Many progressives love to look at old movies from before the TV era and cite them as examples of how America should be. One of their favorites is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It’s commonly cited as their ideal political movie, and they like to use it as an example of what the filibuster should look like, as if a filibuster ever looked like that. And many wish President Obama was more like Jimmy Stewart’s character, Jefferson Smith.
Being an old movie buff, I love this film. I love watching nearly everything Frank Capra ever did. But the progressives who “wish Obama was like Smith” miss the point of the film and he status of the main character. The film isn’t about an idealistic individual who rises up and overturns the corrupt old guard; if you think that, Frank Capra is probably looking down and wishing he could slap you. Senator Smith didn’t win by himself. In fact, when he was taking on the corruption by himself, he was losing badly, in part because he was naive and idealistic and thought right should just win out over evil. He also didn’t know what he was doing. He only “won” the filibuster because the opposition cracked and confessed to everything. The Boy Rangers rallied their forces, print up newspapers and gave one to every single human being in Smith’s home state within a matter of hours. Ultimately, it was the massive support from his constituents that made the difference, and caused Senator Paine to take to the Senate floor and, wracked with guilt, finally admit that HE was the corrupt one.
That’s not to say Senator Smith isn’t a hero on some level. He is. But even a fictional politician doesn’t simply “become” a hero on his own. What makes a politician a hero — what creates in a politician the boldness to do things that are beyond the pale — is a high level of support and trust. Yes, I said “trust.” government is called a “public trust” for a reason.
If you”re one of those who is “disappointed” with President Obama, and want him to be more of a leader, then you need to SUPPORT him. While Jefferson Smith is fictional, but we have a lot of real life examples to choose from. If you’re a progressive, you have to love Congresspersons like Maxine Waters and Bernie Sanders, because they usually tell the truth and stand for something. My old Congressman, Elijah Cummings, is able to be eloquent and effective when discussing issues important to average people. My old district in Arizona is represented by Raul Grijalva, who is one of the most eloquent people in Congress. All of them say exactly what needs to be said and they do what needs to be done. And don’t we wish all Democrats were like them?
We can have an entire party of Democrats like that, but it will take a lot of work. If we want politicians to do the right thing, you need to support them and trust them. If we want President Obama and all other Democrats to go out on a limb for us, we have to be able to demonstrate to them that they won’t fall out of the tree and die in the attempt. When Obama climbs onto that limb, progressives can’t be out there with a chainsaw.
Congresscritters like Maxine Waters and the others can be as progressive as they like because they have tons of support from their constituents. There is little chance of losing elections for saying what they do, so they speak their mind. The reason FDR was able to act so boldly back in 1933 was because everyone but the far right loved him. I’m talking about love. They didn’t just think he was a nice guy; they believed in him and trusted him.
Obama and Congressional Democrats have largely been on their own for a long time, even as progressives were calling themselves the “democratic base,” which is ridiculous. In order to be part of a political “base,” the politicians in question must be able to count on your support and trust no matter what. I’ve seen no evidence of that from many progressives, whom I call “PUBs,” for Progressive Unicorn Brigade.” Even before Obama had a chance to screw up, PUBs were jumping down his throat. Hell; they started even before he was inaugurated. Remember the uproar over Geithner’s nomination as Secretary of the Treasury? Or his choice of Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration? Seriously.
When Obama told us to “hold his feet to the fire,” he didn’t mean he wanted us to complain about absolutely everything. He didn’t mean we were supposed to start a forest fire, throw him into the middle of it and dare him to come out intact. The way to evaluate a politician is not to micromanage your support based on every individual decision he makes; no one could stand up to that kind of scrutiny. He’s not a deity, he’s human.
If you want to know why Obama seems “weak” at times, it’s because he’s a politician, and politicians are necessarily forced to go where the support is in order to keep their jobs. Just as importantly, he understands the importance of keeping the Republicans out of office, as well. Obama couldn’t be as bold as we wanted him to be on banking reform for a very simple reason; he and Congressional Democrats had minimal support from the loudest portion of the left. The ACA started with a strong public option, an insurance exchange and strong consumer and price controls, but lost much of that because a large and vocal portion of the progressive movement provided no support to them. Don’t get me wrong; they yelled a lot, and they offered very strong opinions and judgment, but little to no support for anything that they don’t perceive as “pure.”
Let’s be clear; “I’m not going to support it unless it contains x, y and z” is not a show of support.
“I’ve got your back no matter what you do, because I trust you” IS a show of support.
That’s the problem. I support Obama because I trust him to do the right thing, and so far, he hasn’t let me down. Do I agree with every single thing he does? Don’t be absurd; he’s human. But I happen to think he’s the best president we’ve had in a generation, because I look at his overall record, which is admirable, given the level of obstruction coming from the GOP since he was elected. Really; look at the first two years and compare them to the last four, and ask yourself; did targeting Blue Dogs and giving Republicans more seats actually bring us better government? What was so “progressive” about replacing “spineless Democrats” with teabaggers?
If you want to be part of the political system, you have to play politics intelligently. That’s always true in a democratic system. In our unique “checks and balances” system, two-thirds of the government is elected by a majority of those who show up to vote. and the other third is chosen by those who are elected by that majority. In other words, elections are the key to everything.
Our political system is simple. You put all your support behind a candidate. If that candidate loses, you pick up your ball and either try again, or find another candidate to support. But always remember; if your candidate wins an election, that constitutes the beginning of your support for that politician, not the end. You have to keep campaigning, and keep pushing and keep supporting that politician or party, and you have to let the politician and the party know you support and trust them. And yes, that means supporting them even when they have to do something you don’t like. The time to reevaluate that politician is when the next election cycle comes along. If the overall record of that candidate shows low performance, find another candidate. But that means overall record, not a couple of votes you didn’t like.
If progressives are to move this country left, we have to realize a few things. We have to understand that the 70 percent of voters who occupy the political center will always decide who gets to run the country. If we want to move the country’s politics left, we have to move the electorate left. That means we have to make our case to the average voter, and get most of them to see things our way. We also have to realize that having two strong parties in a winner-take-all system is a minor miracle. You can dream of a perfect “third party” that does everything you want it to if you’d like, but in reality, you simply cannot win anything but a fluke election without aligning with one of the major parties. Since the people progressives most relate to are Democrats, joining with the Democrats makes the most sense. In fact, the last time we did that, look how progressive we became. The New Deal, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights and environmental legislation all came out of a partnership between progressives and Democrats. Most progressives are still aligned with Democrats, but unfortunately, PUBs are the loudest and most visible progressives quite often, and they tend to drown out everyone else. People don’t like progressives very much, mostly because the loudest of us are incessantly negative. We have to start sending a positive messages, and stop poisoning the debate with unpleasantness.
Finally, we must understand that no one acts in a positive way to threats. When we say something along the lines of, “if that politician wants my vote, he’s going to have to do x, y and z,” we’re acting more like a petulant child than a group of thinking adults, and no one reacts well to stuff like that. Think about it; in your own life, who are you more likely to listen to; someone who explains things calmly and rationally, or someone who calls you a moron because you don’t see things their way? Who is more likely to influence you in your life; someone who kicks you in the ass when you do something wrong, or someone who praises you when you do something right?
Voters want to show up and vote every election, but they want to vote for something. They want to feel like they’re making a difference with their vote. Politicians need to win elections to stay in there, and they need to know that, if they do the right thing, they’ll be rewarded. That means support. Support them, and they’ll do the right thing.