Don Davis

Sometimes Losing Is How You Win

Filed By Don Davis | January 26, 2011 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, Congress, Democrats, election 2012, filibuster reform, politics, Republicans, Senate Rule Reform, Social Security, State of the Union

We have been talking a lot about Social Security these past few weeks, even to the point barack-obama-bw.pngwhere I've missed out on talking about things that I also wanted to bring to the table, particularly the effort to reform Senate rules. We'll make up for that today with a conversation that bears upon both of those issues, and a lot of others besides, by getting back to one of the fundamentals in a very real way...and today's fundamental involves the question of whether it's a good idea to keep pushing for what you want, even if it seems pointless at the time. To put it another way: when it comes to this Administration and this Congress and trying to influence policy... if Elvis has already left the building, what's the point?
Bachmann response now on CNN. Turn to SAP Channel 3 for English captions. --A Tweet posted by pourmecoffee, immediately following the 2011 State of the Union address
If you have been in any way awake and alert over the past 18 months or so, you've noticed that this President is having some trouble with the most fervent of his November '08 supporters, who feel - with some considerable justification - that they've either been sold short, used as a target of political convenience, or ignored altogether in their calls for a more Progressive agenda. It has come to the point where many who gave money to Democrats in the '08 cycle did not donate in '10, and it's also suggested that many of that '08 voting coalition chose not to vote Democratic as well, exacerbating the Party's electoral troubles in this cycle's contests. And there are numbers to back this up: I've been looking at a CAF/Greenberg poll that's about a week old, and even as those who oppose Obama's policies (particularly his most strident opponents) have been warming to his approach over the past six months or so, the number of voters who support him the most strongly has never been lower. It's stayed that way since about June of '10. So a long-running theme of my work is that this is the time to try to influence one thing or another; most recently that's been an effort directed at trying to impact the discussion around what might happen with Social Security. A long-running response to that work, in the comments that some of my friends post on the sites where these stories appear, is that there is just no purpose in trying to change the direction of this particular Ship of State, as it has already sailed. This Administration is too corrupt and too feckless to be forced into change, they will tell you, and anyone who thinks otherwise is either deluded or carrying water for the DCCC. But I don't agree, and I'll tell you why. Right off the bat, you might be surprised how often you can win, even when you did not think you would; the fights over DADT and Elizabeth Warren's nomination are a couple of recent examples that come to mind. Beyond that, losing a political fight, and doing it well, helps to move the conversation incrementally over the longer term. I would suggest that it took two political cycles before the tide turned on the war in Iraq, and now it's beginning to look like the military's plan for "Victory In Afghanistan through Massive Force" is a proposition that's tougher and tougher to sell every day, even within the White House. Conservatives know this well, and efforts to advocate for gun rights, to advance "pro-life" policies, and to radically change the form and function of government have extended over decades, with incremental changes often being the incremental goal ("let's create these temporary tax cuts today and let's try to extend them forever another day"). Ironically, another good reason to "fight the good fight," even in an environment where you might not see victory as possible, is one that is very familiar to the most fervent of Obama's '08 supporters: the very fight, in and of itself, is often a way to create political capital, even if you lose. How many of us have wished this very President would have stood up and fought for things that he might not have thought he would get? Would you support this President more if he had demanded that Congress pass a single-payer plan, or if he was pushing harder to end renditions and close Guantanamo, even if Congress was blocking him? I bet you would. And it makes sense: if you support single-payer, and you see someone out there fighting hard for the idea, that's a good thing, and that's someone you're likely to come back and support later. It worked for three Congressional Democrats who lost elections this fall: Feingold, Grayson, and Patrick Murphy are all in a great position to seek support from the very people who are the most frustrated with pretty much all the other Democrats today. Some of those supporters aren't even waiting for the future candidates; the "Draft Feingold for President" movement goes back to at least 2004, Grayson and Murphy also have supporters ready and willing to go. So if it's true that if this President would fight like Bernie Sanders, even in a losing cause, then we would treat him with the same degree of affection and respect we feel toward Bernie Sanders, is it also true that we should, maybe, apply that lesson to ourselves? There is an argument to be made that trying to move your opponent when you don't think you can and in the process showing how they appear to be either intransigent, ignorant, corrupt by comparison, or just plain wrong about something can regularly end up moving voters, instead. That the result of that movement is that your opponent sometimes has to move your way as well. I would submit that the 2005 effort to "reform" Social Security, when we had a Republican President, House, and Senate, went exactly nowhere fast because being wrong did move a bunch of voters to say that all those Republicans were wrong. So there you go, folks. I'm here today to suggest that, even when we might not feel we have a good chance of winning a political fight - or even a fair chance - you still have to get out and fight the fight, if only to advance the cause for another day. It's also a great way to accrue political capital that can be used to your advantage later, and if the resistance from the other side is perceived as being too heavy-handed, they can suffer from a sort of "attrition," as their own political capital is diminished. And even if you lose, there's still a lot to be gained in the effort, although you might not see the results until further down the road. As we said at the top of the story, there are lots of battles left over, including what is going to happen to Social Security and the potential for reforming Senate rules; but win or lose, it's probably a better idea to be trying to fight these fights, loudly and logically, just as we wish the President would, then to find ourselves hanging back and doing nothing at all today and then voting for Jack Box for President 2012 as a way of expressing our frustration.

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All good points, Don. Would you apply the argument to ENDA and DOMA when we have all agreed they are 'back burner' now?

actually, i would...and i've even been one of those suggesting that nothing is going to move now.

that said, if you make the opposition look silly, or if you can "embarrass them into a corner", or if you can just look more reasonable as the other side looks less so, you do indeed accrue useful political capital.

an unasked question: does that mean "full steam ahead for the hrc...and get those checks in the mail" is the order of the day?

maybe not: this might be a good time to think about alternative approaches--and i love the idea that comedy and music and culture are available to small-time folks who want to move voters.

for example...how about a "real housewives" youtube series where the same-sex spouses deal with the real problems of same-sex spousal life?

so yeah, i'd say we should keep pushing--and make it fun while we do it--and in the process, let's see if we can't move the "doable" a bit more our way.

I'd balance out your view by pointing out how clear these past two years have made it that it's vitally important that we work for social change outside the context of elections. Elections can only do so much.

The last two years?

From somebody who has been in the fight for decades: welcome to political reality, young Alex! And to everyone who is easily frustrated and ready to quit: pace yourself! The race is not to the swift. Endurance is the key.

Thanks, Don!