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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lessons from the Lion’s Den

Just to follow up on Ed Kilgore’s post on “Obama in the Lion’s Den,” the echoes from the President’s visit to the Republican house caucus annual confab are still reverberating across the political terrain, and it was clearly a huge win for Obama. (Charles Lemos of MyDD presents a video and the entire transcript, with another good analysis of what happened right here) There are a couple of strategic lessons, however, that should not get lost amid the many glowing reviews.
For one, if you know you’ve got an edge in terms of policy and the ability to articulate your arguments persuasively, by all means accept the challenge to debate, show up and make your case. This seems obvious enough, but many a politician would beg off, make noises about schedule conflicts and the like, worried about being outnumbered or ambushed.
For another, there is a difference between selling out the store and bipartisanship. Many of my fellow progressives have lamented Obama’s outstretched hand to his adversaries as some sort of sell-out, and they argue that he should basically ignore the Republicans in pursuit of legislative majorities. But President Obama understands that national leadership requires bipartisan gestures, at least. Some opinion polls show strong majorities favoring a more bipartisan tone in governance. People are tiring of the rat-a-tat-tat of partisan warfare. But Obama understands that bipartisan outreach doesn’t mean compromising key principles; it just requires an openness to dialogue and an expressed willingness to search for common ground with the adversary.
Yet another is the power of civility in the throes of heated debate. President Obama projected an image of strength, defending his views with eloquence and courteous respect toward his adversaries. He let fly a couple of light, but well-targeted zingers. But his overall tone was one of respectful engagement. Let the adversary look trifling and snarky, but keep your tone on the high road. This helps to win the hearts of the undecided. As Lemos explained it well in his MyDD post:

Some had characterized the event as Daniel walking into the lion’s den. If so, Daniel mauled himself some lions, off teleprompter no less. Perhaps declawed is a better word. It was a feast for Democrats and hopefully for the nation to behold the President, armed with only his wits, in total and complete command but today’s event need not be necessarily famine for the GOP either… At its core, it was the most clear and poignant call to leave behind the slash and burn politics of the past and instead engage in a constructive dialogue in the interests of good governance….
…It is really must watch television, underscoring the fact that whatever the failings of leadership over the past year, Barack Obama possesses talents that few others do.Arguments may have been demolished but the edifice of state was constructed or perhaps at the very least a foundation was laid to move forward in the national interest. I’d daresay this was Barack Obama’s finest hour yet. Let’s hope that there is more of this to come.

After all was said, Obama’s subtextual message was, “Look, I’m willing to work with those who show good faith. But enough already with the demogoguery. We’re not going to retreat on fighting for reforms the American people want. We welcome your support and sincere compromise proposals, but we’re not going to be deterred by partisan obstructionism.”
That’s a good message for reaching swing voters, and it’s important to understand that these lessons apply more broadly than just to presidential politics. They can be used to good advantage by Dems at all levels of political conflict, especially in this already over-heated political year.

One comment on “Lessons from the Lion’s Den

  1. John Clinton on

    Beyond just the talking about bipartisanship, I would say that the really important part of Obama’s arguments was in enumerating his vision of what bipartisanship means. I have to admit that the largest part of my own skepticism about Obama’s attempts at bipartisanship was that I never saw anything from him that demonstrated how he conceived of bipartisanship, and that at times it just looked like bipartisanship as capitulation. So the most important thing that he did in that hour was to say in several instances that bipartisanship does not mean that Democrats just pass 100% of what Republicans want, nor even does it say that Democrats will back down from passing progressive legislation; after all, the majority gets to pass legislation that leans toward their general philosophical direction. Instead, he astutely noted that, in addition to passing progressive legislation, Democrats are perfectly willing to pass legislation that is conservative or right of center as long as it’s a good idea and doesn’t disagree at a fundamental level with progressive ideas. That’s exactly the kind of thing I envision when I hear the word “bipartisanship,” and Obama went a long way in rebuilding trust with me personally by enumerating that that is how he conceives of bipartisanship.
    This seems to me the most important part of his speech, and if it’s a message he can get across to voters then I think it bolsters Democrats generally. Though voters continuously talk about bipartisanship, it seems to me there has been no consistent–or consistently workable–definition from Obama of bipartisanship for those voters to look to in order to frame what the Democrats are doing. If Obama and the Democrats can get that definition into the heads of voters and then point out all the myriad ways in which Democrats have been supremely bipartisan, then that would be a huge accomplishment. Let’s see if they decide to run with it and make it work.

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