Learning the Right Lessons From the Budget Battle

In reading leftie blogs and watching my Twitter feed over the weekend, I’m afraid a lot of progressives are taking the wrong lessons away from the first stage of the budget battle in Washington this year. 

The issue isn’t that so many useful programs were cut and that the GOP are bastards. If you didn’t know the GOP are bastards going in, turn in your membership card.  We should already KNOW that when the denizens of the current incarnation of the GOP get into office, they will screw the poor and anyone else they can, in order to funnel money to their rich benefactors. That is not a shocker.  What’s shocking is that we keep letting them do it.

And that’s the issue. In a nutshell, what you should be learning from this budget fiasco is that allowing the current incarnation of the Republican Party to hold office right now is a very dangerous thing. And we should be looking at the only solution available to us at the moment; electing more Democrats.

Yeah, I know the drill; a lot of Democrats are “too conservative.” Those “Blue Dogs” screw up everything.  And if I hear “Obama doesn’t fight enough” one more time, I think I’ll scream.

What the hell do you expect from him? Do you expect him to go on TV and call Republicans ugly and insult their mothers? He's the President of the United States, for Chrissakes. 

He and the other Democrats fought like hell, and the evidence is there, if you can get your head out of your self-delusions long enough to watch.  Think a little, progressives; why the hell do you think Republicans keep crowing about cutting relatively small programs like NPR? It’s because they can’t lay their hands on the big prizes. You know they want to cut a huge hole into Medicare and Medicaid. You know they want to eliminate Food Stamps. You saw them try to cut Planned Parenthood, and in the end, you know they backed off. Obama threatened to veto the budget bill if he didn’t like the cuts. What the hell would constitute a "fight" to you? If you were expecting a cage fighting match, well, you don’t understand our system very well. The dignity of the office took a major beating when George W. Bush held it; among the messes Obama has had to clean up after Bush, that's an important one. 

This is what it’s like to be in the minority in the House of Representatives and to have a bare majority in the Senate. If your goal with the last election was to hogtie our president, well, congratulations. On the other hand, if you’re sick to death of watching Democratic presidents playing defense, then pay attention.

Our first order of business at this moment in our history should be to recognize that the current incarnation of the GOP is not “conservative.” This isn’t the Republican Party of old. It is right wing, and they are absolutely dangerous to this country. The first step is to rid our politics of fringe elements that are dangerous to the country.

We have to get through step one before we can go to step two, then step three. There is no way around it. And step one is to bury the far right. That has to be our first order of business. That means we have to align with conservatives for an election cycle or two, maybe even three. No matter how much you disagree with "Blue Dogs," we need them with us for a while. For the time being, right vs. wrong is more important than right vs. left. Right now, it's far more important to get rid of the right wing cretins in office than to try to fulfill a fantasy of a fully, 100% progressive Democratic Party.  And make no mistake; it is a fantasy at this point, until we fix our messaging problem.

If you want this country to move forward in a fair and progressive manner, then you have to be able to elect people who can do that. I know a lot of progressives long for a “third party,” but that’s not realistic at this point, and we need help NOW.  If we’d spent the last 40 years building a progressive party the right way, we might have a shot. Instead, we’ve spent 40 years whining and crying about how bad the right wing is, without actually doing anything about them.  Currently, about 60% of the population belongs to one of the two major parties, and around 85-90% habitually vote for either one major party or another. Since this is a winner-take-all democracy, that’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome in one or two election cycles.

Besides, if we fulfill our first mission and get rid of as many right wingers as possible, it’s likely that the Blue Dogs will migrate back to the Republican Party naturally, where they used to belong.  You may disagree with moderates and real conservatives, but you don’t get a sense that they want to ruin the country.  I mean, as politically reprehensible we thought Goldwater and Nixon were in their day, they were nothing compared to the current crop of Republican leaders. You might have to hold your nose to vote for some Democrats for a while, but we have to be able to walk before we can finish a marathon.

And make no mistake, folks; we are in a marathon. Politics is a constant series of battles in a never-ending “war” of sorts. But while we sit in the foxhole waiting for our “General Pershing” to show up and tell us what to do, the other side is coming at us in waves and overwhelming us.

See, one of our key problems we liberals have is that we seem to keep waiting for a “messiah” to lead us out of the wilderness.  When you hear the left talk about Obama, they speak of him as if he was supposed to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and they're disappointed that he turned out to be a man. They expected him to go into the White House and be a combination of Ghandi and Stone Cold Steve Austin or something. We expected HIM to do it all.

