I haven’t written much about Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney’s excellent piece on the power struggle inside the Democratic Party. It highlighted an important issue that virtually no other media outlet bothers to cover in full. There’s a cottage industry these days, and really has been since the emergence of Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s, of reporting on the ideological battles inside the GOP. But we hear very little of substance about the similar dynamic on the left; in fact, most media stories about this simply take for granted the political risk of “moving too far” from the center. This infects the entire debate, marginalizing progressive policies as merely the work of dirty hippies that cannot be taken seriously. Even the standard bearers of these policies inside Washington seem to believe this; at least, that’s what I got from Grim and Delaney’s piece.

The siege mentality, the belief that outside groups cannot be leveraged into popular action, is best expressed by this remarkable passage with Lynn Woolsey, who thinks that the best way to achieve progressive goals in Washington is… actually, I have no idea:

The relative success of the effort was a rebuke to Woolsey. “Politically, we think it’s not a question of influence, it’s a question of coalition-building,” Grijalva says when asked about Woolsey’s concern about the influence of outside groups. “Somebody needs to knock on the door, and knock hard sometimes,” he says. “This is not an intellectual exercise, this is a political exercise, and you need political backing.”

It’s not the kind of backing Woolsey is looking for. In June, Amy Isaacs went to see her old friend Woolsey to tell her that she was retiring after a long organizing career that included 20 years at the old-school liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action. Isaacs wanted to introduce her to the succeeding director and to offer help with her agenda. She had no idea what she was in for. Isaacs describes the meeting that ensued as “what has to have been the most bizarre conversation with a member of Congress that I’ve had in 40 years.” Woolsey made it clear that one of her top priorities was making sure that Grijalva didn’t win out in his effort to ally the CPC with outside organizations. “Those aren’t quite the words she used, but that was certainly the meaning she conveyed. And it was odd. It was very odd,” says Isaacs […]

Woolsey would rather wage an internal struggle free from interference. “They’re outside groups and they belong — it is not their job to give direction to the progressive caucus, who are working, all 83 of us, at breakneck speed, to get things as progressive as possible,” says Woolsey, who doesn’t appreciate her door being knocked on. “To go to the most progressive members of the House and tell them they’re not progressive enough is not healthy.”

The silver lining in all of this is that Woolsey basically announced that she won’t run for chairing the CPC next year.

And there are good stories here too – proof in the person of Carol Shea-Porter and Alan Grayson and Tom Perriello that you can run progressive populists in so-called “swing” districts and win. But over and over in the piece you see the DCCC making default endorsements of the most conservative Democrats they can find in the name of them being “viable”. The Doug Tudor/Lori Edwards race in Florida, where the latter candidate, a Blue Dog, got progressive and labor backing despite Tudor’s progressive credentials, is an example.

The hope here is that labor and the netroots and even some big-name liberal donors get frustrated enough to build their own outside structures and create a movement with the power to work outside the party. Just to be clear what will be lobbed at those who make this effort, read this quote from Jane Harman’s campaign manager after Marcy Winograd stripped her state party endorsement as part of her progressive primary challenge:

“Winograd and the PDA have no issues to campaign on, so they instead want to abuse the Convention and waste time attempting to disenfranchise Jane Harman’s significant number of progressive supporters,” said Harman campaign adviser Harvey Englander. “Rather than firing inward, PDA should target vulnerable California Republicans. The goal is to build the progressive base, not shrink it.”

You’ll be told you’re hurting the party. You’ll be told that you’re counter-productive. You’ll be told that you’re waging an issue-free vanity campaign (incidentally, as a constituent I can say that Winograd’s campaign is about as rigorously issue-focused as any I’ve seen). And that will actually work in a lot of cases. I’ve been documenting the false hopes raised by Democratic groups and their allies in labor about holding accountable those members of the Party who consistently vote against the Democratic agenda. However, after some conversations with SEIU officials, I’m more convinced that the effort is sincere. I’d certainly like to see it, and I’ll praise it when it happens.

Ultimately, Grim and Delaney paint a hopeful picture that may not be totally warranted. But the dynamic they describe is real, and the frustration is out there. The game plan to winning these fights in the future is out there.

P.S.: As someone who closely followed the whip counts in Congress, I do want to strongly disagree with this part of the Grim/Delaney story:

In March, Stupak and his gang of pro-life dissidents eventually came around to a compromise on abortion and voted in favor of the bill. The votes he delivered did not put the bill above 216; it was already there. When Rep. Zach Space (D-Ohio) announced the day before the vote he’d be opposing it, Republicans and other Hill observers saw it as a sign that Pelosi had the votes and was now releasing vulnerable members. But the Stupak group was made up of public option supporters. With him back on board, Pelosi now had at least the 216 votes for a reconciliation package with a public option in it. But she didn’t want 216. She wanted more […]

Both knew the bill was in the can. “We knew who the 219 were,” says Hoyer. Having Stupak on board gave cover to the members deciding the vote based on politics. Several Democrats, such as Rick Boucher of Virginia, had not announced their intentions and refused to reveal them until the last minute. Boucher was one of several members who voted only after 216 yeas had already piled up.?? (His spokeswoman says he released a statement the moment the vote began announcing his opposition.) But letting some Democrats retreat makes it harder for the ones who had the courage to stand and fight. Immediately after the vote, and repeatedly since, the National Republican Congressional Committee has used Boucher’s vote to blast his neighbor Perriello, whose energetic defense of health care reform during 21 town halls in August was the counterattack the administration had desperately needed. “Boucher: Perriello’s Obamacare vote will hurt seniors,” reads a typical missive from the NRCC. Perriello must now defend his vote not only from GOP attacks, but from Democratic ones.

Both Clyburn and Hoyer say that they probably could have whipped enough votes to offset the loss of Stupak. “I think we could have,” Clyburn says, who also adds they had the votes for the public option. “But I would much rather have 219 than try to eke out 216.” ??Hoyer agrees. “I think we could’ve done it,” he says, but getting that 216 would’ve forced more Blue Dogs to take a hard vote, something leadership would rather avoid. “We would’ve had to get more marginal members, the Blue Dog and other caucuses — I guess the Blue Dogs primarily.”

I call BS, and have been backed up by informed sources, that anyone got a “pass” on the HC vote to any degree. It’s in everyone’s interest to say so after the fact, but that doesn’t make it true. As it happens, the final votes matched the intended votes to a T, and given the yeas and nays the conspiracy of offering passes would have had to basically last a couple weeks – Space first gave his opposition to the bill in FEBRUARY. I don’t think the narrators telling that tale – Stupak who wants to deflect blame, the Democratic leadership who want to seem like vote-counting wizards, Republicans – are particularly reliable. There was absolutely a point when the difference between passage and failure rested with the Stupak bloc.

David Dayen

David Dayen