I think there’s some truth to both of these analyses. And a lot could be said about each of them, and a lot has. I’m not going to rehash any of it. Instead, I want to mention something that I haven’t really seen talked about, but that I also think is significant, and was, I think, a structural problem with the Coakley campaign.
And before I get to it, let me lay my bona fides on the table. I didn’t support her in the primary. I supported Capuano, who I still think would have run a much better campaign, and might well have prevailed in the general election. But I did put in some serious time for Coakley, making phone calls, helping organize others to do this, and standing out with a sign in the snow for her.
The structural problem that I see is that her campaign was—in spite of what has been sometimes asserted—based largely on an appeal to the notion that it’s time for a woman. This is by no means a trivial matter, and I have a real sympathy for this argument. In fact, there are far too few women in state and national government, and we would have a much healthier political environment if more women were in public office.
Now I know that it’s been asserted that Coakley ran on all sorts of issues, and that she had positions on all sorts of things. But in fact, this really wasn’t evident. At the beginning of the primary campaign I looked at her website, and the issues that she addressed there were few in number. And even the ones she did address were not addressed forcefully. When I heard her speak, she simply didn’t have the fire in the belly that you want from a candidate who is going to fight for things.
To some extent, this simply may be who she was—a very detached and cautious person who didn’t fit in to a publicly assertive role. But I think that, whether or not that is true, the fact that her campaign was based so strongly on holding on to a significant number of women who would vote for her simply on that basis (I spoke to one woman when I was making phone calls who told me that she was voting for “the woman”—she wasn’t certain who it was) crippled her ability—whether she wanted to or not—to speak strongly to almost any position.
The fact is that women don’t hold monolithic views on anything. The one time that Coakley spoke with intensity during the primary was when she said that she would have voted against the House version of a health reform proposal because it contained the odious Stupak amendment drastically restricting access to abortions. This was without question intended to be the defining moment of her campaign. And it was a position that you might have thought would at least be a unifying one among women. Well, according to what I read, she received some pushback from women who were not at all pro-choice, and she quickly back-pedaled on her position.
The problem is that identity politics just doesn’t work. You have to stand for something. You have to believe in it. And you have to convince the voters that you believe in it.
So that’s one thing that I think went terribly wrong. I think there’s another thing, however that may be at least as significant.
It seems to me that the election wasn’t so much a choice between Martha Coakley and Scott Brown—it was framed by the Republicans as a referendum on Obama’s first year. And I think it was seen by many voters as just that. And furthermore, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. After all, it’s what we did in the last election, framing it as a referendum on the Bush years.
And the plain fact—although we’re reticent to talk about it—is that Obama has been a tremendous disappointment. Throughout the Bush years there developed a groundswell of progressive thought that hadn’t been seen in this country in generations. By the end there was a real grassroots movement that was energizing large numbers of people who had been disconnected from politics for decades—in many cases, for their entire lives. This was a wonderful and moving thing to see. And Obama gave voice to it—albeit in a vague and diffuse way. But without a doubt “Yes we can” resonated in a deep way with a majority of the American people—enough that it would even overcome the deeply ingrained racism that ordinarily would have absolutely ruled out the possibility of a African-American getting the nomination, much less winning the election. It was a moment to savor, a moment in history.
And yet there were some warning signs. Once Obama had won the endorsement of groups like MoveOn, he told them point-blank that if they wanted to have anything to do with his campaign they had to stop any independent advocacy of their own. Although many people responded to the notion of Obama as a “community organizer”, he actually ran a very top-down campaign and worked hard to stop his supporters from speaking out on the issues that had caused them to support him in the first place.
And once he got in office, he proceeded to systematically throw his most progressive supporters under the bus. He installed as his economic advisers the same team that had been responsible for dismantling the New Deal protections that had at least stabilized some aspects of our financial system. He met with representatives of large insurance companies and immediately bargained away the notion of a single-payer health plan (which virtually every European country has, and which gives them far better health care at far less expense than we have here). And while he was at it, he also bargained away the possibility of a public option. And this happened very early in his administration.
He did push a bailout plan through Congress, but the plan rewarded the greediest and most dysfunctional financial players and did not nearly enough to support the tens of millions of Americans who were dispossessed or lost their jobs, or were in danger of one or the other.
And none of this was forced on him. He did all this at a time when he was untouchable. Obama came into office with a mandate and sense of popular urgency unseen since FDR’s first term. And he squandered it.
