Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Results Matter

I recently gotten into an inadvertent internet dispute with acclaimed author Rick Perlstein who i respect immensely.  He wrote a brief post about the late, great Mayor of Chicago Harold Washington.
He wasn't just Chicago's first black mayor. He was also probably the furthest left big-city mayor perhaps since Altgeld. And he got reelected. He died today in 1987. Read this, and don't believe the hype that Obama was paying all that much attention. If he were, he would have noticed that being nice doesn't really work in governing a jurisdiction on the verge of civil war.
If you're not from Chicago you probably have no idea who Harold Washington was, and if you are from there (and especially if you are a liberal activist reformer type like Perlstein) you are probably obsessed with him.  Harold Washington was a remarkable figure; he was a life long politician and reformer born in the old black neighborhoods of Chicago in the 20's, he served in World War II, worked in variety of positions and rose to serve in the Illinois State House and Senate, the US House of Representatives and finally became the first black Mayor of a major northern American city in 1983 when he was elected mayor of Chicago.  This final triumph was accomplished by a herculean effort to overthrow the last vestiges of the old Machine in Chicago that Harold put together through force of will and charisma that was composed of a new kind of political coalition of racial minorities, white liberals and disaffected people (sound familiar?) who swept him to power and then to re-election.  Tragically he died quite suddenly after that return to City Hall and the coalition that elected him would collapse into infighting and bickering to be ultimately succeeded by Richard M. Daley (Daley The Younger) son of Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of Harold's life long opponents.  He holds an honored place in the Pantheon of the social reform movements and liberal politics in Chicago and if you want to hear more about him, I'd suggest this great This American Life piece.  He then changed the city and ushered in a new era of collective action for the common good.

Right?  Well...not exactly...

Washington had spent his political life battling what he saw as a corrupt and racist political machine and while his term in office may have ultimately changed Chicago forever, it certainly didn't change it overnight for him.  In fact, many scholars and professional observes of the Chicago Machine saw its high point as probably 1960, with a steady decline afterwards that truly went downhill during the 70's.  In addition, his election was hardly some Roman triumph, he won a complicated three way primary against then incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley with only 37% of the vote.  Traditionally the Democratic primary is the determiner of who is mayor in Chicago, but a huge number of white Democrats and powerful politicians revolted to back a Republican in the general election.  It was an ugly and racially charged race that saw Harold win, but with only 3.7%, something unheard of in general elections in Chicago for generations.  

And that was just the beginning.  Next came "The Council Wars."

Named by a comedian after the then popular Star Wars series, much of the old political guard in City Hall began an epic battle to stop Harold from doing, well anything.  Old leaders of the machine known as "The Eddies" composed of Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, Finance Chair Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly created a united anti-Harold front.  The Eddies were supported by other powerful politician figures in Chicago including Richard M. Daley, who was now the States Attorney, and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee wielded tremendous influence in Washington.  And while Harold had the votes to become mayor, they had the votes to control the city council.  Under Vrdolyak (what a great name for a bad guy!) they assembled a block of 28 white and one hispanic Aldermen and declared war on Harold's agenda.  They voted themselves all the committee chairs and voted down all of Harold's policies and appropriations to fund his programs.  Chicago is not like New York where the Mayor has over the years and by state law accumulated considerable executive authority (Mayor Bloomberg runs the New York City Schools) or Minneapolis where it assumed that a Mayor must bargain with the City Council (as R.T. Rybak did masterfully with the Viking Stadium Deal) to get their way, it's suppose to be a place where the Mayor rules the City Council with an iron fist.  But now it wasn't.  Now it was gridlock with the Mayor having to rule through his veto powers and seeking other means of enacting his policies than the "ram it through" model that many of his predecessors and successors (including current Mayor Rahm Emmanuel) enjoyed.  Many Chicago residents and even journalists where simply baffled by this.  Doesn't the mayor always get his way?  Not from 1983 to 1986 he don't.

