Political urgency was coupled with this intellectual impetus. Democrats were acutely aware that they had supermajorities they had not possessed since 1980. With the increase of the partisan use of the filibuster, a phenomenon not widely seen until the Clinton years, they felt they would not have this degree of power again in the near future. Many argued that the window for bold action was narrow, and it could not be let to close without fulfilling liberal-progressive dreams.
Any one of these measures would have defined a Congress. To push all of them simultaneously, plus a major financial-regulation bill to address what was argued to be the causes of the financial crisis, proved to be too much. Nevertheless, time after time, when political warning signals went up, the administration and the congressional leadership pushed forward.
The administration has been criticized by many for not engaging in Clintonian triangulation, in not bending to the political winds to pass something incremental and obtainable. Speaker Pelosi’s decision to push her caucus to a floor vote on cap-and-trade legislation that was unlikely to pass the Senate might cost dozens of Democrats their seats. The decision to push the health-care bill after Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election to the Senate has helped to define the entire 2010 campaign. Had they not done these things, many moderate progressives argue, Democrats could have staved off the massive defeat they are now certain to suffer.
But this argument essentially says that Hillary Clinton should have won the presidency. The whole point of liberal progressivism is to rid the Democratic party of what it views as temporizing and lack of principle. Barack Obama won his nomination with that faction’s support; Nancy Pelosi was elevated to the speakership with their favor. To ignore the liberal progressives’ ideals in difficult times would break faith with them, guaranteeing their eternal enmity and earning the president a probable primary challenge.
Indeed, these fears were justified. The twin totems of liberal progressivism — lofty ambitions and impatience — have been on full display when liberal progressives discuss the administration’s decisions. Paul Krugman decries a too-small stimulus, a bill whose near-trillion-dollar price tag shocked middle-class Americans. Jon Stewart tells the president that he has been too timid. While most polls show that Americans view President Obama as too liberal, liberal progressives view him as not liberal enough.
None of this would have mattered if the liberal progressives had been right about the reasons they have lost in the past. If Americans genuinely wanted quick implementation of liberal-progressive economic measures, then there would have been no electoral retribution to fear. Indeed, this was the argument many liberal progressives made when the decision was made to go forward with the health-care bill.
Moderate progressives argued that Brown’s election was a wake-up call. Pointing to many polls showing that Americans did not want the health-care bill to pass and that independents were growing more concerned about the deficit and moving against the Democrats, men such as Mark Penn and Doug Schoen argued that electoral disaster loomed unless the administration changed course. They pointed to the landslide of 1994 as an example of what could happen if the Speaker and the president persisted. In essence, moderate progressive argued that the Democrats lost in 1994 by trying to be three steps ahead of public opinion instead of one.
Those in favor of pushing forward argued that the reason the Democrats lost in 1994 was not that they were too far ahead of public opinion, but that by failing to pass Clinton’s health-care bill they had not heeded public opinion enough. Democrats were punished in 1994 for not governing, not for being out of step with public opinion. Thus in March 2010, liberal progressives were saying, Pass the bill and the people will reward you for tackling a tough problem. By November, these men argued, Republicans will no longer be able to distract the voters with wild claims about “death panels,” and the president could make the case himself. The political calculus, they said, favored bold action — not triangulation.
Note how all the issues in the progressive civil war played out in this discussion. Should we aim for incremental amelioration or bold transformation? Should public opinion cause progressives to slow down or not? Is the public genuinely for liberal progressivism or not?
The progressive civil war has played out in the ensuing post-Obamacare policy and political debates as well. Moderate progressives argued for a sole preoccupation with the economy, jobs, and controlling the deficit. Polls showed that this is what independents, who still had a personal regard for President Obama, wanted addressed. Liberal progressives instead insisted on measures that would energize the despondent base. Immigration reform would attract Latinos, addressing student-loan defaults would energize the young, cap-and-trade would energize environmentalists, and so on.