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12.12.10

The Liberal Thorn in Obama's Side

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is blasting the president for his tax-cut bargain. Benjamin Sarlin talks to its leaders about why they want Obama to be more like Bush.

Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green, co-founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, met me in an empty pizza place a half-mile from the White House on a freezing Friday morning to talk politics—because they don't have an office. Their total staff, spread around the country and connected only virtually, barely hits double digits at 10. Yet somehow they've become one of the most prominently quoted administration critics in the country, brandishing a get-tough political philosophy that dismisses President Obama as weak and easily rolled and calls for all-out war with Republicans and moderate Democrats. This week alone, Green popped up in The New York Times, Politico, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, and The Washington Post, to slam the White House for working with the GOP on extending the Bush tax cuts—much to the dismay of Democrats who feel Obama scored the best deal possible.

"We're trying to teach Democrats how to fight," the bespectacled Green, 34, told The Daily Beast, summing up his group's mission. Lesson one? Be more like George W. Bush.

"What is the political pain for Olympia Snowe in Maine for voting like her right-wing colleagues in Texas?" Green asked. "Nothing, her constituents never hear about it. But there was political pain for Ben Nelson for voting against George Bush. Why? Because he would fly to their state and rally."

Taylor, 31, added that Democrats could learn from one of Bush's most infuriating tactics for many liberals: questioning their love of the troops.

"Bush repeatedly used national security as an argument to pass what he wanted, but we hear nothing about what these Republicans are doing by voting against our troops when they vote against repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell," she said.

The PCCC claims more than 650,000 members on its email list, which it uses to solicit cash for campaigns and ads—over $2 million this election cycle—as well as organize phone drives. They've shown a particular knack for scoring free publicity with a constant supply of press releases and well-placed ads tapping into a popular strain of Democratic angst. This week they drew widespread attention by running a TV spot in swing state Indiana poking at Obama with footage of him slamming the Bush tax cuts on the campaign trail.

“We’re trying to teach Democrats how to fight,” Green says.

And they're getting under the White House's skin. When Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dressed down the "professional left" for undermining Obama's agenda this year, he had groups like the PCCC in mind. Last year, the PCCC's use of ads against moderate Democrats over the public option during the health-care debate was criticized as "fucking retarded" by an irate Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff. In response, the PCCC later mounted a petition drive to rally Democrats against Emanuel's bid to become mayor of Chicago.

"White House critic" wasn't the role the PCCC had planned when the group launched in 2009. Its mission: to provide consulting and fundraising know-how to progressive candidates like Bill Halter, the Arkansas lieutenant governor who mounted a primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln this year. Green knows what it's like to swim upstream, having worked as press secretary for South Dakota's Tim Johnson in 2002—whose win marked a rare bright spot for Democrats in what was otherwise a terrible year for the party. Working alongside Green then were several members of Obama's inner circle, including White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, and 2008 deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, who ran Johnson's race.

Taylor took a more unconventional path into politics, following up an MFA in poetry at Columbia with a stint as a union organizer for the SEIU and then online-focused jobs with the AFL-CIO, the DNC and MoveOn.org. "I wanted to get my hands dirty," she said. Laughing, she added that "our emails are my poetry now."

It was Taylor who ended up dragging the PCCC into a more adversarial stance toward the White House, as she became increasingly concerned that Democrats were veering too far toward big business in the health-care debate.

During that battle, the PCCC ran tough ads against senators opposed to a public option— including Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. And after Scott Brown won an upset in Massachusetts' special Senate election, the group circulated a letter by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) calling on Congress to revive the public option in a reconciliation bill. The move garnered dozens of signatures and briefly revived activists' hopes, but Democratic leaders ultimately shelved the idea.

Grassroots progressives loved the PCCC's bold moves, but many establishment Democrats were infuriated by their intraparty skirmishes. During the public-option debate, Nelson warned that their attacks on moderate Democrats threatened to blow up negotiations and was so upset by them that he personally called the Nebraskans featured criticizing his stance in the ad.

"What they did was dangerous," Paul Starr, a senior adviser to President Clinton during 42's failed health-care push. "It was practically a miracle Harry Reid was able to get 60 votes."

On the tax-cut debate, a number of liberal and even conservative commentators have made the case that Obama's success in securing stimulus money for jobs made the deal with Republican leaders a no-brainer. But Green and Taylor say that marks a retreat from the Democrats' original opposition to extending the Bush tax cuts—and decided to pick a political fight.

"If there was a president who was actually willing to use public opinion as a source of advantage against the Republicans, he would win the unemployment benefits fight, the tax fight, and the stimulus fight," Green said.

But others question whether the PCCC has the public on their side. As Chris Cilliza noted in The Washington Post this week, recent AP polling shows Obama's approval rating among liberals "stratospherically high" at 80 percent.

"They're not representative of my opinion. I don't know about anyone else," Senator Nelson told The Daily Beast after once again finding himself under fire from the group over his support for extending the Bush tax cuts. "One thing I've learned about extremes with either party is they have a base, but it's not always easy to know how far that base extends."

At least one poll has shown some erosion of Obama's support on the left since the tax deal, so it's possible the environment may be changing. Green and Taylor insist that the true measure of Democratic unease was the 2010 election results and its "enthusiasm gap" between partisans.

"It's people who want him to succeed," Green said. "They know what he's capable of and aren't seeing it."

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.