Ok, so we put a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. Awesome. Now it's time to set expectations for what that means. Whatever the optics of the netroots versus Rahm fight, the reality is that it is a coalition of white non-union progressives, African-Americans, Latinos, youth, and union members who made this happen. And yet, even with around 30-40 new House members and ten new Senate members, the reality is that new blood is only around 20% of the caucus. That means that whatever it is that we want will synthesize into a larger set of pent-up demands by the base of the other 80%.
That's not a bad thing. Right off the bat, we'll have a higher minimum wage, which will be a clear help to young voters. Hopefully Pelosi can get her cut on student loan interest rates, which will be an additional boon. And voting reform and net neutrality are going to be major issues, which are issues of concern to minorities and white progressives, progressively.
Still, don't expect this caucus to be ours, in total. It's not, because we're not ready to govern as a movement. Here's a brief reading of where we are, as the 'netroots'.
On the one hand, insiders have to listen to us. After watching Joe Lieberman go down in a primary, and after seeing five or six of our candidates beat the DCCC's in primaries and then go on to General election victories, it's become clear that establishment Democrats cannot completely ignore us. They know that we can be a source of volunteers, of money, of support, of media help, or we can be a pain in the ass, a source of embarrassment, or at worst a primary challenge.
On the other hand, insiders don't have to listen to us... that much. Expect the 'you can't win in a general election' card to be trotted out repeatedly, as David Brooks is doing. Joe Lieberman will be a more marginal figure than people assume. Since Jim Webb is considered a tuff man according to Timmeh and the Meet the Press crew, when Webb speaks on issues like economic justice, national security, and civil rights, moderate Republicans and Democrats are going to listen. In a lot of ways, Webb and Tester could occupy Lieberman and McCain's space as the bellweather heartland figures. Still, the Lieberman loss is going to be lorded over us repeatedly, despite the obviously world-changing effect of Ned Lamont's primary win.
On the one hand, we now have real allies in Congress. Jerry McNerney, Jon Tester, Jim Webb, John Hall, Joe Sestak, Patrick Murphy, Chris Murphy, Chris Carney, Paul Hodes, Tim Walz, and a few others all have direct connection to the netroots. And Kirstin Gillibrand has signed a pledge to make her schedule entirely open. There could be a few others depending on recounts. Rather than seeing the Broder's of the world as critical opinion-makers, they see both Daily Kos and Broder as opinion-makers. There are more, of course, but the fact that there are Congressmen who got elected in some measure with strong netroots support means that we will have much stronger bridges on the inside.
On the other hand, we have few strong allies. Ok, so there are leadership fights. It looks like Emanuel and Larson locked up the Caucus Chair and Vice-Chair, and Clyburn the whip position. I could be wrong of course, but the only major debate is between Steny Hoyer and Jack Murtha. Don't get me wrong, that's a big fight, but these elections are almost entirely insider. We may be able to set some sort of overall climate as we did during the DNC Chair race, but it's very unlikely that we'll have a big impact on these decisions. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid consider us kind of nice to have on their side, kind of annoying otherwise, but mostly not really a factor in their management of the caucus. That's partly because they don't want to share power, but it's also because we aren't particularly easy to work with.
On the one hand, we have no legislative agenda except for net neutrality. Since we locked that down as an important issue before the election, our chances are pretty good (though it's not by any means a slam dunk. This means that we are free to pick our fights, flexible, and not bogged down by a long list of people to satisfy. We can ride public opinion to get what we want, with agility and intelligence.
On the other hand, we have no legislative agenda except for net neutrality. That means that the agenda is largely going to be controlled by others. Since we don't know exactly what we want, we won't be able to ask for it. That's not necessarily bad, but it also means that we're delegating a lot of leverage to others.
So basically what I'm saying is that we shouldn't be deceived, this is not going to be a Congress where we are treated as an equal partner. Though we represent some important piece of the primary voting universe, we have aways to go before we are able to garner substantial respect and inculcate our intellectually honest and open culture into the party. Also, we're not ready to take full power yet. We don't have the ability to govern the party or the country yet, though we have sketched an outline of the new politics. We haven't dealt with critical issues like race, we haven't built bridges with labor, we don't have reliable revenue streams, and we don't have an effective talent banking mechanism. We don't do enough field and we don't do voter registration on the scale that is necessary to build out our base. And that's just for starters. I'll leave Chris to let you know what we do well. In four years, we've come a LONG way.
Here are some suggestions on how we can amplify and build on what we've accomplished. The basic principle is that our power comes not from insiders but from expanding the number and quality of people involved and participating in our party's debates, elections, fundraising, policy-making, and GOTV.
1) Don't fight for a better parking spot: Hoyer or Murtha? I have my preference, but this fight isn't a place that we can affect all that much. And it's not a hugely important contest. There will be lots of these spats, and we shouldn't waste our capital fighting on their turf. Our power comes from our community, our people-power. Lose that and we're just a group of wannabe Redstate.com consultant types.
2) Expand our netroots base: Let's get more people involved. Let's build bridges to different communities, and bring their influentials onto the internet to engage in dialogue. That will set us up to build more people-power and ultimately govern the country.
3) Break the blog box: Register voters. Measure and run GOTV. Break out of the blog box, explicitly, by tying our work on the blogs to work offline. This is the key to showing that we are the people who make campaigns and governance work.
4) Build web-based leverage points: Let's make sure bills are put online at least 72 hours before a vote. Let's see if we can get a copy of the bill is put on a wiki for annotation. It would be great if there were public webcams in the halls of Congress. Make lobbyists register with a thirty second video clip on what their business is and who they work for. Candidates have to take responsibility for their message, why not lobbyists? Put a technorati link on every Congressional website, automatically. There's a lot more here, obviously. We can write the House rules now. Let's write them so that they work in favor of people-power.
5) Primary, primary, primary: Primaries make the party stronger and better. Let's support candidates who want to run primaries, and force Congressional candidates to answer to the Democratic primary voting universe as often as possible. Could Ellen Tauscher really be such a blue dog if she had to face a challenger every cycle in such a blue district? Could Rahm Emanuel, who won his primary in a thuggish, corrupt, and narrow margin, be so hostile to Democratic primary voters if challenged in his very blue district? Could Max Baucus continue to author massive tax cuts if he knew he'd have to answer to a progressive populist primary voting universe back home? Could any number of lazy progressives continue to do nothing in the face of a real challenge at home?
There's a lot more of course. Mostly what I'm missing is the local angle, which is more important in a lot of ways. I'm nationally focused since I live in DC.
The point though is that we're a movement that is going to wield power by convincing the American people that civic involvement in an open government and culture is the key to a better world. We ought to be thinking about how to create structures that encourage participation in our culture, companies, government, and physical spaces, and not worry so much about which personalities are in charge of which pieces of turf.