Election 2008

What's with Obama's Deputy Telling Progressives to Pipe Down?

Obama aide Steve Hildebrand explicitly attacks "the left wing of the Democratic Party" with Fox News-style talking points.

A few weeks ago a Senate Democratic aide and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) kicked off a campaign to publicly berate "the left" in the wake of the 2008 election. Now, here's a rant-ish "Message to Obama's Progressive Critics" from top Obama aide Steve Hildebrand demanding the Dirty Fucking Hippies of "the left" shut up

This is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making. Some believe the appointments generally aren't progressive enoughThe problems I mentioned above and the many I didn't, suggest that our President surround himself with the most qualified people to address these challenges. After all, he was elected to be the President of all the people - not just those on the left. (emphasis added)

First thing's first: I absolutely agree with Hildebrand that you can't draw concrete conclusions about Obama based only on his personnel decisions -- and I've written that repeatedly (and I've also said that most of Obama's policy declarations have been pretty progressive). However, Hildebrand implying that those personnel decisions really don't matter at all is straight up silly. It supposes that all the enormous egos that populate a White House are just mindless functionaries, and that even though those egos are heading major federal departments or are key advisers, they have no hand in making policy and/or their advice to a president makes absolutely no impact. Please -- let's get real.

But far more important than that is Hildebrand firing up the whaaaaaaaambulance to whine and cry and moan about "the left." Really, what is with top Democrats explicitly attacking "the left wing of the Democratic Party" in Fox News-style talking points? Why is every substantive, non-partisan, non-ideological question of pragmatism from progressives almost automatically portrayed as some sort of super-Trotsky-ite, ideological and wholly inappropriate demand for Obama to be a president "just for those on the left?" Can anyone even ask a non-ideological question of Obama without being attacked as some sort of raving left-wing lunatic?  

Most progressives questioning Obama have done so rather gently, and have done so on the pragmatic substance. For instance, people wondering about the appointment of Larry Summers to a top economic position in the White House have wondered whether it's such a good idea to empower an ideological free market fundamentalist (pro-free trade, pro-deregulation) whose policies as Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary played a major role in creating the economic crisis. That is, most have wondered why Obama thinks that kind of ideologue is "the most qualified person" to deal with our economic situation, rather than, say, a pragmatist like James Galbraith or Joseph Stiglitz who has been right all along.

Same thing for progressives concerned about the Iraq War. They have wondered whether the ideologues who got us into the war -- who got us into the war on wholly ideological and non-pragmatic grounds -- are really "the most qualified people" to get us out of that war. They believe that perhaps the pragmatists who opposed the war on the basis of a factual analysis of intelligence might be better suited to the task.

Are such questions really the inappropriate queries of a bunch of radical revolutionaries from "the left?" Or are the real fringe radicals -- the real ideologues -- those who say that we should all STFU and bow down to the Dear Leader? I think the latter, not the former -- and I think Democrats (and especially the Obama team) who rightly protested Republican efforts to tar and feather Obama as a "socialist" should know better than to echo such silly, fact-free talking points.

The worst part of Hildebrand's piece is this:

 

As a liberal member of our Party, I hope and expect our new President to address those issues that will benefit the vast majority of Americans first and foremost. That's his job. Over time, there will be many, many issues that come before him. But first let's get our economy moving, bring our troops home safely, fix health care, end Climate Change and restore our place in the world. (emphasis added)

The obvious implication in this passage is the same one we've been hearing from the "center-right" political Establishment since the election ended: While the Very Serious and Very Important Pragmatists of Permanent Washington nobly seek to "get our economy moving, bring our troops home safely, fix health care, end Climate Change and restore our place in the world," the raving and crazy "left wing of the Democratic Party" wants to do other things first, like prioritize ideology even if it means letting those crises intensify. It's an absurd and insulting frame.

Last I checked, "the left wing of the Democratic Party" forced Democrats to take a stronger position against the war in 2006 and that was the key reason Democrats won Congress that year. Last I checked, "the left wing of the Democratic Party" has been the only voice in America that has been right all along in demanding more fair economic policies, an end to the war, better environmental laws, better diplomacy, etc. That is, as opposed to the Very Serious and Very Important D.C. elite who have been doggedly pursuing ideological ends, it has been "the left wing of the Democratic Party" whose policy demands have long been the most pragmatic, the most correct, and now not just positions held by those on "the left" but positions held by the vast majority of America.

Indeed, post-election polls suggest that because "the left wing of the Democratic Party" has been proven correct, Democrats are now in power. Additionally, history suggests that when "the left wing of the Democratic Party" has more power and a bigger voice -- not less power and a smaller voice as Hildebrand and his ilk seem to want -- we tend to avoid messes and/or get out of messes a lot faster.

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, rather than now criticize "the left," it would be better if these insiders just said thank you and went on their way.

The reason the Republican Party and conservative movement were so successful* was because they developed a symbiotic relationship. Specifically, the party apparatus knew that sustained conservative movement pressure on the party was good for the party in keeping it disciplined and on message. By contrast, the culture of the Democratic Party since the McGovern debacle in 1972 has been to bash the progressive movement -- to triangulate against it as proof of "independence" and "centrism." We saw where that got the Democratic Party for the last 30 years -- but by the looks at the public post-election attacks on "the left" from Democrats, it seems like the party higher-ups still haven't learned the simple lesson that pressure from a strong movement strengthens the party as a whole.

* The Republicans are out of power now, but clearly, their party and their movement was wildly successful over the last 30 years in terms of passing policy and structurally changing the legal and political foundations of the country in a lasting way. Thus all the talk about how much work it's going to take to undue the damage they did. The damage we see is (unfortunately) their movement and party's success.

David Sirota is a best-selling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," was just released this month. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network -- both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at www.credoaction.com/sirota.
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