David Coates

Chapter 1: January 2010 Update

The need for a “moving left show” could not have been more visibly demonstrated than by the loss of Senator Kennedy’s Senate seat to the Republicans in the special election held in January 2010. The result triggered these thoughts, first put on tpmcafe January 20 2010, the morning after the defeat.

Use It or Lose It: The Perils of Procrastination

David Coates

‘Never waste a crisis’, the man said. Well, this is definitely a crisis, so let’s not waste it. Particularly let’s not waste it by repeating it. Let’s not repeat it big time, in November.

There is a real danger that we might repeat it. Seizing defeat from the jaws of victory is a well-established tendency on the center-left. It could happen again. Indeed, if we choose to take the lesson of Tuesday from the Republican story book, it will happen. Republicans will tell us, and tell anyone else who will listen, that Massachusetts was lost because Obama was too liberal, too partisan, too determined to push government into places – health care in particular- where it ought not to go. The story line is nonsense, of course, but that won’t stop Republicans selling it, and selling it effectively, unless we have a better story to put in its place.

We need a very different story, we need it loud and we need it fast. So what story? At least this.

  • The Democrats did not lose in Massachusetts because the Obama administration has been too liberal. The Democrats lost because policy moderation and the appeasement of conservatives have drained enthusiasm out of the Democratic base in exactly the same measure as they have poured it back into the Republican one. Trapped between an inherited crisis and an intransigent opposition, an administration set on triangulation has angered its friends and inspired its enemies.
  • So why triangulation, why the willingness to cut deals with conservatives? Is there political character-weakness here? The next nine months will tell us, but let us hope not. Let us hope instead that the deal making so characteristic of Obama’s first year as president was made necessary (and done reluctantly) by the limited nature of the 2008 victory. Obama put together an electoral coalition in 2008 but he did not put together a governing one. The Democrats won both houses, but in name only. Obama came to the presidency with a large mandate for change. He also came with a majority so small that it gave blue dogs the balance of power. The story of the last 12 months is one of a liberal president facing a Congress that remains, in its key power centers, not quite liberal enough.
  • Given that, the administration’s willingness to cut deals – so irritating to so many of us – is best understood as a consequence of the lack of a liberal super majority, particularly in the Senate. Conservative legislative roadblocks there could not simply be wished away. They had to be negotiated round; and with the prize of a filibuster-proof majority there for the taking, the temptation to compromise was clearly too strong to be avoided. But it can be avoided it now, because that prize is no longer there to be taken. Things are not only bleaker this morning. They are also simpler.
  • The lesson of yesterday is clear. The political space that opened up in November 2008 is shrinking, and shrinking fast. The administration must use it or lose it. It will lose it unless by November it has re-galvanized grass-roots enthusiasm for the new politics, both by what it says and what it does. The Obama administration needs to get its progressive groove back, by unambiguously advocating policies that put Main Street before Wall Street, manufacturing before finance, jobs before bonuses, mortgages before foreclosures, and public spending that creates jobs before deficit reductions that destroy them.

We now have clear proof of what so many of us have long suspected. Bipartisanship does not work. It is a self-defeating strategy for a progressive president. It re-energizes our opponents and demoralizes us. If the potential of 2008 is ever to be realized, Obama now needs to lead from the left, because leadership from the center is a certain recipe for a return of the politics of the right.

Harold Laski once told an earlier progressive party as a very similar moment – the British Labor Party facing a call for policy moderation in the face of mass unemployment in the 1930s – not to be so foolish. “You can peel an onion leaf by leaf,” he wrote, “but you can’t strip a live tiger claw by claw. Vivisection is its trade and it will do the stripping first”. He was correct then, and he would be correct now. This is no time to be nice to Republicans.

It is the time to make again the case for progressive change, and to make it louder, stronger, and with greater determination that before.

It is time to put the Republicans on notice, time to challenge them to support active policies that impact immediately on the things that worry Americans most – the loss of their jobs, their homes and their health care.

It is time to put the progressive case in all its glory, let the Republicans vote against it, and go to the American people in November with clear proof of which party is the real blockage on the policies they so desperately need.

It is time to take the gloves off. It is time for progressives to answer back.


Contrast that with this data on public opinion at the start of the Obama presidency.
Such a difference a year makes!!

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.

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