The Virgin Birth of Obama’s Wonk Core

There’s a telling paragraph in this post from Ezra Klein, one of a series of posts written lately by self-described “wonks” defending the electoral and political approach Hillary Clinton embraces.

It’s a vision that is intuitively plausible to many liberals because it resonates with their own experience. They remember being excited by the promise of Obama’s agenda and then disappointed by the compromises he made, the fights he backed away from, the deals he cut with industry. They remember being organized in 2008 and demoralized in 2010. They remember feeling like they could accomplish anything, only to be told they needed to stop hoping for so much.

The argument is that something about the first years of Obama’s Administration led people to be more realistic in their political expectations. It comes after two more paragraphs characterizing Sanders’ vision of his own break with Obama: mobilization of voters.

“The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama,” Sanders told Vox’s Andrew Prokop in 2014, “is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.”

This is the vision Sanders is selling in Iowa. It’s a vision that is hopeful both in its diagnosis of the problems in American politics and in its prescription. It’s a vision that says liberals were right all along, and the American people have always been with them, and it’s the corrosive influence of corporate donors that has snapped that bond and confused the country.

But Ezra then turns that vision of mobilization into something with a very short history: just back to 2008, when Obama mobilized voters to get elected but then disappointed them in 2010.

Curiously, Ezra doesn’t describe what demoralized liberals in 2010 — I’m not actually sure whether he means the final shape of the health insurance reform or the electoral losses that year (the size of which were exacerbated by the politics of the health insurance reform). That, of  course, is critical to any consideration of the efficacy of pragmatism, because if making pragmatic choices ends up losing historic majorities in Congress, pragmatism will always be a loser for liberals.

But it’s the assumptions Ezra makes in the paragraph that really strike me (they seem, in part, to be based on a story Norm Scheiber wrote in 2014 about former Obama precinct captains from Iowa, which is crazy in that the story and Ezra’s interview based on it were entirely premised on Hillary being unstoppable this time around): that something about Obama’s campaign was uniquely exciting, uniquely promising to liberals and therefore his compromises in office were newly disappointing. That assumption that Obama’s campaign was uniquely exciting really puzzles me. After all, presidential candidates have been exciting voters, including newly active voters, since at least JFK (or, in Hillary’s case, Goldwater). And while those inspired by Kennedy are unique (in that he didn’t live long enough to disappoint them), for all others, there’s always a hangover, after which people take many different paths: disillusionment, integration within the larger party, or excitement by some other candidate in some future race. So why would Obama be different (aside from the fact he’s black, which is important, but certainly not the main thing that inspired even black voters)?

I was so puzzled I actually double checked Ezra’s age because it seemed like something someone who had never voted before 2008 might say, but (as I vaguely recall), even Young Ezra was not only old enough, but quite active, in the 2004 campaign, where a guy named Howard Dean lost in Iowa, but went on to dedicate four years to mobilizing Democratic voters across the country, until Obama replaced the man whose efforts helped to get him elected.

Those years that came before are critically important, too, because they represent a period when the decline of unions — the Democrats’ former method of mass mobilization and still very much a crutch for the party — and the rise of the mobilized Christian right made Republicans newly competitive in presidential elections. And while Hillary’s husband definitely inspired his own share of newly excited voters, the response to the decline of Democrats’ natural mobilized base led to a new kind of Democratic politics, reliant on big donations and lots of TV. We needed Dean to refocus on organizing because the Democratic party had led local organizing to atrophy, which was all the more devastating given the rise of ALEC and with it a machine to help conservatives dominate legislative elections at the state level.

Which brings me to the other curious admission in Ezra’s piece: that even as Hillary-favoring “wonks” beat up on Bernie supporters for their foolish idealism, Hillary herself doesn’t have a plan to challenge Republican dominance.

The problem for Clinton is that the immediate future looks grim for the progressive agenda, and she knows it. Republicans are likely to hold both the House and the Senate. They have a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and, at least for the moment, huge majorities in governorships and state legislatures. Americans are, if anything, growing more divided. Money is an ever more powerful force in American politics. The fact that voters don’t want a fight doesn’t mean they’re not going to have one.

Clinton doesn’t have an easy answer for any of this, and, perhaps to her credit, she’s refused to pretend otherwise. Democrats were bitterly disappointed by the compromises Obama made when he had huge Democratic majorities. The compromises the next Democratic president will have to make, given the likely Republican dominance of Congress, are going to be even more brutal for liberals — and if they’re not, it will likely be because nothing of importance gets done in the first place.

