Jane Hamsher revisited
"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?"
"I am jeffroby, the Small and Meek. I have come to you for help."
"What do you wish me to do?"
"Keep to your principles. Before the healthcare bill passed, you quoted a poll that said, “A full 79.7% think it's ‘important’ or ‘very important’ that the health care bill contain no restrictions on abortion coverage, and 82.3% think that any member who casts a vote to restrict abortion coverage should face a primary. You approved. Now I beg you to use your power to make it happen.”
"Why should I do this for you?" asked Oz.
"Because you are strong and I am weak; because you are a Great Wizard and I am only a little blogger."
Or so it felt.
The great and terrible wizard, of course, is Jane Hamsher. An often principled and occasionally courageous progressive. On March 10, she came out in favor of primarying any Democrat who voted for a healthcare bill containing Nelson or Stupak anti-abortion language. I was impressed.
Was Hamsher serious?
For years the progressive blogosphere has squawked and screeched and yammered as each Democratic Party sellout loomed, and then has howled and yowled and caterwauled when it happened. Yes, they’ll go after a few of the worst offenders. Get Wynn, get Lieberman, now get Blanche Lincoln and Stupak. Or more pathetic yet, we’ll get you the next time -- somehow. Always next time, like the angry drunk thrown out of the bar only to replay the same scene the next night.
Hamsher’s support for primarying what would in effect be most of the Democratic congressional delegation was striking. So I commented that day, in part:
So Jane, how about the Full Court Press? You’re talking big here, and I appreciate that. But are you bluffing or aren’t you? Will healthcare be a fond memory in 2012 and you’ll have other fish to fry? After all, at one point you were talking about opposing anything that didn’t have a ‘robust’ public option. Then any sorry excuse for a public option was good enough, and you didn’t give a damn about Stupak or Nelson amendments being part of it. Now you’re talking tough again, and the abortion restrictions are big again because they give you leverage.
Note that by “give a damn,” I mean actually taking action, not a state of mind.
No response, of course. Now congressional Democrats have cast their “vote to restrict abortion coverage.” Time to check in. In Pelosi: Health Care Bill a Conservative Bill (Time to Go Back Under the Bus, Veal Pen), Hamsher wrote on March 23:
It’s no surprise that Pelosi and others are trumpeting the bill’s conservative underpinnings today: now that they no longer need liberal veal pen validators to whip Democrats in order to pass it, they are anxious to insulate themselves from GOP attack by distancing themselves from progressives once again and trumpeting the bill’s Heritage Foundation roots. The question is why anyone was ever hoodwinked into thinking this was a “progressive” victory simply because the Republicans were against it. It was a Democratic party victory.
That’s a strong statement, one I fully support. But the devil is in the details. So I commented:
Jane, a while back, you said any Democrat voting for a bill restricting abortion rights should be primaried.
Was that just big talk, or did you mean it. Now it’s the clear light of day. Are you going to run a post entitled, “Primary them All”? Are you going to start raising a fund to put it to them in 2012?
Or is your good rhetoric trumped by your friendships with the ActBlue folks who went along with the abortion-restricting bill?
Inquiring minds want to know.
That’s a serious question. Hamsher responded:
... You’ve sent me many emails about your own project to do just that. You spam links in our comments to your site all the time.
I didn’t realize it had been a failure so quickly. That’s too bad.
We have an organization to recruit primary challengers in all parties, it’s called Accountability Now. I know it’s a hard task to recruit Democratic challengers in this environment, but if you can’t do it, chiding others to do the work for you because you’ve failed doesn’t seem productive.
Maybe a diary about all your efforts, and how they didn’t work, would be helpful so others can learn from your mistakes?
Ouch! I answered:
... Thank you so much for your response ...
I recognize that I am small and meek. But since the Full Court Press plan has been aimed at 2012 from the very beginning, because we are aware of the difficulties of lining up candidates, calling it a failure might be a bit premature. How many candidates has your group lined up for 2012? See?
At this point, we are explicitly focused on winning others to this perspective. Call it chiding? Whatever.
