Playing Defense Without Being Defensive

MPA members deliver postcards to LePage - still from WABI coverage

This time last year, my biggest pet peeve was that every story about a progressive victory inevitably included a quote from Tarren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. In those days, I often ranted about how "fair and balanced" reporting was giving Bragdon a free press hit every time we scored a win. (This is a great example of a Bragdon freebie from the not-so-good ol' days).

A year later, I wish I had such a pleasant gripe.

With Bragdon now ensconced in the new administration, there are many more things to complain about. Defense will be our top priority for the next two years, as evidenced by the list of bill titles put in for this session. Even our best work won’t be able to fend off all of the ugliness in this list

For that reason, our defense work has to position us to reclaim at least one chamber of the legislature in 2012. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between being on "defense" and simply being "defensive." Too often as progressives we needlessly take a defensive tack, thinking that’s what playing defense means. We are prone to apologizing for our positions, bolstering our arguments with dense facts, and parroting our opposition’s talking points. Congressman X says: "The health care bill will have no negative impact on job growth, nor will it increase the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office has shown that in ten years..." But we all know this doesn't work. Bragdon's quotes were so aggravating and effective in days gone by because he never lacked confidence—and rarely fell down the defensive rabbit hole.

This kind of confidence is exactly what progressives need now. Because the truth is that we are right. Progressive policies are what will make Maine strong and vibrant, and progressive leadership has allowed us to achieve great changes here in Maine, even in the last challenging session

In the early days of the new administration, the group that has best articulated a clear, compelling counter-message is the Maine People's Alliance (an organization I used to work for). In a press bonanza last week, they netted dozens of press hits covering their delivery of 2600 postcards opposing LePage's bid to join the lawsuit over federal health care reform. MPA played such good defense, they even generated a tacit agreement from spokesperson Dan Demeritt: “it's not surprising that people are ready to give up on the private system because it's failing so badly in Maine.” The good news and the bad news is that we can take a similar stance on all of the new leadership's top priorities: they just don't make sense for Maine.

Since we have to play defense, let’s at least make sure that our message in defeat sets us up for victory next round. That means keeping faith in our progressive agenda and maintaining a confident—but never condescending—message through what will surely be hard times.

I was driving north of Houlton last week when a small church sign caught my eye.  It said "Get Right or Get Left." At first I thought it was a statement on our polarized political climate, but in this context, its probably a command to get right with God or get left behind in the rapture. It’s not bad advice for progressives though. Our task for the next two years is to convince voters that we're right without sounding defensive. I’m afraid that otherwise, it’s the people of Maine who will get left behind.