For 34-year-old Adam Green, the midterm elections were not a repudiation of liberalism but a rejection of Barack Obama's accommodating style. "The only way to get the Republicans to the table," he says, "is to punch them in the face real hard on one issue."
So when he read this month about White House aides conceding that they would likely support a tax-cut extension for the richest 2% of Americans in violation of a core campaign pledge Green took to his e-mail. "President Obama, ARE YOU KIDDING?" he wrote to the 600,000-strong e-mail list of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which he helped found. "Fight the Republicans already!"
Within days, more than 143,000 people signed the petition calling for Obama to "fight, don't cave" on the tax cuts. Those who supported the effort were told to contact their member of Congress to demand a single vote to force Republicans and conservative Democrats to choose between extending tax cuts for everyone but the rich and letting all the tax cuts expire. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka began pushing the same message among the Democratic leadership, and liberal blogs started ruminating on the White House waffling, saying Democrats looked weak, among other things.
Green's analysis falls outside the received wisdom in Washington, where the midterm elections have been interpreted more as a rebellion of the middle against the left. The White House is now plotting a shift to win back the middle before 2012. Legislative compromise, arduous negotiations and complex procedural maneuvering await.
Holding the Democratic base together, however, is likely to become a deepening challenge in this hypermotivated, hyperpartisan online age, and Green is one reason.
A veteran organizer from MoveOn.org, he started his group in 2009 with Stephanie Taylor, 31, a former union organizer. They raised about $2 million in the 2010 cycle, placed more than 1 million phone calls with another online group and built up a community with appeals to defend Keith Olbermann and keep the public option. Green now expects his rolls to swell as Obama adopts more conciliatory tactics.
With polls showing that most Americans support letting the tax cuts for the richest 2% expire, Green sees any extension as surrender. In another age, such protests might be ignored, but in the Tea Party era, a party that ignores its own flank does so at its peril. "Progressives," says Green, "are trying to show Democrats how to fight and win."