Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lieberman and the Filibuster

So Harry Reid, under some highly salutary pressure from organized labor, decides to commit to including a public insurance option in the forthcoming Senate version of health care reform, and Joe Lieberman replies by announcing his intention to turn coat and join a Republican filibuster of any bill that contains a public option
There are two issues here--one particular and one more general. 

1) First there is Lieberman's flagrant challenge to the authority of Reid and Obama.  The pair of them kept Lieberman in the caucus, with full seniority rank and committe assignments, when a good many Democrats wanted him punished for his enthusiastic and highly public embrace of the opposition's presidential candidate.  At the time, the public rationale for ignoring this treachery was that Lieberman would stand by his old party when it really counted.  That rationale is now in tatters--not only will he oppose a key element of the party's signature legislative initiative, he will also join with the opposition to keep any legislation containing that element from reaching the floor for an up-or-down vote.  Unchecked, his defection will encourage wavering Democrats to follow suit.  The coalition for serious reform will collapse. 

If there was ever a time for the maximum application of party discipline, this is it.  Reid and Obama must make it clear to Lieberman, at least privately, that if he persists in his announced course he will be stripped of seniority and committee assignments, expelled from the caucus, and liberated to seek his fortune among his true comrades on the other side of the aisle.  He should be told that no expense will be spared to defeat his 2012 reelection bid--that he will be made a high priority target, even if it means replacing him with a Republican.  And the word should also go out to wavering Democrats (Nelson, Landrieu, Bayh, whomever) to observe this treatment closely, and to contemplate how they would like to have it applied to them.

If the Democrats cannot enforce a party-line vote on cloture--on at least bringing their top legislative priority to the floor--then the opposition will (correctly) perceive a fatal weakness in the present Dem leadership, and they will exploit that weakness at every turn.  The chance for additional substantive reforms, on a whole range of issues (first and foremost, urgently-needed financial reform) will slip away,

2) Second, and more broadly, this demonstrates with great vividness the enormous continuing damage done to liberal/progressive interests by the modern ("procedural") filibuster.  It is the single most undemocratic aspect of the most undemocratic elective body in the country.  And because it gives narrow (but compact and well-funded) interests a ready way to defeat highly-popular and effective policy changes, it does far more to damage liberal/progressive causes than it could ever do to restrain conservative excesses. Its destruction should be a top Democratic priority

To be sure, ending the filibuster would entail a titanic public fight.  Conservative interests (economic, partisan and ideological) are well aware of how depenendent they have become on their ability to use and abuse this anti-democratic tool, and they would defend ther prerogative with no holds barred.  Similarly, the mainstream media would eagerly take the opportunity to villify the Democrats for reckless "populism" (always a dirty word among the Washington press corps), and compete to play tin pot Ciceros to the vile Caesars of the left.

Well, let them come. 

Many of history's major political advances have entailed the demolition, usually through applied popular pressure for specific, substantive changes, of one procedural bullwark of privilege or another: the British Reform Bills, the post-Civil War Amendments, the court packing threat that finally pushed the Supreme Court to begin accepting the New Deal, the humbling of the Congressional committee barrons that made possible the passage of the Civil Rights bills.  If the filibuster had already joined these other oligarchical instruments in the dust bin of history, then universal health care and strong union rights, among other long-standing progressive priorities, would long since have become the law of the land.  And if we fail to destroy the filibuster now, when the party's strength as it a high point, it's hard to see how the hope for fundamental change can avoid being quashed for another generation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How To Screw Up Health Care Reform, Part Two

Today's lesson comes courtesy of Wendell Potter, the former Vice President of Communications at Cigna Insurance, whose whistle-blowing June 24 testimony [PDF] before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation could and should have been, but of course was not, the centerpiece of a blistering public indictment by that committee of the entire health insurance industry as presently run.  Mr. Potter subsequently gave an interview to Bill Moyers, and it is a veritable treasure trove of insights for Democrats who are looking for ways to lose the health care reform debate.  Simply ignore everything Mr. Potter has to say, and you are half way there.  To wit:

1) Don't remind people about what really killed reform the last time around.
[I]t became really clear to me that the industry is resorting to the same tactics they've used over the years, and particularly back in the early '90s, when they were leading the effort to kill the Clinton plan.

