Monday, February 01, 2010

Perils of the Democratic Moderation Offensive

Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn at this past week's Republican meet-and-greet with President Obama asked him about health care reform alternatives. Obama responded:

BARACK OBAMA: If you look at the basic proposal that we put forward, it has an exchange so that businesses and the self-employed can buy into a pool and can get bargaining power the same way big companies do, the insurance reforms that I have already discussed, making sure that there's choice and competition for those who don't have health insurance.

The component parts of this thing are pretty similar to what Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Tom Daschle proposed at the beginning of this debate last year.

Now, you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Tom -- certainly, you don't agree with Tom Daschle on much. But that's not a radical bunch.

But, if you were to listen to the debate, and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot. No, I mean, that's how you guys -- that's how you guys presented it. That -- and so I'm thinking to myself, well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist... No -- no, look, I mean, I'm just saying -- I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans -- it's similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

So, all I'm saying is we've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality. [my emphasis]
Obama's appearance got good reviews as political theater.


On the PBS Newshour's weekly Brooks and Shields Clown Show, here is how it was reviewed:

JIM LEHRER: But first, as promised, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, what did you think of the Obama and the Republican show in Baltimore?

SLEEPY MARK: I thought it was terrific.

I think, if the White House had had its choice, it would have substituted that for the State of the Union address and presented it in prime time. I mean, I

I think, if the White House had had its choice, it would have substituted that for the State of the Union address and presented it in prime time. I mean, I thought it showed the president at his best.

He marshals facts. He presents arguments. He rebuts criticism, does it in a civil way, without any rancor. I just thought it was a tour de force. And the Republicans are sort of hoisted on their transparency petard. They had criticized the president for not fulfilling his pledge of openness and transparency and having the hearings on C-SPAN, as they promised during the campaign.

And, so, they were stuck with this being open. They didn't want it to be televised, that Q&A part. And I think...

... JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, worked to his advantage?

BOBO BROOKS: A bit, though everyone was sort of charged up about it. All of Washington is actually very excited about it. People were thrilled.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

BOBO BROOKS: I mean, and Democrats were very thrilled. The president's naturally going to dominate an event like that. He's got the podium. They are just holding handhelds. He's got -- but Republicans were thrilled, too, actually.

I spoke to a bunch of Republicans who were there afterwards and people who are writing online.

JIM LEHRER: What did they say? What did they say?

BOBO BROOKS: They were happy. They said, you know, he said all along we don't have plans, but, over and over again, he acknowledged, yes, we do have alternatives. We have been offering them.

So, they acknowledged that he got most of the time and he did very well. But they were thrilled that they got some points across. And they were thrilled by the exchange.

And I think Americans will be thrilled by the exchange, to the extent they see it. And will it lead to a mass depolarization? Not exactly, obviously. And, you know, there are fundamental differences on many issues, like health care. There's just different approaches.

But I think one of the things the president did very well was list a whole series of things on which there's not necessarily differences, things like pay-go...

JIM LEHRER: He made a big point of that, yes, yes. [my emphasis]
It gave the Beltway Village pundits that proverbial thrill up their legs. It was a bipartisan political orgy, Obama/Democratic style, in which the Democrats show up begging the Republicans to cooperate with them while the Republicans think themselves successful with their policy of just-say-no fundamental opposition.

It was great that Obama called them out on their Bircher rhetoric ("Bolshevik plot").

But I'm getting a bad feeling about all this. We've got the Republicans pounding their drums for their usual ideology of war, tax cuts for the wealthiest and deregulation of business. And we've got the Democrats bending over backwards to show how much like the Republicans they are.

Obama's accurate references to how Republicans at various times had supported various aspects of the Obama-Lieberman health care reform plan. But when does the begging to the Republicans stop? The reason he could say those things accurately is that the Democrats started out the health care reform process by pre-compromising, designing a health care reform approach based on the neoliberal ideal of relying on private insurance, and generally incorporating ideas that Republicans had proposed in the past as their own paper-tiger alternatives when they were trying to block Democratic health-care proposals.

The result was that the Republicans spent the whole year wailing about the Bolshevik plot. If they were doing that when they seemed to be politically on the ropes, why will they change now when they perceive themselves to be in the middle of a political surge?

Obama devoted his weekly radio address on Saturday 01/30/10 to talking about tax cuts for business and reducing budget deficits, straight out of the neoliberal playbook: pay as you go rules, a partial spending freeze, cutting civilian government program, and that "bipartisan" deficit-cut commission to help Republicans set the stage for new attacks on Social Security and Medicare. He again used the silly comparison of family budgets to the federal government's budget that appeared in the State of the Union Address.

Senior White House Adviser David Axelrod appeared on Meet the Press Sunday 01/31/10 in full begging mode, stressing how much like the Republicans the Obama proposals are. If this was done to give some political cover to a decisive ground of Congressional Republicans that was prepared to support Obama on a critical program like health care reform, that would make some short-term sense. But when do the Democrats say, let's stop kidding ourselves, the Republicans are just being obstructionist and we're not going to pretend otherwise any more? And when do the Democrats build an alternative meta-narrative to the Republicans' gubment-is-evil/deregulate-business/cut-taxes-for-the-super-rich-narrative?

House Republican leader John Boehner followed Axeload pursuing the usual Republican obstructionist hard line, talking about the Democrats wanting a "big government takeover takeover of health care", the "giant security threat" represented by a few Islamist fanatics hiding in caves in Pakistan, and whining about how that there stimulus bill a year ago just didn't no nothin' for nobody. And, of course, using the cutsey Republican grammar of "Democrat Party".

There is moderation as a style and a strategy. And there is moderation as an unwillingness to do what needs to be done. Herman Melville memorably portrayed the latter type in his novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). The novel is build around a strange figure on a riverboat trip down the Mississippi River who morphs into many different guises during the trip and having encounters with a variety of characters. In the guise of a herb-doctor, the Confidence Man makes a pitch to a Missouri woodsman who is also an Abolitionist. Toward the end of their encounter, the Missourian demands his views on abolition, asking "YOu are an abolitionist, ain't you?"

... squaring himself with both hands on his rifle, used for a staff, and gazing in the herb-doctor's face with no more reverence than if it were a target. "You are an abolitionist, ain't you?"

"As to that, I cannot so readily answer. If by abolitionist you mean a zealot, I am none; but if you mean a man, who, being a man, feels for all men, slaves included, and by any lawful act, opposed to nobody's interest, and therefore, rousing nobody's enmity, would willingly abolish suffering (supposing it, in its degree, to exist) from among mankind, irrespective of color, then am I what you say."

"Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but are useless for right."
I hope the Democrats' current Moderation Offensive doesn't end up this way.

But it's certainly true that the Obama administration's Look Forward Not Backward policy on not prosecuting torture perpetrators from the Cheney-Bush administration has made them "the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man" on that issue.

The Republican Party has major problems in marketing itself at the moment, so the Democrats aren't in nearly the political trouble that our Pod Pundits seem to think he is. But if the Democrats want to establish the kind of long-term dominance in politics that the current moment still gives them the chance to do, they will have to establish a clear profile for the Party that provides a coherent alternative to the Republicans' Predator State ideology. And they can't do it with a moderation " opposed to nobody's interest, and therefore, rousing nobody's enmity."

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