How pervasive is Democratic dissatisfaction?

In the face of all evidence, American Prospect's executive editor claims it's confined to "a couple of blogs"

By Glenn Greenwald
Published October 5, 2010 5:06PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II)

I understand that some people who hold themselves out as "journalists" are going to be Party loyalists and apparatchiks whose overarching goal is to dutifully serve Party officials.  Still, just for the sake of credibility and efficacy if nothing else, one would think that the smarter ones would at least bind themselves to some minimal notions of reality.  The American Prospect's Executive Editor Mark Schmitt apparently has no concerns of that sort.  In a Bloggingheads discussion yesterday with National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, who asked him about the prospect of a 2012 primary challenge, Schmitt said this:


I think there's a lot of attention -- y'know, there's too much attention on the dissatisfied Democratic base, um, y'know, represented, by y'know, really by a couple of blogs [chuckling], frankly. 

It'd be great news for the Democratic Party and the Obama White House if Schmitt's claim were true.  The White House itself certainly doesn't appear to share Schmitt's views, given how repeatedly and petulantly Obama officials have complained about this dissatisfaction:  a very strange thing to be concerned with if it were confined to just "a couple of blogs."  Nor do pollsters appear to view the world through the sunny, pro-Democratic mentality expressed by Schmitt, as it is a virtual consensus among them that the greatest threat to Democratic power is the so-called "enthusiasm gap."

But judge for yourself:  just examine the recent evidence on this question to see if Schmitt's claim -- "the dissatisfied Democratic base [is] represented really by a couple of blogs" -- bears any relationship whatsoever to reality:

New York Times, September 17, 2010:


Labor leaders, alarmed at a possible Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress, promise to devote a record amount of money and manpower to helping Democrats stave off disaster. But political analysts, and union leaders themselves, say that their efforts may not be enough because union members, like other important parts of the Democratic base, are not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the party -- a reality that, in turn, further dampens the Democrats' chances of holding onto their Congressional majorities. . . .

Patricia Elizondo, president of the 2,000-member Milwaukee local of the International Association of Machinists, fears just that.

"People have been unemployed for two years, and they're unhappy that the health care bill was not as good as they expected," she said. "Two years ago, I had many members going door-to-door to campaign. Now they're saying, 'Why should I?  We supported that candidate, but he didn't follow through'."

Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2010:

[Obama] energized a coalition -- made up of blacks, women, Latinos, young voters and large numbers of suburbanites -- that some believed would keep Democrats in power for years to come.

A scant 20 months later, the Obama coalition is frayed and frazzled.

A majority of those who voted for Obama still approve of the job he is doing. But that number is eroding.

Surprisingly, support for the president among Latinos, young people and women has dropped as much as it has among groups that were considered less likely to stick with the president, such as white males, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. . . .

Some who threw their lot in with Obama expressed a sense of being let down by the man who promised change and pledged to transform the country.  Some attributed that to their own lofty expectations and, perhaps, their naivete.  Others pointed to what they saw as his lack of focus on the still-faltering economy.

And some suggested they were simply hoodwinked by a smooth-talking politician.

New York Times, September 29, 2010:

Democratic donors like George Soros, the bête noire of the right, and his fellow billionaire Peter B. Lewis, who each gave more than $20 million to Democratic-oriented groups in the 2004 election, appear to be holding back so far.

"Mr. Soros believes that he can be most effective by funding groups that promote progressive policy outcomes in areas such as health care, the environment and foreign policy," said an adviser, Michael Vachon. "So he has opted to fund those activities."

The absence of these Democratic megadonors is contributing to a huge disparity in spending between pro-Republican and pro-Democratic groups. . . .

The attention of Mr. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, also appears to be elsewhere this year. Jennifer Frutchy, who advises Mr. Lewis on his philanthropy, said he was focused at the moment on "building progressive infrastructure and marijuana reform."

"That's just where his head is right now," Ms. Frutchy said [GG:  note the distinction they are drawing between (a) donating to Democrats and (b) advancing progressive causes]. . . .

For donors, there is certainly an element of fatigue from giving cycle after cycle, as well as an economic squeeze brought on by the recession, the operatives said. But some more ideological donors are also upset that the Obama administration has not been more aggressive in pushing a liberal agenda.

Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos, yesterday:


"Hispanic voters' support for Democratic candidates waned in August and September. As a result, Hispanics in September favored Democrats by a 13-point margin (51% to 38%), compared with 32-point margins in June and July."

That's the price Democrats are paying for failing to address key immigration issues. . . . Obama and the Democrats look weak, disengaged, and aloof on the number one issue facing a key constituency in the Democratic electoral coalition. It hasn't just been bad policy, but disastrous electoral strategy as well.

It's true that the same Gallup poll shows Obama's approval ratings at 79% among Democrats and 75% among liberals.  But "approval ratings" -- where one has a dichotomized choice (yes/no) -- say nothing about enthusiasm levels or willingness to take action in support of someone.  More important, the fact that 25% of liberals and 20% of Democrats withhold approval for Obama is obviously significant, by itself proving that dissatisfaction extends far, far beyond a "couple of blogs."  Add to that all of this other empirical evidence, and it's undeniably clear that dissatisfaction is widespread in the Party -- pervading most of its core constituencies -- and is a serious threat to continued Democratic rule.


