Tuesday Night Fights
Getting presidents to pay attention.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
If you’ve spent time in progressive circles these last nine months, you’ve certainly heard the “make me do it” story. The details bounce around, but the basic tale is this: The president is meeting in the Oval Office with an activist, a union president or a civil rights leader pushing a progressive cause. At the end of the meeting, the president says, “OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” The moral is a good one: Change comes only through organized pressure on elected officials, even putative allies. But the fable, as Robert Borosage recently pointed out, is misleading. “The story is apocryphal. No president likes to be pressured. FDR loathed Huey Long and was often furious at the unions. Johnson was constantly trying to get King to call off the demonstrations – and his FBI bugged King. And yet King forced him to do what he would otherwise have been unable to do.”
The Obama White House is no different. From day one, the administration has pursued a strategy of keeping its progressive allies on the White House playbook. In a weekly Tuesday night meeting, Common Purpose, dozens of progressive groups – environmental organizations, labor unions, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign and others – gather at the Capital Hilton to meet with White House reps. Often the White House will bring in policy experts to give briefings on legislation such as health care or financial reform. Once in a while, David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel shows up. Although the meetings are strictly off the record, accounts occasionally leak. In August, several outlets reported Emanuel’s chastisement of some attendees for targeting Blue Dog Democrats wavering on reform. Anyone who went after Democrats, he reportedly said, was “f***** stupid.”
Mostly, though, the meetings are a chance for the White House to communicate its message. When faced with the kind of sustained, ferocious, implacable opposition campaign waged during the August recess, the meetings provide a useful platform for coordinating pushback. “Health care has been pretty good,” an attendee said. “The most obvious example was the town hall pushback, even though the MSM stopped covering it. From an organizing perspective, we did a fabulous job of turning people out and winning the ground game. That had an impact on elected representatives.”
But communication tends to go in one direction. “There’s a lot of message control, but not a ton of dialogue back and forth and not a ton of true gritty political discussion,” one regular said. Many groups seem happy enough to be in the room and wary of openly confronting the administration. This means the White House doesn’t get to hear an unvarnished version of where the base is coming from, a dynamic that prevented the White House from grasping how important the public option was to progressives.
It’s not surprising to find the White House in the incumbent-protection business, but its shielding of Blue Dogs has the perverse – and maddening – effect of imperiling the very policies (public option, a good cap-and-trade bill) it claims to want passed. Had progressives followed the White House lead on health care – focusing their fire on Republicans, defending the White House no matter what it put forward – the public option would have long since been killed off. A recent report that the president is working senators behind the scenes in an attempt to get the public option into the final bill seems to demonstrate the “make me do it” dynamic, much as the White House would be loath to admit it.