Accountability Now is recruiting challengers in all parties? Great. On what basis? That is my gripe with ActBlue. They find candidates a whisker to the left of a Blue Dog, and then we wonder why we end up with just another liberal who votes for a bill containing Nelson ...
Jane, let me keep it simple. Do you think Nancy Pelosi, who strong-armed this rotten deal through, should be primaried in 2012? Yes or no.
... I think every single politician should be primaried in every single election, especially in heavily gerrymandered districts with strong one-party leaning. I’ve said so about a million times and started an organization based on that principle.
Think about that diary on all your failures. People could learn a lot from it. I imagine that using google first before you demand people declare things that they’ve said over and over again for years might cut down on them.
... Jane, allow me to clarify. You may say you have an organization to have a primary in every race. That is laudable. You say it is difficult to recruit candidates, and indeed that is so.
My difficulty is that I am small and obscure, and apparently have wracked up an impressive list of failures since December 2009 ... How about your failures? Such as failing to stop the healthcare bill from containing abortion-restricting language?
In any event, I believe your difficulty in recruiting is very different than mine. Mine is at least in part that a candidate should stand for a certain set of principles to be a Full Court Press candidate. Not particularly running to win. And that 2012 is a long ways off.
Your difficulty is that you are recruiting to win. You want candidates who are marginally better than the incumbents and have good reputation and can attract money, and can win. Such candidates would almost by definition be part of — or become part of — the regular Democratic Party machinery. You might call your slate “Future Blue Dogs of America.”
As for Pelosi, it’s nice that you would support there being a primary candidate against her. Allow me to sharpen my question to account for your dodge. Do you think that Nancy Pelosi should be defeated by this hypothetical challenger? Would you actively support a challenger from her left? Yes or no.
To this, there was no further response.
I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.
-- Philip Marlowe, the Big Sleep
So let’s strip away the snark and summarize:
(1) Hamsher supports primarying any congressperson who votes for an abortion-restricting healthcare bill.
(2) I question her commitment given her past waffling on whether a “robust” public option was a requirement for supporting any healthcare bill, at a time when the bill was already abortion-restricting.
(3) No response from Hamsher. Some are offended that I would question a progressive of her stature.
(4) After the healthcare bill passes with abortion-restricting language, I ask Hamsher whether she still advocated primarying any congressperson who voted for it.
(5) Hamsher complains about my advocating the Full Court Press on her site, points out that I am a self-proclaimed failure, “chiding others to do the work for you because you’ve failed doesn’t seem productive,” essentially tells me to quit bothering her and instead dwell on my own failures. She does not directly respond to my question, but she does counterpose her own organization for recruiting primary candidates, Accountability Now, and says recruiting primary candidates is difficult. This is a genuine response which I appreciate. Really.
(6) I point out that since the Full Court Press is geared towards 2012, calling it a failure is premature. I press Hamsher on what political basis Accountability Now recruits its candidates, and suggest that they end up supporting candidates similar to the ones who just sold us out.
(7) Hamsher gets slippery, says she supports primaries for every politician in every election, and has an organization dedicated to that. She again urges me to dwell on my failures.
(8) I point out Hamsher’s failures, such as failing to stop the healthcare bill, and note that mine are quite different from hers. I would recruit candidates to push certain principles, she recruits candidates who can win, and therefore has to run a much more mediocre bunch. Then I try to nail her down. Her March 10 post clearly implied that politicians like Pelosi should not only be primaried, but defeated for their misdeeds. So I put it straight, should Pelosi be primaried, and if she were, would Hamsher support her challenger to try to defeat Pelosi. Yes or no? From here on out the only response is silence.
I’ll take her silence as an emphatic no. Her March 10 statement was campaign bluster, but now we have to get realistic.
