Legendary golfer Bobby Jones said:

One reason golf is such an exasperating game is that a thing we learned is so easily forgotten, and we find ourselves struggling year after year with faults we had discovered and corrected time and again.

The same is true in politics. And for the same reasons. (More)

Lessons Learned, Part III – Doing Better (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers initial lessons of the 2010 midterms. Thursday we assessed the challenge. Yesterday we looked at what went well. Today we look at what we can do better.

With apologies to non-golfers, I’ll use golf metaphors to explore what we progressive Democrats could have done better in 2010, and what we must do better for 2012. I chose golf because the game captures so much of the experience of life itself. Too often we do have to learn the same lessons again, because too often we get caught up in details and forget the fundamentals. Again quoting Bobby Jones:

Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.

And that’s our first lesson….

Accept the breaks; play it where it lies.

Democrats hit a great shot in 2008. With a tailwind of popular rejection of President Bush and Republicans amidst quagmire wars and a failing economy, and an inspiring candidate in Barack Obama, we hit what seemed at the time a perfect tee shot. We won the White House and big majorities in both the House and Senate. Yet by the spring of 2009 we could have recognized that our seemingly perfect drive had come to rest in a nasty divot … and the wind had turned.

The economic crisis was worse than we realized in January 2009, and conservatism was not defunct as a political force. When the U.S. lost 2 million more jobs by April of 2009, we both correctly and incorrectly blamed President Bush. Correctly, because the contracting economy caused by conservative policies from Bush back to Reagan. Incorrectly, because we should have known that – fairly or unfairly – voters expected President Obama and the Democrats to fix the economy now. And when tea party activists first held meetings of ten or twenty or fifty, too many of us scoffed at their numbers. We should have seen that ten or twenty or fifty people each, at scores and then hundreds of meetings, reflected a real change in the political wind.

Had we recognized where that 2008 tee shot had landed, we could have organized our own local meetings. We could have learned and taught each other to share progressive values with friends, neighbors, coworkers, people in waiting rooms and checkout lines. We could have begun Fred Whispering immediately, both to dampen the changing wind and to build the cadre of volunteers we would need in 2010.

Instead, too often, we applied the words of Craig Stadler:

Why am I using a new putter? Because the last one didn’t float too well.

And that’s the second lesson….

Throwing clubs doesn’t help.

More than once in 2009 and early 2010, I read the phrase “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.” And there are real and legitimate political differences within our party. Not all Democrats are progressive on all issues. Not all progressives agree on every issue. But Democrats have never been a monolith. We’ve always been a coalition, and as Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote, “If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition.”

Politics isn’t about being comfortable. For Democrats, politics should be about finding and working toward solutions that help ordinary Americans with real problems. Those problems and their solutions are never as clear in Realworldia as they are in Ideologia. Yes, we’ll disagree. Yes, some disagreements will be heated. But arguing over which of us is the bluest, leftmost figure in the Fredling’s drawing doesn’t win Fred’s support. We can’t always be comfortable, but we can commit to working together and not throwing each other in the lake.

Even if we had fought each other less, we still faced that deep divot and that changed wind. We’d have had to get lucky to do well in 2010. Arnold Palmer had something to say about luck:

It’s a funny thing, the more I practice the luckier I get.

And that’s the third lesson….

Remember the driving range.

Hitting balls on the driving range can seem pointlessly frustrating. Frustrating because you hit as many bad shots on the driving range as you would on the course. Pointless because your best shots don’t seem to matter. Even if the range has a simulated green and a pin to aim at – and most don’t – hitting a range ball two feet from the pin doesn’t leave you a satisfying birdie putt. You just line up another range ball.

Canvassing, phone-banking, hosting a house party, or attending a rally over pending legislation can seem just as pointlessly frustrating. Frustrating because you meet just as many rejections and make just as many mistakes. Pointless because your successes don’t seem to matter. Neither you nor the people you organize get to vote on the bill. And as soon as the legislature votes on that bill, there’s another bill pending.

Like the hundreds of range balls professional golfers hit every day, organizing for pending legislation pays real dividends. We get practice with local political activism. We can both learn better how to work with other local political activists and groups, and how to better share progressive values in one-to-one conversations. Those are not magic. They are learned skills, and like any skill they can be improved.

What’s more, unlike the range balls that never count on a real scorecard, organizing for pending legislation does count. We may help build a popular majority that sways the votes of some elected officials. And even if we don’t, we meet more local progressives – or convince some Freds to be more progressive – and grow our movement. Some of the people we meet will become volunteers in the next election, helping us build a stronger and more effective GOTV campaign.

In the end, it comes down to another Bobby Jones quote:

The best exercise for golfers is golfing.

And the best exercise for grassroots progressive Democratic activists … is grassroots progressive Democratic activism.


Happy Saturday!