2) Don't talk about what the industry has been up to in the years since.
I was beginning to question what I was doing as the industry shifted from selling primarily managed care plans, to what they refer to as consumer-driven plans. And they're really plans that have very high deductibles, meaning that they're shifting a lot of the cost off health care from employers and insurers, insurance companies, to individuals. And a lot of people can't even afford to make their co-payments when they go get care, as a result of this.
3) Don't call attention to the yawning social distance between places like Wise County, Tennessee, and the world occupied by the insurance industry's upper management.
I went home, to visit relatives. And I picked up the local newspaper and I saw that a health care expedition was being held a few miles up the road, in Wise, Virginia. And I was intrigued...

It was being held at a Wise County Fairground. I took my camera. I took some pictures. It was a very cloudy, misty day, it was raining that day, and I walked through the fairground gates. And I didn't know what to expect. I just assumed that it would be, you know, like a health-- booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that.

But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they'd erected tents, to care for people. I mean, there was no privacy. In some cases-- and I've got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement.
And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care. People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee-- all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth.
It was absolutely stunning. It was like being hit by lightning. It was almost-- what country am I in? I just it just didn't seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States...

Just a few weeks later though, I was back in Philadelphia and I would often fly on a corporate aircraft to go to meetings.
And I just thought that was a great way to travel. It is a great way to travel. You're sitting in a luxurious corporate jet, leather seats, very spacious. And I was served my lunch by a flight attendant who brought my lunch on a gold-rimmed plate. And she handed me gold-plated silverware to eat it with. And then I remembered the people that I had seen in Wise County. Undoubtedly, they had no idea that this went on, at the corporate levels of health insurance companies.

4) Don't examine the way incentives work at the top of the insurance industry.
[W]hen you're in the executive offices, when you're getting prepared for a call with an analyst, in the financial medium, what you think about are the numbers. You don't think about individual people. You think about the numbers, and whether or not you're going to meet Wall Street's expectations. That's what you think about, at that level. And it helps to think that way. That's why you-- that enables you to stay there, if you don't really think that you're talking about and dealing with real human beings.

5) Pay no attention to how the industry wields media and political power to marginalize critics and stiffle criticism.
[F]rom the moment that the industry learned that Michael Moore was taking on the health care industry, it was really concerned...
The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, that if you even consider that, you're heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism. So they have used scare tactics for years and years and years, to keep that from happening. If there were a broader program like our Medicare program, it could potentially reduce the profits of these big companies. So that is their biggest concern....
[P]art of the effort to discredit this film was to use lobbyists and their own staff to go onto Capitol Hill and say, "Look, you don't want to believe this movie. You don't want to talk about it. You don't want to endorse it. And if you do, we can make things tough for you."
...By running ads, commercials in your home district when you're running for reelection, not contributing to your campaigns again, or contributing to your competitor.

6) Ignore the revolving door.
The relationships-- an insurance company can hire and does hire many different lobbying firms. And they hire firms that are predominantly Republican and predominantly Democrat. And they do this because they know they need to reach influential members of Congress like Max Baucus. So there are people who used to work for Max Baucus who are in lobbying firms or on the staff of companies like Cigna or the association itself.

7) Keep quiet about the industry's real reasons for opposing a public option.
The industry doesn't want to have any competitor. In fact, over the course of the last few years, has been shrinking the number of competitors through a lot of acquisitions and mergers. So first of all, they don't want any more competition period. They certainly don't want it from a government plan that might be operating more efficiently than they are, that they operate. The Medicare program that we have here is a government-run program that has administrative expenses that are like three percent or so...
[Private insurers] spend about 20 cents of every premium dollar on overhead, which is administrative expense or profit. So they don't want to compete against a more efficient competitor.
8) Say nothing about the role of Wall Street in shaping how insurers treat their customers.
[T]here's a measure of profitability that investors look to, and it's called a medical loss ratio. And it's unique to the health insurance industry. And by medical loss ratio, I mean that it's a measure that tells investors or anyone else how much of a premium dollar is used by the insurance company to actually pay medical claims. And that has been shrinking, over the years, since the industry's been dominated by, or become dominated by for-profit insurance companies. Back in the early '90s, or back during the time that the Clinton plan was being debated, 95 cents out of every dollar was sent, you know, on average was used by the insurance companies to pay claims. Last year, it was down to just slightly above 80 percent.
So, investors want that to keep shrinking. And if they see that an insurance company has not done what they think meets their expectations with the medical loss ratio, they'll punish them. Investors will start leaving in droves.
I've seen a company stock price fall 20 percent in a single day, when it did not meet Wall Street's expectations with this medical loss ratio...
And they think that this company has not done a good job of managing medical expenses. It has not denied enough claims. It has not kicked enough people off the rolls. And that's what-- that is what happens, what these companies do, to make sure that they satisfy Wall Street's expectations with the medical loss ratio.