This was a valuable exchange, in part because it actually happened. I have a lot of respect for Hamsher as a progressive leader. On the healthcare bill, SHE DIDN’T FOLD! She also stuck to her guns over the letter she co-signed with Grover Norquist going after Rahm Emanuel. Credit where credit is due. A similar discussion with Bart Stupak or Conrad Nelson or Anthony Wiener would be meaningless because frankly, when they sell out, nothing better is to be expected. But since Hamsher is one of the best of the left wing of the Democratic Party, her statements pinning her down is significant. Just as where she refused to be pinned down is significant.
The discussion makes two points: (1) it makes clear that the strategy these folks pursue is embodied by Accountability Now (AN), and (2) it is a splendid demonstration of how this brand of Democrat responds to any criticism from their left.
Accountability to what?
So let’s look at AN. According to their website
The group first brought together representatives from organizations including SEIU, DFA, Daily Kos, MoveOn, the United Steelworkers, Color of Change and Blog PAC in early 2009 to discuss the recruitment of primary challengers.
SEIU celebrates the passage of the bill. DFA, Democrats for America, was founded by John Dean, who was all militant for the public option, then folded completely, and NEVER made abortion an issue. Kos went heavy for the bill, and went ballistic when Kucinich tried to hold out against passage. MoveOn, solid behind the bill, Color of Change, foursquare behind the bill.
To summarize these groups, they fought hard for the public option. They generally didn’t make a peep about the Stupak/Nelson anti-abortion provisions, and they all caved in when healthcare was considered a done deal. Although AN was founded by Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald, Hamsher stands out courageously as one progressive who fought the bill to the end on principle.
I think it safe to say that, when push comes to shove, these are the people Hamsher lives with. In other words, these are the people who threw women under the bus, at the very moment she was taking a stand for women’s abortion rights. That contradiction makes the discussion worthwhile.
Corporate Dems and Surrender Monkeys
But who are these people relative to the Democratic Party as a whole? If we eliminate the fringe elements right and left, such as Stupak and Nelson and Sanders and Kucinich, we are left with two groups, the old-line Democrats such as Harry Reid and Joe Biden, the outright Corporate Dems, and those who fought for the public option and then folded, whom I’ll call the Surrender Monkeys. You can get a very, very rough feel for this is you look at the Democratic votes for the 2005 bankruptcy bill, for which 18 Senators voted with their Republican comrades, and 25 voted no, and 73 Representatives voted yes while 125 voted no. The borders are fuzzy and shifting (Lieberman and Schumer voted no) but give some outlines. Regardless of the numbers, the Corporate Dems hold the stronger hand because of their willingness to openly ally themselves with the Republicans in a pinch.
Any rising local political star is certain to incur the wrath of the national Party establishment if they challenge an incumbent. Potential challenges are promised all sorts of benefits if they refrain, and are bullied and threatened if they actively entertain running in a primary.
Good point. Their challenges are constrained, since they:
do need to be certain that our organization’s resources and efforts are directed only to challenges that will be credible and meaningful, mounted against incumbents who are both nonresponsive and vulnerable.
Aha! Thus Chuck Schumer can do anything -- anything -- and they wouldn’t go after him because he is not vulnerable. They are reduced to going after a few outliers like Blanche Lincoln, whom the party can spare. They don’t touch Harry Reid, and, by the way, he is vulnerable.
Why does this matter?
So if this is a discussion or a debate, what is the other side? I was first talking about the Full Court Press. I believe its specificity was valuable in provoking a response that a more general plea would not have. That’s tactical. But I was not seriously seeking an endorsement. What I wanted to nail down -- or not -- was whether Hamsher was going to follow through on her own words, to primary Dems who sold out abortion rights. Cross this line and you get punished. So let me strip down the Full Court Press into its essence: violate certain principles, you get punished. Regardless of whether or not we can beat you, we go at you with what we’ve got.
If there were broader movement along these lines, FCP would be glad to negotiate. Different 5 points? Let’s discuss it. Go after 100 Dems instead of 435? That might -- might -- be more realistic. But the essence is this. Cross these lines, we go after you with what we’ve got, win lose or draw.
Accountability Now’s essence is that we’ll pick off the easy seats of the worst if we think we have a good shot at it.
