Thursday, December 31, 2009

Problems with a corporate-dominated Democratic Party

Drew Westen looks at President Obama's governing style in Is Obama's Problem That He Just Doesn't Want to Deal with Conflict? AlterNet 12/23/09.

My own current view of the answer to the question posed in the article's title is no. We've seen in the debates over the economic stimulus, the Afghanistan escalation and the public option in the health care reform that Obama can deal directly with conflict and use it to polarize support around his preferred positions. It's rather than as a stategy for managing labor,progressives and the desires of most of the democratic base, he has chosen on many issues to concede to conservative demands because that's what he wants to do as a matter of policy. We saw that especially clearly in this past month when he intervened decisively against the public option, doing so with the political pantomine of surrendering to Joe Lieberman's wishes.

That's not to detract from Joe Lieberman's great talent in being destructive to the Democratic Party and the goals of labor and progressives. It's rather to recongnize that Obama appears to be quite happy to ally himself with Lieberman against the Party base on decisive issues like health care reform. It also puts into a different light Obama's insistence a year ago on giving Lieberman a powerful status in the Party despite Lieberman's having campaigned actively for the Republican Party and John McCain in 2008. The most reasonable conclusion from what we know now is that Obama wanted Lieberman there to play out the sort of destructive pantomine we saw with the public option in December.

This observation of Westen's is very important in understanding our current political moment:

Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.

What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both. [my emphasis]
I would add that it's not just young people who are being soured on the political process, even using an expansive definition of "young". Obama's positions this past year: bailing out Wall Street bankers but shrugging off the priority of directly combatting mass unemployment, his escalation of the Afghanistan War and generally pursuing a warlike foreign policy in line with the views of his Cheney-Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates, his diffident attitude toward dealing with global warming, his defense of Bush administration torture perpetrators, and his astonishing surrender to the health insurance monopolies on health care reform have set the stage for the politics of despair to replace the politics of hope.

Bill Clinton after the midterm election debacle of 1994 found himself forced to focus on squeezing out incremental reforms like expanding health insurance coverage for children. He had little other choice, given the extreme partisanship of the Republicans and their domination of Congress. Obama has large majorities in both Houses of Congress and he insists on having incremental reforms and even very damaging Predator State policies because he opposes sweeping reforms that would benefit the majority of people instead of the wealthiest.

I really do thing that Obama is on the verge of what may be the greatest squandering of opportunities for reform in American political history. If he hasn't succeeded in doing so already. If the Obama Presidency is going to be one marked by reforms genuinely beneficial to the public, it is something that will have to be forced on him by popular pressure. He doesn't intend to lead such an effort, except in Potemkin marketing terms.

Westen's article focuses in particular on the perceptions of swing voters. One very important he highlights is the failure so far of Obama to build more general support for a positive, liberal (in American terms) vision of government. As Westen puts it, Obama has failed "to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything." But then, there's no good evidence at this point that Obama himself even has a particularly positive vision of government that clearly differs from the Lieberman-Bayh brand of Predator State "neoliberalism".

What I would conclude from Westen's article is not that Obama is a weak leader. I would rather conclude that Obama's leadership style is directed at securing Democratic Party support in Congress for policies that are either not supported or actively opposed by labor and progressives and the Democratic voting base. For swing voters, that looks like weak leadership. As Westen describes that perception:

Consider the president's leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there's a conflict, because if there's a conflict, he doesn't want to be anywhere near it.
Again, that perception does not accurately reflect what we've seen in practice. In escalating the Afghanistan War, Obama came down hard in favor of the escalation and brought explicit pressure on reluctant Democrats in Congress to support Obama's position. The same thing is clearly true with the Obama-Lieberman Senate version of health care reform. It's not weak leadership. It's the leadership style required to pass policies unpopular among the Democratic base with a Republican Party that can't be counted on for genuine bipartisanship, especially on demestic issues.

Westen also points to one of the most disappointing aspects of Obama's Presidency to date, his notable lack of enthusiasm for women's rights:

He doesn't want to talk about social issues, even though they predictably have gotten in the way of health care reform and will do the same on one issue after another. Abortion? You don't advance a progressive position by giving a center-right speech at Notre Dame that emphasizes cutting back on the number of abortions without mentioning that sex education and birth control might be useful means to that end, mumbling something about a conscience clause that suggests that pharmacists don't have to fill birth control prescriptions if it offends their sensibilities, and allowing states to use health care reform to set back the rights of women and couples to decide when to start their families based on somebody else's faith. If you believe that freedom includes the freedom to decide when you will or won't have a child, say it, say it with moral conviction, and follow it up with action. Perhaps something as simple as this: "I won't sign a health bill into law that forces women and couples to have a child they did not intend and are not ready to parent because of the dictates of someone else's faith or conscience." You know what? A message of that sort wins by 25 points nationally, and you can speak it in Southern and win with evangelical Christians in the deep south if you speak to them honestly in the language of faith. That shouldn't be hard for a president who is a religious Christian.
Let's hope that the Democratic base can force Obama into acting more like a Democratic President in 2010 than he did in 2009.

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