9) Don't follow the money.
[A] big chunk of it goes into shareholders' pockets. It's returned to them as part of the investment to them. It goes into the exorbitant salaries that a lot of the executives make. It goes into paying sales, marketing, and underwriting expenses. So a lot of it goes to pay those kinds of administrative functions. Overhead...

[K]eep in mind, what they want to do is enhance their profits. Enhance shareholder value. That's number one. And the way that the business that they're in is health care, certainly. But their primary motivation is to reward their shareholders.
Most of the shareholders are large, institutional investors and hedge funds. Hedge fund managers are the ones who look at the stock. And investors for large organizations. It's not mom and pop investor.

10) Above all, trust industry players when they say (again) that they want reform too.
[T]hey will continue this charm offensive, until there's actual legislative language. And what that means, of course, is that right now, you're not really seeing the bills before the House and the Senate that will actually be voted on. When we see the actual legislation, when there's something before Congress... you'll start seeing a lot more criticism of it.
And the special interests will be attacking this or that. The AMA will be upset about something. The pharmaceutical industry will be upset about something. The insurance industry will not like this or that. It's, you know, a lot of money is made in this country off sick people. And then you'll start seeing a lot more of the behind-the-scenes attacks on this legislation, in an attempt to kill it. The status quo is what would work best for these industries....

[I]t happened in '93 and '94. And just about every time there has been significant legislation before Congress, the industry has been able to kill it. Yeah, the status quo works for them. They don't like to have any regulation forced on them or laws forced on them. They don't want to have any competition from the federal government, or any additional regulation from the federal government. They say they will accept it. But the behavior is that they will not-- you know, they'll not do anything after say this plan fails.
Say nothing happens. They're saying now what they did in '93, '94. "We think preexisting conditions is a bad thing," for example. Let's watch and see if they really take the initiative to do anything constructive. I bet you won't see it. They didn't then....

The strategy is as it was in 1993 and '94, to conduct this charm offensive on the surface. But behind the scenes, to use front groups and third-party advocates and ideological allies. And those on Capitol Hill who are aligned with them, philosophically, to do the dirty work. To demean and scare people about a government-run plan, try to make people not even remember that Medicare, their Medicare program, is a government-run plan that has operated a lot more efficiently.

There we have it--ten valuable lessons on how to lose the debate, from a man whose job was helping to make sure we always will lose it.  Next up: How to ignore all the facts that are on your side.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to Screw Up Health Care Reform, Part One

A few weeks ago, when progressive/liberal disenchantment with Obama's conduct (or more accurately non-conduct) of the health care reform "debate" was just starting to reach major proportions, Paul Krugman wrote a typically perceptive column on what he called "Obama's Trust Problem" with the Left.  One of The Shrill One's key points had to do, not with health care reform per se, but with what he called "the matter of the banks."  As Krugman put it:
I don’t know if administration officials realize just how much damage they’ve done themselves with their kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry, just how badly the spectacle of government supported institutions paying giant bonuses is playing. But I’ve had many conversations with people who voted for Mr. Obama, yet dismiss the stimulus as a total waste of money. When I press them, it turns out that they’re really angry about the bailouts rather than the stimulus -- but that’s a distinction lost on most voters.