He’s a likable person. I like him. And he’s done some very good things. But with the exception of a few well-crafted and inspiring speeches, he spent the better part of the year letting the Republicans and the tea-baggers capture the public discourse. When they yelled—at first tentatively, and then with more and more recklessness—about the evil government taking over health care, he said nothing. When they yelled about how the problem was “illegal immigrants” and abortion on demand, he said nothing. When Rush Limbaugh said that he hoped Obama would fail, he did nothing to harvest what could have been massive popular outrage. And when his supporters desperately asked him again and again if he supported a public option, he—again and again—reluctantly said he thought it would be a nice idea, but made it very clear that it was not something he cared much about. Instead he talked, and still talks about “health insurance reform”. Even in his latest State of the Union address, when he asked rhetorically for anyone to suggest a better health care proposal, it turned out that he only meant that invitation for Republicans—he refused to meet with doctors advocating a single-payer plan, and when they tried to hold up a banner outside the Republican gathering he was speaking at, they were arrested.
And at that Republican gathering, he invited the Republicans to join him in setting up a commission to cut back on Social Security and Medicare benefits. This is something that Republicans have been drooling over
for a long time. It’s something that Bush tried really hard to do. It’s something that we as Democrats stopped him from doing. And now we have a Democratic president who is bent on the same policy.
Why is this happening? I do have some thoughts on this. Keep reading …
Deval Patrick has been acting in an analogous way here in Massachusetts. He was elected with overwhelming popularity on a platform of combating cynicism. He’s been a very competent administrator—in many ways an excellent one. Let me just give one example which impressed me: (I’m sure I’ve got some of the details wrong, but the gist of this is correct.) When he entered office, the part of state government that was in charge of children who were for some reason wards of the state (DYS?) was doing a terrible job in educating them. Only a small fraction of these children managed to get a high-school equivalency diploma. The outgoing Romney administration had proposed to put the Department of Correction (!) in charge of educating these children. Governor Patrick realized this was nonsense. His administration looked at this situation and found that the teachers who were employed in this capacity were generally not certified. They replaced them all by certified teachers. And now the high school graduation rate is very high, as it should be.
This is absolutely wonderful, and it’s such a breath of fresh air after the narrowly punitive approach of Republican administrations.
On many of the really big issues, however, Governor Patrick has taken a pass; or worse. I’ll just mention three things:
- Casino gambling.
I’ve written about that before, and I won’t repeat myself. But to see a man who was elected on the basis of straight talking and “we’re all in this together” and rejecting cynicism conclude that chasing after the fool’s gold of casino gambling is a feasible way to fund the state budget—a budget that has been systematically starved by tax breaks to corporations over several decades—this just took my breath away.
- Charter schools.
Again I’m not going to repeat myself at length. But it is important to emphasize that charter schools do no better than public schools; that they subsist by cream-skimming and encouraging a very high drop-out rate; and that—despite what some (including the Governor) claim, there is not one “innovation” that has ever come from a charter school that has been proposed for adoption anywhere. They are a fraud, and I think the ultimate motives behind them are pretty ugly:
Charter schools are a direct attack on teachers unions. Every generation, it seems, has to refight the battle for the dignity of labor. One does not have to agree with everything a union proposes to understand that they are the authentic voice of teachers, and that they are most strongly supported by the very best teachers. Public schools have been consistently underfunded for generations now, and more and more so in recent years. It is just dishonest to blame the inevitable failures on teachers and teachers unions.
Charter schools fit in with the perennial effort to degrade public education. They are the signature issue of the right-wing Pioneer Institute. To the extent they become institutionalized, they will amount to a small private school system within a public school system, with the remainder of the public schools even less well funded than they are now. We will have arrived an an explicitly two-tiered educational system that makes even more pronounced the socio-economic divide that has grown so drastically in the last 20 years.
And it was pretty clear from the beginning that Deval was moving in this direction. In the primary he convincingly defeated Chris Gabrieli, a business man who at one point said, “You measure students at the beginning of the year, and you measure them at the end. And that’s the way you pay teachers.” But then when Deval got into office, he set up a special commission on education. Not one teacher, and especially not one teachers union leader, was asked to be in the leadership of this effort. The leaders were superintendents, a college president, a number of public policy wonks, and some business leaders, including Chris Gabrieli.
- Teacher pensions.
(Is this post teacher-heavy? I suppose so. I was a public schoolteacher for 16 years, and I still really care about the public schools as the foundation of our democracy.)
