What gives with Obama´s scolding attitude to his base? The idea seems to be that life in the White House and the Democratic caucuses in the Capitol would be better if all his supporters were like RBC bloggers: conciliatory, rationalist left-of-centrists. (Our commenters trend further left, pace Brett, Thomas [pacificatory update, but this is the last: and Dave]).
Rubbish. It´s a truism of negotiation theory that it pays to be crazy or at least look it : red-eyed, trembling hands, on the edge of losing it entirely. This extends I reckon to principal-agent situations: agents want crazy clients to negotiate for. Obama would be much better off if his base included a large contingent of people on the edge of storming the NYSE and pushing the bankers out if their helicopters without a parachute.
The British parliamentary reforms of 1832, 1867, and 1911 took place against a background of popular agitation. Rioters set fire to Nottingham Castle in 1832; in 1867 the police did not dare to enforce a ban against a huge demonstration in Hyde Park; 1911 was marked by bitter industrial conflicts, in one of which two workers were shot dead by police. It´s hard to see how the centrist reformers could have got their way in the smoke-filled rooms without the agitators outside.
So the rational strategy for a moderate reformer is to cosset your radicals, signal that your heart is with them, though unfortunately etc, and point their anger at your political opponents – and away from you. At the same time you signal to your opponents that you personally would be willing to compromise, but your crazy radical base have tied your hands.
In this Pol 101 analysis, Obama´s problem isn´t that he has too many lefty supporters but too few. Of course he doesn´t want the radicals to become so strong they determine his actions, but there´s no risk of that. Dennis Kucinich and his friends don´t even fill a cosy Adullam´s cave.
Why is Barack Obama, a cerebral and well-educated politician, unable to see what what was obvious to his soulmates Grey, Disraeli, and Asquith? It´s pure speculation, but here´s my guess.
Barack Obama had close dealings with real left-wing radicals only once, as a young community organizer in Chicago. He did once meet Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, former members of the Weather Underground, and no doubt others on the far left of Chicago politics. During the election, the acquaintanceship was used by conservatives in an absurd attempt to portray Obama as a closet far-left radical himself. Progressives rallied round to dismiss, and bury, the allegation.
But there is a real question about the effect of the contact on the ambitious young black politician. My hypothesis: Obama was close enough to feel in his bones the attraction of clear-cut iconoclastic ideas married to fierce egalitarian passion; but also to see them as a real danger to the moderate, Luther-King path he chose. The danger extends to association, for people like Ayers and Dohrn really do scare off centrist Democrats and independents.
Obama should get over this. Jane Hamsher wants a public option in health care; Glenn Greenwald, fair civilian trials for alleged terrorists; Paul Krugman, a return to Clinton´s tax rates and Roosevelt´s financial regulation. These are not the positions of revolutionaries. In many ways, they are closer to the centre of American opinion than he is.
Update: Among other things, I take away from Andrew´s new post the ¨hard cop – soft cop¨ metaphor, which fits well here.
Update 2 – 10 Dec: Liberal Democrats on the Hill are enraged! House Dems are holding out for an extra year on the payroll tax cuts (and why not also for the long-term unemployment insurance, plus extending the debt ceiling)! Sen. Schumer is still fighting for ending the millionaire tax cuts! Feel the dark side of the Force! Obama should be delighted, as long as his Leveller troops come round in the end.