It was a shrewd point: the administration's (mis)handling of the financial sector's implosion--the apparent eagerness to continue Hank Paulson's we're-all-Wall-Street-barrons-here approach to financial crisis management--was a profound blow to whatever hopes some may have entertained that an Obama administration would constitute a sharp break with the immediate political past.  To judge from the evidence of this early performance, it quickly became clear to all that there would be no such break, but rather a barely perceptible shift of emphasis, consisting mostly in mildly technocratic and largely symbolic chastisement of the pack of well-healed crooks and liars who had just finished capping off years of unparalleled greed by wrecking the world economy and handing the American taxpayer the bill for containing and cleaning up the resulting mess.

Well yesterday the estimable Barry Ritholz made a similar, but much more sweeping and, I think, profound point: Not only did the failure to go after the hideously bloated financial sector when the moment was ripest dismay Obama's strongest supporters--even worse, it forfeited a golden opportunity for a truly game-changing victory, both substantive and political.  You should by all means read the whole thing but here's a big, wallopping dose of Ritholz:
As Rahm Emmanuel likes to say, one should “never waste a crisis” -- and the White House has done just that.
There was a narrow window to effect a full regulatory reform of Wall Street, the Banking Industry and other causes of the collapse. Instead, the White House tacked in a different direction, pursuing health care reform. 

This was an enormous miscalculation.

...Instead of a populist clean up of The Street (ala Eliot Spitzer circa 2,000), Obama advisors allowed a smoldering resentment to take hold and build amongst the electorate. The massive taxpayer wealth transfer to inept, corrupt, incompetent bankers has created huge resentment amongst the populace -- regardless of political affiliation.

...Passing reform legislation successfully would have fulfilled the campaign promise of “Change;” it would have created legislative momentum. It could have provided a healthy outlet for the Tea Party anger and the raucous Town Hall meetings. It might have even led to a “throw the Bums out” attitude in the mid-term elections, forcing the most radical de-regulators from office.

Also wasted: The enormous anti-Bush attitude throughout the country that swept team Obama into office. He should have been “Hooverized,” and O should have tapped into that same wave to force the greatest set of Wall Street and Banking regulatory reforms seen since the 1930s.

Instead, we have a White House that appears adrift, and the most importantly, may very well have missed the best chance to clean up Wall Street in five generations.
That hardly needs any improvement from me, but I'll just draw out the full implication of it for the present sad spectacle of the health care reform "debate":  It's not at all hard to see how the royal road to health care reform--reform that could have been both far more serious in taking on industry interests and far more popular than anything we are likely to get--would have run through deliberately picking an early, populist fight with Wall Street, and winning that fight. 

Because here's the thing: Really big reform efforts like health care (as Bob Somerby keeps pointing out) need a preexisting narrative framework to fit into, if they are to survive the combination of people's natural reluctance to sanction large-scale, deliberate change as well as the massive concentrated fire that comes from the entrenched interests who stand to lose big if such reform succeeds.  What the spectacular crack-up of our runaway financial industry provided was precisely an instant version of such a narrative framework, tailor-made for the reforming politician who was ready and willing to seize upon it.

Of course, this assumes that the present leadership of the Democratic party and the liberal/progressive intelligentsia would have wanted fundamental reform of that kind, in either the financial sphere or, subsequently, in health care.  And that assumption, on the evidence of what they have actually done and said, is almost certainly false.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How to Talk Like a Democrat, Part Two

Last time we began looking closely at FDR's great Madison Square Grarden speech, given near the end of the 1936 campaign.  And we saw how, with the fate of the New Deal programs hanging in the balance, FDR made what sounds to our ears like an extraordinary claim--that what the Democrats were fighting for in that election was nothing less than the preservation of democracy. 

Before we move on to FDR's answer to the obvious question--the preservation of democracy against what, and against whom?--it's worth pausing to absorb just how seriously he meant this notion of a fight for democracy to be taken. 

For it wasn't just some passing remark.  The entire opening of the speech is built around the idea that domestic and pacific goals of reform have and will require the spiritual equivalent of martial effort.  Just look at the language FDR uses in the passages immediately following his remark about preserving the democracy that the previous election had restored:

More than four years ago in accepting the Democratic nomination in Chicago, I said: "Give me your help not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people."  The banners of that crusade still fly in the van of a Nation that is on the march.