In the end, in his own way, Harold again triumphed over his opponents.  He and his supporters ultimately went to Federal Court to get the gerrymandered ward lines drawn after 1980 census redrawn and special elections called.  Candidates promising to support Harold beat several of The Eddies' Aldermen and others defected deciding to work with the Mayor rather than oppose him.  Harold was re-elected and got a working, although as slim as they get, majority of 25 to 25 Alderman, as he could cast then cast the tie breaking vote.  The dreaded Eddies then fell from power with Vrdolyak even becoming a Republican.  It was Harold's shinning hour.  But within one month of that glorious election night, Harold tragically died on November 25th, 1987.

The world never got to see what a Harold's second term might have been, what he might have done for the City now that he could finally implement his policies and peruse his agenda.  Unfortunately the social trends in Chicago in the mid 1980's were not pretty.  The City continued to hemorrhage population.  Jobs left and business shut down (indeed during this period the closing of steel mills on Chicago far south side forced a coalition of local churches and nonprofits to decided to hire a community organizer to help deal with the aftermath, the man they hired was named Barack Obama).  Crime increased and the second longest track system of mass transit in the nation, Chicago's L, saw a huge drop in usage.  Of course these sorts of trends happened all over the country in major cities during this period and are not direct evidence of Harold being a poor political leader, indeed his policies might have prevented them, but we will never know.  Then again Harold's City was known in the mid 80's as "Beirut on the Lake."

I tried to express this reality, and my feelings about Harold Washington to Rick Perlstein in a comment that was perhaps too glib.  I wrote:
He may have been very liberal, but in all honesty he was a total flop when it came to enacting actual policies. He fought a five year war with the city council and his great accomplishment was changing the way the city allocates bonding funds for streets and alleys. Also the coalition that elected him collapsed within weeks of his death.
In retrospect I probably shouldn't have phrased it like that.  But at the same time I think I make a very important point: he was a very nice person, and a great man, a brilliant speaker and a symbol of racial change to millions of regular people.  But he did not succeed in office.  He did institute new ethics rules and eliminated some patronage and yes he did reform how the city allocated bonding funds for streets and alleys (before then the money largely followed racial lines, Harold made the distribution fair) but there's not much more.  There are many reasons for this but in my view any politician has to be ultimately judged on what they did do, not what they could have done or even represented in an abstract sense.  Stragley enough, Perlstein seemed to conceed my point about Harold's failure to enact concrete change outside of defeating Aldermen in elections in his response but thought that was wasn't important because:

that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with a literally evil cartel that held the city hostage rather than let a black man govern it.
I'd say that's a fair description of The Eddies.  I'd also say it's irrelevant.  The reality of politics is that all political leaders make mistakes and all have failures, to not have them would be simply inhuman.  In addition, they all have their opponents who can sometimes not be nice or fair or act in accordance with the common good, indeed I'd say that many of Obama's opponents are just as mean as Vrdolyak.  What defines a successful politician is what they accomplish in spite of those odds.  What defines an unsuccessful politician is how obstacles to their agenda prove too daunting to overcome and how events overtake them.  Jimmy Carter is a very moral and religious person, and has led a model post-Presidency, but he was not successful in office by any stretch.  He passed little legislation, antagonized his own party so much that it caused a massive primary revolt in the form of Ted Kennedy's candidacy and went on to be thrown out of office by historic margins.  He was not a successful President, even if he was a nice guy.  

Not to long ago Obama had a bit of a political failure during a certain presidential debate. The great Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes for the Atlantic, gave the president some tough love.
My point is this: I am sorry that the president finds debating before the public to be annoying. And I am very sorry that more Americans don't delve into the footnotes of position papers. And I am very sorry that Mitt Romney was mean to the moderator, and lied to the viewers. And I am especially sorry that Barack Obama was evidently shocked -- shocked! -- to find the party of poll-taxing, evolution-disputing, and climate-change denying engaging in such tactics.
But this is the war we have. And this president has signed up to lead the fight. I think he understands that. Over the past four years Obama has proven to be very slow, but very deadly. I doubt that's changed.
Obama of course faced all those problems and went on to adjust his strategy and win the next two debates.  And then win re-election.  That's what political success looks like.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Don’t Get Mad Atlas Shrugged Guy, Get Involved!

