Solving a Problem Like Maria

Centrist Cantwell's anti-Alito-fillibuster vote.

I was laid up in the hospital recently, meaning I got to witness both the Samuel Alito debacle and the State of the Union speech from the linoleum-caked institutional halls of the intensive care unit. Some pain-soaked immigrant whose liver was shot was screaming, "Mama, MAAAMMAAAA, MAAAMAAA!" all through Bush, which seemed oddly appropriate.

The local progressive blogosphere has been all atwitter over U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell's "betrayal" — her vote to end the anti-Alito filibuster — and over whether, as a consequence, progressives should still support her re-election bid this year. (Conclusion: Yes, because she's a Democrat, and that's what progressives do — we get screwed by Democrats, and then we vote for them anyway because being screwed by their opponents would be so much worse.)

Excuse me? Who did people think they were dealing with here? Cantwell is a centrist. Always has been, always will be. For three years, her position on Iraq has been indistinguishable from George Bush's. She's voted to confirm John Negroponte (as ambassador to the U.N.) and a host of other Bush conservatives. ANWR was a shining moment. But on most issues, she is right there with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and the other muddled moderates of the Democratic Leadership Council. She. Is. Not. Liberal. She. Is. Not. Progressive. Cantwell's votes on Alito taught us nothing about her that we didn't know a month ago, or five years ago.

What matters is getting re-elected. And Cantwell never got the kind of constituent pressure on Alito that would make her sit up and take notice, let alone take action, let alone take courageous action.

Readers of this space know what I think of the Democrats' utter failure to mount any serious challenge to the Alito nomination. They gave up at about the instant he was nominated. But Democrats in general, and centrists like Cantwell in particular, were never given a political reason to betray their own instincts for accommodation and instead mount a real fight. Principle means nothing to these people. Even being a permanent minority party — a very real possible consequence of Alito's Supreme Court confirmation — does not matter.

What matters is getting re-elected. And Cantwell never got the kind of constituent pressure on Alito that would make her sit up and take notice, let alone take action, let alone take courageous action. Dems like Cantwell do not give a (hoot) about their political base, because they assume that base has nowhere else to go. Even when they won their last election by only a thousand or so votes, as Cantwell did.

Cantwell, like every other Democratic senator, really only heard from anti-Alito constituents in great numbers for two or three days before the final vote. That level of frenzy should have started on Halloween, the (appropriate) day Alito was nominated, and never let up for an hour until Alito withdrew his nomination. Nothing of the kind happened, and that's our failure. Not Cantwell's. Ours. Though Cantwell has pissed on her base, again, as with more than a dozen other moderate Democratic senators, the candidates that might challenge her — Mark Wilson's quixotic antiwar primary campaign, and Aaron Dixon's rumored Green Party bid — are so hopelessly disadvantaged in organization, money, and support as to be politically meaningless.

Wilson and Dixon are great guys. Lifelong activists. Our guys. It's our fault that nobody else has heard of, or will hear of, their candidacies. Not Cantwell's fault. Ours. If Cantwell isn't worried about taking on the money of Ted Stevens over ANWR, she's sure not losing sleep over Wilson. (More's the pity.)

Progressives like to piss and moan a lot about being unrepresented in the political process, and that's true. It's also true that the deck is stacked against our participation in many ways. But difficult is not impossible. It's up to us to build the coalitions, energize the constituents, and field the campaigns that will win us respect and influence when it comes to impacting public policy. That means more than laying out critiques and alternatives and mounting protests and position papers and expecting the world to salute. It means organizing, and it means listening to others and incorporating their concerns and ideas, and it means packaging our issues and candidates attractively and organizing more, and then organizing again and again, until the world is forced not to salute but to get the hell out of the way of a fast-moving train.

That's how the big boys and girls do it. If our issues and ideas and critiques and alternatives are so much better, and polls show widespread support (which they often do), we have advantages that can make up for having less money and experience. We can earn the experience. The days of any political hack with a D after her or his name automatically collecting our time, money, and votes because they haven't (at least officially) jumped parties needs to be O-V-E-R. We can play this game, too. It's about time we started. Else, the Maria Cantwells of the world will keep right on letting the Samuel Alitos of the world run our lives. She and her type will keep right on urinating on her base until she has a good reason not to, and he and his ilk will keep right on urinating on all of us until he is removed from power. Find a campaign you like. Get experience. Get involved. Bring your friends. Recruit their friends. Stop complaining, and seize power.

Your move.

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