The supporters of the New Deal are an army on the march, and moreover an army that represents, in its goals, the nation itself.  And what are the goals of this mobilized national army?  Well what else would a democratic and peace-loving people be willing to join a crusade for, but for the fruits of peace itself?  "Above all things, the American people wanted peace," says FDR:
They wanted peace of mind instead of gnawing fear  ...escape from the personal terror which had stalked them for three years. ...the peace that comes from security in their homes: safety for their savings, permanence in their jobs, a fair profit from their enterprise  ...peace in the community, the peace that springs from the ability to meet the needs of community life ...escape from disintegration and bankruptcy in local and state affairs  ...peace within the Nation  ...fairer wages, the ending of long hours of toil, the abolition of child labor, the elimination of wild-cat speculation ...peace with other Nations--peace in a world of unrest.
Since 9/11 there has been some talk in Democratic circles of using the idea of security as a metaphor for promoting liberal/progressive goals ("economic security" and so on).  But unfortunately this talk tended to ignore the long tradition whereby Democratic goals have been associated precisely with the blessings of peace. 
At the center of that tradition is not pacifism or even, in fact, a sentimental reluctance to fight (remember, FDR is talking about the goals of what he calls a political army on the march), but rather the natural preference of the overwhelming majority of ordinary people for a life that is fundamentally stable, cooperative and just.  The people, FDR is saying, do not naturally long for objects destructive of social order and communal life; on the contrary, they mostly want nothing more than to enjoy the fruits of such order and such a life.  The implication is clear: if there are rapacious, destructive forces loose in society (and, as we will see, there certainly are) then they must come from some other quarter.
The next thing FDR does is to "call...the roll of honor of those who stood with us in 1932 and still stand with us today."  He describes, in other words, this Democratic "army" to which he has been alluding.  It includes:
...millions who never had a chance--men at starvation wages, women in sweatshops, children at looms ...those who despaired, young men and young women for whom opportunity had become a will-o'-the-wisp.  ...farmers whose acres yielded only bitterness, business men whose books were portents of disaster, home owners who were faced with eviction, frugal citizens whose savings were insecure.
In short, all those hard-pressed by the long years of prior Republican rule.  And to these he then adds, and welcomes, those who are prepared to stand with them:
 [C]ountless other Americans of all parties and all faiths, Americans who had eyes to see and hearts to understand, whose consciences were burdened because too many of their fellows were burdened, who looked on these things four years ago and said, "This can be changed. We will change it."

So that is FDR's political army, the army of the New Deal.  And now, addressing his troops directly, he says the following:
We have not come this far without a struggle and I assure you we cannot go further without a struggle.

If you were starting to wonder why FDR was spending so much time on all this talk about armies and marching (and if you were maybe getting a little creeped out by it all) here is your answer:  Politics--at least for the people, the broad majority of ordinary citizens--is essentially a struggle.  It may be struggle for the blessings of peace, but it is still a struggle nevertheless, and a mighty one at that. 
But if what the people want is so unobjectionable, so mutually-beneficial to so many in society, then why must it be a struggle at all?  Why can't we all just get along?
The reason that politics must be a struggle, the reason that we cannot all just get along, is because the good and simple things the that ordinary people most want--some islands of stability in a topsy-turvy world, mutually-beneficial cooperation that bridges social differences, a basic sense that justice is being done by and to everyone--all these good things, despite being good for so many, have their natural adversaries as well.  And those adversaries, moreover, if left unchecked, will always be the ones who have the ear of power:
For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. ...Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

And with those words FDR turns from what might be called the positive part of his address to the critical part, which happens also to be the heart of the speech.  Up until now he has been so to speak reminding his supporters who they are; now comes the time to remind them who the enemy is.  Various liberal/progressive writers have been quoting different parts of this section of the speech recently, but it really needs to be quoted at length, to appreciate the full force:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

The American people know from a four-year record that today there is only one entrance to the White House--by the front door. Since March 4, 1933, there has been only one pass-key to the White House. I have carried that key in my pocket. It is there tonight. So long as I am President, it will remain in my pocket.

