The Right Way to Please the Base

A video that made the rounds last summer summed up the problem nicely. Mike Stark of The Huffington Post hoisted a camera on his shoulder, hung out on the streets near the House office buildings in Washington, and asked passing Republican House members: Do you believe that Barack Obama is a rightful citizen of the United States?

I don't know how many he asked (there were snippets of several ducking into cars or pretending to take calls), but he quoted 11 in the video he posted. Of the 11, only one, Trent Franks of Arizona, acknowledged straightforwardly that yes, his staff had intensively researched the question and was forced to conclude that a birth announcement in a 1961 issue of The Honolulu Advertiser likely couldn't have been forged. The other 10, mostly not well known, either ducked the question, marching forward in that West Wing, I've-got-important-business way, or gave too-clever-by-half responses, or just came out and said they weren't sure. "I think there are questions, so we'll have to see," quipped Charles Boustany of Louisiana -- spoken a touch ironically because he, unlike Obama, is in fact of Arab (Lebanese) lineage, an ethnicity frequently and incorrectly assigned to the president.

Oh, and by the way: Even Franks wanted Stark to understand that while he conceded the citizenship question, he believed Obama to be a socialist and jihad-abettor.

I remember watching this in disbelief and thinking, well, this explains a lot. These people aren't just indulgent of their base. They're terrified of it. The birther movement is crazy. And even on a question of crazy, these sitting members of the United States Congress could not say what is obviously true and uncontroversial to normal earthlings. I'm confident very few of them actually buy this nonsense. But they know exactly what kind of plagues will be unleashed on them if they admit the truth.

Let's imagine that a right-wing reporter had asked 11 Democratic House members in 2002 whether George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks and let them happen (an imprecise but rough analogy in that it is also, I believe, crazy). One or two Democrats might have played that one coy, but by and large, they'd have turned cartwheels disassociating themselves from such a view. Herein lies one of the most important facts of our politics over the past 20 years: Republicans are terrified of offending even the fringe elements of their base. Democrats are terrified of being associated with theirs.

This is a dynamic that shapes policy-making every day and has shifted the center of gravity rightward over those two decades. The GOP base wants tax cuts and deregulation, and when the Republicans are in power, they deliver as much of those things as they can. The Democratic base wanted a public option (actually, single-payer) for health care, a trillion-dollar stimulus, and the breakup of the big banks. It never came especially close to getting any of these things. "It is important for us to build on our traditions here in the United States," Obama said early in the health-care reform process, by way of warning that single-payer was off the table from the start. It's pretty close to impossible to imagine a Republican president taking a policy goal for which tens of thousands of rank-and-file conservatives had petitioned and lobbied over many years and defenestrating it from jump street. When progressive goals like single-payer are not even seen as starting points for negotiation, they become marginalized, non-mainstream; the whole spectrum moves rightward.

Just look at what happened during both Democratic presidencies of the last 20 years. Bill Clinton had to (or "had to") demonstrate that those tired old liberal interest groups weren't a coffle around his ankle, and so he denounced Sister Souljah, passed NAFTA, supported welfare reform, and signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Clinton may well have believed in all these things. But he also knew that they were smart politics: If he stuck it to the liberal interest groups a few times, Establishment Washington would applaud. I think it's fair to say there is little such equivalent pressure on Republican presidents.

Democrats kowtow to -- and appropriately go to bat for -- their interest groups at times. But it's usually a negative application rather than a positive one. That is: Democrats typically don't go out of their way to embarrass the unions or the pro-choice lobby, as we saw on the health-care debate, when both of those factions won certain side victories. But doing something big and affirmative for labor, for example, like passing card-check legislation? Many Democrats are scared to death of taking action.

The reasons for this are depressingly straightforward. One: About 40 percent of Americans identify as conservative, and 20 percent identify as liberals. If those numbers were reversed, the levels of passion would be as well. Two: The conservative noise machine has done an effective job of painting liberal interest groups -- even ones whose main causes have respectable or even majority levels of support -- as if they're all secret agents of Hugo Chavez. The noise machine accuses; even if the interest group is innocent, which it typically is, it must constantly explain why it's innocent, and the explaining takes up most of the group's time and resources.

These are rather fundamental problems. There are no quick fixes for them. America will never be a 40-20 liberal country (even in the mid-1960s, at liberalism's political apex, we were more like 30-30). The liberal noise machine exists, but it usually lacks the cohesion and force (and, you know, willingness to lie quite so much) of its counterpart on the right.

Liberals themselves can do only so much. Our system is such that it takes a president, and one of these days, a Democratic president -- preferably the sitting one -- is going to have to choose an issue, just one, that is important to the base and enjoys popular support and just say damn the torpedoes and push the throttle. It might be the public option, in an Obama second term, after the full implementation of the health-care law in 2014. It might be a price on carbon, which majorities consistently support in polls. Just one issue: It merely has to be demonstrated that a goal important to the liberal base can be winning politics (and, subsequently, good policy). Things will change; still slowly, but they will.

I don't think the Democrats should embrace "9/11 truthers" any more than I think Republicans should play footsie with birthers. Ideally, the Democrats will pay somewhat more attention to their base, and the Republicans somewhat less to theirs (which they might, if prominent Tea Party candidates like Marco Rubio and Sharron Angle lose this fall). We'd have a more balanced politics, and liberals would have more of a voice, even if we don't get everything we want. Given the alarming way things might go in this country, I'd count it a victory if that's where we are 20 years from now.