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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Progressives Serve Tea?

In his Washington Post column, E. J. Dionne, Jr. asks a question worth pondering “Can the Left Stage a Tea Party?“. Dionne sets the stage:

.A quiet left has…been very bad for political moderates. The entire political agenda has shifted far to the right because the Tea Party and extremely conservative ideas have earned so much attention. The political center doesn’t stand a chance unless there is a fair fight between the right and the left.
…The absence of a strong, organized left made it easier for conservatives to label Obama as a left-winger. His health-care reform is remarkably conservative — yes, it did build on the ideas implemented in Massachusetts that Mitt Romney once bragged about. It was nothing close to the single-payer plan the left always preferred. His stimulus proposal was too small, not too large. His new Wall Street regulations were a long way from a complete overhaul of American capitalism. Yet Republicans swept the 2010 elections because they painted Obama and the Democrats as being far to the left of their actual achievements.

It was a clever strategy that paid off for the right. Whenever there is a void left by Democratic inaction, the right is always eager to fill it with their custom-tailored memes. In this endeavor they found a willing accomplice, not only in Fox News, but the MSM in general, which they played like a fiddle, as Dionne explains:

Conservative funders realized that pumping up the Tea Party movement was the most efficient way to build opposition to Obama’s initiatives. And the media became infatuated with the Tea Party in the summer of 2009, covering its disruptions of congressional town halls with an enthusiasm not visible this summer when many Republicans faced tough questions from their more progressive constituents.

The press loves conflict, especially when it provides lively video. This week progressives have an opportunity to generate some media interest of their own, as Dionne reports:

…Progressives will highlight a new effort to pursue the road not taken at a conference convened by the Campaign for America’s Future that opens Monday. It is a cooperative venture with a large number of other organizations, notably the American Dream Movement led by Van Jones, a former Obama administration official who wants to show the country what a truly progressive agenda around jobs, health care and equality would look like. Jones freely acknowledges that “we can learn many important lessons from the recent achievements of the libertarian, populist right” and says of the progressive left: “This is our ‘Tea Party’ moment — in a positive sense.” The anti-Wall Street demonstrators seem to have that sense, too.

While no one is betting that these events will attract the same level of soup-to-nuts coverage received by the tea party, at least it’s a start. Dionne relates how an activist left helped two Democratic Presidents who legislated impressive domestic policies:

What’s been missing in the Obama presidency is the productive interaction with outside groups that Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed with the labor movement and Lyndon B. Johnson with the civil rights movement. Both pushed FDR and LBJ in more progressive directions while also lending them support against their conservative adversaries…A real left could usefully instruct Americans as to just how moderate the president they elected in 2008 is — and how far to the right conservatives have strayed.

Chris Cillizza’s The Fix post “Republicans hold the edge in voter intensity ahead of 2012 elections, poll shows” makes a related point which supports Dionne’s argument. As Cillizza notes:

…If new numbers from Gallup are to be believed, this “intensity gap” is a major problem for President Obama as he looks toward 2012…The data showed that just 45 percent of Democrats say they are more enthusiastic about the 2012 presidential election than they have been in past elections, while 44 percent described themselves as less enthusiastic…Nearly six in 10 Republicans (58 percent), on the other hand, call themselves more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than in past contests, while just 30 percent say they are less excited.

What apparently hasn’t sunk in yet among Democrats is the grim prospect of a GOP national trifecta — the huge consequences of having the Republicans control both houses of congress and the presidency. The enthusiasm gap indicates that some Democrats — as well as swing voters — need a wake-up call. It may be that more activism from the left can help provide it.

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