World War II gave us flamboyant American heroes like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, but Winston Churchill’s favorite American general was the quiet, wise, efficient George C. Marshall, whom he called the “organizer of victory.”
Victory has traits. Victory must be organized. Organization requires strategy, preparation, tactics, training, and teamwork. Brave and able troops have been slaughtered throughout history in failures of organization.
Losing has traits, too. As Democrats, we offer better and more popular policy positions, and we have flamboyant heroes. Yet, so often, we lose. Now we have won back a foothold on power, and the question is: what do we do with it? I’m sick of losing. I’m particularly sick of our “loser traits.” It’s time we faced up to them.
Walking Away from Fights
Our worst trait as Democrats is our willingness to lose once we’re in a fight. What do I mean? We’re the party that achieved great field position on three key issues—immigration, climate change, and dark money—and all three times we walked away and conceded defeat.
On immigration, we had bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate. It was August of 2014, and an election was looming. The House speaker was a Republican, but we had the White House and the Senate, and the Senate had done its job: a bipartisan immigration bill. Immigration was a terrible issue for House Republicans because it divided their caucus bitterly. The speaker’s expedient? Refuse to even bring the issue up in the House. No hearings, no amendments, no votes.
The Constitution gives the president the authority to “convene both Houses, or either of them” into special session. The Democratic president could have called the House into session, even repeatedly; disrupting the August recess, pressuring the Republicans, driving the news cycle, and spotlighting the popular bipartisan Senate immigration reform.
Would we have won had we fought? We will never know, because we did nothing. Fox News drove the election news cycle to Ebola, ISIS, and the Central American children fleeing to the United States; and Democrats took an epic November beating. That session of Congress ended, and the bipartisan Senate immigration bill expired, never to be resurrected.
Earlier, back in June of 2009, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pushed through the House the Waxman-Markey “cap-and-trade” bill to address carbon emissions. Some Democratic House members took career-ending votes to make this possible. Democrats then controlled both the Senate and the White House. This time, it was the Senate that never took up the House bill—or any other bill that would have gotten us into conference with the House to do something on climate change. There were bipartisan Senate climate bills then, but we did nothing. That Congress ended with no action in the Senate, and the House cap-and-trade bill, too, expired.
I remember being told at the White House as I lamented their decision to walk away, “Sheldon, we’re just not going to take on any fights we’re not sure we can win.” Think about that attitude for a minute. If you only take on the fights you’re sure you can win, you’re gonna miss a lot of fights, and most of the important ones.
In January 2010, the five Republicans on the Supreme Court gave the fossil fuel industry the Citizens United decision; the industry instantly turned its new political weaponry on the Republican Party; and bipartisanship on climate change was stamped out by fossil-fuel threats.
Which brings me to the third fight we declined to engage: In the wake of Citizens United, all that newly-unlimited political money swiftly found its way into dark-money channels. The most prevalent dark-money channels were probably illegal under IRS rules, and simple clarifications of those rules could have eliminated any doubt. Because the political use of these IRS-regulated entities was probably illegal, the dark-money outfits filed forms with the IRS that were often false, or at least materially inconsistent with forms they also filed under oath with state and federal election officials. This was all done in plain view.
Democrats controlled Treasury and the IRS, and also the DOJ, which ordinarily prosecutes false statements. The public hates dark money, and with good reason: it corrodes democracy. The law was on our side. And we had the power to settle any doubt through these agencies. But we did nothing. No rule, no regulation, no clarification; not even investigation of what the explanation was for the inconsistent statements made under sworn oath. A grand jury could have had a field day investigating that.
Not only did we walk away from this fight, we failed at the “teaching moment” this episode provided. We accepted the false Republican narrative that a wicked IRS was being used to hurt conservative groups—nothing else to see here folks, move along. Dark money has been the bane of our democracy ever since.
House Republicans made persistent efforts to press their narrative (later exploded by an Inspector General report), and to harass and intimidate the IRS Commissioner; repeatedly threatening impeachment, so that he would be unlikely to take on their dark money operation. Democrats left him to twist in that harsh gale.
For what it’s worth, we also never took a serious look at bringing a civil RICO action against the Big Oil climate denial operation, despite DOJ having won a civil RICO action (under Presidents Clinton and Bush) against Big Tobacco for its tobacco health effects denial operation. The similarities abound, and the government won the tobacco case, yet we walked away on climate denial.
Those are pretty big fights to walk away from.
Messaging has its role before, during, and after political fights, but it shouldn’t guide strategy or policy, and it can’t replace being willing to stand and fight. If you’re walking away from fights like the ones we walked away from, messaging won’t help you. Come home with the prize, or else with a bloody nose and black eye from having given the fight your all, and there won’t be much doubt about your message. You earn the right to have a real message, and you earn it by doing your damnedest.
