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Can You Reform the Democratic Party Without Reforming Its Ecosystem?

By Thomas Neuburger

In a recent twitter thread, Adam Jentleson, a former top Harry Reid staffer, takes the Democratic Party ecosystem — and in particular its "big-budget lefty orgs" — to task for their share of the problem we face today.

That share is large, since they largely abandoned their progressive-advocacy roles in 2009 and later, when Democrats had a real chance to make big structural change — and spent time instead "standing in awe of Obama," to paraphrase the above cartoon. For example, Democrats didn't codify Roe into law when they could, when the controlled both Houses of Congress and the presidency; now the task seems impossible, when they're like to control none of that.

For the magnitude of the Democrats' opportunity in 2009, see here. That year was, in retrospect, their one shot, and they blew it badly. But as Jentleson notes, it wasn't just the White House that blew it, or Congress. It was everyone with power (almost) in the Party orbit.

Jentleson's thread text is lightly edited for clarity. It follows below. (All is emphasis mine).

As we pore over the forensics of how we got here, the message from those who controlled the Dem party for the last 30 years or so has been that Republicans had a long-term plan, so what was Biden supposed to do? That begs the question: What were you doing that whole time? 1/

Note his address to "you," the presumed progressive-activist reader.

One area of focus should be the progressive advocacy space. A multi-multi million dollar industry, many big orgs in this space were founded long ago with the mission of countering conservatives’ structural advantages in the halls of power. Did they do a good job? Let’s see. 2/
Today, these orgs are being raked over the coals for being too consumed with woke infighting to be effective. Maybe, I don't know, but it’s beside the point. Pull back: they had their chance, failed, and the moment passed. Everything else is recriminations. So what was that chance? 3/
The chance was 2009. Obama came into office with the most dominant electoral college win in more than 20 years. Dems held 257 (!) seats in the House + 60 in the Senate. If the mission of progressive orgs was to correct structural imbalances, this was the moment of opportunity. 4/

Then he discusses Obama.

President Obama was filibuster-reform curious. Maybe more — he ran as an outsider, after all. So when he stepped into the Oval, did he encounter a multi-million dollar advocacy industry demanding that he reform the filibuster to reduce conservatives’ structural power? Lol no. 5/
This thread is about the multi-multi-million dollar progressive advocacy space. Maybe Obama would’ve encountered professional, well-funded, cross-coalitional demands for structural reform and opted against them. The problem is, he never encountered them in the first place. 6/

This is quite forgiving of Obama, since it presumes he was convinceable when he entered office. Here is Barack Obama in 2006, a full two years before "Yes We Can" sold the country on his love of the non-wealthy:

This piece describes the Hamilton Project, a creature of Robert Rubin, Roger Altman and Peter Orszag, whom Obama thanks personally in his speech at the Project's inauguration. (Interesting that they chose Obama as their inaugural speaker, since his star had only started to rise in 2006. He was, remember, just a freshman senator at that point. Had he been marked for marketing already by this group? I suspect the answer is yes; it certainly anticipates his successful Wall Street fundraising in the following two years.)

Obama calls the people in the room, all neoliberals, "innovative." Then he adds, "Our country owes a great debt to a number of the people who are in this room because they helped put us on a pathway of prosperity we're still enjoying". Would he be talking about the neoliberal prosperity we're enjoying even to this day? Or rather the prosperity that Obama, Rubin, Altman, Orszag, and a few thousands of their wealthy friends are enjoying?

There are other atrocities in the speech as well. It's short, so I'll leave you to find them for yourself.

Back to Jentleson:

It’s a question of how to wield power. You had one shot, So what did you do? Instead of demanding the structural reforms that the progressive advocacy world supposedly existed to counter, it decided to cheerlead whatever the administration did. Access uber alles. 7/
The entire point of advocacy orgs is to provide additional insight behind what the WH can glean. Trust me, the money they burn on advocating WH priorities is virtually worthless. This thread is asking: if big lefty advocacy orgs can’t see down the field, what’s the point of them?

Another major point. Though Jentleson doesn't name them, the organization he might mean include CAP (a very neoliberal outfit), national NARAL, the national Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, WWF (which I've written about here), Planned Parenthood Action Fund (the national PAC), and so on. Planned Parenthood and national NARAL, for example, didn't hold Obama's feet to the fire after he reinstated the Stupak Amendment into the ACA as part of his signing statement, yet they exist solely to protect women's health and rights. They also did this. And the national Sierra Club has done things like this.

And none of this touches the massive, dismal future of climate change regulation.

Jentleson says, regarding the motivation of these orgs, "Access uber alles." I would add that tribal loyalties trump policy as well ("When our side screws you, it's ok. Nothing is allowed to damage our side.")

His next point is also important:

There’s a real accounting to be had here. As someone who worked in the progressive advocacy space at the time, the overwhelming vibe was to back the administration. Look I get the reflex. But these were multi-million-dollar orgs whose *entire purpose* was to have the long view.
The thing is, the intellectual heft for structural reforms was already there. Folks like @mattyglesias and @ezraklein had been advocating for [it] for years. Republicans had laid the basis for it [structural reform] in laws journals and Senate speeches. Did the lefty space push [structural reform]? Lol no. 😂 😢
The professional lefty space, by which I mean the big orgs, [see likely list above] faced a choice: advocate for structural reforms at a time when Dems had the votes to enact them, or become meek cheerleaders behind whatever Democratic leaders wanted to do. It chose the latter. And here’s the thing…

And Jentleson notes the contradictions — the lefty orgs (i.e. "liberal" in the professional sense) don't exist to pass legislation. They exist to influence the administration and bend the policy curve toward progressive action:

These big-budget lefty orgs were set up to exert elite influence, not to command grassroots pressure or provide air cover via TV ads. They don’t have chapters in swing states etc. So the idea that they played any meaningful role in passing the priorities of the Obama admin is BS.

They can't justify a cheerleading-only role with presences only in blue states. And yes, there is an accounting, and that comes now, with the end of Roe and the perhaps-fatal weakening of the EPA and the rest of the regulatory state.

Jentleson closes with an answer to a Twitter question:

This [question above] is a good Q, but it gets back to my main point. I’m talking about multi-million-dollar orgs founded for the exact purpose of countering conservatives’ structural advantages. If they couldn’t read exit polls more accurately than your average Joe, what was the point of them?

"What's the point to them?" Yet he has already answered this question, earlier in the thread: "Access uber alles."

I would add to that answer — career-building, list-building and fundraising. These orgs exist, in other words, to exist and to further the careers of their leaders. They don't exist to risk being tossed out of what Jane Hamsher famously called the Democratic "veal pen."

The problem, "fixing the Democratic Party," is larger than most people think. It's not enough to reform its leadership, to reform the Party "as currently led." Most of the Party's big-dollar ecosystem exist to keep it just as it is, to make sure the Party stays "as currently led."

If the Party's ecosystem isn't reformed or replaced, nothing meaningful will change, and newer leaders will fight an uphill battle against the Party's own big supporters.

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