There are a lot of people giving presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama advice these days. Scan the Internet or cable news shows, and you'll find a plethora of suggestions from all corners of the punditocracy: which running mate to pick, what states to campaign in, whether or not to run negative ads against John McCain, his Republican opponent, and so on.
But only one of them is offering advice based on an actual analysis of long-term voting and polling data to determine what voters really want. And what they want is not someone who follows the polls and gets pushed around by the media, but someone who knows what he believes, says so, and stands up for it even in the face of criticism.
In his primary campaign, Obama staked out the progressive, aggressive, principled high ground, and attracted millions of passionate supporters. Having created the movement, and having been selected as its head, he should now follow his people — which almost certainly means doing something more dangerous than any major candidate has ever done: ditching the party establishment.
The people who back Obama may be energetic young progressives, but they are not unlike the vast majority of Americans when it comes to what they look for in a candidate. Longtime progressive activist Glenn Hurowitz explains in his book Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party that a major factor determining any voter's choice is whether the candidate fights well (a characteristic described in polling data as being a "strong leader").
That trait, Hurowitz argues, trumps most other concerns — even differences of opinion on major policy questions (though not party affiliation). His book, based on a new analysis of 40 years of election and polling data, suggests that the reason the far-right conservative movement has risen to control the American political system is not due to any particular intelligence or ability on the part of right-wing activists, who espouse positions vastly divergent from most Americans' values. The rise of the right has happened because Democrats and progressives refuse to stand and fight for what they believe in.
His book debunks the surrender-prone "politics of fear," saying Democrats cannot win by immersing themselves in polling data and shifting position as public opinion evolves. Rather, they need to show some backbone — by clearly stating Democratic and progressive values, and then standing up for them, over and over, even in the face of political resistance.
Sadly, Obama appears to be turning to the center — for example, with his vote to approve the Bush administration's warrantless-wiretapping program, which he had previously condemned. That brought waves of criticism from progressive activists, bloggers and even the New York Times editorial board.
Yes, his vote to give telecom companies immunity for their role in illegal spying on Americans was a major policy failure, and one at odds with most Americans' expectations of privacy from government snooping. But its repercussions are far worse, in Hurowitz's analysis, because Obama missed a chance to be seen standing up for what he believes.
With his vote on the wiretapping bill, Obama behaved like most Democrats, who surrender to political pressure, waver as polling data comes in and wait until the last minute to declare their position on an issue — and take the side that was going to prevail anyway. Not only do they lose important fights on public-policy issues, but they simultaneously destroy their credibility with voters.
Hurowitz's research shows that when progressives and Democrats take and hold principled stands on issues, they gain respect from voters (even those who disagree with the particular position) and emerge as popular leaders, even if their stand fails. So if Obama had objected, fought and voted against the bill, people's opinion of his leadership abilities would have increased, whether or not the bill ultimately became law.
The crux of this argument is really quite simple: Americans are disillusioned with our politicians, and we want something different. We are so disappointed, in fact, that when we find someone who really is different — like Obama seemed to be during the primary — we get excited about him, regardless of whether we agree with him on key issues, and regardless of whether he wins the fights he engages in. The mere act of fighting is enough, because a politician sticking to his or her guns despite opposition is such a rare surprise in this country.
In an interview, Hurowitz points to the conservative movement as an example. It's dramatically out of step with the beliefs of almost all Americans, but its activists have convinced millions of people "to support pretty extreme right-wing candidates who don't share American values," he says.
"The Republicans realized that their values and their ideas are not what people are voting on, so they can hold those ideas and persuade people in other ways" — specifically, by standing on their principles (wrong-headed though they may be) in a world of wafflers and waverers.
By contrast, Democrats and progressives, whose visions for the country are, in terms of policy, shared by the majority of Americans, can't seem to gather support for their initiatives, mainly because they won't stand up for them when opposition arises.
"Seeming weak and losing all the time is not providing the strong leadership that voters are looking for," Hurowitz concludes.
Obama may be getting the message. Hurowitz says he has seen some promising signs from the presumptive Democratic nominee: "In moments of crisis, his political instincts become better, and his principles actually come out, and he starts to actually fight for what he believes in. When he becomes comfortable and feels as if he has a lead in the polls is when he gets sucked into Washington conventional wisdom that, for a Democrat, you have to tack to the center to win."
