Tom DeLay was no Franklin Roosevelt on policy, but he understood one of Roosevelt's most important principles: that in order for a movement to be successful, it must bring pressure on presidents, and it must use Congress to administer that pressure. And as my new newspaper column this week shows, it is this principle, so self-evidently true throughout our history, that is now being emulated today by progressives.
In the last month, we have seen a rat-a-tat-tat of examples of the progressive movement working with its congressional allies to administer progressive pressure on the new Obama administration - and with some pretty amazing results. We've gotten Obama to drop some of the most odious corporate tax giveaways he originally floated, we've gotten his original infrastructure spending proposals boosted - and now, overall, as CAF's Bernie Horn says, the stimulus bill is shaping up to be pretty damn good.* We've gotten Obama to publicly commit to supporting major bankruptcy reforms. We've seen freshman lawmakers like Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) use the bully pulpit of a congressional hearing to humiliate the kleptocracy, which in turn pushed Congress to start taking tougher stands against Wall Street, which in turn forced the Obama administration to pledge to administer the bailout with more transparency and oversight.
This isn't nirvana, and its not (yet) a legislative steamroller with the brutal effectiveness of DeLay's pressure machine. But these are real accomplishments, and this is a real start to a "make him do it" dynamic that will be instrumental to achieving real change.
The beauty, of course, is that while a conflict-averse Obama may not like being pushed (and really, no president likes to be pushed), it politically helps him.
As Chris has previously reported, Bill Clinton complained to then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that progressives hadn't mustered enough public pressure on his left, and that ultimately hurt him, because he couldn't effectively play off the left. He was forced to choose: either he got beat up by remaining in the center, or he had to lurch rightward as conservatives pulled him. And either way, he looked weak.
Congressional progressives seemed to have learned the folly of all that, and are creating a dynamic whereby Obama can use congressional pressure from the left as a negotiating chip - that is, he can go into legislative negotiations and say that he can and cannot do certain things because there will be a progressive congressional reaction that he must deal with. In this sense, he can portray himself as a "centrist," while also moving the center to the left. And since DeLay pulled the center so far to the right over the last decade, moving the center to the left is really just moving the center to the center.
For the progressive movement, the point here is that the more we embolden Congress to act as a progressive force on Obama's left, the more we will strengthen Obama - and the more we will reach our policy objectives. Indeed, Congress and the movement administering this pressure isn't being "disloyal" to Obama - it is at once being loyal to the progressive agenda and helping our new president. Like FDR was to progressives of his era, Obama will be our ally most of the time. If you look at his campaign platform, it's clear he agrees with us, and wants to do what we want to do. But now we have to make him do it.
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* That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep pushing to make it better - we should absolutely keep pushing. But it does mean that we're headed in the right direction.