Senators are constantly bombarded with pollsters and political operatives telling us how we can improve our messaging. Too often, you can remove the word “message” and insert the word “excuse” in its place.
Messaging leads to a related loser trait: poll-chasing. The messaging wizards look to polling to tell us what the public wants to hear; they feed that to us to feed back to the public. That’s bullshit. Great political parties do not subsist on the receiving end of public opinion, they lead public opinion. When we persist on an issue, and fight on an issue, we will drive up its importance in public polling.
Look at what the Republicans have done over the years on the estate tax: Only a tiny sliver of the ultra-wealthiest Americans ever pay any estate tax; but Republicans renamed it the “death tax,” and made it a thing, and they have steadily succeeded at reducing this tax for a few hyper-rich families.
If they can do that with the estate tax, think what we could do with a real issue like climate change, if we tried.
Ignoring the Adversary Institutions
On most of the issues where Democrats square off against Republicans, the Republicans are supported by a robust apparatus of dark money, science denial, propaganda, and persistent ideological conditioning through fake news. That apparatus is funded by billionaires and big-money interests who profit handsomely from Republican success on things like the reducing the estate tax and deregulation. The big-money interests hide behind front groups with phony names, and they hide for a reason. Their massive conflict of interests are a vulnerability.
I worked for a governor who survived weeks behind enemy lines after his bomber went down on a mission to disrupt the German war machine. In most conflicts, you try to identify and disrupt your adversary’s organization, supply chain, and chain of command. Not us. We have no institutional strategy for taking on this apparatus. We’ll tangle with its various tentacles, for sure, in our fights on other issues, but we don’t pursue outing and disabling the corrupt monster as a whole. I know because I’ve helped organize the few raids we’ve undertaken against this apparatus.
We spent a couple of days on the Senate Floor outing what we called the “Web of Denial“—the coordinated array of fossil-fuel industry front groups that lie and mislead about climate change. We hit a nerve. They were so rattled that they joined on one common letterhead to berate us for accusing them of being coordinated. When you poke a phony and get a yelp like that, it usually means you should poke them again.
We have no infrastructure to maintain this fight, however; none to systematically call out the five Republican appointees on the Court who give reliable political votes for big Republican special interests; none to systematically expose the money flooding our politics through dark money channels and bogus shell corporations; none to tell the American people the story of weaponized fake news, and who’s behind it.
Most Americans don’t know that the predicted ten-year cost of federal health care programs fell over $4 trillion in the seven years after the Affordable Care Act passed; most don’t know that the top climate denier at the Cato Institute realized he was wrong, publicly recanted, and quit; and is now working to try to solve the problem. If the reverse were true—a $4 trillion dollar increase in health care cost after Obamacare, or a leading legitimate climate scientist recanting—you can bet everyone in America would have heard about it. The apparatus would make sure.
Even Democratic Senators have only vague working knowledge of the array of billionaire-funded front groups that operate against us—how they were set up; who staffs them; how the money flows; who’s on their boards. We haven’t done the basic due diligence prosecutors do putting an org chart together against a criminal enterprise.
Without institutional forces on our side to persist against the institutional forces that persist on theirs, we are often a generation behind in the political arms race. Our Senate caucus meets twice weekly, and as we rolled into the 2016 presidential elections a constant topic, naturally, was the presidential race. Not once did we discuss the political technique of launching weaponized fake news through social and other media. Not only did we fail to fight back on that field of political battle, we didn’t even notice the field. We didn’t even really have a name for this stuff, so for want of a better term I called it the “flying monkeys,” like in the Wizard of Oz. Whether it was Facebook feeds about Hillary’s pizza-shop-basement child-sex ring, or right-wing “news” stories implicating her in the murder of a DNC staffer, or the election week cover of the National Enquirer screaming “HILLARY-Corrupt-Racist-Criminal,” we were blind to the systematic apparatus launching the flying monkeys. To this day, we still don’t have robust intel or countermeasures to expose and push back on this machinery.
Understanding and outing the network behind the “flying monkeys” is particularly important, because just responding to it with weaponized fake news of our own would be degrading to our democracy. Here particularly, we must expose their apparatus, not replicate it. And when we expose one, we expose all; because it’s the same crew behind packing the courts, denying climate change, running the dark money machine, and weaponizing fake news.
Being a Ridiculously Cheap Date
As we prepared for a recent budget showdown, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) had important advice that she hammered into us: Hang together and “don’t be a cheap date.” This was excellent advice, which we overlook too often. It’s advice that pertains as well to Democratic groups. As an active environmentalist, one place I see it is in our environmental fights. It is very easy for groups constantly starved for money to seek corporate support. And there is nothing wrong with corporate support, unless pursuing it makes us a cheap date.
