Friday, May 21, 2010

Mighty Obama at bat

Herbert Hoover: really not the best model for Democrats on economic policy

Being a Democrat right now is a painful experience. Yes, I know, being a Democrat is normally a painful experience. But what makes it so at the moment is knowing that we have had a massive opportunity for the Democratic Party to build a progressive majority and change the political meta-narrative of the country in its favor. I use the present perfect tense because it's always hard to tell whether such moments are already past.

Obama and most of the leading Democrats right now have a kind of hardening of the arteries in their political outlook, leaving them in many ways locked in the politics of the early 1990s, when Democrats felt constantly on the defensive and thought that success meant they had to constantly distinguish themselves from that dreadful "left" and pander to those ever-elusive moderate voters who were imagined to be so impressed with the Republicans' ideology. And part of this mentality is the idea that somehow, someway, the Republicans can be enticed into bipartisan harmony on major domestic issues.

So we have the really ridiculous spectacle in the middle of the biggest economic slump since the Great Depression in which the Democratic administration, instead of using the opportunity to discredit the Predator State policies of the previous Republican administration and pushing for aggressive recovery measures, are instead conjuring the counsel of the ghost of Herbert Hoover and fretting over that big, scary, awful federal deficit.

Ezra Klein recently interviewed economist Jamie Galbraith, who not only has a realistic view of the deficit ("I think the danger is zero. It's not overstated. It's completely misstated.") He also thinks the Democrats should actually act like Democrats during this slump and push for measures that will create jobs, stimulate the economy to a greater degree and encourage the development of new businesses in areas like clean energy. (Galbraith: The danger posed by the deficit ‘is zero’ Washington Post 05/12/2010)

The fine folks at FOX News had a conniption fit over that interview, as Dan Froomkin explains in 'Naked Keynesianism' At The University Of Texas, Says Fox News Huffington Post 05/19/2010. This is a good thing, having Jamie Galbraith's profile raised. Because he's really not a Hoovernomics kind of guy.

The other most dramatic event to which the Democrats are responding in that let-the-Republicans-slide anemic mode is the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico: Alex Wagner, Oil Spill: White House on Defense as Management Criticism Mounts Politics Daily 05/20/2010. This is another clear example of dangers of the Predator State, deregulate business, let the foxes watch the hen-house, crony capitalism style of governance which the Republicans practice. Even for a Democrat like me who is chronically accustomed to seeing Dems miss major opportunities, this is like fingernails on the blackboard to see the Obama administration spend the whole last month dribbling away the opportunity to change the political narrative in the Democrats' favor. And pulling out the classic do-nothing excuse of appointing a commission ... Good grief!

Anyone familiar with what happened in the 1980 Presidential election will be leery of saying that having fringy elements as a more prominent part of the Republican Party's image will be beneficial for the Democrats. Many Democrats talked themselves into believing that Ronald Reagan would be an easy condidate to beat that year because he had cultivated such a hard right image. That said, they may benefit from the Republicans indulging their Dark Side so obviously and publicly.

It seems very significant to me that recent Democratic convert Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania lost his bid for the Democratic Senate nomination to Joe Sestak, the netroots' favorite candidate. And that Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas in her Senate primary has been forced into a runoff against the netroots-favored candidate, Bill Halter. Obama had endorsed both Specter and Lincoln in the primaries. The most promising tool right now for Democratic Party progressives to push the Party into a more combative position is primary fights like those. In both cases, the need to fight for the Democratic nomination pushed both Specter and Lincoln to take more aggressive reformist positions over the last several months.

And it's a sign that Obama's endorsement isn't a magic wand even within the Democratic Party. Primary successes for progressive candidates like those get us closer to the day when the Obama administration will have to worry more about losing the support of Democratic progressives than he does about losing that of the Blue Dogs.

Policy weaknesses aside, the fact that Obama and the Democrats are looking like winners in the health care and finance-reform debate is also very good politics for the Democrats going into the fall elections. The Republicans' Congressional strategy of fundamental opposition is based on the idea that if they can make Obama look like a loser, they will benefit politically. Purely cosmetic victories on minor issues can't compensate for serious voter discontent. But real wins on issues the voters perceive to be substantial do benefit the winners. Looking like they can "get things done" really does help the party and the politicians who win that image. That's a big part of the reason why for decades, opinion polls showed majorities generally favoring Democratic policy positions in much larger numbers than they actually voted for Democratic candidates. Because the Republicans were so good at creating that "we"ll get things done" sense.

It's also uncomfortable in a strict partisan sense to consider, but the loss of seats by Blue Dog Democratic incumbents in the fall wouldn't be an entirely bad thing for the Democratic Party. One of the weird aspects of the fight over health care is that the Democrats were operating on the assumption that if Democrats from more competitive districts (the classic Blue Dog situation) opposed the Democratic President on health care, it would benefit them politically in their home districts. But if the Democratic President looks like a loser and public opinion shifts in favor of the Republicans, it's the Democratic incumbents in those competitive districts who are most vulnerable to being ousted. It would be very much to their advantage to have the President look successful and aggressively supporting them rather than help making him look like a loser.

The Democrats look almost hard-wired at this point to process the lessons of the loss of seats in Congress this fall as being that they need to "move to the center" by doing stupid stuff like wringing their hands over how that nasty Social Security program is pumping up the big scary budget deficit. Or showing that they are opposed to strong business regulations at a time of public fury at Wall Street and Big Business probably not seen since the 1930s. Or making new escalations in the already-unpopular Afghanistan War. Hey, why not show their moderation and willingness to punch the hippies of the "left" by bolding standing by the oil companies in their quest to have lots more offshore oil drilling?

There are much more sensible lessons to be drawn from the politics of the last year and a half. Miracles do happen, so even the Democrats may actually learn some of the right lessons. Like they say, "hope ... springs eternal in the human breast." An appropriate quote for Democrats this year, since it was describing the hometown crowd just before Mighty Casey struck out.

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