Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The President of first steps

Joan Walsh has a good column on the current state of disappointment among the Democratic base over Obama's first year, Is it the man? Is it the movement? Salon 01/16/10. In both that piece and another Salon post, by Joe Conason, Clinton: Take back the Tea Party! 01/15/10, we see that when the Democrats want to fire up the faithful to go to the polls to support their candidates, they know they need to roll out progressive rhetoric. But when it comes to delivering for the people before the bankers, or health care consumers above the insurance monopolies, well, let's just say the Party today isn't burning with that Jacksonian spirit.

They can at least manage the rhetoric, as Conason notes of Bill Clinton campaigning for Massachusetts' Martha Coakley in his race against rightwing Republican (and apparent leader in the race) Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat:

“You need to take back this tea party idea,” he told the wildly cheering crowds in Boston and later in Worcester. “They say that the original Boston Tea Party was anti-government, but that is wrong. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had a strong government. They weren’t liberal or conservative, they were communitarians, which means they knew we’re all in this together. What they opposed was the abuse of power.” But the aim of the Republican Party and Senate nominee Brown, he charged, is to “protect the modern abusers of power” – namely, the corporate and financial leaders whose depredations can only be curtailed by strong, responsive government.

Coakley echoed Clinton’s populist theme, accusing Brown of wanting to spare the nation’s largest banks from paying back the billions of federal bailout dollars – even while the bankers paid themselves “seven or eight-figure bonuses.” The rich and well-connected “will always be able to hire someone to speak for them. But who is going to speak for the rest of us? That is why I’m running for the Senate.”
But the question I'm asking is who is going to deliver for us?

Joan Walsh makes a good statement of the frustrations of much of the Democratic base at this point:

[I]t was fascinating to watch the president take time to preach Sunday morning (just hours before stumping for Coakley in Boston) at Vernon Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the legendary black church that hosted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in December, 1956. I was surprised to see Obama lay out parallels between the struggles of King's movement, and his own.

Surprised, because almost a year after his inauguration, I've stopped seeing Obama's career as having much to do with a movement. That's not to deny that the election of our first black president was a huge civil right milestone, and owed an enormous debt to that movement's hard work and heroes. It was, and it did. But the Obama White House has mostly seemed to shed the "movement" trappings that elected him in 2008, to the chagrin of progressives of every race who saw his campaign as the highest expression of the social justice and civil rights movement, and who made his election the cause of their lifetimes.

On Sunday Obama seemed to be trying to get that movement mojo back, and reassure disillusioned liberals that change requires compromise as well as a long view of social progress - and I found myself wondering, was it desperation? Manipulation? A rare glimpse inside the way Obama thinks about the arc of social justice, and his place in it?
It makes me wish that we still had that irreplaceable, jaded, hardcore liberal Molly Ivins around. She had an admirable ability to face unpleasant realities be still keep focused on fighting against war and for economic progress. And to do it with her trademark biting Texas wit along with the best kinds of political analysis.

And I'm sure Molly's up there in the Great Beyond with Andrew Jackson right now cheering for the Democrats to finally get serious about taking on the plutocrats and bankers. (And I'm sure she's beating him up over slavery and Indian policy, too!) But we're stuck at the moment with the real existing Democratic Party. And the real existing Democratic Party needs to focus more on fighting the Republican, the economic royalists, the airhead punditocracy and Joe Lieberman than on endless posturing against the dirty freaking hippies. They might start for purging their minds of the ludicrous assumption so many of them have internalized over the years that punching a hippie is the seal of responsibility and the best way for Democrats to get elected. Wake up and smell the brimstone boiling on the Republican side, people!

I was struck in one of the Obama quotes that Joan uses by a particular phrase, which is becoming a depressing hallmark of this administration and its excuse-making for not delivering what the people need (my emphasis):

So, yes, we're passing through a hard winter. It's the hardest in some time. But let's always remember that, as a people, the American people, we've weathered some hard winters before. This country was founded during some harsh winters. The fishermen, the laborers, the craftsmen who made camp at Valley Forge -- they weathered a hard winter. The slaves and the freedmen who rode an underground railroad, seeking the light of justice under the cover of night -- they weathered a hard winter. The seamstress whose feet were tired, the pastor whose voice echoes through the ages -- they weathered some hard winters. It was for them, as it is for us, difficult, in the dead of winter, to sometimes see spring coming. They, too, sometimes felt their hopes deflate. And yet, each season, the frost melts, the cold recedes, the sun reappears. So it was for earlier generations and so it will be for us. ...

