Lawrence O’Donnell vehemently denies his own words

The notion that Democrats lost because they were "too liberal" is a vapid cable-news platitude

Topics: MSNBC, Washington, D.C.,

On Friday morning, I had a somewhat contentious discussion on Morning Joe with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell regarding the criticism I wrote of his election-night commentsSalon posted the video last night — it’s here for those who haven’t seen it — and there has been extensive commentary about it in other places.  There were issues raised by this dispute that are actually substantive and important, and some of them received some worthwhile attention, but by and large, O’Donnell’s refusal to cease speaking for any longer than a few seconds at a time — the standard form of adolescent cable-TV behavior — caused the segment to degenerate into one of those cable scream-fests which was ultimately more headache-inducing than enlightening.  I have a few comments to make about the substance of these issues — and O’Donnell has invited me on his show on Monday night to discuss them, though it’s unclear if the logistics will work out — but first there is one point I particularly want to highlight and address.

O’Donnell repeatedly insisted that I had attributed to him views that he did not actually express, and several times repeated that he said none of what I criticized him for saying; after the segment, he continued spouting that same accusation.  As I told him both during the segment and after, only the transcript will resolve that question, and — as I’ll demonstrate in a moment — it does.  First, here is the entirety of what I wrote about his remarks:

[A]lmost every time I had MNSBC on, there was Lawrence O’Donnell trying to blame “the Left” and “liberalism” for the Democrats’ political woes. Alan Grayson’s loss was proof that outspoken liberalism fails.  Blanche Lincoln’s loss was the fault of the Left for mounting a serious primary challenge against her.  Russ Feingold’s defeat proved that voters reject liberalism in favor of conservatism, etc. etc.

I wasn’t sitting in front of the TV watching MSNBC until numerous people started emailing me and alerting me on Twitter to the fact that O’Donnell was repeatedly blaming liberalism and the Left for the Democrats’ political problems.  That’s how I became aware of what O’Donnell was saying.  Beyond that, here is what Salon‘s Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh wrote on election night, long before I wrote a word about any of this (I hadn’t read this until yesterday):

Strangely, I watched Democrats including MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell try to blame the blowout on whiny progressives.

If O’Donnell didn’t actually do that, he might want to ask himself why so many people think he did.  Did huge numbers of people simultaneously suffer a mass hallucination, or did his comments — spread out over the course of several hours that night — create the impression that this was precisely the point he was making?

I’ve now been able to obtain the videotape and transcript of that evening, and here (with links to the video)  is what O’Donnell actually said regarding the three Democratic losses I referenced – Grayson, Lincoln and Feingold:

Re: Grayson, after Olbermman announced his loss:

O’DONNELL: He was also considered a test case by many liberals making the argument that Democrats made the mistake of going too far to the middle.  Alan Grayson went very clearly to the left, and it didn’t work in his district.

Re: Lincoln, after NBC projected her the loser:

O’DONNELL:  Ed, it’s Lawrence O’Donnell. I want to ask you more about Blanche Lincoln.  In retrospect, does it look wise to have challenged Blanche Lincoln in a primary and weakened her, if that’s what happened, given that she, in fact, did not fight health care all the way?  She was a member of the Senate Finance Committee. She voted for the Senate Finance Committee bill. She was one of the pro-choice votes in the Senate Finance Committee, where not all Democrats voted for the pro-choice components of that health care bill.

She, in fact, helped it get out on to the Senate floor. She, in fact, helped it pass on the Senate floor. She did all that. And it was judged not enough by liberals who wanted to take her out in the primary.


O’DONNELL: They failed. They left a wounded nominee . . . . We may have elected in West Virginia a vote in favor of repealing the Obama health care bill, which Blanche Lincoln enabled to be legislated.

Re:  Feingold, after Matthews asked why he lost:

MADDOW:  The situation is that Russ Feingold never earned the loyalty of his party because he was so iconoclastic, he went his own way, he made principled votes on things like the Patriot Act   .  .  . he never earned any national favor from anyone but progressives  . . . . . he’s against someone who has a ton of outside help and a ton of money.  He just didn’t have anyone supporting him because the national party just never backed him up.

O’DONNELL:   What does this have to do with the argument that’s going on inside the Democratic Party between progressives and others about how Democrats should run?  Did Russ Feingold lose because he wasn’t liberal enough?  . . . . When we talk about money in races, we have to face the fact that it’s not the full explainer that everyone thinks it is.  If money beat Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, why isn’t it beating Jerry Brown in California?  . . . .. 

