Lessons in Strategic Thinking for the Puritan Left

So instead of apologizing again for my absence (despite things continuing to get better for me, I have had little time), I thought I'd write a piece about the Republican attack on American values and the American way of life, and the contributions to the same being made by the wonders that hold the keys to the left-puritan blogosphere.

Now, we know that Wisconsin Republicans created their "financial crisis" by giving a large corporate tax break almost equal to the size of the deficit their state is now facing. Manufactured crisis? You bet. Republicans in the state - and now in Indiana and in Ohio - would like to end collective bargaining rights of the state's public employees. At the national level, too, the Republicans are acting according to their own interests - that is, the interests of the corporation. The US House, under Speaker John Read-my-lips Boehner, has approved cuts in spending in job training programs, food stamps, and cutting off funding to implement health care reform. Interestingly enough, they have left alone a number of tax breaks for corporations that, for example, give them tax benefits to offshore American jobs. Evidently, the Republican party does not believe that our government should be helping retrain Americans for new jobs, with our unemployment rate still stuck at 9%. The Democrats in the Senate have declared the Republican proposals dead-on-arrival, of course, and it seems that Republicans might just head straight off the cliff as the current continuing resolution - the bill that keeps the federal government funded - runs out on March 4.

But for the political right, this is hardly about spending. We know from experience that Republicans in Washington will run up spending on the American credit card as soon as they hear about a new useless war or a new way to construct a corporate giveaway. What the Republicans are doing today, I believe, has one primary goal: to dismantle the reforms enacted by the President and Democrats in the last Congress. The House GOP's cuts already include blocking funds to implement health reform. The GOP is also moving down a path to defund and deconstruct the consumer financial protection bureau.

Alas, the political far Right are not the only culprits in targeting these major reforms. By some measures, the loud Hamsherian Left were no less responsible for driving down the popularity of health reform and financial reform than the Norquistian Right. As I have made clear before, this is not because I equalize the violence in the rhetoric of the sides. I don't. But that aside, the unqualified, uninformed and cynical attacks came fast and furious as much from the Left as they did from the Right. The unsubstantiated attacks from the Puritan Left had the added advantage of making opposition seem "bipartisan" and thus far more effective in driving down public support than most people think. They at once convinced a good portion of the public that reform was opposed by both sides of the political spectrum and deluded many on the Left into believing that the reforms were nothing more than window dressing.

And that was as harmful back then as it is today. Those who were convinced by the left-puritan con-artists then have no incentive today to stand up against the far Right and prevent them from dismantling these reforms. If you truly believed - as the leftopolis told us back then - that health reform was worse than nothing, you might even be in support of the Republicans dismantling it. It would stand to reason. When some of us tried to point out that while imperfect, the reforms passed by Obama and the Democratic Congress are in their own right transformative, we were derided as corporatists, DLCers and "Obamabots." Much of the energy on the Left was spent highlighting and blowing out of proportion the imperfectionis of the reforms, rather than focusing on the impacts. I don't want to say we told you so, but we told you so.

Republicans aren't attacking health reform because they hate the mandate. They aren't attacking financial reform simply because they can't stand Elizabeth Warren. They are attacking these things because they are fundamentally antithetical to the Right's concept of government - which is that aside from large national security expenditures and regulating personal behaviors, government's role is to assist the concentration of wealth in the fewest possible hands.

I don't say this to open old wounds. But there's a pattern. Many on our side seem to believe that government is run by dictates from the President - especially when his party is in control of both houses of Congress - and focus so much on individual portions of a reform that we lose focus on strategic thinking. It is not important to get everything perfect the first time around in reform.What's important is to make transformational changes that shift the national debate. With health reform (as well as other reforms in the first two years of Obama), we had a chance to do exactly that. To an extent, we did. We established a public responsibility for health care for all Americans, albeit in a system to deliver it through primarily private methods. But we lost a significant opportunity to engrave that paradigm shift in the minds of Americans, because - well, because we were too busy squabbling about the public option.

Similarly, on financial reform, we lost the chance to win a far-reaching debate about the role of public regulations on private financial institutions. Why? We were too busy arguing about the fact that the bill did not authorize regulators to break up big banks, even though it authorized them to put any institution that threatens the system out of business. We spent a ridiculous amount of time arguing the housing of the consumer protection agency. While financial reform was one of the most successful initiatives of the past two years, "leaders" on the left puritan movement spent lots of time whining about the utter political impossibility that banks be nationalized.

I would be the last person to say that details of legislation are unimportant. Still, details without context amount to nothing more than hubris. We saw such a focus on the details of what the progressive movement had to sacrifice to pass the reforms that we forgot to stop and look at not only what we got but the directional changes those reforms set up in our society. As a result, we lost the chance to make the case to the American people to continue in that direction.

Fortunately, there are times when we get a second chance at first impression. The Right's overreach to try to make good on their electoral threats of dismantling President Obama's reforms rather than focusing on their promises of job creation has caused Americans to take a second look. The American people do not want health care reform repealed, while Republicans are exposing themselves by advocating to defund the federal consumer protection bureau in its infancy. And the Republican state-level assault on the right of workers to collectively bargain is being rejected by six in ten Americans. This should be a time for us to learn a few lessons and refocus on strategic initiatives.

If we're going to do that, however, we have to understand a few things. First, not everyone in America thinks like us. Second, harpooning the most progressive President in generations for being "not left enough" will not get us any closer to the goals of the progressive movement. Third, it is our job to focus on the big picture, and measure the details against the big picture accomplishments (as opposed to, say, throwing out the big picture just so we can hang onto our favorite pony). Finally, if you want progress, learn to accept steps. Are steps possible in a political climate far more dominated by Republicans right now? Yes. Those steps involve stopping the Republicans from dismantling reforms and from dismantling America's unions. But that's the easy part.

The steps also involve us progressives to reassert ourselves as a constructive, rather than an ideological, voice. We are going to have to be inventive about the federal deficit, and propose credible ways of reducing it. At the same time, we have to make the case for critical investments in our future. Most, if not all, of those investments will be far from perfect, and probably with a smaller level of funding than progressives may consider adequate, given the Republican House.

Oh and if and when we're fortunate enough to gain back control of Congress, let's not forget all these lessons and go right back to screaming for our ponies, okay?

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