The White House reportedly got the gun control groups to agree to hold their fire, as it were, in exchange for the groups being permitted a seat at the negotiating table.
Been there, done that. Bad move.
It’s understandable why the White House, any White House, wants to be the only one calling the shots, and why they want outside groups to sit down and shut up. No one in politics wants competition, or worse, someone else going off the reservation, muddling your message, or undercutting your strategy.
Only problem is, traditionally when outside groups agree to this little Faustian bargain with the White House, the groups, and the issues they care about, flounder.
This is exactly what happened with progressive groups across the board during the Obama campaign in 2008, and in the first years of the Obama White House. Team Obama, and then the White House, gave them marching orders, and told them to rein everything else in.
Who can forget the now-infamous, and successful, and mistaken effort by the Obama campaign to shut down 527s during the 08 campaign? It wasn’t until September of ’08, when many, including the campaign, started worrying that Obama might just lose to McCain (remember, this was before the economic meltdown (and Sarah Palin) changed the picture drastically), that the word went out, subliminally of course, that outside funders would no longer be persona non grata in the Obama White House if they funded 527s. Sadly, it was a tad too late, but fortunately for the now-President, the economy pretty much guaranteed that the 527s wouldn’t be necessary in any case. He got lucky.
Fast forward to 2009, the first year of the administration. Again, the Obama administration made clear to outside groups that they’d better toe the line, or they wouldn’t be welcome in the Obama White House. Groups like SLDN, then the lead gays in the military group, were cut off by the White House for daring to speak up against the President’s seeming-reticence about moving forward on his promise to repeal DADT.
The head of another large gay group reportedly got his head handed to him by a senior White House staffer for another sin of outspokenness. Suffice it to say, the group’s only criticism of the new President came when Rick Warren was chosen to give the invocation at Obama’s swearing-in in 2008. After that, not a peep of dissent. Ari Berman tells the story for the Nation:
Gay rights was another major issue on which Messina clashed with Obama supporters. The relationship between the administration and gay rights groups was strained from the outset, when Obama chose Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation. “It is difficult to comprehend how our president-elect, who has been so spot-on in nearly every political move and gesture, could fail to grasp the symbolism of inviting an anti-gay theologian to deliver his inaugural invocation,” wrote Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in the Washington Post.
After reading the op-ed, Messina sternly rebuked Solmonese during a meeting at the White House. “I’m never going back to another meeting like that again,” Solmonese angrily told his staff afterward. From then on, HRC, to the consternation of other gay rights groups, toed the administration line.
On gay rights we had our biggest successes when gay advocates were willing to stand up to the White House and demand action, whether the issue was DOMA, DADT or marriage. And that didn’t come from the big groups, outside of SLDN, because the groups had decided early on to toe the party line and do what the White House wanted, even if the White House was doing the wrong thing, such as defending DOMA in court using a re-purposed anti-gay Bush administration brief. It came from the activists. The same story was repeated on immigration, except this time, the groups got wise and started to speak-up-and-out a while back, following the lessons learned from the gay community. And it’s why gay rights and immigration are two of the only groups getting what they want of late.
Take another issue, health care reform. Liberal groups were notably mute, at the behest of the White House, particularly with regards to the President’s promise to pursue a public option, one of the lynchpins of his reform proposal. Remember how well that worked out for women’s groups, agreeing to hold their collective tongues, during health care reform? That got them the Stupak amendment:
Early on, the organizations had opted to stay quiet on the abortion funding issue for fear of making a politically tricky negotiation over a health care overhaul even harder.
“We were trying to diffuse the situation, knowing that the time to fight on the notion of federal funding for abortion was not this political moment – the health care reform bill is hard enough. Now I’m thinking we might have recognized that we were going to have this fight, and we should have stood firm a year ago and we might not have found ourselves here,” said Laura MacCleery, director of government affairs at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
More from Natasha Chart at OpenLeft, writing at the time:
Nancy Keenan, head of the national NARAL group (and most obedient of the obedient losers) was apparently personally promised before the health care battle by the Obama administration that they would look after the organization’s constituency interests in the health care bill and preserve the status quo. In return, NARAL was asked to stand down its activism.
They did. So with all their colleagues, they got caught with their pants down when a floor vote on the Stupak amendment was imminent.
I’m all for working with the Obama administration and Democrats generally, and a number of us have proven our ability to do just that, time and again, all the way back to when Barack Obama was still battling Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
But that doesn’t mean we’re always going to be on the same page with the administration, and it doesn’t always mean that the White House is going to be doing what they should be doing on any given issue. All politicians fall short on some issue at some point. And it’s the job of outside groups, outside interests – of their friends and allies – to intervene when an intervention is needed.
Team Obama doesn’t like to acknowledge this fact.
Sometimes it seems that they’d rather think their friendly-critics crazy, filled with an irrational hate of all things Obama. After all, it’s easier on the psyche to consider your critics bonkers than to acknowledge the alternative, that perhaps they just might have a point.