This is about real candidates, this is about real positions they’ve taken, especially if they’re incumbents, like Russ Feingold, and to pretend that voting on Russ Feingold has nothing to do with his voting as an incumbent I think is to ignore the reality of life on the ballot as a Democrat in Wisconsin.. . . .

MADDOW:  If you really believe he could have campaigned his way out of this race, I’d love to hear how he could have campaigned differently in a more effective way, but I just don’t see it.

O’DONNELL:  A liberal was defeated by a Republican — by voters who had information about this one being a liberal, this one being a Republican.  We have to then assume the voters are completely irrational and don’t know what they are doing, or we assume that they do know the difference between a liberal and a Republican and they made that choice, based on his being a liberal and him being a Republican, money being whatever it was in that situation.

At times, O’Donnell phrased these views in the form of rhetorical questions and, in the Wisconsin discussion specifically, disclaimed certainty about why Feingold lost, but the remarks that he made as quoted above leave no doubt as to his point.  I’m more than content to have anyone compare the summary which I wrote of his remarks to what he actually said.  What I wrote was completely accurate.  His meaning could not have been clearer, which is why so many people understood it exactly that way.

As for the substance of our discussion, O’Donnell — in standard cable TV form — basically had one simplistic point he repeated over and over:  exit polls show that only a small minority of voters (a) self-identify as “liberal” and (b) agree that government should do more.  There are so many obvious flaws in that “analysis.”  To begin with, exit polls survey only those who vote; it excludes those who chose not to vote, including the massive number of Democrats and liberals who voted in 2006 and 2008 but stayed at home this time.  The failure to inspire those citizens to vote is, beyond doubt, a major cause of the Democrats’ loss (see the first reason listed by CBS News for why the Democrats lost:  ”The Democratic Base Stayed Home“).  Alienating your own base by moving to the Right via Blue Dog dependency is obviously a bad electoral tactic for Democrats, and O’Donnell’s little stat does nothing to negate that; to the contrary, it bolsters that point, since the Democratic base of 2006 and 2008 stayed at home this year.  O’Donnell’s fixation on those who voted, while ignoring those who chose not to vote, necessarily excludes a major factor in the Democrats’ loss.

But more important, voters don’t think the way that cable TV personalities think.  Voters don’t run around basing their vote on this type of vapid sloganeering:  who is a liberal?  who is a conservative?  who wants big government and who wants small government?  It’s true that the word ”liberal” has been poisoned and it’s thus hardly surprising that few people embrace it as their political identity.  But, as I documented during the segment and O’Donnell steadfastly ignored, large majorities support positions routinely identified as “liberal,” including the public option, greater restraints on Wall Street, preservation of Social Security and Medicare, etc.  They can say they are not “liberal” but their specific views on substance prove otherwise.

But far more important still, what voters care about are not cable-news labels, but results.  Democrats didn’t lose because voters think they’re too “liberal.”  If that were true, how would one explain massive Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008, including by liberals in conservative districts (such as Alan Grayson); were American voters liberal in 2006 and 2008 only to manically switch to being conservative this year?  Was Wisconsin super-liberal for the last 18 years when it thrice elected Russ Feingold to the Senate, and then suddenly turned hostile to liberals this year?  Such an explanation is absurd.

The answer is that voters make choices based on their assessment of the outcomes from the political class.  They revolted against the Republican Party in the prior two elections because they hated the Iraq War and GOP corruption (not because they thought the GOP was “too conservative”), and they revolted against Democrats this year because they have no jobs, are having their homes foreclosed by the millions, are suffering severe economic anxiety, and see no plan or promise for that to change (not because they think Democrats are “too liberal”).

People like Lawrence O’Donnell predictably don’t understand this because none of that is happening to them.  In their world, what matters are facile, superficial political labels and trite, McGovern-era Beltway wisdom:  Dems have to Move To the Center.  But voters are rejecting Democrats because of their perceived policy failures, not because of cable news bumper stickers.  As this superb Mother Jones analysis demonstrates, the trite “wisdom” of people like O’Donnell could not be more empirically false:

The most widely accepted narrative to emerge from the 2010 midterm elections, in which Democrats took a “shellacking” and lost the most congressional seats since World War II, was this: Sick of liberal overreach, voters — especially independents — shifted their favor to the right, choosing Republican candidates in huge numbers.