It's fine if someone wants to be a cheerleader, clapping loudly in order to rally the troops.  Every Party has and needs those types of people (though it's strange (though not unusual) that a person who wants to do that would call himself a "journalist"; generally one finds that trait in political operatives and spokespeople).  But as the Bush propagandists of the last decade learned the hard way -- as they continuously insisted that the Iraq War was Going Great even as everyone could see how false that was -- being an effective propagandist requires at least a pretense of what Michael Kinsely today hails as "intellectual honesty":

Intellectual honesty is more demanding: It means being truthful about what's going on inside your own head.

To start, you shouldn't say anything that you don't believe is true. But that's just to start. Intellectual honesty means that you have a basis for your belief, that you have tested your belief against other beliefs on the same subject, that you have no blinding bias or, at least, have put bias aside as best you can.

"Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander": Your views on, say, the constitutional limits of presidential war powers should not turn on which party controls the presidency. . . .

Intellectual dishonesty, meanwhile, is so built into the Washington culture that you have to force yourself to notice it. It even has a more familiar and less pejorative name: "spin." Spin is not just another word for lies. A better definition might be "indifference to the truth." The really great spin artists, like Karl Rove and James Carville, are celebrated as masters of their craft.  Journalists crowd around them, longing to get spun.

The claim that dissatisfaction among Democrats is confined to a "couple of blogs" might advance Schmitt's political objectives.  Given the human craving to make perceptions correspond with desires, it likely makes him feel good to believe that it's true.  But it's so plainly false that it's hard to believe that anyone could say it with a straight face, let alone believe that it will help anything -- their Party or themselves -- to claim it.  As a general proposition, papering over serious problems -- pretending they do not exist -- is never constructive, and that's certainly true when it comes to a Party's political failures.  Worst of all, making this claim obscures a very important truth that ought to be promoted and amplified, one which the establishment media ("move to the Right!") will do its best to deny after November:  Democrats do themselves no favors when they ignore the wishes, values and agenda of their "base":  i.e., those who are most responsible for their being in power.  Quite the opposite is true.



UPDATE:  Schmitt appears in the comment section and raises several points over the course of multiple comments, including a claim that I omitted the context of his remarks, which was whether someone would mount a primary challenge against Obama in 2012.  I'm not sure how he can claim that I omitted this since -- aside from linking to the full video of his discussion  -- I introduced Schmitt's comments this way:  "In a Bloggingheads discussion yesterday with National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, who asked him about the prospect of a 2012 primary challenge, Schmitt said this. . . ."  I don't know how it's possible to have made the context any clearer than that.  I also think it changes nothing, but everyone interested is encouraged to listen to his full remarks and read his responses in the comment section.

Schmitt also now says that he recognizes -- and intended to convey -- that dissatisfaction with Obama is widespread in the Party, far beyond a "couple of blogs," and writes:


[T]hroughout the Democratic base, there is dissatisfaction at various levels, and much of it is warranted (civil liberties). Some of it is warranted if you think that Obama had another clear option (e.g., if he'd pushed harder for public option, it would have succeeded), and not if you don't -- it's an empirical argument about what's actually possible.

That, to me, seems quite at odds with what he actually said, but I'll take him at his word that this is what he believes and it certainly narrows (though does not eliminate) the scope of the disagreement.


UPDATE II:  Just to review a bit of history, Schmitt was one of the very first influential liberal commentators to hail the Greatness of Barack Obama and his Transformative Power, as reflected by this 2007 "Theory of Change" piece in The American Prospect, which argued:  "Hope and bipartisanship are not things that Obama naively believes are present and possible -- they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure."  In January, 2010, he wrote:  


for those of us who were steeped in the netroots sensibility on the left, as both of us were, it's kind of astonishing that the fulfillment of the four- or five-year project of progressive renascence would be a figure like Obama and his distinctive language of reconciliation. . . . Obama's "theory of change" I suggested in my December 2007 essay succeeded on the most basic level -- it attracted a breadth of coalition and changed the electoral map in a way that neither "John Edwards" nor Clinton would have been able to do.

At least during the Obama presidency (as opposed to the campaign), most of that turned out not to have happened.  It most certainly did not usher in an era of bipartisanship, or bring about a "progressive renascence," or subvert conservative power -- quite the opposite.  Schmitt himself, in 2010, somewhat acknowledged that:  "But as prediction for what would happen in the first year of an Obama administration, I have to admit, it doesn't hold up as well."  As one knowledgeable reader put it in an email to me today about Schmitt's 2007 piece:

This was the single most important Obama piece written in the liberal Village. I have no idea if Obama believed it or scoffed at it as a bunch of naïve bozos thinking he really gave a damn. But whatever, it was a terrible misreading of politics in this era.  And it excused all the hippie punching and Republican fellating for months -- the old 27 dimensional chess crapola.

I had several people who know Schmitt well who contacted me today to object vehemently to my description of the role he plays and to insist that my treatment of him was unfair.  I'll leave that for others to decide with all the evidence set forth here, but my descriptions were based on this history.

Glenn Greenwald

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