Let me clear: there’s not an easy answer to reverse the work Republicans have been doing since Reagan “changed the rules.” There’s definitely not a quick answer. But if liberals don’t start doing the work now, the apparent blind faith among some in the Democratic party that 2020’s census will magically reverse the political order will fail (if the country doesn’t fail worse before then). Though, as I note, Trump’s candidacy is itself changing the rules, in ways Democrats could well capitalize on if they stopped ignoring it.

The thing is, it’s no secret how to change things: it does remain organizing, and outside of some pre-existing institution of civil society (whether that be unions or evangelical churches), that organizing is going to require both inspiration and a commitment to issues that will benefit the masses of ordinary people.

Pessimism about how much the current Congress will get done may be realistic, but it is no more realistic than the assessment that mobilizing the people who’ve gotten screwed by Republican policies is a necessary antidote.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Curiously, Ezra doesn’t describe what demoralized liberals in 2010 — I’m not actually sure whether he means the final shape of the health insurance reform or the electoral losses that year (the size of which were exacerbated by the politics of the health insurance reform). That, of course, is critical to any consideration of the efficacy of pragmatism, because if making pragmatic choices ends up losing historic majorities in Congress, pragmatism will always be a loser for liberals.

    .
    That undescribed thing which demoralized liberals in 2010 has a 2-word name: “veal pen”.
    .
    Remember that?
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    Remember being told that your pet liberal/progressive leaning organization would see its corporate funds dry up if they didn’t follow the corporate line and stop demanding progressive things?
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    Remember how Obama passed on his chance to reshape the Supreme Court by getting rid of Thomas, after he lied (or fudged) on his financial disclosures (omitting the hundreds of thousands of dollars his wife was taking in from right-wing orgs)?
    .
    I see nothing from HRC beyond more of the same Corporatocrat policies and practices, with the added spice of Clinton Chaos in the WH and its daily operations, instead of the deadly-serious No-drama Obama WH. Maybe even more Clenis trouble – who knows?

    • P J Evans says:

      I remember Rahm punching hippies and dissing everyone left of center. That wasn’t exactly a shining moment.

    • RUKidding says:

      Yes! The Veal Pen, in which we all still live.
      *
      I also recall being punched repeatedly and told that I was f*cking stupid; that I was expecting sparkle ponies pooping rainbows when I expressed extreme dismay at how Big Barry Zero totally forgave Wall ST and made not the slightest effort to discuss a public option once in office (and in fact took Dennis Kucinich to the woodshed via AirForce 1).
      *
      Also Rahm and others in the Admin punching us hippies repeatedly, dropping the Fbomb and telling us to STFU, grow up and get with the program.
      *
      I remember Jaime Presidential Cufflinks Dimon bewailing his fate that the DFH’s said mean things about him.
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      And then the travesty that is ACA, which we’re supposed to love and see as Big Barry Zero’s legend and gift to us stooges.
      *
      And stop dreaming. Get with reality. The GOP is really your party, and this is our platform, but we’ll at least treat you somewhat like sane adults.
      *
      Oh and don’t forget defunding ACORN at the drop of a hat bc Breitbart created a clearly proven FAKE video. But hey, Breitbart’s laying confabulation made ACORN look bad, so let’s immediately defund them and kick them to the curb.
      *
      Oh and let’s not forget Obama instantly firing Shirley Sherrod based on yet another lying POS from Breitbart.
      *
      Where oh where has Obama or anyone in his Admin or ANY fed D pol really ever stood up for a woman’s right to choose?? There’s been constant attacks against Roe v Wade, up to including this recent bullshit waste of money attacking PP against a clearly faked video (by someone who learned well at Breitbart’s knee). Oh yeah, right: no one is really saying bupkiss bc they’re too busy kissing rightwing butt because?? I don’t know. Just because.
      *
      But I guess I should just go f*ck myself, as Rahm so nicely directed me all those years ago bc really what has Barry O’ZeroDarkThirty done for me?? Really. What?

  2. bsbafflesbrains says:

    The end of the “Hope and Change” dream for me came with “Let’s look forward not back”

  3. Peterr says:

    Young Ezra, like many a DC wonk, has no grasp of the phrase “. . . stands on the shoulders of giants . . .” Instead, he seems to be operating with the “I built this!” mentality, with I=Obama, which is kind of sad.

