Playing Defense and Still Losing
You don’t win football games by only playing defense. And you don’t win mid-elections that way either. Perhaps somebody should remind the Democrats that winning elections, like winning games, requires you to take the game to the opposition, and to take it to them on your terms – not on theirs.
Political parties can’t go forward effectively if they spend all their time running backwards. But running backwards now seems to be the dominant order of the day in key Senate races as election-day looms. In my home state of North Carolina, for example – in as key a Senate race as any – the Democratic incumbent seems set on proving that she, and not her Republican opponent, is the kind of ultra-moderate politician that a southern state should send to Washington. It is apparently not the Kay Hagan strategy to boast of her closeness to the president. On the contrary, whenever her Republican challenger criticizes her for her 95% pro-Obama voting record, as he regularly does, the Hagan response is to insist on the independence of her political position and judgment – and on her reputation as the most moderate of Democratic senators and as the most bi-partisan. If the first televised debate between the candidates is any guide, Kay Hagan’s 95% voting on party lines is something she discounts rather than celebrates.
She is not alone, however, in building a campaign for re-election around the damage Republicans would do if they were to capture the Senate – in Kay Hagan’s case, particularly in the field of education – rather than around the fundamental changes Democrats could introduce across a swathe of pressing public issues if they were ever again to control both houses. In a string of key races, it is the Democratic candidates, not simply Republican ones, who are currently emphasizing their distance from the President. It is Democrats who are urging the White House not to do things – particularly not to introduce major changes to the way the immigration laws are implemented, at least not in this election cycle. Time and again, that is, Democratic candidates are allowing their Republican opponents to get away with the nonsense that “Washington is broken” because of Democratic intransigence rather than because of their own, and are leaving unchallenged their opponents’ assertion that the problem we face in Washington is the Democratic Party’s propensity for big government, rather than the Republican Party’s enthusiasm for small government or no federal action at all.
But parties that are running scared of their electorates don’t deserve to win elections; and invariably they don’t win them. For all that their back-peddling does is to further reinforce their opponents’ claim that the wrong party controls (in this case) the White House and the Senate. By nervously playing to some mythical middle ground, defensive parties inevitably hurt themselves more than they hurt their opponents: and they do so in a myriad of ways. For by lacking the courage of their own convictions, they immediately surrender to their opponents the framing of the contemporary political debate. In the process, they also demobilize their own base – why go out and campaign for someone who lacks the “vision thing”; and they additionally run the risk of alienating would-be floating voters by visibly putting expediency before principle. Defensive parties inevitably fall victim to the first rule of progressive politics – that you can’t negotiate on your knees.
It makes a certain kind of crazy sense, in this election cycle, for Republicans to use voting-loyalty to the president as a critique of Democratic incumbents, because Republican opposition to Barack Obama (and indeed to the First Lady) is currently so visceral as in many cases to border on the racist. Tragically, too many Republican voters right now seem to treat Barack Obama as someone to hate, rather than as someone with whom simply to disagree. But particularly in so toxic a political climate, it makes no parallel sense for Democratic candidates to respond to the charge of voter loyalty by retreating from it. That retreat simply reinforces the Republican claim that it is the President’s policies, rather than their own, which have gridlocked Washington and deepened our economic and political crisis. That retreat helps simply to demonize the President further. In such a context of conservative intransigence, support for progressive policies emanating from the White House should not be denied. It should be celebrated. It should be worn as a badge of pride by Democratic candidates resolute in their opposition to Republican austerity measures and to the covert racism that informs the politics of at least part of the Republican base.
There is more. Defensiveness in a political party of the size and importance of the Democrats speaks to a deeper lack of confidence in their own political project – a defensiveness rooted in a growing failure, in the case of the contemporary party, to recognize and celebrate the achievements of Democrats in the past. It is not simply that Tea Party Republicans now dominate the framing of the contemporary political debate. It is also that, to a greater extent than is safe for the future of future progressive politics in the United States, they dominate the way in which today’s electorate is told about, and so comes to understand, its own political history. Ronald Reagan was not the first, and he will certainly not be the last, great American president – arguably, he was not even a great president at all – not that you would know that if all you listen to, on a regular basis, are the television programs and radio talk-shows of the Right.
Ahead of next week’s PBS airing of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts, the importance of telling historical stories, as ways of shoring up support for political achievements still to come, was underscored for me by reading Michael Wolraich’s Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics. The Wolraich volume has been widely praised, and rightly so, for it accurately recalls an important moment in the resetting of modern American politics. And in the way the Wolraich argument is developed, the book has clear and present lessons for the way progressive politics need to be developed in this – our equivalent moment.
Wolraich’s Roosevelt was no temporizer with political opponents. Nor was Robert (“Fighting Bob”) La Follette, the governor of Wisconsin and then Senator, his major rival among progressive politicians within Republican ranks. Both understood (La Follette rather more clearly and earlier than Roosevelt, if Wolraich is right) that issues of social injustice and economic privilege needed to be addressed openly, resolutely, and without fear or favor. The job of political leadership – for the men who would forge the modern progressive movement – was not to broker quiet deals in smoke-filled rooms. It was to use the bully-pulpit of the presidency, and then the public attention of the political campaign, to address the major problems of the day with the seriousness and regularity that their severity required. Elections were not to be won or lost, for Wolraich’s unreasonable men, by hiding the differences between political philosophies. Elections were to be won – if not always immediately, but certainly over the longer term – by widening and deepening them: on the premise that, by taking the longer view, clear and principled political leadership from Washington could catalyze and strengthen progressive sentiment in the wider electorate. Being unreasonable in politics now could shift public understanding of what politics could reasonably become.
There was a moment in the Obama presidency when Barack Obama seemed to realize that. He chose, after all, to make the centenary of Teddy Roosevelt’s Osawatomie speech (“the greatest speech he ever delivered,” in Wolraich’s view) with an Osawatomie speech of his own. (Rush Limbaugh called the Obama version “a Marxist attack on America.”) But the theme the two men shared across the years – the danger to American democracy of excessive inequality of income and wealth – stayed as a central theme of Roosevelt’s politics to the end. It has not stayed as central to Obama’s. Too many Democrats read too many fleeting opinion polls, and urged him to back off. And he did.
We need that progressive confidence, and that willingness to take the longer view, back center-stage in the last weeks of this mid-term election cycle. There is plenty of unreasonableness around in Republican circles right now, and a willingness there to link principle to policy. This is therefore no time to reach across the aisle, to broker deals with a party whose principles are so different from our own. It is time for progressives to emphasize again the choice between the real alternatives now before the American people, and to remind voters that America’s greatest days occurred under progressive presidents, not under conservative ones.
It is time, that is, for the Democratic Left in America to remember that elections, like football games, are only won by combining good defense with a potent attack. The occasional “Hail Mary” kick is no substitute – in politics if not in football – for the sustained presentation of a principled progressive vision for a better America. It is time to play ball.
 The debate is at http://abc11.com/politics/hagan-tillis-clash-in-1st-senate-debate/282093/
 Aaron Blake, “Immigration reform just went from extremely unlikely to impossible,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2014: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/09/10/immigration-reform-just-went-from-impossible
 Norman Ornstein, “America’s midterms will not break the deadlock,” The Financial Times, September 3, 2014: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5acaa630-3200-11e4-b929-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3D1NJY6NE
 On the Democrats loss of control over the telling of their own history, see the wonderful essay by Robert Reich, “The Lost Art of Democratic Narrative,” The New Republic, March 21, 2005: available at http://delong.typepad.com/egregious_moderation/2008/02/robert-reich-th.html
 Available at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00HY09X5M?btkr=1
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.