How to Insult Your Base

Everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten: if you want to attract loyalty from your base, it’s probably best not to go out of your way to humiliate them.

Jonathan Chait wonders why the liberal base is so demoralized.  He observes correctly that

the overwhelming cause of the Democrats’ perils is that they held overstretched majorities while taking control of government at the outset of a massive economic crisis. But the inability of the left to handle majority status is an important contributor to the dilemma. It’s not surprising that Democrats would lose independent voters, or that Republicans would be wildly enthusiastic, when they control the government and push agressive reforms during an economic calamity. But they sheer sullenness of the liberal base does seem to be avoidable and puzzling.

Hmmm..maybe something like this (which I just came across today)?

A senior White House official just called me with a very pointed message for the administration’s sometime allies in organized labor, who invested heavily in beating Blanche Lincoln, Obama’s candidate, in Arkansas.

“Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,” the official said. “If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.”

Usually going out of your way to publicly insult your base isn’t a pretty good way to pep them up.  Chait is right: this was avoidable.  And it might be the different between maintaining a slim majority in the House and facing impeachment hearings next year.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

15 thoughts on “How to Insult Your Base”

  1. The senior White House official is correct if we assume that Obama had to back Lincoln. But he didn't. Why isn't it Obama and not labor who was guilty of fratricide?

  2. Because presidents support sitting members of Congress from their party — heck, even if they're Arlen Specter.

  3. Bruce Ross:

    Even if the "senior White House official" wasn't mistaken, he was still looking to lob a grenade. He could have called these leaders long, long, long before they spent the $10M and looked for some kind of compromise strategy. Instead he wanted to signal to his banking donors that "hey, we Democrats hate workers too!"

  4. Seth, you assume this was not already attempted. All parties here are guilty in my opinion. Isn't that the point Chait's article – the propensity of the Circular Firing Squad on the Left? I guess every time some bright spark in The Base (like it's some great homogenous unit) has a gripe The White House just has to take it up the ass and pretend to like it. Well maybe they should, but Christ, can we please stop being so precious when Dear Leader hurts our feelings? So let's all stay home on Nov 7 and have a good whine. At least we can just blame Obama when a Republican Congress proposes to send all the Muslims to Gitmo, right?

  5. White House staff get paid (in money, power and prestige) to take this abuse. Donors, volunteers, coordinators of allied groups are all paying to take it.

  6. Chait is willfully obtuse on this topic. Has been for a while now.

    My problem with Obama is that I'm a liberal, and Obama doesn't give a shit about liberals. Chait may find that very mysterious for me to have a problem with — "ooooh, whatcha gonna do, vote GOP?" — but I don't think it's any stunning psychological insight that "vote for the lesser of two evils" isn't particularly inspiring.

  7. Anderson,

    Obama isn't supposed to give a shit about liberals; he's supposed to be trying to do what he thinks is right for the country. Grow up. You want your positions adopted? Try doing the hard work of countering right-wing propaganda and getting majorities of uninformed voters to understand and agree with you.

  8. Karen, Anderson presumably thinks that what liberals want is what's right for the country, so, if Obama is supposed to do what's right for the country, then he should do what liberals want, regardless of what the majority of voters want. It is inconsistent for you to say that Obama should do what's right for the country and that Anderson should persuade the majority of voters to agree with him.

  9. Fundamentally, I think the point that gets missed is that no politician, liberal or conservative, is entitled to his or her base's support. Base voters, just like swing voters, have the right to refuse to support politicians who don't deliver. Of course, the moment one says this, everyone screams about Ralph Nader in 2000, but the fact of the matter is that while you can argue that it was strategically unwise for liberals to vote for Nader (particularly in Florida), it's perfectly within their rights to do so to force the Democrats to stop nominating right wing candidates (and Gore, while he got more "left" in his post-political career, certainly ran every single one of his elections as a Southern conservative).

    So if the base is mad at Obama, Obama has two choices. He can either cater more to the base, or he can choose not to, and if he chooses not to, the base has the right to go elsewhere and stay home. Squishy moderates don't like this because it can help the other party, but squishy moderates don't get to boss base voters around. Squishy moderates don't have a majority either, unless they can attract the base.

  10. Anderson,

    Exactly — "Whatcha gonna do? Vote for the evil other?" is anything but inspiring. Candidate Barack Obama won by claiming to give liberals/progressives/Blue-voters-in-purple-states someone to vote for, rather than voting for lesser evil. The fact that his opponent is a crazy old man whose battle between integrity and ambition was won by ambition just helped things. The fact that the crazy old man picked as his running mate an apparent sociopathic liar didn't hurt matters.

    But President Obama has done precious little to make the Democratic base enthusiastic. I'd accept this abortion of a health insurance reform (it ain't health care reform, folks) bill a lot easier if President Obama hadn't swept single-payer off the table before the game began. I'd accept the banking reform bill much better if most of the progressive principles had not been compromised away before the game began. He's done none of those things.

    Before the elections, I told people that Obama is not a liberal, certainly not a liberal in the mold of (say) Dennis Kucinich or even Al Franken. Obama is a mediator, a "why can't we all just get along" guy. That makes him a de facto centrist, but he determines the center by where folks are now. The Republicans have pulled so far to the right that the center looks pretty far-right to anyone on the left. That includes me, by the way.

    I'll vote in November, and I'll vote a straight Democratic ticket. I'll urge my friends and neighbors to get out to vote, too. The consequences of a Speaker Boehner are too frightening not to do so. But I'm not going to like it, and I am voting for the lesser evil.

  11. the propensity of the Circular Firing Squad on the Left?

    I think this phenomenon exists, but it's certainly not what's in play with Sen. Lincoln. The liberals were taking aim at a non-liberal. I can sympathize with Obama's support for Lincoln, but to expect liberals to support Lincoln against a liberal is absurd.

    And that ain't Naderism. Everyone, including Nader, understood that the 2000 election was between Bush and Gore. Nader argued incorrectly that it didn't matter which of those two won. In Arkansas, everyone, including Obama, understood that the primary was between Lincoln and Halter. Obama picked Lincoln, liberals picked Halter.

    Obama can justifiably bitch about about how little support he gets from conservatives. He actually gets quite a lot of support from liberals. And Lincoln, too, will win the liberal vote in her election.

  12. I quit the Democratic Party a few months ago because the party no longer represents my values, but I will not be voting for ANY national Democrats this year because I am a f***ing retard who needs to be drug tested.

    If you get my drift…

  13. McMia,

    I can relate, but Rahm and Robert will not notice your absence. If they lose the House, it will be because "we're a center-right nation" and "Obama was too lefty" in their minds.

  14. And they will be right. If you don't oppose the current crop of Republicans against Democrats, you are supporting (either actively or passively) the country's continued rightward lurch.

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