Progressive Democrats haven’t enjoyed the breadth of policy or political victories that they anticipated when President Obama took office in 2009, but they are finding new reasons to rally as a fresh crop of Republican lawmakers embarks on a policy agenda that is anathema to liberals. Robert Borosage is cofounder of the Campaign for America’s Future—which bills itself as “the strategy center for the progressive movement.” He recently sat down with National Journal to discuss the state of liberal politics. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ The White House began the year focused on jobs, but now the entire debate has moved to deficit reduction. How do you change that conversation?
BOROSAGE I think it’s very hard now. We think this is both a political vulnerability and a human catastrophe that 25 million people are in need of full-time work. If I were the president, I would argue very strongly that this economy is still in trouble. I would feel people’s pain. I would put a big program in front of the Congress, understanding that it was going to get beat, and I’d frame the argument for the election. This president has never wanted to put something in front of the Congress that he knows is going to lose.
NJ You still refer to [Obama] as “we.” How’s that going to work out next year with the base?
BOROSAGE We have an enthusiasm gap. The White House assumes, and I think they are probably right, that the election of these Republican governors and this Republican Congress has concentrated the minds of people. And so, while we are restive about the limits of the White House’s agenda, Republicans are going to do a good job with their extremism of organizing the Left for the president. The base of the Democratic Party, the activist base, I think will be with him in the election. And among liberals broadly, he’s still very popular, as he should be. He’s the most liberal president since [Lyndon] Johnson.
NJ Is there any benefit to compromise this year, given that Republicans have said “no tax increases” and Democrats are equally unwilling to compromise on entitlements?
BOROSAGE They have to get the debt ceiling lifted, and they have to get a continuing resolution to fund the government, so at some point they have to get agreements. We’d argue if they can get through those and keep the fight about how we’ll defend entitlements and they’ll defend tax cuts for the rich, then let’s have that argument in the fall election, and we’ll do really well.
NJ Why is the budget fight going to fare any better for Democrats than the health care fight or the Bush tax-cut agreement last December?
BOROSAGE When the assault on Medicare started to get clear, Republicans sensibly got very nervous. If they stayed with the position they voted on in H.R. 1, they would lose big time in the election. It takes time for people to understand the stakes. There is no reward for getting the deficits under control. When [President] Clinton had surpluses, nobody believed him. The reward is the economy working. And if getting deficits under control hurts the economy—which we believe it will, if they actually do significant cuts—and we go into an election with the economy bad, it won’t matter if the budget magically got balanced. You’re going to get punished for the economy.
NJ When you look at the next election and beyond, do you believe that Democrats are in a position to get kind of a lasting advantage, or are we back in a sort of trench warfare, circa the ’94 to ’04 period?
BOROSAGE I think demographics are still on our side. If I were a Republican, I would follow the Rove strategy and try desperately to get out of what they are doing to Latinos and find a way to split that vote. The young generation is still going to vote overwhelming Democratic, but the big, overwhelming question [determining] whether that edge comes into play or not is the economic question. If the economy stays bad, the election will be determined by who has the most plausible economic argument.
NJ How do you keep the Republican vote on Medicare “Topic A” heading into the fall?
BOROSAGE There is the advantage that they all voted for it, which is a big deal. Any Democratic candidate is going to remind people of that vote.
NJ Is Obama beatable?
BOROSAGE Yeah. I think he is beatable, but it is less “who” than it is the economy. I think he has a set of advantages. I think he is a great campaigner; I think he is blessed by his opponents. But there’s a difference between the activists and the constituents. Working people are going to punish the president if we have 8 percent unemployment, unless he finds a way to be their champion. And he’s not that now.
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This article appears in the May 14, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.