Purge the Activists

I’ve served as an aide to politicians and as a politician myself and here’s what I’ve learned: activists have no role in a public official’s office, and when they start pushing for their own agendas they should be shown the door as soon as possible.

This comes up now as the Biden Administration is bleeding political capital over the immigration issue. Biden’s approval rating on immigration runs a negative 36%-59%. In key states, like Arizona and Georgia, this one issue alone could cost the Democrats their Senate majority. But the Administration is paralyzed as the split between moderate Democrats and the hard-left is mirrored in the White House itself. Here’s what moderate Democrat Bill Galston wrote about this in the Wall Street Journal this week:

On April 10, the New York Times published a story detailing the administration’s infighting over border policy. As early as March 2021, President Biden was reportedly “livid” about his staff’s bickering on this issue, asking who he needed to fire to fix the problem. Months later, according to the Times, chief of staff Ron Klain warned the warring factions against leaning too far left on this issue and tried without success to mediate the quarrel. Little has visibly changed since then.

No one will solve this problem for Mr. Biden. He must take charge of his administration and make the tough calls. Endangered Democrats have done the political math and have concluded that the costs of inaction exceed the costs of angering progressive immigration activists. The president should stop looking for a no-cost way out of this morass and do what needs to be done.

Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock could lose his seat if hard-left activists get their way on immigration. Warnock has called on Biden to keep Title 42 in place.

Klain should not be trying to “mediate the quarrel” among his own staff. He should be firing those staff members who won’t fall in line. Biden needs to take command of his own administration and to do that he needs to send a clear message to his staff. Your first job is to serve your boss. You get to have an opinion but that opinion should always start by answering the question: how does this serve the interests of Pres. Joe Biden and the country as a whole? And, once a decision is made you fall into line, even if you don’t like it. And if you can’t live under those rules, well, see ya. Go work for some activist group. Storm the barricades. Whatever. Knock yourself out.

On immigration it’s clear that Biden needs to send a consistent tough message. Keep Title 42 in place to control illegal immigration. Keep the “remain in Mexico” policy around. Work on measures to strengthen border security, whatever that might be. The goal has to be to re-elect Democratic senators who are vulnerable on this issue. Right now that’s all that matters.

Biden can also talk about other sensible policies for the long-run, but there is no long-run if he loses the Senate. These policies should include a path to citizenship for the 11 million people who are already here illegally. It’s nuts to think we’re going to round them up and send them away and we need them in our workforce anyway. So, let’s have them admit to a crime, pay a small fine, go through the naturalization process and become American citizens. Let’s be practical. Let’s get this behind us, but also let’s face it. That’s not going to happen in an election year.

What’s going on here is just another example of the problem that is at the heart of the party right now: the disproportionate influence of a relatively small number of hard-left activists. In a recent article in Politico, Democratic strategist David Shor nailed it:

According to Shor, the problem with this permanent class of young staffers is that they tend to hold views that are both more liberal and more ideologically motivated than the views of the coveted median voter, and yet they yield a significant amount of influence over the party’s messaging and policy decisions. As a result, Democrats end up spending a lot of time talking about issues that matter to college-educated liberals but not to the multiracial bloc of moderate voters that the party needs to win over to secure governing majorities in Washington.

Biden can’t heal the split between the moderates and the hard-left activists in his own party and he should quit trying. He’s a moderate Democrat who should now populate his administration — as he should have from the start — with moderates who see things his way or with anyone who is willing to subsume their own views to his. An administration arguing with itself is doomed.

Want to read more curiously conservative views from a liberal? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “Purge the Activists

  1. Hi Mayor Dave. I’ve started reading the Isthmus in preparation for a move, final I hope, back to Madison after 11 years in San Antonio. Was especially happy to get linked to your commentary and interested in how you see the world these days. I hope all is well with you and your family. I’m wondering what “yellow stripes and dead armadillos”, which is kind of a Texas thing, means to you? Best wishes, Tom Schlenker


    1. Welcome back home, Tom! Thanks for asking because a lot of people (understandably) don’t get the reference. It was Texas liberal populist Jim Hightower who said, “The only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” I chose that title for this blog because I’m a middle of the road (well just slightly over in the left lane) Democrat. So, it’s intended to be a little bit of a self-mocking reference.


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