    Those years that came before [2008] are critically important, too, because they represent a period when the decline of unions — the Democrats’ former method of mass mobilization and still very much a crutch for the party — and the rise of the mobilized Christian right made Republicans newly competitive in presidential elections.

    See also a decline in the old civil rights coalition, including the role played by black churches and their white religious partners. The DLC/Third Way turn away from the civil rights fight (gotta win those mythical centrists, you know) came with a huge cost.

    But fast forward back to this race . . . Last September, Howard Dean endorsed Clinton. I wonder if he is perhaps regretting making that endorsement so early in the process. His leverage to shape the debate in the short term is gone, and in the long term depends on (a) a Clinton win, and (b) the level of gratitude Clinton feels toward Dean for helping (a) to happen. Whatever the odds of (a) are, the odds of (b) are a lot lot longer.

    On the other hand, Senator Professor Warren, by withholding her endorsement, is able to drive her issues forward into the political discussions (internal links omitted):

    WHILE presidential candidates from both parties feverishly pitch their legislative agendas, voters should also consider what presidents can do without Congress. Agency rules, executive actions and decisions about how vigorously to enforce certain laws will have an impact on every American, without a single new bill introduced in Congress.
    .
    The Obama administration has a substantial track record on agency rules and executive actions. It has used these tools to protect retirement savings, expand overtime pay, prohibit discrimination against L.G.B.T. employees who work for the government and federal contractors, and rein in carbon pollution. These accomplishments matter.
    .
    Whether the next president will build on them, or reverse them, is a central issue in the 2016 election. But the administration’s record on enforcement falls short — and federal enforcement of laws that already exist has received far too little attention on the campaign trail.
    .
    I just released a report examining 20 of the worst federal enforcement failures in 2015. Its conclusion: “Corporate criminals routinely escape meaningful prosecution for their misconduct.” . . .

    Her punchline is spot on: “Legislative agendas matter, but voters should also ask which presidential candidates they trust with the extraordinary power to choose who will fight on the front lines to enforce the laws. The next president can rebuild faith in our institutions by honoring the simple notion that nobody is above the law, but it will happen only if voters demand it.”
    .
    Which brings us back to Marcy’s words above: “The thing is, it’s no secret how to change things: it does remain organizing, and outside of some pre-existing institution of civil society (whether that be unions or evangelical churches), that organizing is going to require both inspiration and a commitment to issues that will benefit the masses of ordinary people.”

  4. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    Somewhere in EW’s tweeter feed she linked to an article that discusses Ezra’s support of single payer/public option back around 2007. I don’t have any brilliant insight into why supposed liberals like Klein or Krugman go all in with the corporate Democrats, even when it requires them to disavow their previously held views. Maybe it’s just the naturally corrupting influence of going to all those Beltway cocktail parties. But to me it’s OK to say that that Ezra Klein is just another DC sellout. Enjoy your money, you little twit.

  5. bevin says:

    I forget but wasn’t Wisconsin in 2010? The recall etc that Obama took a pass on?

    What I recall is that Gunatanamo was still as open as ever, Gaza had just been comprehensively flattened without a word of protest from Obama waiting to take office, and that, after all else, the democrats did not contest the midterms. There was no attempt to raise issues, build momentum for change, the Tea Party were left with Hope and Change to themselves. Their agenda was nutty, it missed most of the issues that really mattered (unemployment, declining wages, rising inequalities, soaring tuition and, the issue of issues for seventy years, switching investment from America’s imaginary enemies to the social and physical infrastructure) but it was uncontested except at the ‘how wacky the plebs are’ level.

    And why was there no contest, no attempt to build momentum, organise the electorate from coast to coast? Because that would have ruined everything. It would have worked, as Occupy for all its fatuities almost did, and that was and is what frightens them. It is not that change would be difficult but that it would be very easy. In fact it is coming, one way or another and if Hillary blocks reform from the left it is going to come from the right.

    It is coming just as it was in 1896. I just wish Bernie could make public speeches- he’s no William Jennings Bryan, though his challenge to the Democratic leadership is very much akin to the Boy Orator of the Platte’s- couldn’t somebody send him the Cross of Gold speech?

    • Ed Walker says:

      The Democrats didn’t contest the mid-terms is the first sentence in a long treatise on neoliberal democrats. I won’t write it, but it’s worth noting that the hideous bastard Rahm, now running my beloved city of Chicago into the ground, made sure that no progressive democrats got any support from the repulsive DCCC or the administration. Instead they offered up a bunch of soggy retreads and spineless losers, like lambs to the slaughter.

