Progressive Memo: Focus on Winning Elections

Focus on winning elections.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Well, oddly enough, it isn’t. With a few exceptions, progressive activists campaign tirelessly for progressive positions on a wide variety of issues, but do not think enough about how to help progressive candidates win elections.

Trying to advance progressive principles and values on issues since the beginning of 2009 from their position on the Democratic Party’s left flank has greatly frustrated many Progressives. But there is a lesson to be learned. Standing tall and shouting angrily against the policies of the party in power – whether Republican or Democratic – on issues is important, but Progressives are discovering this year that it isn’t enough. Indeed, they have learned that electing a Democrat to the White House and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate isn’t enough either.

Progressives must focus on helping progressive candidates win elections.

In 2010, Progressives must focus on primaries, taking out Blue Dogs, New Democrats, and other moderates in the Democratic Caucuses of the House and Senate, devoting resources to those races in which, if given the opportunity, the incumbents’ constituents would vote for progressive candidates in next year’s midterm elections (e.g. Jim Cooper in TN-05, about whom much more in future posts).

And Progressives must focus on the 2010 midterm elections, winning seats for the Democratic Caucuses of the House and Senate by giving support to all candidates whose positions on issues reflect progressive values, and they must seriously consider working toward depressing support for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who is up for reelection next year, if his leadership ultimately proves to be the miserable failure that so far it very much appears to be.

How can progressive candidates win elections?

Broadly speaking, Democrats have good reason to run their campaigns toward Obama, while Republicans similarly have good reason to run against him. GOP candidates will cast the 2010 midterm elections as a referendum on Obama’s presidency, largely for lack of anything else to run on. John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich, and, despite the best efforts of so-called Tea Party Patriots, there will not be a Republican Revolution or Contract with America in 2010 as there was in ’94.

Progressive activists and the candidates they endorse have a real opportunity in the 2010 primaries and midterm elections, but progressive activists must be far more judicious in their opposition to President Obama than they have been so far, and progressive candidates would do well to be more judicious as well.

The three key issues for the 2010 primaries and midterm elections will be 1) jobs and unemployment, 2) health care reform, and 3) Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan.

Successful campaigns will be those that focus on and repeat consistent messages about these three key issues. Let’s consider them first, before turning to other important issues like the stimulus, climate change, Stupak (Stupak’s betrayal of a core Democratic Party principle), “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

If progressive candidates want to win, and if their supporters want to help them win, they should stake out the following positions:

Key Issue 1: Jobs and Unemployment

In Will The Unemployment Disaster Be Obama’s Katrina? (Nov 23, 2009), Arianna Huffington asserts that "it should be clear that unemployment is going to be the singular issue of 2010." Despite some encouraging news regarding jobs since she published her article, she was right to argue that unemployment will be a key issue, though it will not be "the singular issue."

To maintain her analogy between Katrina and unemployment, "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job" became "Heck of a job, Larry!" and "Heck of a job, Timmy!" in Huffington’s article. As it regards progressive candidates winning elections, however, it would be a mistake to follow Huffington in going on the attack against the Obama administration on jobs and unemployment.

Despite the obvious flaws in several of the Obama administration’s positions, the winning position for progressive candidates will be to stand with Obama on jobs.

THE MESSAGE: We want to work with Obama to solve the problems of unemployment; we will work hard to extend unemployment benefits and to convince Obama that there should be a second stimulus as soon as possible.

Key Issue 2: Health Care Reform

Obama failed to lead; Reid apparently can’t lead; and Pelosi ultimately gave away far too much: there have been many failures of leadership along the way to turning a great opportunity to achieve real health care reform into a waste of a whole lot of effort. The end result has turned out to be nothing more than big gifts to the very industries that created the current problems in our health care system.

Given the current political configuration, Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake was correct to stake out the position she did on the public option and was right to have done so early. She’s also right now to argue that we need to focus on helping progressive candidates win elections in order to make single-payer health care Medicare for All a reailty and that we must start immediately.

According to ABC News/Washington Post polling just before the Senate voted to move foward with debate on health care reform, a majority of Americans believe that health care reform will cause costs to go up and that "it could shut down many private insurers." The numbers in this poll mean nothing more than that it has been easier for Republicans and their Conservadem allies to confuse the issues around much needed health care reform than it would have been for Obama, Pelosi and Reid to lead on the same issues. Indeed, the numbers reflect the fact that there was a massive failure of leadership on the part of Democratic leaders in the White House and Congress.

THE MESSAGE: We stand for real health care reform and against giving big gifts to the very industries that created the current problems in our health care system.

THE CATCHPHRASE: Medicare for All (Short. Simple. Hard to attack, even for Republicans.)

Key Issue 3: Obama’s New Strategy for Afghanistan

Running against Democrats in primaries and against Republicans in the midterms, progressive candidates should grudgingly support Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, emphasizing that they do so only because the problems created in the region by the recklessness and failures of Bush and Cheney are complex and will not be easily solved. Candidates must emphasize that the support will continue only so long as measurable progress is being made toward creating the conditions that will allow Obama to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011 and emphasize that the support will continue only so long as Obama reevaluates his decision to launch increasing numbers of unmanned aerial predator drone strikes into Pakistan, which is a means to an end that is immoral and unacceptable.

I realize that this third recommendation will be hard for most Progressives to swallow, but a narrow majority of Americans support Obama’s new strategy according to a USA Today/Gallup poll that came out a couple of days ago, and the poll also showed that most Americans correctly believe that there would have been chaos in the region had Obama ordered an immediate withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan. Finally, Obama’s new strategy will be proven correct, and the evidence that it is correct will grow in the months leading up to November 2010.

So, like it or not, swallow this recommendation Progressives must if the candidates they support are to win elections in 2010.

THE MESSAGE: We have strong reservations about Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, but recognize that the problems created in the region by the recklessness and failures of Bush and Cheney will not be easily solved.

Issues of Importance: The Stimulus, Climate Change, Stupak (Stupak’s betrayal of a core Democratic Party principle), DADT, and DOMA

While these and other issues are of great importance and progressive positions on them must be voiced without reservation, they will not be decisive in the 2010 midterm elections. Emphasizing progressive positions on them will likely help candidates in primaries running against incumbent Democrats, but overemphasizing them while running for office against Republican and so-called Tea Party opponents can only factor against progressive candidates.

For the Blue America project to succeed in advancing progressive principles and values, candidates endorsed by Blue America have to win in 2010, even if only a few, followed by many more in 2012 and beyond.

[Originally published at Circleparkforum.]

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