When are we going to figure out that WE are the key to this thing? Leaders are not born; they're made by the support they receive. Liberals have deified FDR's memory to such a degree that they don’t realize that FDR didn’t see the end of the Great Depression until World War II, when he finally spent us out of it. That was his THIRD TERM. Obama just completed the first half of one term, and because he hasn’t put everything back where it was when Clinton left, he’s derided as a “non-leader” by progressives. 

Let me disabuse you of something here; When FDR took office, Democrats had a veto-proof majority in the House (313-117) and they had the Senate by a margin of 59-36. FDR was given the TOOLS to do great things, and he was beloved. Everyone SUPPORTED everything he did. They didn’t criticize the New Deal because it didn’t end the Depression in two years; hell, it took him two years to get the unemployment rate DOWN to below 20%. Of course, most of the initial part of the New Deal was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But hey; why mention that, since it makes FDR look like less of a God?  

See, FDR was a leader BECAUSE the country supported him, not the other way around. For some reason, too many liberals these days have this concept ass-backwards. Your support of a politician isn’t like a doggie treat that you withhold until a politician does your bidding. It’s a tool with which a politician does his job. Writing to a politician and showing your support for something you want him to do is how that politician gets his job done.  In his dealings with other politicians, he or she can point to the tremendous support as a rationale for a program, and it gives his or her position more strength. “I refuse to support this bill until you make it into something I like” doesn’t get you a bill you like; it makes it less likely that the bill you like will pass.

If you want a prime example of this concept, look at health insurance reform. Progressives effectively killed the “public option” they claimed to want so badly, because they didn’t actually support it. Instead, they withheld support and dared Obama to start championing it, or they would continue to hold their collective breath until they collectively turned blue. The only problem is, Obama understands the political game, and progressives don’t. The minute Obama championed any specific proposal in the Health Insurance Reform bill, including an undefined “public option,” opposition would have crystallized against it and the GOP would have been able to kill the entire concept of health insurance reform altogether. By keeping his goals "mission-based" and general, he was able to get a bill passed, imperfect though it was. On the other hand, if progressives had gotten fully behind the original bill as it had been conceived, which included both insurance exchanges AND a public option, and supported it with everything we had in a positive manner, it would have passed intact and we would have a public insurance option and an insurance exchange. But it wasn’t perfect, so a lot of liberals whined about it incessantly.

We really have to stop whining and complaining so much, and start sending a positive message. The average voter hates us and the right wing about equally, which is good for the right wing. At some point, we have to realize that we live in a democracy, and the only people who get to make policy are those who get elected, and to get elected, you have to get the most votes.  Instead of telling everyone we’re facing gloom and destruction if they don’t do what we say, we must start coming up with solutions to problems that people can relate to, and push that as relentlessly as we currently espouse our negative, Chicken Little-style opinions.

Instead of messaging, “if we don’t stop using oil, the planet is doomed,” how about a plan to retrofit plants that currently make warplanes and tanks, to make solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric cars? Instead of demonizing big oil, which is making money because we drive internal-combustion engines too much, how about changing the tax code so that it encourages them to develop alternative fuels?

And really; we also have to stop obsessing over individuals. I’ve been saying this for years, and the thick skulls in the leftist “blogosphere” don’t seem to get it. We have a tendency to spend all of our time demonizing THEM and attacking THEM, when THEY are not the problem. The problem is not John Boner (sp?) and Miss McConnell. The problem is not Caribou Barbie and Insane Michele Bachmann. The problem isn’t even Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The problem is what they stand for, and the fact that there is NO OTHER MESSAGE available to counter it. Well, no message  that anyone wants to hear, anyway.  

As you cruise through the leftist blogs and listen to progressive talk on the radio (with the notable exceptions of Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes), I want you to note the overall negative vibe. Yes, I know the right wing sucks. And I know the Republican Party is ruining America with their laws and policies. But what do we offer as an alternative? It has to be a hell of a lot more than “we’re not Republicans.”  

And make no mistake; people do hear our message. The “corporate media” isn’t as big a deal as some people like to make it.

Please point to a time in our history when the news media hasn’t largely been “corporate.” Before there was Rupert Murdoch, there were William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Before Comcast owned MSNBC, it was owned by GE and before that, RCA. CNN was started by Ted Turner, who, several years before had openly protested the FCC’s ownership rules regarding TV station’s news requirement by putting a dog in a suit to do the broadcast one night. This is not a new thing.

