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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Spine” Is Necessary, But Not Sufficient, To Beat Trump and the GOP

I finally saw an opportunity to address a pet peeve of mine at New York this week, and took it:

Progressives should keep in mind that sometimes ideological or strategic differences of opinion among Democrats are just that, and do not betray an overweening desire to sell out “the base” for a mess of bipartisan pottage or pundit admiration. And being “tough” or a “fighter” or “unafraid” does not necessarily dictate the most successful course of action. Even though progressives have earned the right to lead the Democratic Party, an aggressive attitude simply won’t be enough.

It’s an important distinction to remember in the Trump era, when it’s a rare left-of-center political person who does not openly and loudly disparage the president and his party. Trump is the American Beauty rose of will-to-power politics, who has satisfied those in the GOP who cared most about “owning the libs” and defying “political correctness.” But the habit of identifying the leftmost course as defining Democratic courage lives on in the attacks on Nancy Pelosi for resisting demands for an immediate lurch down the path to impeachment. Does anyone who has paid attention to Pelosi’s career really believe she’s afraid of anybody or anything? Quite possibly she is wrong that impeachment might materially improve the odds that Donald Trump will serve a second term in which he can further stack the judiciary with stone ideologues and shred every constitutional and democratic norm. If she’s wrong, she’s wrong, but it’s not a matter of inadequate spine.

You can hear the same sort of mistake being made in the criticism of Joe Biden’s irrepressible faith in an honorable GOP that will spring back to life once the Evil One in the White House is gone. He’s absolutely wrong about that, of course. But it’s not because he’s soft or too nice or lacks spine. No one Biden’s age is likely to be afraid of anything other than the Grim Reaper.

More to the point, though, toughness is not going to beat Trump or the GOP, either. It’s going to require brains and and a workable strategy, both in the 2020 election and beyond. And it’s the apparent lack of brains exhibited by Biden’s persistent bipartisanship that’s troubling.

Nobody’s going to call progressive writer Brian Beutler a milquetoast centrist. He is practically the Cato the Censor of pro-impeachment agitprop. But he understands why Biden’s misapprehension about Republicans is a problem, and what needs to be done about it:

“[It] … foreshadows how things will go for any winning Democratic candidate who clings, sincerely or otherwise, to the view that a golden era of compromise will dawn once Trump is gone. These candidates will lock themselves into a mode of governing that can not work anymore. Their supporters and intra-party critics will be demoralized, their presidencies will stagnate, and they will waste precious time grasping for a better approach. (That’s if they don’t react to predictable GOP resistance by passing new, ill-conceived pseudo-compromises like the Hyde amendment.)

“It’s obviously just as naive to assume that hard-nosed realism about the nature of the modern GOP will unlock a progressive revolution all on its own. But candidates who understand what they’re signing up for can take steps to prepare for governing around Republicans now, knowing it’s delusional to imagine they’ll govern in coalition with them. If Democrats win the White House but not the Senate, Democrats should be prepared to implement creative foreign and administrative policies; if they consolidate power, they should be prepared to legislate in an aggressive and likely partisan way. The next time a Democrat is president, Republicans will again want to filibuster his or her presidency into failure, so the filibuster must be on the chopping block, and the party should be prepared to legislate around its own internal center, rather than let its most conservative members set the agenda in the vain hope of securing bipartisanship.”

This is a challenge to intelligence and imagination and political skill, not just to courage and strength and “spine.” Out-thugging Donald Trump may well be impossible in any event. So instead of simply demanding that Democrats “stop bringing a knife to a gunfight,” progressives should ask them to bring all their assets to the table. They’ll need them.

2 comments on ““Spine” Is Necessary, But Not Sufficient, To Beat Trump and the GOP

  1. Candace on

    Sorry you don’t like those words.
    how about
    “playing too nice”
    or “having a deep aversion to risk-taking, even when circumstances warrant bold action.”
    on the comment about progressives:
    ( I agree with Bouie from NYT)

    “You can read these simply as tactical and strategic quarrels. But I think there’s a deeper divide, between a politics that sees the grass roots as an asset to use and cultivate versus one that treats it as a complication to manage. It’s a “leader knows best” approach that may squander the Democratic Party’s advantage of enthusiasm and drive against a corrupt and unpopular president”

    smothering enthusiasm and drive results in going numb
    “Donald Trump remains a first-order attention grabber, he no longer feels like a first-order problem—perhaps because we have learned that there isn’t much to do about him, or because we think that voting him out in 2020 is the best answer…
    Instead of trying to stop this administration that is simply and stubbornly still there (and surely getting worse), we seem to have decided to spend most of our energy on our other priorities, on our lives, and on following the 2020 Democratic primary. Who can blame us, really, with Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats focused on infrastructure, hearings, reelection bids, and their own races? They are the people who can do something tangible to end this presidency, and from the looks of it, many are not very focused on that task (opting instead to spend time fighting over what to focus on). That means that every day House Democrats send out the message that “this is a crisis” and also that “I’m working on other projects” becomes a day in which they look like they are either overstating the crisis or declining to take appropriate action. Democracy is on fire. Nobody knows what to do. Therefore, democracy can’t really be on fire? Repeat.”

    …it feels like everyone is waiting around for their instructions. But with so much of progressive leadership writing books or sitting on panels or running for president, the folks who might be able to give instructions seem to still be workshopping their plan.”

    from : America Can’t Just Live for 2020
    Sure, try to vote Trump out of office, but what happens in 2019 matters too.


  2. Victor on

    Democrats are still terrible at communicating their values and creating real practical contrasts with Republicans, specially with someone like Trump that dominates discourse.

    This is regardless of their ideology or proposals.


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