Encase you missed in, James Fallows who writes for The Atlantic, has been chronicling the ongoing saga of “Atlas Shrugged Guy” a business owner that laid off all his workers in protest of Obama winning re-election.  Mr. Atlas wrote Fallows an email detailing his plans and it’s blown up into a mini internet meme, Fallows has received literally thousands of emails largely by people outraged about Atlas Shrugged Guy, but also a few brave libertarians writing for the defense.  It’s fairly hilarious, and sort of sad.   Most of the comments are about the morality of what Atlas Shrugged Guy did, or questioning if he did it at all.  These are good points but I’d say that the bigger issue is that Atlas Shrugged guy is going about it all the wrong way.  My advice would come from that ancient liberal tenant: don’t get mad, get involved!

American politics can be frustrating and awful at times, but it also rewards intense activism to a great degree.  Want an example?  Long ago, in 2003, none other than liberal icon Howard Dean would dodge questions about gay marriage by referencing Vermont’s policy on Civil Unions.  Eight years later the President would come out in support of marriage equality and a marriage equality plank would be added to the Democratic platform.  And why? Well because of a lot of hard work by a (compared to 300 million Americans) small group of activists.  Indeed, once upon a time Joe Lieberman was a contender for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, later a bunch of internet kids from Daily Kos ran him out of the party largely because of his unwavering support for the war in Iraq, the fact that a lot of his public comments were attacking his own party and the fact that he was a petty and sanctimonious jerk.   A small group of activists really can have a big effect!

So Atlas Shrugged guy can actually get involved too!  There’s lots of ways, he could get involved in Republican politics in his local area.  All you really have to do is show up to the meeting, say hello and ask how you can help.  In addition to just helping out his local party unit or county Republican club, he could also start working on various campaigns.  One of the great (or terrible) things about politics in our Democracy is no matter how much your win or lose by on Election Day, there’s always another coming, right down the pike.  It’s less than two years from Election Day 2014 already!  A third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives will be up for re-election, if you don’t like Obama’s policies then it’s time to get your ass in gear! Atlas Shrugged Guy better get to work!  Everyday untold thousands of youngsters turn 18, you need to find them and register them to vote!  Tell them why Obama is bad and GOP policies are good, and if they disagree well thing find some more!  If you are upset that Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Obama, well you got work to do, better start explaining to them why they should support your guy!  Now this might entail some compromises, no more putting Sherriff Joe on Prime Time at your convention.  No more talking about “self-deportation.”  No more claiming that Sonia Sotomayor is a stupid and privileged affirmative action hire.  But these are political battles that you can win, because you as Atlas Shrugged guy are committed! 

If Atlas Shrugged guy doesn’t like what’s going on in his Democracy he can just ask himself, who is my member of Congress?  If it’s a Democrat well, sounds likes we just found that person’s challenger!  If a Republican well then primary the SOB to make sure he’s against Obamacare “enough.”  The history of the labormovement is full of regular people who had just about enough, and turned into history making figures.  Here in Minnesota we have a long and proud history of regular people running for office and winning.  Once upon a time the late great Paul Wellstone was a just another passionate leftist academic in Northfield Minnesota (is it possible to be more irrelevant to the Editorial Board of say the Washington Post than being from there?)  Well he got it in his mind to run for Senate and the rest, as they say, is history.  Once upon a time, in 2004, a boring high school teacher from Mankato tried to go into a Bush event with some of his students, one of which had a Kerry sticker on his wallet that became visible when he took out his ID.  The Bush Inc. security goons said no dice to Tim et al.  So he decided to run for Congress.  And the rest, as they say, is history. 

