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Lessons that should be learned from Coakley's defeat, but probably won't be.

Michael Wilk's picture

Jon Walker over at Fire Dog Lake makes a very effective argument about why learning the wrong lesson from the defeat of Martha Coakley in Tuesday's Massachusetts Senate race will lead to disaster.

Not only will Democrats lose badly if they adopt this strategy, but they will be laughed at. Republicans never had 59 Senate seats, and that did not stop them from passing the legislation they wanted. Trying to explain to the American people how, despite controlling everything, Democrats cannot do anything, because a mean minority of 41 Republican senators won’t let them, is a message that will go over like a lead balloon. If you try to use that excuse, people will think elected Democrats are liars, wimps, idiots, or an ineffectual combination of all three.

Right now the corporate-owned media is all atwitter with how the loss of the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in what should have been a shoe-in election stands as a repudiation of Obama's nonexistent leftist policies. Actually, his policies have been nothing but a continuation of Bush-Cheney (Glenn Greenwald has compiled some of the better entries describing how closely Obama mirrors Bush), but never let it be said that the right-wing media can be counted on to tell the truth.

The fact is that Coakley lost because of something comedian and political commentator Bill Maher pointed out last year that bears repeating:

Even Coakley herself acknowledges, if only belatedly after having run an incompetent campaign, that the reason she lost was because Democrats are now the party of big business and Republicans — who have spent the last three decades cementing themselves as that party and transforming government into an extension of big business — are now capitalizing on the opportunity to run as populist opponents of wrong-headed government policies.

"If Scott Brown wins tonight he'll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they've got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street."

But, of course, Democratic Party misleaders are already blaming the left for Coakley's defeat. In their twisted mode of thinking, it's the job of the left-wing base to turn out and support their right-wing candidates no matter what, not the job of Democratic politicians to campaign and govern in support of policies that benefit their constituents. Just as in the route of 1994, Democrats are taking the wrong lessons from a midterm-year defeat. Greenwald writes:

Last night, Evan Bayh blamed the Democrats' problems on "the furthest left elements," which he claims dominates the Democratic Party -- seriously. And in one of the dumbest and most dishonest Op-Eds ever written, Lanny Davis echoes that claim in The Wall St. Journal: "Blame the Left for Massachusetts" (Davis attributes the unpopularity of health care reform to the "liberal" public option and mandate; he apparently doesn't know that the health care bill has no public option [someone should tell him], that the public option was one of the most popular provisions in the various proposals, and the "mandate" is there to please the insurance industry, not "the Left," which, in the absence of a public option, hates the mandate; Davis' claim that "candidate Obama's health-care proposal did not include a public option" is nothing short of an outright lie).

In what universe must someone be living to believe that the Democratic Party is controlled by "the Left," let alone "the furthest left elements" of the Party? As Ezra Klein says, the Left "ha[s] gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months." The Left wanted a single-payer system, then settled for a public option, then an opt-out public option, then Medicare expansion -- only to get none of it, instead being handed a bill that forces every American to buy health insurance from the private insurance industry. Nor was it "the Left" -- but rather corporatist Democrats like Evan Bayh and Lanny Davis -- who cheered for the hated Wall Street bailout; blocked drug re-importation; are stopping genuine reform of the financial industry; prevented a larger stimulus package to lower unemployment; refuse to allow programs to help Americans with foreclosures; supported escalation in Afghanistan (twice); and favor the same Bush/Cheney terrorism policies of indefinite detention, military commissions, and state secrets.

The very idea that an administration run by Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel and staffed with centrists, Wall Street mavens, and former Bush officials -- and a Congress beholden to Blue Dogs and Lieberdems -- has been captive "to the Left" is so patently false that everyone should be too embarrassed to utter it. For better or worse, the Democratic strategy has long been and still is to steer clear of their leftist base and instead govern as "pragmatists" and centrists -- which means keeping the permanent Washington factions pleased. That strategy may or not be politically shrewd, but it is just a fact that the dreaded "Left" has gotten very little of what it wanted the entire year. Is there anyone who actually believes that "The Left" is in control of anything, let alone the Democratic Party? The fact that Lanny Davis -- to prove the Left's dominance -- has to cite one provision that was jettisoned (the public option) and another which the Left hates (the mandate) reflects how false that claim is. What are all of the Far Left policies the Democrats have been enacting and Obama has been advocating? I'd honestly love to know.

Common sense, but let it also not be said that the Democratic Party's misleaders have even an ounce of that among them. So what can be done about this continuing rightward trend? Sam Smith of The Progressive Review lays out a good strategy for what we as the left-wing of the party should be pushing.