Here’s my experience in the Senate: no business interests seriously lobby on environmental issues in Congress. Not one. Many corporations have great climate policies, but they lobby Congress through trade groups and lobbying organizations that oppose environmental measures. The face of corporate America that Congress sees is the trade group, and the message that Congress receives is corporate opposition. Set aside all the polluter companies; just count the big corporations with good climate and environmental policies—and if you weigh their lobbying presence in Congress, it is overall solidly against climate and environmental policies.
We tolerate this with nary a squeak.
Let me give examples. Coke and Pepsi have excellent climate policies; they lobby through the American Beverage Association, which never lifts a finger on climate; and they run money through that group to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the fiercest foe in Congress of climate action. The net political pressure of Coke and Pepsi in Congress is against climate action.
Another one? The industry group that lobbies for the tech giants Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft—along with other tech companies including green energy companies—is called TechNet. TechNet didn’t mention climate change in its lobbying materials until this year, and then only in passing. These “good guys” make virtually no political effort in Congress, and their silence is deafening.
Environmental groups almost never complain that in Congress, a key arena, the net presence of the corporate sector on climate change is AWOL at best, and against them at worst. Our corporate friends support our most powerful adversaries, or stand idly on the sidelines in the midst of battle, and no one calls this out.
Being Disorganized and Incapable of Running Plays
It’s said that second-grade soccer players all run at the ball, and don’t play position or make plays. Welcome to the Democratic Party. Disorganization is a colossal loser trait of ours, going all the way back to Will Rogers’ famous epigram: “I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.”
Granted, this is harder for us. We represent a diverse and sometimes squabbling array of groups and interests; few are well-funded; and many compete for funding. The other side may appear to have many groups, but most are masquerade faces of the same apparatus, so they respond much more efficiently and effectively than our big Democratic cat-herd.
The other side has been developing its command infrastructure for years and has learned from its early failures. Their billionaire donors are less propelled by rookie enthusiasms than by a cold-eyed demand for results; they play a long game, they have learned that just because they are billionaires they’re not political geniuses, and they coordinate.
When ancient tribes gathered for battle, there was at least a command tent where the leaders came together to plan for the next day: “You go left, you go right, and I’ll go around the hill and hit ’em from the side.” The ancient Hittites had better battle planning in the age of cuneiform than most Democratic groups have in the Internet era.
Our side has trouble running a play as ancient and simple as “good cop/bad cop.” When Ford and other car companies backed away from the fuel-efficiency standards they’d promised the American people when Barack Obama was president, one could imagine environmental “bad cops” picketing dealers and making a big public fuss, sending the carmakers running to other “good cop” groups to sort out their sudden public relations problem. But you would be imagining that.
Organizing for victory matters. Purity of purpose helps, but organizing brings victory.
Circular Firing Squads and Purity Tests
When we get grumpy about losing so often, we take our eye off the prize of winning. A loser trait that then crops up is to turn on each other—the “circular firing squad.” Competing to see who can take the purest or most extreme position; setting up show votes in Congress as tests of purity; using extreme positions as a form of “loyalty check”; counting up “scores” on votes that don’t matter—all are modes of the circular firing squad.
I’m a hell of a good environmentalist, but the most effective environmental legislator in my time in the Senate was Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Her LCV score sucked. When you put up a show vote that made no difference, she’d vote with the fossil fuel polluters every time. But she invented an entirely new environmental program in the Gulf Coast RESTORE Act. RESTORE even included a new national coastal protection program when Mary got it through the Senate, but that national program was dropped in conference—abandoned by Democratic Senators with near-perfect LCV ratings, to pacify House Republicans. Even with its national piece removed, Mary’s RESTORE Act is still the biggest and most consequential environmental law we’ve passed in a decade.
It was done by a Senator who would fail every purity test.
The Real Majority
It’s not just on issues that we lose. We lose in the power structure of American government. In recent years, we have had Republican presidents, Republican Congresses, and Republican Senates that only represented a minority of the popular vote.
Twice, in 2000 and 2016, Democrats won the popular presidential vote, saw a Republican president sworn in, and went ahead without fussing much over the legitimacy of a president who lost the popular vote. We tend to care about process and respect rules. Imagine if President Obama had lost the popular vote and been sworn in. There’d never have been an end to it.
Republicans invented BirtherGate and simply refused to work with Obama, as if he were illegitimate, when he was a popular president who had really won—by a lot.