The governor is proposing to degrade the teacher pension plan in a couple of ways. There are some things that need to be understood here. In the first place, the reason that there even are teacher pensions in Massachusetts is that when Social Security was implemented in the New Deal, Massachusetts opted out. They established a teacher pension plan instead. So teachers don’t get Social Security. The reason the state did this was that they didn’t want to contribute up front to the Social Security fund—it was easier to defer any state contributions until the teachers retired. And so the teachers retirement program has always been virtually completely unfunded by the state. Further, the formula for determining what a retired teacher gets paid is outrageously non-linear. You really have to go the whole nine yards to get the maximum or even anywhere close to it. So while the maximum is about 80% of your final pay—which is not bad at all—very few teachers actually get that or even anything close. And finally, unlike Social Security, it basically doesn’t go up with inflation. So after 10 years, it loses much of its value. The Governor’s plan would base the starting pension on the last 5 years of pay, rather than the last 3 years, thereby lowering the base at which the pension is calculated, and it would also change the formula to require more years of service before being eligible for the maximum pension (and the striking non-linearity is still there). Neither of these changes by themselves destroy the pension plan, but rather than funding the pension plan as it should be, these changes just chip away at it. This is not a great way to treat people who are entrusted with the responsibility of passing on the most precious part of our cultural heritage. It’s not a way to attract highly competent people into the teaching profession. And it stands in some contrast to the bailouts given to much more powerful institutions.
Just to be clear: I don’t think Deval Patrick is evil or a man of bad intentions. I think he means well, and often does well. But on some really big issues, including issues that cut to the core of preserving a democratic society, he’s been sleeping with the wrong people.
In general, it seems to me that when Democrats are out of power, our party leaders are happy to have us stand up and speak for progressive values. But far too many, when they get in office, are quick to ignore the people who put them there and the values that the voters were really hoping for. It’s pretty clear to me now that the attempt at the last State Democratic Convention to gut the party platform of every substantive progressive plank came from the very top of our party. Deval—unless he’s hopelessly out of touch, which I don’t believe he is at all—must have been at the center of this.
And some Democrats think this is a smart strategy. While I was standing out in the snow on election day for Coakle
y, I got into a conversation with a Coakley staffer who also came by. He told me that we had to realize that health reform was very controversial and that we needed to approach “moderate Republicans” and find some agreement with them. He made a point of assuring me that he was a “progressive”, but felt that we had to reject the “far-left” people in our party. I was curious, so I asked him who these far-left people were. He said, “Well, like Howard Dean.” Howard Dean! The man with the 50-state strategy, who more than anyone else laid the groundwork for the massive Democratic victory in 2008, and who was then abruptly shown the door by Obama. (I do know perfectly well that most Coakley supporters didn’t agree with this view. But I’ve heard this kind of thing from other Democrats as well.)
What this reflects—both at a state and national level—is the power and influence of groups like the self-appointed “Democratic Leadership Council”, a group of right-wing Democratic leaders who have been pushing for years to remake the Democratic party into a Republican Party Lite. These groups, and this group in particular, are the real obstacles to change. They talk about “progressive ideas”, and use words like “empowerment”, and then assert that we should “transcend the stale left-right debate.” (We had a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Senate just recently who said much the same thing.) And then they go on to argue against raising teacher salaries and against cutting class sizes, but instead push for charter schools and merit pay for teachers. They support “work-based welfare reform.” And rather than talking about preserving Social Security and expanding Medicare to cover everyone and reinstating a truly progressive graduated income tax, they argue for cutting taxes to encourage private savings. And this is actually pretty close to what Bush was proposing.
What’s behind this is a capitulation to the notion of the corporation as the engine of a just and productive society. This notion has failed spectacularly, as we’ve seen recently. But the ideology behind it has not been discredited. At the last Sudbury Town Meeting, the finance committee chair, who was working hard to cut benefits for teachers, presented a slide show which started out with a feel-good (but in context destructive) quote to the effect that every crisis is a great opportunity. The author of this quote, while anonymous, was stated to be the “CEO of a Boston investment firm.” Really, you’d think that such people wouldn’t be held up as authorities on economic and political issues right now, would you?.
I had not fully realized until recently just how pervasive the Democratic Leadership Council and similar groups were within our party. I now think they and their ideas need to be taken on directly if we are not to become in fact what a lot of people think we are already—a party without a soul. And when people think that, they’ll vote as we’ve just seen in this last election. It’s not a matter of redoubling our efforts and going door-to-door and all these other things. Sure, they’re important. But it’s the Democratic Party—what it stands for, as shown by what its leaders speak for and work for—that determines the environment in which people make up their minds.
Look—I’m a Democrat. I’m not leaving. [And since the matter has just come up—nor do I like splinter candidates and vanity campaigns—candidates who run without solid preparation and organization—and some experience doesn’t hurt either.] In reality, there are a lot of wonderful Democrats, at all levels, who I support whole-heartedly, and will continue to support. But I’m going to be very careful from now on about shallow appeals to “yes we can” without something substantive behind them. I’m going to look for people for whom the American dream means something more than being a well-meaning person of good will who on the big questions ignores the grass roots and takes corporate leaders and their apologists as his or her chief advisers. I’m going to look for people who see the connection between social justice and economic justice, and who are willing to stand up for it and speak for it and work for it.