I finally got around to reading Michael Tomasky’s much-discussed article in The American Prospect arguing that Democrats should make “the common good” an overarching theme of progressive politics, reigning in the interest-group particularism and individual and group “rights”orientation that have largely dominated liberal thinking since the 1960s. There’s little in Mike’s long piece I would dispute, and it’s heartening to note that it echoes a critique of the interest-group approach that has recently spread, often quite dramatically, from “centrist” precincts into segments of the party normally identified with the Left. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger’s now-famous essay, The Death of Environmentalism, forms a big chunk of the analysis of the Democratic Party in Jerome Armstrong and Marcos Moulitsas Zuniga’s netroots manifesto, Crashing the Gate. Less surprisingly, it (along with “The Reapers'” later research on voter values) has been much discussed and praised in DLC circles as well. It’s important to remember how central the interest group/group rights framework was to the Left until just this juncture of history. Back in 1988, one of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s best known prerorations invoked his grandmother’s beautiful quilts as a metaphor for the Democratic Party, and then proceeded through a litany of “the groups” (everyone from small business people and farmers to gays and lesbians), addressing each with the warning: “Your patch is too small.” I can remember listening to this powerful litany on the floor of the 1988 Convention in Atlanta and thinking: “Is that who we are? Just a bunch of groups linking arms to protect their stuff?” Aside from the fact that this “sum of the parts” orientation eroded any sense of genuine overall purpose, it also led Democrats for decades into the trap of bidding for votes based on encouraging Americans to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of their relationship with government, parrying “their” tax cuts with “our” juicy new public benefits. And you know what? We never have, and probably never will, beat Republicans in a competition based on selfishness, because they don’t really give a damn what government does while we, as Tomasky so rightly notes, are really motivated by something higher than the crass appeals to material interest our politicians have too often relied upon. The one important historical note that Mike either missed or decided not to mention is that the debate he is calling for among Democrats was actually the central internal struggle of John Kerry’s presidential campaign of 2004. The argument for a “common good” candidacy was eloquently laid out by Stan Greenberg in his book, The Two Americas, written just as the campaign got underway. Kerry’s campaign book, A Call To Service (disclosure: I had a hand in this little-read book) was heavily based on the very themes and analysis Tomasky talks about. And as Joe Klein details in his new book, Politics Lost, Kerry’s whole nomination campaign was set to revolve around the communitarian theme of “New American Patriotism” (a theme powerful enough that Wes Clark picked it up when Kerry discarded it), until the Shrum/Devine consultant team prevailed on the candidate to go with a more conventional programs-and-sound-bites-that-poll-well approach. Kerry won the nomination without the “common good” theme, but I’m not the only one who thinks he would have won the presidency if he had stuck to it. As Tomasky explains, there is tangibly a deep craving in the electorate for leadership that appeals to something other than naked self-interest and the competing claims of groups. And no matter who our nominee is in 2008, he or she should seize the opportunity to unite the party, and perhaps begin reuniting the country, with an appeal to the very impulses that make most of us progressives in the first place.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Fortunately, the federal government will stay open through the holidays, but Democrats must stay vigilant, since the nihilist forces that keep bringing Congress to the brink have not gone away, as I explained at New York:
After his success in passing a two-tiered stopgap spending bill with a ton of Democratic votes and quiet concurrence from the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House, freshly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson hastily retreated into a Thanksgiving recess with angry shouts from his erstwhile hard-core MAGA allies echoing in his ears, as Punchbowl News reports:
“Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), policy chair for the House Freedom Caucus, went to the House floor and angrily bashed the GOP leadership after members had bolted town on Wednesday, a bitter ending to a grueling 10-week marathon for the chamber.
“’I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing — one — that I can go campaign on and say we did. One!’ Roy yelled during a speech in an otherwise empty House chamber.
“’Anybody sitting in the complex, you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, well, I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats.’”
Among the “material, significant things” Roy and others among the 93 House Republicans who voted against Johnson’s plan wanted were deep spending cuts in disfavored areas of the federal government and perhaps some symbolic policy shibboleths smiting abortion providers or transgender athletes or tax collectors. Such items would have been treated by Democrats and even some Republicans as poison pills, which is why Johnson’s “clean” stopgap bill didn’t include them. The new Speaker’s support for a “clean” bill and his reliance on Democratic voters are precisely the actions that got old Speaker Kevin McCarthy tossed out on his ear. Thanks to Johnson’s past record of rigorous right-wing orthodoxy (and perhaps exhaustion following the long fight over McCarthy’s successor), his rebellious friends appear to have given him a mulligan. But it probably won’t last.
A new government shutdown threat will likely appear once the first “tier” of the stopgap bill expires on January 19. Indeed, the hard-liners are already firing shots across Johnson’s bow, as Politico reports:
“Hardliners sunk any chances of passage for two additional funding bills this week — marking a major setback for Speaker Mike Johnson less than 24 hours after working with Democrats to pass a bill that would thwart a shutdown deadline Saturday …
“GOP leadership then canceled the rest of the votes for the week, with Republicans predicting that Johnson’s spending headache won’t get any easier once they return at the end of the month.
“Instead, members of the Freedom Caucus vowed to continue blocking House Republicans’ remaining five funding bills. They urged Johnson to come up with a plan that would cut spending for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, without any accounting tricks.”
What makes this revolt even more significant is that Freedom Caucus types are really obsessed with the need to enact individual appropriations bills instead of the catchall measures they believe endemic to out-of-control federal spending. A big part of the rationale for Johnson’s two-tiered stopgap was to provide enough time — and no more — for passage of these individual bills. But now HFC leaders are sabotaging that very possibility out of a fit of pique, in an exceptional example of what it means to cut off your nose to spite your face.
The thing is, Senate Democrats and the White House aren’t going to bend to Chip Roy’s definition of what the American people want or need between now and the time the next shutdown crisis arrives (indeed, a collision over aid to Ukraine and border policy contained in the president’s supplemental spending proposal will likely come to a head before Christmas). So the shutdown threat may have simply been deferred for a bit even as House GOP hard-liners flagellate themselves for letting Johnson off the hook for the exact sins that damned McCarthy. Enjoy the holidays, federal employees. But stash away some provisions for what could be a stormy winter.