In the primary, for example, when Obama was behind, he became more willing to talk about Hillary Clinton's weaknesses, "and that was when he surged in the polls," Hurowitz observes. His attacks were based on fact and were not snarky or nasty, as Clinton's often were. "He attacked without seeming like he was on the attack," which was a very effective weapon, Hurowitz thinks.
And Obama may have noticed that he didn't pick up much support in the polls in the aftermath of his warrantless-wiretapping vote, cast shortly after he secured the Democratic nomination.
The "wisdom" of the party establishment would have expected otherwise, though — a move to the center, in Democratic political theory, attracts voters. But that's advice from people who couldn't even prevent George W. Bush from winning a second term.
Obama's energy comes from the young, not the old, and that highlights what Hurowitz sees as a generation gap threatening the progressive movement. The older Democrats, who form most of the party establishment, grew up in the age of the hippies and are more inclined to be "tolerant liberals," he says, concerned about hearing everyone's point of view and coming to an inclusive consensus resolution.
Turning to a recent example, Hurowitz talks about offshore oil drilling and cites an environmental lobbyist saying publicly that she could understand the point of view of people who oppose her on the issue. "I could never imagine an oil lobbyist or a Republican … saying that they could understand the perspective" of an opponent, Hurowitz says.
But younger progressives — lefties who grew up as part of the "Me Generation," for example — are less patient. "For younger people who have seen the fruits of losing battles because of the overemphasis on tolerance of other points of view, the important thing for us is actually winning concrete victories," he says.
While campaigning in Florida Aug. 2, Obama seemed to hedge on his objections to offshore drilling, voicing tepid support for a compromise that would allow some drilling in exchange for spending $84 billion over the next 10 years on finding alternative fuel sources, financed largely by removing a tax break on oil companies. Obama cast it as pragmatism: "If it is part of an overarching package, then I am not going to be rigid in preventing an energy package that goes forward, that is really thoughtful and is going to really solve the problem," he told the St. Petersburg Times.
Pragmatic or not, Republicans and some cable news pundits were quick to cast this as yet another cave-in from a senator who was worried about being seen as indifferent to the needs of struggling Americans.
"Liberals can be confrontation-averse," Hurowitz says. But that causes a problem because Republicans and conservatives don't play by the same tolerant, inclusive, consensus-building rules. "There's a high price to nonconfrontation in politics," Hurowitz says, noting the wins racked up by the right, and suggesting "Democrats should start acting more like principled conservative activists.
"We have to cultivate a great love for progressive values `and` at the same time a recognition that putting those values into place requires standing up for what you believe in and fighting hard against those who disagree with you. That is the challenge."
"Forty years worth of political science research shows that being a proud progressive makes political sense for Democrats," Hurowitz writes very early in his book. "Candidates can take quite unpopular positions without suffering major negative political consequences. So long as they do it with sincerity, integrity, and passion, they're unlikely to lose many votes because of it."
That's where Obama fell down on the warrantless-wiretapping vote. Hurowitz's analysis suggests the vote hurt Obama's image not so much because it put him in the Bush camp for a bit, but because it cast doubt on his forthrightness as a principled leader.
The penalty for errors like that can be severe. Progressives who are disappointed don't vote Republican, but they do the next-worst thing: They don't vote at all. (Or, if they do vote, they go for a third-party candidate.)
So how can Obama win? First up, Hurowitz says, is to "emphasize partisan affiliation." The main factor in which candidate a voter supports is party self-identification. Right now "more people identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, and that is the single biggest thing that's going to help Obama this year," he says.
Obama's "task is to make sure Democrats don't defect," which means making sure they're not disappointed in him. One way to do that is to declare his principles and describe himself in opposition to McCain. Another way is to do what progressives have already begun doing, and portray McCain not as "the independent he seeks to portray himself as but rather a lackey of President Bush and the Republican establishment," Hurowitz says. "McCain is just walking into it," having won the Republican primary because "people admired his generally principled stands," but now he has "totally jettisoned everything that people liked about him."
Obama can do it. He can win. But it means standing his ground, not just against the Republican attack machine, but against those in the establishment of his own party who will try to push him to be a moderate, well-tempered centrist candidate, in the image of Al Gore or John Kerry.
Hurowitz's biggest worry? "Republicans will come up with an effective attack on Obama and Obama won't hit back out of fear that striking back will make him unattractive to voters."
The solution? Obama must remember "every day of his campaign" a famous line from Democratic attack dog James Carville: "It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth."
A version of this story originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix.[email protected]