Matt Stoller: “Obama has ruined the Democratic party”

In an excellent Salon piece titled “What Democrats Can Do About Obama,” Roosevelt Institute fellow (and ex-senior policy advisor for former Rep. Alan Grayson) Matt Stoller crystallizes the concerns many of us have about the President’s reelection.

Stoller starts with Obama’s low ratings and pivots to the real question facing anyone claiming to be a Democrat:

From the debt ceiling fiasco to the recent rescheduling of a jobs speech at the behest of Speaker Boehner, it has not been a good summer for President Obama. Like Chinese water torture, Gallup’s daily tracking poll has shown a steady and unrelenting drip of bad news. He has been in and out of the high 30s for his approval, and in the low to mid-50s for his disapproval. … Democrats may soon have to confront an uncomfortable truth, and ask whether Obama is a suitable choice at the top of the ticket in 2012. They may then have to ask themselves if there’s any way they can push him off the top of the ticket.

It’s the elephant (donkey?) in the room, and it needs saying. It also leads to other, even more painful considerations:

    1. If Obama is unlikely to win, should he be backed?  

    2. If the Democratic party is more loyal to Obama than to its own electoral and ideological interests, should it be backed?  

    3. If the party is to be reformed, how should that be done?

These are questions that progressives in the leading edge of Obama-abandoners are wrestling with. For example, they came up a lot at Netroots Nation 2011. (My write-up of that discussion is here, about halfway down.)

Stoller’s response begins like this:

That these questions have not yet been asked in any serious way shows how weak the Democratic Party is as a political organization. Yet this political weakness is not inevitable, it can be changed through courage and collective action by a few party insiders smart and principled enough to understand the value of a public debate, and by activists who are courageous enough to face the real legacy of the Obama years.

Obama has ruined the Democratic party.

That answers question (1). He then puts on his ex-politico hat and walks smartly through the 2008–2010 debacle.

As answer to questions (2) and (3), Stoller recommends returning the Democratic party to its original form.

There are obvious obstacles, of course. He describes a party locked into inflexibility by moneyed and conservative interests, and that inflexibility is ultimately party-killing:

In other words, party inflexibility has a price. If the economy worsens going into the fall, and the president continues as he has to attempt to cut Social Security, Democrats might be facing a Carter-Reagan scenario. Reagan, at first considered a lightweight candidate, ended up winning a landslide victory that devastated the Democratic Party in 1980. Carter wasn’t the only loss; many significant liberal senators, such as George McGovern, John Culver and Birch Bayh, fell that year.

Especially deadly is the lay-down role of unions. (Reminder: The AFL-CIO was crucial in Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers union in 1981.)

But from that problem comes the opportunity. Stoller agrees, as I do, that a primary challenge is the route to take. (There’s a sweet discussion of how Grover Cleveland in 1892 led to FDR in 1932, for you history fans.)

His recommendation is, in my view, both brilliant and doable — a strategy based on “favorite sons” running in state primaries and caucuses as Obama challengers. (His example is Tom Harkins of Iowa.) Running as a favorite son takes you off the hook for running for president, yet gives your state or region a place to vote anti-Obama. And many favorite sons running against Obama starts the intra-party discussion in earnest. (Favorite son candidacies are also orders of magnitude cheaper than national primary campaigns.)

The article is more fully and carefully reasoned than this summary; it’s also both clear and accessible. Please to give it your consideration.

There is a route, folks, and I think Stoller has identified it. It involves party leaders standing up for the party (not just standing up for Obama); and union leaders actually representing workers (and not just their own seat at the Big Boy table). The choice for party leaders is clear — go down with Obama or up with a rebuilt party.

That’s a pretty clear choice. In my view, this is actually Obama’s gift to us — being so clearly unacceptible that he forces real change upon us. (How ironic. Imagine if Obama had been Clintonesque. For this, I own him lunch at least.)

This is a tough but doable path; thankfully, one that doesn’t take a ton of national organizing to start. Stoller is not optimistic, but he’s hopeful. (Hopeful — now there’s a change.)


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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