Campaigns, Lobbying and Social Movements

One of the big mysteries–and sources of progressive angst–during Barack Obama’s first term in office was the virtual disappearance of Obama’s powerful and technologically enabled supporter network during the long agonies of the Affordable Care Act debate, the stalling of cap-and-trade legislation, and–well–everything after the 2010 GOP victory.

As Brother Benen explains, this is a mistake people close to the White House swear will not recur:

As far as the White House is concerned, the debt-ceiling crisis in 2011 offered valuable lessons. Obama stayed in Washington, met repeatedly with congressional leaders, and made every effort to reach some kind of credible agreement with Republican lawmakers who were threatening to crash the American economy on purpose unless their demands were met.

A deal was eventually struck, but not before the crisis itself took a severe toll on the economy, policymakers’ political standing, and the public’s tolerance for gamesmanship.

Now, Obama wants to apply the lessons. The president argued behind closed doors in 2011, so he’ll take his arguments public in 2012. He stayed in D.C. in 2011, so he’ll hit the road in 2012. Obama tried to navigate the political landscape in 2011, so he’ll try to change what’s possible in 2012 by taking advantage of his activist base.

Sounds good, and keeping the “activist base” involved can certainly do no harm. But are campaigns and legislative lobbying efforts really congruent?

It’s one thing to hit the campaign trail in support of votes, or even hold public rallies in support of an initiative like health care reform, but going on the road to get people excited about slightly higher marginal tax rates on income above $250,000 is a little trickier.

For that matter, it’s not altogether clear whether Republicans will care. GOP lawmakers have routinely rejected proposals with overwhelming public support in recent years, and don’t much seem to care about a potential backlash. That’s especially true now — they know the next election cycle is 24 months from now, and the electorate will have long since forgotten about this debate by the time the midterms roll around.

I’d add to Steve’s observation that Republicans have plenty of reasons to assume that 2014 will be a good election year for them, given midterm turnout patterns and the vast precedent (broken in living memory only once, in 1998) of the “six-year itch” afflicting the party holding the White House.

But there’s a more fundamental issue that progressives need to think about: the need to build social movements supporting major policy objectives that are not tied to particular presidents and which, indeed, need to be independent of parties or politicians, even if the initial goal or even the ultimate outcome is to support them. As my Democratic Strategist colleague James Vega argued at this exact point after the 2008 elections, there is a “natural division of labor” between progressive social movements and political actors that may not seem ideal, but that has accompanied most of the great progressive achievements of the past.

So no one should expect–or even wish–that all the energy that went into re-electing Barack Obama on November 6 can be channeled into every tactical twist and turn of his fiscal negotiations or nomination battles. It’s important to keep many eyes on larger prizes–whether it’s action on climate change, economic inequality, LGBT rights, or voting rights–towards which Obama and other politicians can be pushed and pulled, in stages that will probably transcend any four-year term, much less any congressional session. That’s worth keeping in mind as disappointment over the dissipated power of the Obama network inevitably returns.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.