If that’s not enough Atlas Shrugged guy can always go whole hog and just move to Iowa, yup 2016 is already underway.  A lot of doors to knock, a lot of calls to be made and a lot of arguments to be had with people that Just Don’t Get It.  Your party needs your Atlas Shrugged Guy.  So do other proponents of you Ayn Randian bullshit.  Get your ass in gear. 

Forward with the Heart Guard!  Tonight we Dine in Hell!  YEEEEEE-HAW!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

You're Doing it Wrong

Recently I read an article about a public debate surrounding the marriage amendment where a proponent of the marriage amendment, Reverend Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, made an interesting argument.  He campaigned for the marriage amendment but against the Voter ID one, and blamed it all on the DFL, which is strange because his allies at Minnesota for Marriage are also the ones that put Voter ID on the ballot.
"What black folk need to do is wake up and evaluate the Democratic Party harder than they've been doing," McAfee said. "Because they've left us out to dry, and many others."
First off all, I’d probably agree that the DFL and the progressive community in general did not focus enough on the Voter ID amendment.  There are a variety of reasons for this; we knew for a while a marriage amendment was going to be on the ballot while voter ID was added much more recently; polling showed a close race about marriage and initially a big majority supporting the concept of voter ID; marriage has been a national issue for years with a large political infrastructure from a variety of groups to support anti-amendment campaigns while voter ID largely took the progressive community by surprise and the fact that while ”The Democratic Party” may seem like a bottomless pit of resources to some they did have a few things on their plate already (10 electoral votes to put in the President’s column, a Senator to reelect, four House seats to defend and four to try and win, two bodies to the state legislature to take back and some other stuff as well (an assorted bunch of county commissioners, mayors, city council members, various knights, retainers and school board members come to mind, at least for me).   But what I was struck by was how I think the Reverend is approaching politics, especially coalition politics (which is presumably what he is trying to do when he criticizes “The Democratic Party”) is going about it in the completely the wrong way.

While it’s easy to portray ”The Democratic Party” as this big monolithic institution “Doing The Wrong Thing” (and what DFL activist doesn’t like to do that!) as political parties go, it’s important to remember that it is a highly permeable and open institution.  Indeed, it’s really only composed of local units (either counties or senate districts) that are all composed of precincts caucuses.  This is a system that massively rewards how much activists are willing to participate.  If Reverend McAfee is disappointed with the priorities of the DFL he can actually, with the help of some other folks, take over his local DFL party units and then call State DFL Chair Ken Martin and scream a lot at him about what he’s doing wrong.  Yes, dear reader, this has been done before.

In addition, it brings to mind one of the best things I’ve ever read about politics, from Bonnie Honig and she is working off of an essay from Bernice Johnson Reagon (she founded the gospel group “Sweet Honey in the Rock” but is writing describing her own extensive experiences as an activist):
Coalition politics is not easy.  When you feel like you might "keel over at any minute and die," when "you feel threatened to the core," then "you're really doing coalition work."
Exactly.  The only way to achieve anything in politics in a Democracy in a state of 5.5 million—let alone a nation of over 300 million—is to do things with coalitions.  The first rule of coalition politics is that everyone, yes everyone, has to give up something for the rest of the group.  No one person or group can hope to get everything they want or very quickly they will find themselves becoming a coalition of one, because everyone has left, because you won’t agree to compromise.  Instead to do real coalition work (whether you are trying to put a stop sign in your neighborhood or elect a president) everyone has to agree to set something aside, to agree to pursue things they might not care about (or might not agree with) and do it all in a way they might not prefer to ensure that they have a chance to get their issue addressed.  In this way the good Reverend is not doing coalition politics well at all, he’s asking for help on his issues while actively campaigning for something the DFL wanted to defeat.  That is an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that the DFL rejected at its convention, where it’s defeat was consistently citied by its Chair as a priority, that the DFL Governor symbolically vetoed in the Capitol and vowed to campaign against, that thousands upon thousands of DFL identifying folks (including my mother) volunteered to help defeat and over a million people who also vote for Obama voted no on.  That type of coalition politics will never work anymore than Ralf Nader running against Gore (and getting George W. Bush elected President) will make Democrats more excited about the Green Party. 