I argue that this guarantees the slippery slope that has been the fate of Democrats from before I was born, and that the criteria of credibility -- reasonable at first glance -- guarantee the need for big money and reputation that ensures that the candidates won’t be too radical at all. I argue that the FCP approach or any variation thereof guarantees us a real fight, a fight that must be had.
The issue isn’t merely what’s the smartest maneuver, it’s what do the American people need? That’s left out of Accountability Now’s accounting.
Don’t question your betters
I can’t let this go without talking about how Hamsher responded to me.
Step 1: Ignore me.
Step 2: Point out that I am small (and thus a failure by definition).
Step 3: Point out the legitimate organization she already had.
Step 4: Excoriate my appalling bad manners, which I do grieve over on long winter evenings
She could not directly answer my point without conceding me some legitimacy. I believe that’s the bottom line. Her remark, “I think every single politician should be primaried in every single election” without going into whether the Surrender Monkeys should actually be defeated in these primaries, was a deflection no more meaningful than saying every voter should vote without mentioning what or whom they should vote for.
The only reason she abandoned Step 1 is that she was caught at a key moment when her supporters were still angry over the healthcare debacle and rage was running high. One week later and the exchange above could not have happened. Moving on, they say in business circles after stepping in your face.
Clearinghouse, gatekeepers, validators
If you go to the ActBlue (AN’s cousins) site, right with the name are the words, “The online clearinghouse for Democratic action.” In other words, they are the gatekeepers.
I attended a conference for independents once, which featured a panel of media folks, including a representative from the New York Times. He was asked why the Times didn’t report on independents and -- at that time -- didn’t even report independent vote totals the day after the election (this was some years ago). He proudly stated that the Times needed to act as the gatekeepers of what was legitimate news, lest the public be confused. I guess we can thank Accountability Now and ActBlue for keeping us from getting confused. Ironic, as Hamsher states above: “It’s no surprise that Pelosi and others are trumpeting the bill’s conservative underpinnings today: now that they no longer need liberal veal pen validators.” So is this the real quarrel between Hamsher and the Corporate Dems, who gets to be the validators? Who gets to be the gatekeepers?
Yet Jane Hamsher is sometimes better than that. While I may seem harsh, given the massive pressure any Democrat faces who dares not toe the line, she has often proven courageous. She is responsive to her followers. Many adore her, and I don’t call them fools for doing so. But the system is indeed broken, the pain is growing, and choices will have to be made.
Addendum on the Unemployed Thinktank:
The Union of the Unemployed Thinktank has run into similar brushoffs. It was formed in response to the lack of communications with the International Association of Machinists UCubed Union of the Unemployed, and its failure to call for WPA-style jobs creation, as opposed to encouraging hiring through tax breaks. To my surprise, the Thinktank now has 201 members and is still kicking. Despite the fact that it offers no actual benefits, its very presence as a place where the unemployed can come together and tell their stories and keep tabs on UCubed has been sufficient to keep it still slowly growing.
The first response from UCubed’s acting director was a friendly brushoff: “complaining about the UCubed petition/letter to Bunning isn't very useful. Senator Bunning put millions of jobless Americans at risk. And his reckless approach is simply unacceptable.
”If you really want to help end this Grave Recession, get more folks to join your Cube. Urge them to send a WARN notice to their elected officials.”
I was surprised and pleased to notice this week that their first item under Legislative Action was to write letters demanding a WPA-style jobs creation program, almost exactly what we had been asking for. I wrote to thank them, and to state that the new unemployment extension bill had nothing to offer for the really long-term unemployed who were exhausting their Tier 4 benefits. I received an e-mail from Sloan stating that they had been supporting a WPA-style jobs program since February (despite the fact that none of the Thinktank’s members had heard of it), and:
Congress is still toying with the jobless. Short-term extensions may be political expedient, but they're counterproductive. They add to the uncertainty facing the unemployed. And they don't solve the underlying problem.
The method is similar. We are the gatekeepers. We’ve got it all covered. We only need you to go along with the program. But they are definitely feeling pressure from the membership to have moved our demand to number 1.
The membership is pissed.