When Allies Disappoint

This lame duck session in Congress seems like the last best hope for advocates of the DREAM Act, as well as the best shot for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell through Congress–and not the courts.  Activists on both issues share a lot, not the least, disappointment in President Barack Obama.

Candidate Obama promised to press for comprehensive immigration reform, but in two years invested very little political capital in an effort he must have judged too costly and too unlikely.  Candidate Obama also promised to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and activists imagined an Executive Order, just like President Harry Truman’s edict ending racial segregation in the armed forces.  In office, however, he stalled, explaining that he was going to end it the right way, minimizing both political fallout and disruption in the military.  Of course, these aren’t the only groups who supported the Democratic candidate for president, expecting a more aggressive and effective advocate for positions he promised, sometimes not even so explicitly.  Health care reformers, civil libertarians, antiwar activists, and many others shared their disappointment.

Now what?  None of these advocates harbors the illusion that the other party will be more responsive to their concerns.  How can you pressure your allies without damaging them and putting the other guys into power?  Political life was simpler for them when George W. Bush was president and Republicans controlled Congress: their job was to mobilize discontent and pressure, and there was no reason to temper their demands or their tactics.  Now, with opponents making real political gains, pushing goals like the DREAM further into the distance, progressive activists are trying to figure out how to manage a relationship with a disappointing ally who could still be much worse.

This dilemma, of course, isn’t limited to the left.  Anti-abortion activists were disappointed with Ronald Reagan, who continually promised and continually failed to deliver on the promises to end abortion they heard, and those deficit hawks were mightily disappointed with George W. Bush’s budgets.  And, of course, Tea Partiers are trying to find ways to hold new Republican allies accountable.  Activists don’t want to be taken for granted, but are understandably slow to abandon what seems like their best hope.  They learn, however, that elected officials need to be reminded, often and vigorously, about how much their supporters expect.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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