In writing about coalition politics in a different sense, that is writing about how Obama supporting libertarian writer for the Atlantic Connor Friedersdorf wrote a long treatise about how he felt he had to reject Obama because of drone and civil liberty policies, Political Scientist Jonathan Bernstein summed up how limited the good Reverend’s (and Friedersdorf's) point really was:
It undermines the Friedersdorf choice entirely. Because if you’re really doing coalition work – if you’re really doing politics – you’re not thinking in terms of “who should I vote for?” Instead, you’re asking who we are voting for, and by election time you’ve already negotiating not only whom “we” are supporting, but, more important, who we are. And part of the pain of it is that, yes, it sometimes means supporting someone you don’t like, or someone who advances politics you don’t like.

It’s not just that you may have to cut deals that involve sacrificing what you think of as your principles. It’s that real coalition work – real politics – involves taking other people, their beliefs and cultures and values and preferences and passions, seriously. It involves trying to see the world as they see it. And that may expose you to their pain, and even the possibility that you (or at least folks in groups you identify with) caused some of that pain. It may involve finding out that people within some group you’ve always thought you identified with are actually radically different from yourself, and don’t even consider you one of them. It involves allowing for the possibility that you won’t come out of politics the same way you went into it. That takes more than a little courage.
It’s fine for McAfee to have his own views and criticisms, just as its okay for me to have mine.  But he won’t achieve what he wants if he won’t also engage in coalition politics, deamnding the DFL to do what you want while campaigning against it won’t work.  No more that me telling him how he's church should allocate his resources will work. We should all remember that.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About a Second Term

President Obama proved his political skill and resilience beyond any doubt this week when he was re-elected to four more years as President of the United States of America.  That fact cannot be debated.  What is debatable is that great exercise of punditry that pops up every four years, the whole “what does it all mean” thing that everyone will be writing about.  If you are a liberal you probably saw Tuesday night a rousing endorsement of the policies of Obama’s first term and a mandate to do more.  You’d have some strong evidence to back you up; Obama is the first Democrat since FDR to win two elections with a majority of the popular vote.  Indeed, the Democratic Party has now won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.  If you are a conservative, well the end is probably neigh (heck someone is emailing James Fallows claiming they are shutting down their business in revenge for this.)  Surely things can only get worse.

In both cases you are wrong.  Obama won a second term not a “mandate” for anything, and he won’t get to do as much as liberals wish or conservatives fear.  But that in itself is a lot, a historic “a lot” indeed.

Political science tells us that Presidents win elections not mandates.  None other than liberal scion Paul Krugman said after election night 2008 that Obama had a “mandate” for health care reform.  Obama then historically passed said reform and the American electorate responded in 2010 by voting in 63 new Republican members of Congress.  In 2004 George W. Bush announced after his reelection that he “had political capital, and intended to use it.”  Which he did by trying to privatize Social Security.  That push failed as was directly responsible for Democrats being swept to power in the midterm elections of 2006.  Bill Clinton ran heavily on healthcare in 1992 with none other than his communications director George Stephanopoulos telling the staff at their last “War Room” meeting on election eve that, “Tomorrow, for the first time in a generation we’re going to win.  That means people are going to get better jobs.  More people are going to get healthcare and get better care and pay a little less for care and more kids are going to go to great schools.”  Clinton’s historic victory hardly got his healthcare plan through a Democratic Congress.  You can take this list back a very long way.

If you want an example of how mandates are more ethereal constructs than tangible political realities just look at the marriage amendment here in Minnesota.  Less than twelve hours after the press reported the marriage amendment’s defeat some DFL politicians announced it was proof, dare I say a mandate, that it was high time to legalize same sex marriage.  Well was it?  You can make an argument that it was, you can also make an argument that it wasn’t at all.  You can argue that legalizing same sex marriage would be a good political move for the DFL or a bad one, or good for some actors and bad for others or something that should be done in spite of political fallout or could done in such a manner that there will be no fallout at all.  In short, the argument over a mandate is really a political argument about legislative agendas, constituencies and values.  Something that has never been and never will be, cut and dry.

