 52 percent in favor.

    Those with a bias also were more likely to have specific worries about the policy, such as that it would lead to socialism, raise costs, and promote abortion.

    The study gauged implicit prejudice—bias that is subconscious or expressed inadvertently, Knowles says, noting that this type of prejudice is more subtle than blatant, verbally expressed racism.

  5. There would not have been any Obama presidency had it not been for the highly energized base that gave Obama's candidacy the momentum he needed to support his presidential bid.

    Obama didn't win by "playing... in a careful cautious way." He was "careful" and he was "cautious," but, first and foremost, he won because of his charismatic personality and message of "change". That's what propelled him on the front stage.

    While it is doubtful that "playing in a cautious way" now will help turn the prejudiced opinions of those who have already made up their mind about him (it never did), the demotivation of his base and the disappointment of the progressive activists who believed in him are not in doubt.

    What are the Democrats going to do next? Call the Health Care reform bill, The Joe Lieberman bill?

    Why don't they? They may as well.

    How pathetic can a party get?

    2010 looks pretty bleak, indeed!