Those who used to have pass-keys are not happy. Some of them are desperate.
Who are the enemies of peace--who opposes what the people harmlessly want?  As you can see, FDR does not mince words about this.  They are the forces of "organized money" who, utterly lacking in patriotism and fellow feeling "consider the Government  of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs."   They are the ones who will concentrate their hatred upon any real reformer--and whose hatred any real reformer should therfore "welcome."  
Why welcome it?  Because the hatred of interests such  as these is a sign that reform is doing its job--is biting "the forces of selfishness and lust for power" where it hurts.   And when does it hurt them the most?  Above all, when they find they no longer have the "pass-keys" to the back doors of power.  For as long as they have those keys, they can withstand any storm. 
But if thos interests really find themelves deprived of those keys, then they will be far from happy indeed--they will in fact be shocked at the inversion of what, for them, is the normal and expected order of things.  And some of them, no doubt, will then become quite "desperate."  Desperate enough to pay for just about any damn fool thing to be said or done, if only it holds out the promise of getting those pass-keys back.
Whatever the outcome of the present health care 'debate', the future of Democratic messaging, and of liberal/progressve goals more generally, depends upon our realizing that the situation FDR described in 1936 is no unique or transient historical example.  It is instead part of the grammar of real reform, in the face of deeply entrenched and powerful interests. 
The sooner we figure this out--the sooner we figure out how to talk like Democrats again--the better our chances will become of achieving genuine, lasting change in our lifetimes.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How to Talk Like a Democrat, Part One

First off, many thanks to Mighty Anglachel for the generous linkage.  Some of her readers are already finding their way here and I'll do my best to make the journey worth their while.

Second, and by way of a down payment, the following is for lori who, in comments, mentioned being astonished by Lambert's posting on Corrente of one of FDR's fireside chats.  Since Jean Edward Smith has already called our attention to FDR's magisterial Madison Square Garden speech, I thought it might be interesting to start by taking a closer look at that particular address, as an example of the sort of Demoratic messaging that has mostly 'gone out of style' in recent years. 

The address was given in October of 1936.  The immediate context, of course, was FDR's reelection campaign of that year.  Much more, however, was at stake in that election.  It was nothing less than a chance for the people to vote on the question of whether the New Deal had been good or bad for the country, and thus whether or not it should continue.

One of the worries you hear a lot of these days is that liberals and progressives have lots of good policy ideas but they lack an overall narrative framework to draw those ideas together, prioritize them and give them force.  Here's how FDR did that right at the opening of this address:

In 1932 the issue was the restoration of American democracy; and the American people were in a mood to win. They did win. In 1936 the issue is the preservation of their victory.

How's that for a narrative framework?  What is at stake in the passage, and in the continuation of the New Deal, is nothing less than democracy itself.  Can you imagine a leading Democrat making such a claim today?  It's awfully hard to picture it.  But you can probably imagine without too much difficulty the shrieks and howls of protest from mainstream media elites if any leading Democrat were to try and make such a claim.  Their tribe would immediately pounce on said Democrat and denounce the claim as pure demogogy.

And in a sense that would be correct.  The word "demogogue" comes from ancient Greek and has two meanings.  One is the familiar, entirely perjorative one:  a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.  That is how any leading Democrat who made a claim like the one FDR is making here would instantly be treated by the mainstream press today. 

But there is also another meaning, closer to the plain sense of the word in Greek: a leader championing the cause of the common people.  And here we come up against something FDR knew and that we, by and large, have forgotten: you cannot do the latter (champion the cause of the common people), without being called the former, not because the two things are the same, but because it is in the interests of the rich and powerful to make it seem as if they must be the same.

One of the reasons we lack overarching narratives is because we have internalized a sense of shame about using the ones that come most naturally to us--that reflect how we  really feel about what is at stake in liberal and progressive goals.  Because here is the thing:  The same tribe that would pounce on any leading Democrat today, who claimed that what was at stake in Democratic policy goals was democracy itself, also pounced on FDR, for the same reasons, and called him a demogogue, and a good deal worse besides.  Here's the difference: FDR was not ashamed to be called that.

Goodness, I'm all out of time for today, and I only got one line into the speech!  Apparently, it's going to take a series of posts to glean everthing this particular speech has to tell us about how to talk like a Democrat!  But at least we covered the question of overarching Democratic narratives, and why they've become so scarce.