So am I saying the election didn’t matter?  Of course not!  Every election—from who’s on the Minneapolis School Board to who is President—matters a great deal.  But wining doesn’t change the fundamental reality of how our political systems work.  What has happened on Tuesday was momentous for two reason; it enabled Obama to solidify the achievements of his first term and to offset the errors of that term as well.

It is popular among regular people and pundits to depict presidents as a sort of elected King (or dictator if you prefer a more modern word).  That is presidents win elections and then for good or for bad enact their will to reshape national life and any failure to change things is their own.  This is of course wrong.  As political scientist, aid to John Kennedy and adviser to Bill Clinton Richard Neustadt argued back in 1960, the Presidency is actually a fairly limited office.  Go back and look at the Constitution, a president cannot spend money, or enact laws or even appoint people.  At best they can only submit a budget to Congress, sign or veto a bill set on their desk and submit nominations to the Senate for their advice and consent.  With that in mind Obama’s real accomplishments, like getting millions of Americans access to health care, are all that more real because of the limitations his position entailed.

Obama cannot go back in time and correct his mistakes any more than you or I can in our own lives. But he now has a chance to offset the errors and oversights of his last four years in the next four. For reasons that defy explanation Obama has been quite slow in doing the truly presidential and crucial work of staffing the government. It’s true that Republicans have fiercely resisted Obama but he has been slow to move as well. If he had lost, the historically high number of vacancies on the federal bench would have been a chance for Romney to remake the federal judiciary, now Obama has a chance to correct this error; a sort of “do over” that can be applied to everything from scaling back drone policy to more buddy buddy photo ops with Netanyahu. As The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a year ago about how our perceptions revolve around reelection more than we might realize:
Hard as it is to have any dispassionate discussion of a president’s performance during an election year, it will be even harder once the election is over. If a year from now Obama is settling in for a second term, a halo effect will extend back to everything he did during his first four years. His programs will be more effective in reality, since he will get that many more years to cement them in with follow-up measures, supportive appointments to federal agencies and the courts, and possible vetoes of any attempts at repeal. And, through the lens of history, they will seem more effective, since whatever he did in his first term will appear to have been part of an overall plan that was ratified through reelection. Yet if a year from now a just-beaten former President Obama is thinking about his memoirs and watching his former appointees blame one another, and him, for the loss, the very same combination of missteps and achievements will be viewed as a narrative leading inexorably to defeat…. A failure to win reelection places a “one-term loser” asterisk on even genuine accomplishments. Ask George H. W. Bush, victor in the Gulf War; ask Jimmy Carter, architect of the Camp David agreement.

If he had lost all of his errors would be irreversible and would seem even worse, as his political opponents would have had the opportunity to exploit them even more.  But he didn’t and he now has the opportunity to repair and mitigate them.  In the same way that even George W. Bush, one of the worst Presidents in American History in my humble opinion, did in the last two years of his presidency when he finally (finally!) moved to reign in Chenney’s outsized role.

In that sense Obama’s reelection was “historic” but not in the sense that everything in American life will now change or even change over the next four years.   But he will exact a change on American life that is profound, even if we have a hard time seeing it every day.  As The New Republic’s Jon Cohn put it:

But, whatever happens over the next four years, Obama’s reelection guarantees that the laws passed during his first term stay on the books. That instantly makes him one of the most accomplished presidents of modern times. Already Obama and his allies have shaped this country in ways that will last for generations—making life more secure, and creating new opportunities, for tens of millions of Americans.

For people working in a political movement you always want to keep climbing towards the summit.  But sometimes you should, for perspective’s sake, turn around and look at how far you have come.