Ignore the pollsters and champion the progressives

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"If only the czar knew," Russian peasants would tell themselves, "surely he wouldn't let his chief minister be so cruel." Progressive elation at the departure of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel brings this old Russian saying to mind. In reality, of course, the czar knew what was being done in his name. Emanuel has administered the president's preferences, not distorted them.

The question isn't how a new White House team will influence the Obama administration. The larger question is what conclusions the president will draw from the midterm elections and his first two years in office. Will he get over his frustration with the left and recognize that his political future depends on energizing progressives?

The White House seems mired in resentment. Vice President Biden tells liberals to "stop whining" and to get to work. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs strikes out at the "professional left," reflecting the White House's exasperation that the administration isn't getting credit for all that it has achieved.

One can only hope that Obama starts paying more attention to the small-"d" democratic mobilization last Saturday in Washington than the media did. The One Nation march witnessed the activist base of the Democratic Party rousing itself -- union members in their colors, activists from the NAACP, MoveOn, environmental and gay rights groups, the women's movement. The marchers gloried in their diversity -- the full rainbow of America in attendance, unlike the Wonder Bread crowd that Glenn Beck drew, shaming the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The 10-2-10 marchers committed to mobilize through 11-2-10, the day of the midterm elections, and they returned home armed with voter contact lists.

If Democrats limit their losses in November -- still a very big if -- it won't be because of the war chests that the Democratic campaign committees were bragging about only weeks ago. Those are being trumped by the outsized outside expenditures of corporations and right-wing donors placing a big bet on a Republican revival.

No, if Democrats manage to retain control of the House and Senate, it will be because the "rising American electorate" -- the minorities, single women and young people that represented a majority of voters in 2008 and voted overwhelmingly for Obama and Democrats -- shows up in larger numbers than expected in November. And if they do come out, it will only be because the activist base of the party mobilized to get out the vote. And that will come not because of the White House's complaints, but because the base is increasingly alarmed at the Republicans' threat to repeal even modest reforms.

Pollsters and political pros get this basic reality wrong. They measure minute shifts of opinion and believe that careful positioning can capture fickle independents. So Democratic Leadership Council acolytes think President Clinton won reelection by "moving to the center," signing Newt Gingrich's punitive welfare repeal, and campaigning on school uniforms and V-chips. In fact, Clinton gained his lead by defending government against the Gingrich shutdown and campaigning as the champion of M2E2 -- Medicare and Medicaid, education and the environment.

Passion, not positioning, drives politics. In this media-drenched age, with parents exhausted from work and family, with folks worried about their job or searching for one, citizens don't pay attention to the subtle moves that pollsters invent. When Obama decides he needs to "reassure" independents about deficit reduction even while arguing, correctly, that we need more spending to boost the economy, many people get scared that he doesn't have a clear view of what should be done.

True "independents" reflect less an ideology than a lack of clarity. They tend to be attracted by the intensity of the passionate. In this election, of course, the lousy economy hurts the governing party. In addition, Obama's election and his reform agenda inspired an intense -- if often dangerously kooky -- reaction on the right. At the same time, the president's failure to more boldly challenge those standing in the way of authentic reform and his eagerness to demonstrate his "independence" from his organized supporters -- taxing union health-care plans, scorning teacher unions, doubling down on Afghanistan, deferring action on don't ask, don't tell, punting on immigration reform and accepting unsavory backroom deals -- sapped enthusiasm on the left. Not surprisingly, in an off-year election, polls show an "enthusiasm gap," suggesting not only that Republicans are more engaged in the election but that independents are trending Republican.

What last weekend's march showed was that the Democratic base is now moving to mobilize itself. The wingnut right has also inspired the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert extravaganza in Washington on Oct. 30, which will surely attract the attention of the young. All this may be too late and too little -- but it is the best hope Democrats have. I hope the president learns the right lesson. Ignore the pollsters and aides calling for positioning to the center. Provide a clarion voice to Americans about the need for bold, progressive reform -- and show your own supporters a fighting spirit to push for it. Rouse the progressive majority not by complaining about its ingratitude but by championing its cause. Or, as they say in Texas, dance with those that brung you. You'll find others want to join the party.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publish of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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