Obamans, Selling Out, and the Proxy Fight for the Democratic Party’s Future

DES MOINES, IA - JANUARY 01: *** EXCLUSIVE *** Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) huddles with his senior campaign staff, including strategist David Axelrod, campaign manager David Plouffe, media adviser Jim Margolis, communications director Robert Gibbs and Iowa state director Paul Tewes in the school locker room after speaking to voters at a rally at Roosevelt High School January 1, 2008 in Des Moines, Iowa. Presidential candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties are currently campaigning throughout Iowa trying to win over voters before the Thursday caucus.  (Photo by Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)
Photo: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

Barack Obama has always had a slightly uneasy relationship with what one of his aides, very early, called “the professional left.” Actual liberal voters like Obama a lot. For that matter, they like Hillary Clinton, too. And yet serious doctrinal disputes between the administration and the cadres of full-time (i.e. “professional”) activists have always simmered just below the surface. This is the true significance of stories in Buzzfeed and MSNBC about former Obama staffers allegedly betraying the president’s liberal values.

The strongest evidence here is Jim Messina, who went to work for David Cameron. Messina argues, correctly, that British Tories are not the same thing as Republicans. In most ways, indeed, British conservatives lie well to the left of the GOP. They all favor socialized health care and a tax-and-transfer state more generous than anything Obama has proposed. On the other hand, there are longstanding ties between the Democratic Party and the Labor Party, especially the centrist New Labor wing, reflecting a shared ideological vision and heritage.

The other cases of alleged selling-out involve David Plouffe, who is working for Uber, and Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt, who have joined the education reform movement. Both of these groups — one a private firm, the other a public-policy advocacy network — anger public employee unions.

The unions have framed these moves as a sellout. (“It’s been really frustrating from the standpoint of liberals, progressives,” longtime union leader Steve Rosenthal tells MSNBC.) But assuming this is a sellout presumes that the natural position for an Obama loyalist is to side with the unions. There’s no reason to think this.

Uber and education reform both highlight fissures within the Democratic coalition. The left side of this debate favors policies designed primarily or entirely for the benefit of public employees. The right side of this debate favors more competition that threatens incumbent providers.

There’s no direct evidence of Obama’s position on taxi regulations. But on education policy, we have lots of evidence: He has consistently supported reform by encouraging charter schools, evidenced-based metrics, and other forms of competition. His Race to the Top grants unleashed sweeping reforms nationally, and his Department of Education has used selective waivers in order to encourage additional reform.

We have identified a traitor within your own cabinet. Photo: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Teachers unions — or, at least, the most uncompromising elements of them — have fought against these policies in a slightly comic way. Rather than fight openly against Obama’s education policies, they have identified a series of proxy enemies like Michelle Rhee or Campbell Brown. The National Education Association recently passed a resolution demanding the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan — another union target — as if Duncan were some rogue figure who was enacting massive reform measures behind Obama’s back.

They need to do this because Obama remains a highly popular figure among the union rank-and-file. Asking teachers to choose between Obama and the union line runs the risk that many teachers will decide the union is wrong. The main premise of the unions’ pushback is that supporters of education reform are disloyal to Obama or the Democratic Party. (See, for instance, this anti–Campbell Brown propaganda sheet.) But these attacks make sense only if we ignore the fact that Obama himself is the actual cause of their problems.

The splits within the Democratic Party over whether public services should be designed for the benefit of providers or consumers tend to come out at the municipal level. The anger on the left concerns the fact that Obama’s lieutenants are throwing themselves behind the right-wing side of that debate. Attacking them as sellouts is a convenient way of ignoring the inconvenient reality that figures like Plouffe, Gibbs, and LaBolt represent Obama-style liberalism all too well.