  6. wayoutwest says:

    Rob Urie addresses the ‘Reagan made me do it’ meme in his latest post at Counterpunch, subtitled ‘Be Very Afraid Little Rabbits’.

  7. TarheelDem says:

    For quite some time on other blogs I have been showcasing the math that is involved in taking national power and the necessity of geographic dispersal of efforts. The numbers are only mildly daunting; it takes 175,000 votes to ensure victory in a Congressional race. When you are talking about organizing for a Congressional election, you are talking about organizing 192,480 precincts to turn out enough voters to gain the majority in Congress and 270 votes in the electoral college for President.

    But before you get to that point, you have to get nominated a party candidate, get an independent candidate qualified for the ballot, or get a third party certified for the ballot. The organizing on all of those takes some arcane down-in-the-weeds understanding of state laws, major party primary rules, or both. And that is all before you get to the rules for financial reporting in campaigns.

    Delightfully for those who are, modern campaigns require professional help of all sorts or you start at a disadvantage–at least a two-cycle disadvantage.

    At least folks know we are in deep shit right before the primary instead of right before the general election. And that will be seen in the history books as Bernie Sanders’s failure to recruit House and Senate (and governor and legislative) candidates to run as part of his team under the Democratic banner and at least try to run the table.

    The truth about 2010 and 2014 is the Blue Dogs land state establishments lost it, not stay-at-home progressives. It is not clear how the transition from Howard Dean to Tim Kaine played in those events, but they surely have some connection. Likely some noses out of joint from Dean being forced on them in 2005.

    Are there people who can organize in over a half of those 192,480 precincts? Is that not the first job or at least in a few supposedly forever-conservative states? What is the equivalent of picking off LaFollette’s Wisconsin?

  8. JohnT says:

    .
    Ezra Klein can go fornicate himself
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    Whatever!!!!!!
    .
    Some 20 something wannabe insider wants to tell everyone else how they should think and act because it makes him feel all warm inside as he gets invited to the DC cocktail weinie parties

  9. lefty665 says:

    Obama campaigned on Change and governed from the beginning as Same. It was clear by Thanksgiving ’08 when he started announcing appointments and holdovers in defense and finance that we were screwed. Then 1/20/09 the Repubs met and vowed to approve nothing. There were zero Repub votes for the Stimulus. Instead of declaring war and using his veto proof majority Obama compromised stimulus to the point that 7 years later we still haven’t recovered. Health care took so long because it took that long to kill single payer. The list goes on forever. People blamed that little C***sucker Emmanuel, but he was Obama’s boy.
    .
    The first term was consumed by setting himself up for re-election as the lesser evil by staying one half step to the left of the right most dingbat.
    .
    Sanders and Trump are right. The game has been rigged since Reagan. Real wages have not gone up for 90+ percent of the country since 1978. The question is are you better off than you were 8 years ago or 16, or 24 or 36. The answer for most of the country is “No” and the prospects for the next generation are worse. The campaign for Change in 2008 was a fraud and the opportunity wasted. The elections since have been frustrated and increasingly desperate voters trying another way. It hasn’t worked because the fat cat Repubs like Same even more than the Dems. The swings will be wider this year, and if that doesn’t work it will be crazier next time.
    .
    We quit the Dems in ’11, couldn’t stand defending the indefensible anymore. Sanders and Trump (surprisingly) are both talking New Deal. It worked for FDR and the country in ’32, and it can again. We will not vote for more Same. That means NEVER for Hillary under any circumstances and have not figured out what we’ll do if it comes down to her and Trump.
    .
    There may be a party realignment coming. The Dems are working themselves into a profound minority in the States and Congress and the survivors are aging out. The Repubs are dismantling themselves before our eyes. That leaves a lot of people at loose ends and pretty unhappy. Sort of puts context with “When in the course of human events…”
    .

  10. KC says:

    I remember being unhappy with Obama after he was elected, but I think my expectations were a little too high in retrospect. There are a lot of checks, balances, and choke points in our system–it took Roosevelt a set of truly extraordinary circumstances to do what he did. He experienced setbacks too. What I hope is that we don’t end up in a place where Obama is the modern Wilson (of course I’m not including the racism), where positive changes he has made are undone in a few short years. I think this is why I am committed to whoever the Dem nominee is–giving Repubs total control would be terrible.

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