Fighting With or Without the President

Eight years ago, following his Democratic primary defeat, Howard Dean and some of his supporters formed Democracy for America (DFA). Among them was Howard’s brother Jim Dean, who now serves as chair of the million-member activist group. The Prospect sat down with Jim Dean to discuss the left’s lack of leverage in Washington, Occupy’s lessons for activists, and why—with a presidential election looming—DFA has shifted its focus to the states.

Some of the DFA’s most prominent Obama-era national campaigns—like the public-option push and the Employee Free Choice Act efforts—have been unsuccessful. Should progressives have taken a different approach?

That’s tough. I don’t think Obama’s a horrible guy or anything. But there’s a great deal of frustration with him. It’s not about the “what,” because they’ve actually gotten a lot done—it’s the “how.” Everyone thought his election was a game changer, and Washington needed a cultural change. There’s a sense that it wasn’t his thing—that he was perfectly comfortable in a culture that nobody else thinks is very good.

After our candidates got shellacked in the 2010 elections, there was complete frustration with the president’s lack of leadership. And that’s where we went and did something else.

If we send an e-mail out saying “Let’s support a campaign-finance measure in Los Angeles,” our members are going to look at it. But if we send an e-mail saying “Let’s rally around the president,” we’re not going to get many clicks.

So what are you excited about this year?

The state stuff. If you ask our members what they’re into, it’s statewide fights on labor, marriage equality, and campaign finance. These are big-picture issues, but it’s much easier to express them in a state or local election. If we can get enough of the states to do these things, it really matters. Because if we can’t get it done in Washington, we’ve got to get it done somewhere else.

Why do the clearest contrasts seem to happen at the state level?

For our members, the most frustrating thing about the health-care debate wasn’t that Democrats didn’t get single-payer or a public option. It was the way it went down: that Max Baucus—a Democrat—could hold the bill up for months and almost derail it, and nobody in the caucus could discipline him.

At the state level, most activists know their legislators, and it’s much easier to have a sense of ownership or get into someone’s face. There’s a better chain of accountability. Max Baucus isn’t going to get a bunch of people outside his house in Montana.

By the time the debt-ceiling debate came around last summer, everyone was upset about it, but they were also on a mission to express that by wining the recalls in Wisconsin. Somebody in Texas who might have written their congressperson was phone-banking Wisconsin voters instead.

So how do you solve a problem like Max Baucus?

He’s one of the last Democrats, like Joe Lieberman, who can be very easily primaried. In the 2010 elections, it was the Republican-lite folks who got kicked out of office the most easily.

What about the larger problem of the left’s lack of leverage over Democrats?

The two senators who do the most work for the insurance industry are Ben Nelson, who’s retiring, and Max Baucus. There are others. Mary Landrieu will do whatever an oil company tells her to do. The faster we can get a new generation in there, the better.

But the other part of this is at the state level, where we can still legislate against corporate influence in politics, Citizens United not withstanding. We got a proposition passed in California that makes it harder for companies to donate to government officials. That kind of legislation is an expression that voters aren’t comfortable with this system. The more the states show that, the less elected officials in Washington will keep defending the indefensible, and the more radioactive the conduct of people like Baucus becomes.

The polling shows that Linda McMahon and Meg Whitman lost their races not because they were personally disliked but because every time they were on TV, it reminded people that they were spending tens of millions of dollars. Along with changing the laws, we’ve got to make it socially unacceptable for people to run for office that way—including Democrats.

How?

I think they’ve done it for themselves. The investment-banking system is not popular right now. As they’re becoming radioactive, that makes it easier for us. And we’ll have some seminal races this year, just as Ned Lamont’s primary victory over Joe Lieberman changed the national narrative on the Iraq War.

But there was plenty of anger at the banks in 2009. Why didn’t that lead to more progress?

One answer is that the crisis bailed them out. The sense of urgency about fixing problems that the banks created eclipsed the anger at them. It took a while for it to sink in, including for me, that not only were we bailing them out but the folks who were responsible were keeping their jobs, their money, and their bonuses. Then there was the health-care debate, which—for maybe the wrong reasons—engendered a lot of frustration. Baucus’s delay gave the other side the month of August, and they did a good job astroturfing those town halls.

Some see the Occupy movement as a rebuke not just to the banks, or to Obama, but to a style of progressive activism that’s too focused on the Internet and elections. Is that fair?

I’m a huge fan of Occupy. What they’re doing is extremely important because they’ve put out a message that has galvanized the country, and they’ve called into question the effectiveness of our political system, particularly in a post-Citizens United world.

But I would respectfully disagree on this point. I agree that political activism has not gotten us far enough and has not changed enough. They have a right to expect that more could have been done. But I think you’ve got to hammer it at both ends.

Our members do things that are incredible. So I’m still a believer in political activism.

Obama’s re-election is a means to an end. It’s not about him, it’s not about the party. It’s about what elements we need in place right now so that we’ll be positioned to accomplish something over the next 40 years. People will say, “It’s not really what I want, I’m not really happy about it, but I’m doing something in my own state that’s just as important, and I’ll vote for him too.” We’re here to change this country, and we have to do it with or without the president.

 

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