As the possibility that Senator Kerry will win the Presidency becomes more apparent (I refuse to say that it is becoming more likely, because I think it was always a strong possibility, and we're only just beginning to see it), I've had several conversations by e-mail or in person that go something like this:
Me: "You know, we're really fooling ourselves if we think everything's going to change overnight just because Kerry wins. We can't start singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." There's so much work to be done, and the political environment is so poisonous. Imagine the disaster if there is a backlash against Kerry, as there was against Clinton, and we lose everything in 2006. The election is just the beginning of the hard work."
Other person: "Yes, yes, I agree completely." And then, "We really have to organize to hold Kerry's feet to the fire, so that he does the right things, not like that awful sell-out Clinton." Or, "I agree. Kerry could break our heart. He wasn't such a great Senator, after all."
So, actually, you don't agree. In fact, I think you don't even know what I was saying. And if that's the attitude that liberals go into the next administration with, we are sunk. While we're busy "holding Kerry's feet to the fire," the Republican right will be trying to chop off his head. I won't take this metaphor further, but before we know it, we'll have four years of paralysis followed by a landslide for the Jeb Bush-Tom DeLay ticket in 2008. (OK, I exaggerate slightly, but not about the paralysis.)
Yes, there is a place for holding Democratic politicians accountable, for building a strong movement on their left flank that both pulls them toward the left and protects them as they take chances. But political maturity means recognizing just how limited the next president's freedom of movement will be. The very best-case scenario would be a slightly less Republican House and a narrow Democratic edge in the Senate, combined with an electoral result that is sufficiently decisive that it represents an unmistakable rejection of Bushism. It's not impossible to get something done in that situation, which is basically the mirror image of what Reagan had in 1981. But it will require Kerry to put his first priority into working with moderate and not-so-moderate Republicans, from Snowe and Chafee to McCain and Hagel in the Senate, and their handful of counterparts in the House. Basically, I think he has to force them to decide: Do you want to work together to govern this country, or do you want to wage another pitched battle? But he has to listen to them and accomodate them, even ahead of liberal factions within the Democratic Party, because otherwise, he's dead in the water.
And then there are two things that Kerry has to do fairly early in his first year or two: He must deal with the long-term fiscal crisis, which in this case means raising revenues by, at the very least, ending the scheduled tax cuts, restoring the Estate Tax, and clawing back the upper-income and investment tax breaks from the three Bush tax cuts, or preferably by a sweeping tax reform. And he has to deal with Iraq. That will put Kerry in the position of asking the American people for the sacrifice and patience that Bush never acknowledged, in support of a war that Kerry would never have launched and does not own. If he feels horribly like he's been set up, it's because he was.
Democrats of all stripes have been beautifully, responsibly cynical in uniting behind a solid candidate and setting all our internal disagreements to the side, in the interest of ending the current insanity. However, too many people seem to think that the sentence ends November 6, and that at that point a battle for the soul of the President can begin. In particular, the old debate over the priority of long-term deficit reduction (aka "Rubinomics") vs. social and health spending seems ready to burst out as soon as the election results are in.
And there's nothing wrong with that. No one should bury their opinions, and we will all be stronger for the most vigorous debate about options. But as Kerry moves forward, there has to be as strong a commitment to helping him succeed there was to electing him, so if he doesn't embrace exactly the position we want, we're still on board.
In general, I often think that liberals/the left have a one-directional view of political power: it's about pressure. The idea is that, as an advocacy group or activist, you line up and unite to get someone elected, and then after the election, your role becomes to put pressure on him or her. And often, this cycle ends in disappointment. "We helped elect him, and then he turned out to be just another politician."
What's missing from this approach to politics is the idea that politicians need support as well. Politicians are not just "good" or "bad," "our guy" or "just another politician." Even the most decent and committed politicians have to be savvy calculators of their own freedom to act and the consequences. Advocacy groups have to help expand that freedom of action, not only by threatening negative consequences if they do the "wrong" thing, but also by rewarding them for doing the best they can, even if it's not exactly what "we" want.
The other dimension of this is that, just as in the election, people have to be able to look beyond their own issue or interest. The key thing here is taxes. Everyone interested in education, health care, environmental issues, work and family balance, etc., can have no higher priority than restoring the long-term fiscal balance so that government can act on these issues. Looking at the history of state tax policy, it's easy to see that people will put their energy into a tax fight if they think they will be at the head of the line for the resulting revenues. For example, if a governor proposes an income tax surcharge in order to reduce class sizes, the teachers' unions and other education advocates will throw themselves into it. But for the revenue battle ahead, everyone needs to be involved, even if they have no assurance of being at the head of the line for the revenues. Again, the unity that has gone into the election itself must be sustained, if Kerry is to succeed at all.
The first years of the Clinton administration were a searing and educational experience. On the one hand, the administration was a little too smug and triumphalist, too unfamiliar with Congress to understand the limits of its power. On the other hand, no one could ever have predicted that the Republican leadership would have given the word, "Do not let this president succeed, even when you agree with him." It had never happened before. But outside groups, those that became disenchanted with Clinton in various ways, also never quite appreciated the limits to his power.
I'd like to focus some attention in this weblog to the question of how to make the Kerry administration succeed, to understand the limits of the next president's power and how to give him more room to move. Why not? -- While everyone else is focusing on the election, a few of us should think about what might come next. I've created a new category here, "The 1/21 Project," for the day after the inauguration. I'd welcome other thoughts on this in the comments and on other blogs that link here.