Advice from a liberal Democrat: Ideologies don’t advance without strategic retreats

Bill Scher Senior Writer, Campaign for America's Future
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You know your party is in trouble. You can’t get closer than 4 percentage points in 22 states that total 263 Electoral College votes. There are huge demographic chunks of the country that want nothing to do with you. You know you have to change something to climb out of this abyss. But if it means throwing your core beliefs under the bus, then there’s no point remaining in politics. What do you do?

I’m a liberal Democrat, and I’m here to help.

After all, we were in your spot after the thrashing of Michael Dukakis, and look at us now!

Like many a rival with an outstretched hand, I have an ulterior motive, which I’ll get to later. But for now, I’ll just note that I have a track record of talking straight about what works in politics. Back in July, my New York Times op-ed “How Liberals Win” rattled some of my fellow travelers, and delighted some conservatives. In the piece I laid out how major liberal reforms became reality because throughout history Democrats — from Roosevelt to Johnson to Obama — chose to compromise with corporations. Conversely, presidents that sought to confront and conquer corporate power — Jimmy Carter on energy, Bill Clinton on health care — usually got crushed and depleted their political capital.

The underlying truth of that observation has relevance to you today: achieving ideological advancements often requires strategic retreats.

Democrats reluctantly accepted that political necessity in 1992. After two blowout victories by Ronald Reagan, and after watching George H. W. Bush stomp out Dukakis’ 17-point lead by viciously prosecuting his liberal social values, Democrats were scared straight. Certain hard-to-defend liberal positions were overshadowing everything else, preventing Democrats from getting a fair hearing on their complete agenda.

Something had to give. Bill Clinton gave us a shove.

By nominating Clinton in 1992, liberals accepted a leader who forced them to bury some deeply held moral positions: namely, opposition to the death penalty and support of unconditional welfare benefits for the poor. Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” and approved the execution of a mentally retarded man during the campaign. (In 2004, a frustrated John Kerry presidential campaign adviser lamented, “Clinton went back and executed that retarded guy. That said, ‘I share your values.'”)

And once Democrats felt some working-class backlash in critical swing states from Clinton’s gun control laws, liberals accepted the additional indignity of Democratic leaders giving up on any expansion of gun regulation.

To this day, Democratic presidential nominees do not dare propose abolishing the death penalty, scrapping time limits on welfare benefits or expanding gun control.

Conservatives might look at these shifts as minor adjustments, obvious deference to political reality or (to the more conspiracy-minded) wholly disingenuous head-fakes. But to liberals, these were and are painful sacrifices.

Many liberals view the death penalty the way conservatives view taxpayer-funded abortion: murder with your own money. Many can’t believe we are unable to revisit welfare reform despite its inability to stem the rise in poverty during the Great Recession. And in the immediate aftermaths of the Gabby Giffords mass shooting, the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting and the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, many were steaming that Democrats refused to launch a fresh debate over gun control.

These are life and death issues, and Democrats stopped taking the moral high ground on them. From that perspective, it is easy to make a slippery slope argument and conclude that these sacrifices are a devil’s bargain, a soulless sellout, a fast track to becoming indistinguishable from the other party.

Yet despite these specific abandonments of principle, Barack Obama stands before you as the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson. He is the first Democratic president to win back-to-back popular vote majorities since Franklin Roosevelt, and only the fourth president to do so in 100 years. And he won on a record of government stimulus, government bailout, government regulation and government mandates, not to mention an embrace of reproductive rights, gay equality and undocumented immigrants.

Lesson: not all slopes are slippery.

Now you are the ones being asked to sacrifice something to show you are not out of step with mainstream America. Opposition to gay marriage. Support for absolute abortion bans. Opposition to free contraception coverage. Opposition to citizenship opportunities for undocumented immigrants. Opposition to any tax increases. Support for privatizing Social Security, Medicare and FEMA. Opposition to acknowledging the climate crisis.

I’m not going to tell which of the positions you now deem to be delicate lambs must be sent off to the slaughterhouse. But I will tell you these two things.

1. You will eventually send some of your delicate lambs to the slaughterhouse. It’s just a question of whether you do it now, or whether you wait until you lose one or two more times.

2. After you do it, you will still be a conservative.

You can still believe abortion is murder and accept free contraception as a way to reduce unwanted pregnancies. You can still believe in low taxes and accept that taxes have to rise under certain circumstances. You can still believe in limited government and accept a federal role in disaster preparation. You can still believe in restrained regulation and accept scientific conclusions that human-made climate change needs to be stopped one way or another.

And you can even accept something you flat don’t agree with, perhaps creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, by understanding that no one ever wins on everything. Giving up one run doesn’t mean you lose the whole ballgame.

It’s up to you to take a cold, hard look at the data and determine what just isn’t going to happen in 21st-century America and what might still have a shot under different political circumstances. Making those judgments doesn’t make you a sell-out, just somebody who wants to achieve as much of your party’s agenda as possible.

Furthermore, it’s a useful exercise when you are out of power to re-examine your own assumptions of what your chosen ideology really means. Maybe there are knee-jerk positions you are holding out of tradition, defensiveness or spite, that really aren’t dictated by conservative philosophy and are holding you back politically.

And even if you overcompensate, there’s nothing stopping you from re-adjusting later on. Clinton also pledged to make abortion “safe, legal and rare” with a heavy emphasis on “rare.” He even decreed “the era of big government is over.” But when opportunities arose to deploy the federal government and defend abortion rights broadly, President Obama leapt into action and was re-elected because of it.

Why is this liberal telling you all of this? Because I believe if conservatives ditch the fantasy narratives of Fox News, and return to reality-based politics, we’ll have political discourse based on the same set of facts, which will make it easier to find common ground and achieve better functioning government. I know my side won’t win every argument or every election, but I also believe America will face less risk of truly stupid decisions based on the worst form of blind ideology — such as the downgrading of FEMA under Bush.

That’s my ulterior motive. But may I suggest that many of the conservatives you listen to have ulterior motives as well. The Rush Limbaughs, Glenn Becks, Sarah Palins and Ann Coulters of this world all want to keep making money off of your sense of grievance. It doesn’t matter to their bottom lines if Republicans actually succeed, and they’ll probably have better ratings and sell more books if Republicans don’t.

To paraphrase Walter Mondale, they won’t tell you their ulterior motive and I just did. With that, feel free to compare and contrast our respective advice.

Bill Scher is the Online Campaign Manager at Campaign for America’s Future and the author of “Wait! Don’t Move To Canada!: A Stay-and-Fight Strategy to Win Back America.” He is the host of The LiberalOasis Radio Show podcast with Traci Olsen at LiberalOasis.com, and The DMZ with conservative writer Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads.tv. He has been published by the New York Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Omaha World-Herald and In These Times, and has made appearances on CNN, MSNBC and NPR among other TV and radio outlets.