Our predecessors were never so consumed with theoretical debates that they couldn't see progress when it came. Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don't want to see that even if we don't get everything, we're getting something. (Applause.) King understood that the desegregation of the Armed Forces didn’t end the civil rights movement, because black and white soldiers still couldn't sit together at the same lunch counter when they came home. But he still insisted on the rightness of desegregating the Armed Forces. That was a good first step -- even as he called for more. He didn’t suggest that somehow by the signing of the Civil Rights that somehow all discrimination would end. But he also didn’t think that we shouldn’t sign the Civil Rights Act because it hasn’t solved every problem. Let's take a victory, he said, and then keep on marching. Forward steps, large and small, were recognized for what they were -- which was progress.
The corporate Democrats are asking the base to be happy with an economic surplus that hasn't addressed the urgent needs of unemployment as a first step; an astonishingly corporate-friendly, consumer-unfriendly health care reform (the Obama-Liberman version) as a first step; a publicly bold but privately worse-than-weak stand against West Bank settlement as a first step toward solving the worst diplomatic problem between the West and the Muslim world.

One of the most consequential instances in which the administration and it supports are asking up to believe it's one of those proverbial first steps is the Copenhagen conference on global warming in December 2009. Steven Hill of the generally pro-Obama New American Foundation writes in Europe's Post-Copenhagen View of Obama New York Times 01/13/10 about why the general impression among European countries was that the conference was a failure. Obama's side deal with China was generally taken by the European participants as a setback for world cooperation on reducing greenhouses gases. And more specifically as undercutting European efforts to cooperate with the US on making progress in this area.

I'm happy to get incremental progress. But I don't like to pretend that incremental progress is something it's not, i.e., massive reform. Paul Krugman these days seem to be almost desperately asking Democrats to accept whatever health care "reform" package gets past Congress and onto Obama's desk for signature. But just last September 8, he was Hoping for audacity:

Americans haven’t become skeptical about Obamacare because they’d rather shave an extra $30 billion a year off the cost; they have not, contrary to “centrist” fantasies, been turned off by the details of the stimulus plan or cap-and-trade. What has been missing is a vision. And this is probably the last chance to supply that vision. [my emphasis in bold]
That's my worry on health care and on much else besides: that what Obama and his supporters are trying to pass off as first steps may be more a last chance. Krugman has been saying for a while that the economic stimulus package was probably a one-shot deal. As he wrote in The Big Squander New York Times 11/19/09:

Earlier this week, the inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a k a, the bank bailout fund, released his report on the 2008 rescue of the American International Group, the insurer. The gist of the report is that government officials made no serious attempt to extract concessions from bankers, even though these bankers received huge benefits from the rescue. And more than money was lost. By making what was in effect a multibillion-dollar gift to Wall Street, policy makers undermined their own credibility — and put the broader economy at risk. [my emphasis]
It's true that first steps are important and sometimes we have to be satisfied with modest first steps.

But it's also true that sometimes there are big opportunities that you don't get a second chance to take. On the question of stimulus, I'm not so pessimistic as Krugman that there is no remaining opportunity right now for the Democrats to put through a jobs-creation package. But it certainly was a tremendous lost opportunity that in a foolish attempt to get nominal "bipartisan" support early last year that the administration agreed to drop off the part of their stimulus package that would have had the most direct stabilizing effect on jobs, the aid to state and local governments.

The other huge problem with the kind of "bipartisan" pitches that try to package programs as Republican friendly and not tainted by liberal big-gubment approaches is that on many things what we actually need are liberal big-gubment approaches. Clinton's speech quoted at the start of this post is a real example of how the Democrats need to make a case for positive government. There is an ideological part of politics that unfortunately the Republicans take much more seriously than the Democrats do. And as long as the Democrats won't challenge the basic Republican "free market", Predator State ideology head-on, they start every legislative and political battle already having conceded a large part of the ground to the Republicans.

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