I can't post all of them here, but here are some methods that stand out as being the most common sense — and which have been proven to get results (just ask the GOP):

Define your politics issue by issue, not icon by icon. One reason progressive politics fares so poorly is because we spend too much time on individual campaigns and not enough on issues. While the former tend to drive away the independent, the skeptical and those who don't like a particular a candidate, the latter can attract all sorts to join with others who may agree only one issue.

This goes to something David Sirota wrote a while back about what happens when political parties subjugate political movements. Democrats have become all about the politics of personality, about elevating individual candidates, rather than the causes for which the left is fighting. This is what needs to change above all else.

Define your politics by issue by issue, not by ideology. It's a lot easier to get a cross section of people backing a particular issue than it is for them to buy into your whole philosophy of life. Use the former approach on the streets and save the latter for the bar. You don't need common ideology if you have common causes.

Again, common sense. You can make an argument for a progressive position on a given issue without going into why progressivism is the better ideology.

Don't dis' those whose votes you need. Convert them with policies that actually help them. Do a good enough job and they'll forget about abortions and gay marriage.

This should be so sensible as to be pointless to explain, but with so much hostility displayed by Democrats toward leftists within and outside the party, it needs repeating.

And in case you're thinking about supporting Obama for re-election in 2012, assuming Republicans don't retake the House and bully the Senate into impeaching and removing him before then, remember this:

Remember that minorities have diversity, too. Just because a black politician talks about hope and change doesn't mean he's Martin Luther King. Especially if he's from Chicago.

Learn these and the other lessons provided, and we might just survive long enough to actually gain power. Otherwise, don't come crying when we're stuck right back where we started after the next election.

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Valhalla's picture
Submitted by Valhalla on

Stop saying that Coakley ran an incompetent campaign. That is just the cover Obama's people are floating to divert attention from the fact that this one Senate seat is a referendum on Obama and the health care plan in particular. As I said over at Violet's:

Granted, she hasn’t run a billion-dollar American Idol campaign avec rock stars like some, but she campaigned hard during the primaries, took a break for the holidays, and filled her schedule (available online) with all the usual meet-and-greets. She was elected AG in 2006 with 73% of the vote, and won the primary by more than 20 points, and had an excellent ground game. Until last week’s polls’ panic, she was campaigning on her record, ie, the issues, and doing a pretty darn good job of it. Only now that this election has become a referendum on Obama has this sudden concern about her “badness” been raised. Most of the arrogance claims are emanating from Brown supporters (unsurprising) or OFB seeking to make this election about anything but Obama’s failure on health care (also unsurprising).

Coakley was polling 30 points ahead of Brown until she flipped on voting against health care because of the abortion restrictions. And she really, really began to lose when Obama and his campaign people showed up and took over all the messaging, which was, in a nutshell: a vote for Coakley is a vote for Obama and the health care plan. The flip on abortion pushed a lot of her base away (pro-choice women), and Brown grabbed the anti-health care plan initiative at the same time.

Why do I keep haunting threads here and elsewhere to pushback on this lie? Because it is just as made-up as most of Obama's marketing-cover lies. (in fact, the early lie was the same 'local issues' talking point they used in NJ and VA, but when that didn't fly they switched to this one). And, more importantly, because it weakens otherwise excellent arguments like this one. Other Democrats need not fear voter retribution at the polls if Coakley was merely incompetent. It wasn't about Democrats' rank failure to push through the agenda they campaigned on in 2008 if it's all Coakley's fault. And finally, although much less importantly, I've gotten to the point where I just can't read past that crap line about Coakley even when I suspect I support everything else the writer has to say.

Submitted by lambert on

The "even though Coakley ran a terrible campaign" talking point is one of those seemingly harmless sops to conventional wisdom that needs bullshit called where found.

Thanks for pointing out, too, how in a neat illlustration of how the legacy parties work together, the Republicans and the "progressive" OFB have jointly settled on this talking point.

basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

when they endorsed Brown said that they were doing so because Coakley was going to support the health care plan and they opposed it. How much more direct does it need to be?

From the endorsement itself:

We do not endorse anyone who advocates changes in the health care that take away any bargaining rights or increases our cost along with our contributions. Senator Brown does not support the Comprehensive Healthcare Reform Bill and promises to be the 41st vote to ensure its defeat.

michaelwb's picture
Submitted by michaelwb on

You say that "Even Coakley herself acknowledges" and then give an extensive quote implied in the context as being by Coakley. But the link you offer has nothing by Coakley. Instead the quote and observation is a Celinda Lake who was a pollster hired by Coakley but is not Coakley and it would be wrong to imply she reflects what Coakley thinks.

I do think the analysis by Lake is correct.