The key is to offer up an alternative vision for the country and disburse it far and wide. Okay, so you won’t be able to get it to 3-4 million people in five minutes. But it will spread. If it’s positive, and makes sense to most people, the public will go for it. Look folks; I write this blog knowing that only a few hundred people will see it on a given day. On a great day, I might hit a few thousand people, at most. But by getting the word out, I offer another viewpoint, one that cuts through the crap and clutter and gets to the real issue. Real ideas don’t come from Sean Hannity, or even Ed Schultz. Real ideas come from “we the people,” and they spread via other people.  

We have an example of this right in front of our faces, and we are apparently too blind to see it.

His name is Barack Obama.

When Senator Barack Obama announced that he would run for president less than four years ago, few gave him a chance, including me. Ask anyone who knows me; I said it was too soon. Besides, Hillary Clinton had a two-year head start. But Obama crafted a message of hope and of a bright future, and it caught on like wildfire. He had no “corporate media” outlets to trumpet his message at first. In fact, the Right Wing Fart Machine hit him with everything they could, and NOTHING worked, because his message was what people wanted to hear. And it still is. 

If the “corporate media” is so all-powerful, how did Obama beat Clinton, who was the “chosen” nominee? How did a black man with big ears and a funny name become president? To hear progressive “leaders” tell it, there’s no way that could happen. But it did, because he had a positive message that most voters could relate to.

Immediately after he took office, when miracles didn’t occur quickly and the unicorn refused to fart glitter because of the recession, the left took after him and the Democrats and became negative. Liberals didn’t even take the hint when we LOST Ted Kennedy’s seat because of our negativity, and the negativity continued. We finally got the beginnings of universal health care, but not fast enough. We were pissed off because Obama didn’t just close Gitmo with his magic wand, as if a president can just order it closed and disburse the prisoners wherever he wants. Many on the left actually demanded an executive order ordering the military to ignore DADT. In other words, progressives were pissed off because he didn’t demand that military leaders break the law! They also expected him to just do away with DOMA because, well, it’s a bad law. When DEMOCRATS in the House passed 375 bills that REPUBLICANS in the Senate blocked by rule, progressives went after the DEMOCRATS, for chrissakes! DEMOCRATS pass 375 bills that REPUBLICANS block, and you go after DEMOCRATS? What's wrong with this picture? 

Seriously, folks; the solution to the problem was to add more Democrats in the Senate. Instead, we created a bigger problem. And we can't expect politicians, who have to make deals to pass bills, to do our dirty work for us, to show themselves worthy of our support.

Get a clue, progressives; the message we send DOES reverberate through and influence the electorate. The problem is, our message has either been non-existent or it’s been overwhelmingly negative over the last 30 years. You need to understand that the negativity helps THEM, not us.  Die-hard right wingers LOVE to look like they’re sticking it to “liberals.” They LOVE red meat and they love the negative. But most of the electorate is sick of fighting and bickering and partisan sniping. Openly fighting and bickering helps the far right, because they only win if turnout is depressed. When they pick a fight with us and we fight back, we’re actually helping them. When they say something incredibly stupid, and we get into a fight with them over it, it gives their message credibility, and makes us look bad to the rest of the electorate.

This is why Obama won Friday night, regardless of what was in the bill. This is why Obama has been winning since he took office. If you think Obama should “fight” for the average person, you have to realize that there are a number of ways to do that, and openly bitch-slapping Republicans is not one available to him. Getting up before the public and telling them what assholes Republicans are would actually undermine him, and it would undermine the office. That’s OUR job. It’s OUR job to fight the GOP. But we have to realize that fighting the GOP means “fighting their message,” and not openly engaging in verbal fisticuffs with them. The best way to fight them is to present an alternative to the American people; a positive message that counters their  overall negative meme.

Of course the budget bill that came out of Friday’s negotiations will be crap. It will be crap precisely because we allowed right wing Republicans to win the last election. I mean DUH! It’s not because Democrats “caved.” It’s not because Obama “sold out.” It’s because Congress spends the money, and we handed the reins over to the GOP.  If we had sent a positive message in 2010, we could have reduced their numbers to 37 or 38 in the Senate and ended the filibuster problem. Instead, we’re left with a Speaker Boehner and an even more weakened Harry Reid.

The lesson we should take from the first round of the budget battle  – and this is only the first round, folks – is that elections have consequences.  If we don’t win elections, we can’t influence anything. And to win elections, we have to influence the most voters to go along with us. That means taking on a positive, hopeful tone.

Put simply, if we want to win, we have to become popular. Are you up to it?


Later this week, I’ll suggest possible positive messaging progressives can use to counter the right, and bury them once and for all.  


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