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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Governing Well Is the Best Revenge

While Democratic unity is, given the objective circumstances, pretty well intact, there remains some serious progressive grumbling that the president and congressional Democrats are failing to take advantage of populist fury against the Washington status quo and reclaim the mantle of “hope and change.”
The esteemed progressive journalist Paul Starr has an article up on the American Prospect site arguing that the long-term policy results of Democratic policy initiatives should remain a higher priority than manuevering with the Tea Party Movement for the Angry Populist high ground.

Many progressives blame Obama, saying that he fell in with the wrong crowd in Washington and Wall Street, gave too much ground on policy, failed to mobilize his grass-roots organization, and lost his true voice, at least until the final weeks of the health-care battle when he barnstormed the nation and looked like the candidate the public elected in 2008.
Envious of the Tea Party’s angry crowds, even saying they sympathize with them, these progressives yearn for Democrats to express that same populist anger — but to direct it against the big banks and other corporations….
But there are good reasons why Obama cannot and should not indulge in a full-bore populism that, in practice, would yield nothing but deadlock and disaster.

Starr contrasts Obama’s approach to that of Republicans in power, who pandered for votes with an unfunded and poorly designed Medicare prescription drug benefit precisely because they didn’t care about the real-life consequences. With Republicans now abandoning any real pretense of offering a practical agenda for the country, Democrats have the particular burden of being “the party of responsible government, [because] America needs at least one of those.”

[F]or all their limitations, the bailouts and other policies have put the economy back in gear. Growth has resumed, productivity is up sharply, and employers are beginning to hire. This is how recoveries look: The market anticipates change, while employment lags it. And because most people cannot yet see the fruits, Democrats are paying a price in public approval and may well pay one in November.
For the fall, Democrats could well use more tactical populism, and the battle over financial reform should provide plenty of opportunity for it. But their true hope lies in building a record as the party of responsible government. Let the Republicans drink the Tea Party’s brew. Progressives shouldn’t wish for the equivalent. Calm and intelligent leadership is ultimately a better formula for long-term public support.

With the current conservative surge relying heavily on record-high public distrust of government, Starr has a good point that running against government as inveterately corrupted by corporate influence is a potentially self-defeating strategy for the party of public-sector activism. Certainly government should be more progressive. But if people don’t believe government can govern effectively at all, it’s the irresponsbile anti-government party that will benefit politically.

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