Liberal Politics May Be Messy, But It Beats the Alternative

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I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.
Will Rogers

Frustration with Democratic leadership seemed to boil over in the last week or so. It began (as far as I can tell) with John Aravosis’ withering criticism of the president over his speech last weekend at a Human Rights Campaign event. He wrote of “concerns about President Obama’s inaction, and backtracking” on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy towards gays. The criticism led to backlash (here is a good example) and tensions have been high all around since. In a way Obama is not the right target, and some have acknowledged that even as they urge him to act. Vermont Law School Associate Professor of Law Jackie Gardina advocates his taking action on DADT, but acknowledges all he can change is the implementation. Overturning it can only be done by Congress. The same is true for DOMA. While it may be more appealing to focus all criticism on a single target, the fact is that these changes will only be durable when the legislature acts. The president is obviously not a passive figure in all this – he can urge Congress to act, give moral support to the effort through his rhetoric (something that has curiously been treated as largely irrelevant on this issue) and otherwise encourage action on these issues, but in the end the action is at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Leadership there has been getting lit up as well, mainly focused on Harry Reid. No bargain in the best of times, he just pulled off his patented Weak Tea Blustery Surrender move on health care reform. Named after the tough talk on defunding Iraq that immediately preceded total capitulation, this week he used it on former Democrat Joe Lieberman. Recall Lieberman was allowed to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security committee after the election, which Reid claimed the “vast majority” of the Democratic caucus wanted – even though “his comments and actions have raised serious concerns among many” in it. Reid initially floated the idea of substituting his Homeland Security chair with that of some lesser committee in exchange for caucusing with the Democrats. Lieberman countered with I’ll keep Homeland Security and you can take a hike Harry, and Harry decided that was a fine compromise. Now we are seeing how well Mr. Democrat on Everything but Iraq is working out – David Waldman is tracking Lieberman’s firm stance against health care reform. Harry says he needs to accommodate as many people as possible to overcome a Republican filibuster which, as Markos points out, does not exist. Pushed to impose consequences for those who vote against the Democrats’ most important legislative priority, Reid’s lieutenants lashed out…at the protesters.

Before I make my next point, let me be clear: candidate Obama gave the impression that he would be much more active and visible on DADT and DOMA than he has been to this point as president, and Harry Reid has been relentlessly, aggressively ineffectual as Majority Leader. There are very legitimate complaints against both of them on these issues, and more generally about the establishment Democrats being too close to those who actively oppose the goals of their base. These issues are real and I do not want to be seen as minimizing them.

But it is also fair to point out that Democratic party (and the left generally) is more fractious by nature than the right. Conservatives talk about having a big tent, but liberals really have one. The result is a lot of different voices, each one trying to get things moving in a slightly different direction. It can be frustrating and for newcomers bewildering; John Cole recently wrote “some days I hate Democrats more as a Democrat than I did as a Republican.” For better or worse that’s how we do things. We may envy the party discipline of the Republicans, but look at where it has gotten them – does anyone envy their position in the wilderness? More importantly, we just witnessed the apotheosis of conservative rule, with its ideology ascendant and the GOP in control of all three branches of government. Its highlight was George Bush lionized as Commander In Chief, Leader of the Free World, Ruler of the Party and president of the United States (in that order). That is where the fall in line approach to politics got us. For as frustrating as the cacophony now is, it’s a damn sight better than what preceded it.

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