Five Republican justices on the Supreme Court gave a 5-4 decision unleashing partisan gerrymandering on the country, and the Republican Party instantly implemented its REDMAP project. REDMAP launched a new model of gerrymandering: gerrymander the big swing states to get the biggest Republican delegation you can, not to protect individual Republican members. Ironically, that meant creating some bombproof, highly-Democratic districts. Super-saturating those few Democratic districts left a statewide voter pool that could be gerrymandered into Republican districts everywhere else. Did it work? In 2012, Democrats won more overall votes than Republicans did in Pennsylvania, but Republicans had packed those Democratic voters so heavily into five districts that Republicans won all remaining thirteen districts. Pennsylvania’s statewide vote, Democrat by a small margin; Pennsylvania’s delegation in Congress, 13-5 Republican.
That helped Republicans gain the House of Representatives by 33 votes, even though Republicans lost the country by a million House votes overall. Had Democrats been the overall losers, yet through gerrymandering controlled the House, do you think Republicans would have let the public forget that, or conceded the legitimacy of the “majority”? Fat chance.
Over in the Senate, the advantage to small Republican states is baked in to the Constitution. The result is that in the current Congress, Democrats in the Senate represent about 40 million more Americans than the Republican “majority.” Were the shoe on the other foot, every American would know about it.
Republican strategists are expanding their grip to the Supreme Court, building there a reliable Republican majority. The pay-off is an astounding win/loss ratio in cases where the Court splits 5-4 along party lines, with big Republican interests winning dozens and dozens of decisions. Some of those decisions, like the Citizens United decision, in turn shift the political balance of power to those big Republican interests, in a vicious political circle of accumulating power. We barely discuss the capture of the Court.
Lessons of Trump
There is much to despise about the Trump administration. But there are also a few things to learn. They take an extreme position and hold it. By doing so, they strengthen their position across all the territory within the battle line they have chosen. Where you choose to stake out your battle line is where the fight is, and everything behind that becomes an easier fight.
The Republicans bet that the press will tire, and that even among citizens and activists “outrage fatigue” will set in, if they simply hang together. The solidarity of Republicans behind the big polluters who fund them is a national disgrace, but when public blowback doesn’t cause them to break ranks or retreat, that resets the conversation.
This is less a character trait of individual Republicans than it is a function of centralized funding by a few big Republican interests who have made looting the public treasury their business model, and who demand political service for funds rendered; but that foul motive does not diminish the effect. If they can do that for polluters, ought we not do it for the public we represent?
The Trump cabal gets so far out there that they are effectively trolling or gaslighting reality. Ultimately, we will all pay a terrible price for their corruption and ignorance. But in the short run, they have figured out that whatever they do, there will be outrage, so seize as much for your backers as you can for whatever price you will pay in outrage.
We Democrats shrink from outrage, even from phony “faux outrage” like the kind cooked up by the right-wing’s outrage-manufacturing machine. No Democrat has ever set out with a strategy of persisting through outrage until outrage fatigue sets in. We seek common ground, and try to do things their way.
We followed Republicans down the cap-and-trade climate road Republicans had invented, instead of using simpler methods to control carbon emissions—and Republicans savaged us for the complexity of the scheme Republicans had originally invented. We followed Republicans down the RomneyCare managed-market health insurance road to ObamaCare, instead of using a simple public option—and Republicans savaged us for the complexity of the scheme Republicans had originally invented.
We ought never to model the Trump administration’s ignorance, mendacity, corruption, partisanship, or eagerness to play to hatreds and resentments. But we can certainly learn from them that we don’t need to walk away from a fight. We can certainly learn that we don’t need to start on the other side’s terms, or quail in front of blowback (particularly scripted, artificial blowback). This needn’t sacrifice bipartisanship. We can be strong and play hard and be respected. Bipartisanship opportunities will actually be both more likely and more fruitful if we’ve played a strong hand well.
Losing Our Loser Traits
It is not asking much to ask, in the midst of epic fights for our country’s very soul, that we fight hard—really hard. People have a right to that.
It is not asking much, against an organized and disciplined adversary, to ask that we ourselves be organized and disciplined, and that we set up mechanisms through which organization and discipline can be achieved.
It’s certainly not asking too much to ask that we be able to run a play.
It is not asking much to ask that we take on the adversary directly, and not just tangle with its many tentacles. In Star Wars, the Empire was not defeated by fighting on every planet; it was defeated when Luke Skywalker took out its Death Star.
It is not asking much to ask that we not sell ourselves as ridiculously cheap dates, and that we not enter into circular firing squads that set friend against friend.
The bottom line? We’re not losing because we’re wrong, and we’re not losing because we don’t have the support of the American people, we’re losing because we have not yet organized ourselves for victory. With the House now in a Democratic hands, it’s time to up our game.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democratic senator from Rhode Island.