Next up:  How to talk about your opponents.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pushing Back, Kicking Up

So I'm headed into work today and I'm turning over in my head the questions Bob Somerby has been pounding away at for a couple of weeks, in response to the unfolding fiasco that is the health care "debate":

Why do Democrats suck so bad at messaging?  Why are Republicans so much better at it?  Why do we keep getting our asses handed to us by conservative elites spouting the same old lies and distortions they've been using for years?

In particular, I was thinking about what The Incomparable One identifies as the core messages of movement conservatism, from which and back to which all the particular, very effective lies and distortions flow.  According to Somerby, there are just two of these core messages:

Big government never did anything right.
Liberal elites think they're better than you.

And as I was contemplating these things, I was also trying to keep in mind Somerby's very perceptive observations about them, namely, that the first one, however false as a generalization, has at least some grounding in both American political tradition and lived experience, while the second is all-too-often validated by the evident contempt that many liberal elites do in fact have for working-class people.

And so I was asking myself:  What is the Democratic message that is as clear, concise and forceful as these movement conservative messages, but that bolsters liberal/progressive goals like universal health care, rather than tearing them down, and that can take the conservative messages head-on and defeat them, not in a scholarly debate, but in the rough-and-tumble of mass public opinion?

Then suddenly it hit me:  There can only be one answer to this question.  If the Democratic party stands for anything at all, it must stand, first last and always, for the interests of the people--the broad majority of ordinary working stiffs--and against all those who would use their wealth and power to do the people harm.  For if the Democratic party is not for the common people, then who is?  And if the common people are not for the Democrats, then just who the hell are the Democrats?  We don't, after all, need two parties who are both primarly conerned with mollifying the Power Elite, albeit different sections thereof and therefore in slightly different ways.  

And I thought to myself:  It really is as simple as that, isn't it?  The Democrats have no choice about this.  If they want a powerful, coherent message, it has to be an egalitarian message.  None other is available to them, that is capable of matching and besting the popular appeal of the government-sucks-liberals-hate-you conservative message.  The Democrats can only win these message wars with conservatives if ordinary, modestly educated, economically hard-pressed, and mostly not very politically conscious working people once again come to expect that the Democrats will be unambiguously on their side, in any given fight with the rich and powerful. 

Only if this assocation between the Democratic party and the interests of plain working people becomes once again, as it formerly was, the natural expectation--something so automatic that one does not even need to think about it--will the Democrats have a chance of beating back the conservative messaging.  Against the narrative of bad government and contemptous liberal elites the only narrative that can compete on a mass scale is one of government fighting for the interests of ordinary people against the unjust dealings of the rich and powerful.  For the Democrats, this is the only game in town, or at least the only one they can hope to win.

At that point, I thought immediately of Al Gore's very effective acceptance speech at the 2000 convention, with it's refrain "they're for the powerful, we're for the people".  And then I thought of how viscously ridiculed Gore was for the message of that speech, in particular by the So-Called Liberal Media, of how transparently afraid they were of that message--not of the prospect that it would fail, but precisely of the prospect that it would succeed--and of how assiduously they worked to make sure that would not happen. 

And then I thought of how, this time, the Democratic leadership was facing a significant defeat without even having brought their party's core egalitarian message forward at all--how the core message was being strangled, so to speak, this time, in the crib.  This then led to one of those strange episodes of political vertigo that have been happening more and more to me lately, when the political present, seemingly so full of opportunity, is telescoped back into a political past in which the odds were far more heavily against us, while the great battles of the past come forward to haunt the present, not because they are still being fought, but precisely because we have stopped fighting them.

So with all of this I arrived at work thinking:  "Hey, I solved the riddle of failed Democratic messaging before Somerby did!"  And then I took a look at today's Howler (one of the most important you are ever likely to read) and realized that Somerby had beat me to it--as did FDR biographer Jean Edward Smith, in this wonderful NYTime OpEd, and Micheal Lind, in an absolutely billiant Salon article, both of which Somerby had already linked to.

And despite having my words come back to me with some of that old alienated majesty that Emerson talks about, I was inordinately cheerful for the rest of the work day because, though our online numbers, at least, may be few (we Democrats Without Apology), our doctrine is blessedly clear!

And then I came home, and started this blog.