Joe Lieberman’s old
flack communications director appears in the pages of The Wall Street Journal today to declare victory for the “politics of hope” over the “politics of Kos.” (Supposedly, the Connecticut Senate election from 2006 represented the triumph of hope over netroots–Joe Lieberman, hopemonger!) How ridiculous is this? Let me count the ways. Kossacks are above all interested in Democratic electoral victory. Ideologically, they tend to be more progressive, but Kos himself has seen the advantage of promoting the most electable candidates in marginal districts. Unlike the Hewitts on the other side, they are typically interested in actually growing the size of their political coalition and increasing Democratic numbers in Congress, rather than engaging in masochistic purgings for the sake of purging. There is nothing fundamentally inconsistent between the two ”kinds” of politics. Obama’s public rhetoric is that of a politician trying to win an election, while netroots progressives are venting their tremendous frustration with the administration on a regular basis–the same frustration and hostility, incidentally, that Obama clearly shares. That Obama uses “uplifting” rhetoric, rather than the “depressing” and combative rhetoric of Edwards, masks that he is advancing almost exactly the same agenda and regards the administration almost every bit as poorly as do netroots progressives. The difference, and the thing that seems to scare Republicans, is that he doesn’t yell about it, and he doesn’t answer every question, Patricia Madrid-like, with complaints about the evils of Bush. In calm, measured tones he denounces administration policy and the Democrats who accommodated the administration, but he is still denouncing them, no different in substance from anything Lamont said about Lieberman and Bush.
The Kossacks went after Lieberman in much the same way that conservatives are now going after McCain, because they saw him as unreliable and deeply wrong on at least one major issue of the day. Within the Democratic primary electorate, the Kossacks were successful. Lieberman lost the primary, as Gerstein must remember. Lieberman was able to draw on Republicans and independents in the general election to save his seat, and has since proceeded to confirm progressives’ doubts about his reliability. In a more normal state with a viable Republican candidate, Lieberman’s victory would have been very unlikely. Hillary Clinton can’t like what the comparison portends for her campaign, since the more progressive “wine-track” candidate won the primary in Connecticut. Whatever else happens on Tuesday, it appears that this is about to happen again in Connecticut. Unlike Lieberman, Clinton isn’t going to get a second chance to foist herself on the voters if she loses to Obama.
That brings us to the Democratic nominating contest this year. Gerstein sees Obama’s success and Edwards’ failure as proof that the “politics of Kos” has failed. It isn’t just, as Gerstein allows, that Obama has “co-opted” the Kossacks’ views. He and Clinton were pulled in that direction by the netroots’ favourite, whose candidacy soon lost its rationale once the more cautious leading candidates occupied the same ideological space. As numerous observers on the left have been keen to point out recently, Edwards’ combative progressivism compelled the other two leading candidates to adopt policy plans that imitated his. I think the case could be made that Edwards did a lot of Obama’s dirty work in hitting Clinton on her inconsistencies and her war vote back when Obama was still being overly cautious about attacking his rivals, and that Edwards helped to soften Clinton up and made Obama’s rise easier.
Many have observed that many progressive activists have responded coolly to Obama, because he has seemed too accommodating and conciliatory towards Republicans (he said something marginally positive about Reagan!), but this is the same Obama who has received the endorsement of MoveOn.org and who will be receiving the vote, if not exactly the enthusiastic support, of Kos himself. This is a recognition, however belated, that the goals of the netroots and Obama’s goals are mostly the same. In fact, this opposition between “the politics of hope” and “politics of Kos” is one more illusion that works to obscure Obama’s progressivism and adds to the myth that he is some great uniter of opposites. In terms of policy, Obama has embraced a large part of Edwards’ agenda and weaves the same anti-corporate and anti-lobbyist themes into his speeches in between references to bringing America together. So, as a matter of substance, the “politics of Kos,” or more accurately the netroots-backed progressivism championed by Edwards, has become the agenda that Obama will attempt to sell by way of his “hope and unity” rhetoric. In other words, Obama has accepted the diagnosis that Edwards has made, and he basically agrees with Edwards’ prescription (with a few changes of detail here or there), but he wants to sugar-coat the prescribed “medicine” to make it go down easier with a lot of talk about cooperation.
It is a very bizarre kind of analysis that sees the current two-person Democratic field, which has become almost completely dominated by the policy agenda of the netroots’ candidate, as proof that the politics of the netroots has somehow failed to catch on. On domestic and foreign policy, Edwards carried the netroots’ flag and dragged the entire field to the left. If his own campaign did not succeed, you can attribute that as much to his own radical makeover from Southern Democratic centrist to populist firebrand in a matter of a few years. Unlike Romney, who underwent the same metamorphosis in a different direction, Edwards defined his party’s policy agenda for this cycle. The Democratic shift to the left in the last four years has been pretty dramatic, and it owes a good deal to the netroots, and this shift is reflected in the near-unanimity of the remaining candidates on policy (such that they have to quibble over the relative universality of their health care plans). In fact, the “politics of hope,” so called, did not exist until last year, and it has gotten as far as it has because of the groundwork laid by the netroots and other progressive activists in the last decade. Meanwhile, if progressives are becoming less angry, it is because they are slowly winning within their own party and in many parts of the country.