Not so, according to a new exit poll by the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. The firm’s findings, released Friday, show that voters weren’t necessarily allying themselves with the GOP, but rather were voicing their disapproval with Washington as a whole, and especially with the federal government’s inability to restart America’s economic engine. To wit, voters polled gave equally poor favorability ratings to both parties as well as the tea party, the poll found.

What matters most to voters isn’t political nit-picking or Washington drama but the economy, plain and simple. As pollster Stan Greenberg, a former Clinton White House staffer, put it, “While this clearly was a blow…to the president and Democrats for failing to fix the economy, there’s very little indication it was an affirmation of conservative ideology and agenda. In fact, we were rather surprised in many ways at the fact that the voters, in large numbers, are still looking for larger answers to an economy that’s not working for them in a situation that they find for the country very worrisome.”

That jobs-centric conclusion probably isn’t so revelatory for most Americans. After all, outside the Beltway, where such political narratives thrive, is where most unemployed people live. But it’s a welcome corrective here in Washington, where the conventional wisdom suggests a GOP revival supposedly spurred by voters’ newfound embrace of the Republican Party’s ideas, however scarce they may be.

People aren’t running around thinking:  who is a liberal and who is a conservative?  They’re running around thinking:  we have no jobs and no economic security, and thus will punish those in power.  As I made explicitly clear in my original post about O’Donnell — and people like this and this should learn to read a little bit better — my objection to his comments was not that the massive loss of Blue Dogs proves that conservative Democrats can’t win.  Democrats didn’t lose because they’re “too conservative” any more than because they are “too liberal.”  My objection was that he was attempting to derive shallow meaning from the loss of specific liberal candidates — see, voters don’t like liberals! — when that plainly was not what motivated voters; merely to negate his reasoning, I pointed out that if one did want to use O’Donnell’s fundamentally flawed method (i.e., look at which candidates lost and that’s how you know which ideology voters rejected), then one could far more easily make the case that they were rejecting conservative Democrats, since Blue Dogs are who bore the brunt of the bloodbath.

People are suffering economically and Democrats have done little about that.  Beyond that, they failed to inspire their own voters to go to the polls.  Therefore, they lost.  By basing their power in Congress on Blue Dog dependence — rather than advocating for the views of their own supporters and implementing those policies — they failed, and failed resoundingly.  Building their party around a large number of muddled, GOP-replicating corporatists not only creates a tepid and failed political image, but far worse, it prevents actual policies from being implemented that benefit large number of ordinary Americans.  Democrats repeatedly refrained from advocating for such policies in deference to their Blue Dogs, failed to do much to alleviate the economic suffering of ordinary Americans, and thus got crushed.   Anyone who thinks that Democrats lost because they were “too liberal” — rather than because Americans are suffering so much economically — is wildly out of touch, i.e., is a multi-millionaire cable TV personality who has spent decades wallowing in trite D.C. chatter.

The Republicans have long lived by what they call “The Buckley Rule”:   always support the furthest Right candidate who can plausibly win.  This year, knowing that it would be a wave election, one that would sweep in huge numbers of Republicans in districts where they ordinarily couldn’t get elected, they changed that tosupport the furthest Right candidate, period.  That’s because they believe conservatism will work and want to advocate for it.  Democrats don’t do that.  The DCCC constantly works to prop up the most “centrist” or conservative candidates — i.e., corporatists — on the ground that it’s always better, more politically astute, to move to the Right.  Even in the pro-Democratic wave years of 2006 and 2008, the Democratic Party blocked actual progressives and ensured that Blue Dogs were nominated, even though the anti-GOP sentiment was so strong that any Democrat, including progressives, could have won even in red districts (as Alan Grayson proved).

With that strategy, the Democratic Party now reaps what it has sown.  Its message and identity are profoundly muddled, incoherent, unclear, uninspiring, and self-negating.  Worse, its policies are mishmashes of inept half-measures that, with a handful of exceptions, produce little good for anyone (other than Wall Street, the Pentagon and other corporate interests).  They are perceived as — and are — beholden to Wall Street, special interests, and the corporations they vowed to confront.  They are without any ability to confront the massive unemployment crisis and financial decline the country faces.  And as a result of all of that, they lay in shambles.  Anyone who can survey all of that and cheer for the strategy which Democrats have been pursuing — let’s build our majorities by relying on GOP-replicating corporatist Blue Dogs — or who thinks that this election loss happened because “Democrats are too liberal,” resides in a world that has very little to do with reality.  And that’s true no matter how many times they repeat the simplistic snippets of exit polls to which they’ve obsessively attached themselves.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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