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Discouraged, progressives look beyond Obama

Despite their chagrin at some of what President Obama has done, Netroots activists say they will vote in November and will contribute money to their heroes.
Image: Harry Reid And Nancy Pelosi Address The Netroots Nation Convention
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told left-of-center activists Saturday in Las Vegas that "I share your impatience" about Congress not voting on a bill to protect gay workers from job discrimination. Ethan Miller / Getty Images
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Progressives helped elect President Barack Obama, but some of those who gathered in Las Vegas for the annual Netroots Nation convention over the weekend were less than thrilled with his performance so far.

The list of letdowns for progressives includes the failure to secure a public option in the health care reform law and an Obama executive order barring use of funds under the law to pay for abortions.

Abroad, there's Obama's escalation of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and the continued operation of the prison at Guantanamo as well as what some have called "Obama’s Guantanamo" — the detention center at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Adding to their discontent, progressives see no progress on passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to protect gay employees. They also complain about increased deportations of illegal immigrants and the decision by Obama and Democratic congressional leaders to abandon their push for a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Then there is Obama’s firing of "green jobs" advisor Van Jones, who gave one of the keynote speeches to Netroots Nation, and the president's support of Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Senate primary over Netroots favorite Bill Halter earlier this year.

"He’s been conciliatory when he need not be," said Sara Reed, an activist from Portland, Ore. "This is a time for decisive leadership. There is an element on the right that is not yielding any ground and cannot be dealt with in a bipartisan way."

She added, "I had such hopes for health care; I wanted the public option so badly."

Compromising when he shouldn’t
"I’ve been disappointed; I wanted more courage," said Helen Cox, a retired middle school teacher from Long Beach, Calif. "I think sometimes there’s too much emphasis on compromise. Compromise has its place, but I don’t believe it’s always necessary or respected by the people you’re compromising with. For example, in the health care bill, the fact that women who want control over their own reproductive rights are not going to benefit from this law. That kind of thing I find deeply disturbing."

She admitted that "some of the things he’s doing that I don’t like he did say he would do (during the 2008 campaign), like going into Afghanistan. I knew I was taking a risk voting for him."

"He was a moderate candidate. I knew that," said Travis Ballie, a recent American University graduate who lives in Washington, D.C. and works as an intern at NARAL Pro-Choice America. "I was so engaged and so proud of his campaign because he made a personal change for me, as a person of color, to know what’s possible in this country. But I knew politically he was still a moderate."

"Most disappointing for me has been his refusal to stand for a core Democratic principle of a woman's right to choose," he added.

The president appeared at the convention via a three-minute video presentation. "What I’m asking you is to keep making your voices heard, keep holding me accountable," he said on a giant screen in front of the 2,100 attendees. "Let’s finish what we’ve started."

His comments won polite – but not rousing - applause.

Despite their chagrin at some of what Obama has done, the Netroots activists say they will vote in November and will contribute money to their heroes, such as freshman Rep. Tom Perriello — who represents a swing district in Virginia.

Spending time on intraparty fights
But some of their money and energy is being spent on intraparty fights trying to defeat Democrats such as Lincoln in primaries, not on helping Democrats retain their majorities in House and Senate by aiding imperiled incumbents like Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri or Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Halter's silent presence in the audience at a Netroots Nation Senate candidates rally Friday night was a poignant reminder of how stinging a setback his loss to Lincoln was, given the millions of dollars that organized labor and the Netroots had spent on his campaign. "Halter was a big disappointment; it was so close," lamented Reed.

The 255 House Democrats now serving may be as good as it gets for progressives for a while. If Democrats lose as many seats as analysts such as Charlie Cook now predict, it will make immigration reform or gay rights legislation less likely in 2011 than now.

If Democrats can scrap the filibuster…
Given the likelihood of Democrats losing seats in both the House and the Senate, it might seem quixotic that progressives have chosen to pursue a new passion: urging the Senate to change the filibuster rule under which it takes 60 votes to end debate.

"If we eliminate that, we won't have to worry about getting 60 votes to pass comprehensive immigration reform" or other progressive goals, said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos website. Filibuster reform is the "single most important thing" that Democrats must do in January when they organize the new Senate, he said. 

"The inertia created in the Senate is what is jeopardizing Democrats’ and progressives’ opportunity in the midterms," complained Rep. Raul Grijalva, D- Ariz., co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "It is not our lack of action; it has been their lack of action."

But Lisa Graves, a former counsel for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., made a comment at a Netroots panel discussion on corporate political spending that was a reminder of why scrapping the filibuster might be short-sighted.

Graves recalled how she’d worked on the successful effort to keep Miguel Estrada, a nominee of President Bush to the federal appeals court and a likely future Supreme Court nominee, off the bench in 2003.

At that time there were 48 Senate Democrats, not, as today, 59. The weapon that allowed the Democrats to block Estrada was the filibuster. And Senate Democrats bitterly fought the 2005 GOP effort to curtail filibusters of judicial nominees.

Some day Democrats might once again have only 48 Senate seats, there might be a Republican in the White House, and then the filibuster would be, as it was in 2003, a vital weapon for Democrats.

Pelosi: ‘Your impatience is justified’
The message to the Netroots activists this weekend from their allies in Congress was: have patience.

On ENDA, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Netroots Nation, "This is an absolute priority… It’s something that has to be done," and said "your impatience is justified" when a heckler shouted out from the audience, but she made no commitment to bringing ENDA up for a floor vote this year or next.

"I would hope that the movement continues to understand that what we’re trying to do is supposed to be hard," said Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who was first elected in 2006. "What I worry sometimes is that people who come into the Netroots community, when they don’t get an immediate victory… they walk away. The frustration level builds rather quickly."

Giving an upbeat scenario for Election Day, Murphy said, "When we retain the House, some members are going to come back with some extra steel in their spines, having cast some tough votes and having survived what’s likely the toughest election of their career."

"Some members don’t want to cast tough votes before November," Murphy said, but he argued "that doesn’t mean that permanently excludes the ability to vote on things like immigration reform and energy."

Some rank-and-file progressives are taking the long view.

"We’re less concerned about whether or not we keep control, and more concerned about the long term: not just one election, but the next three decades," said Ballie. "And how we can use this election — regardless of whether we win or lose the House — to create progressive infrastructure for the future," Ballie said.

"The country will become more progressive over time simply because of the demographics," said Andrew Grange, a Democrat from Henderson, Nev. who rang doorbells for presidential hopefuls Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. "I’m optimistic that over the next decade that this trend toward progressivism is going to increase."