Thursday, August 19, 2010

Re: Eric Alterman on the dim prospects for a progressive Presidency (1)

The Aug 30/Sept 6 issue of The Nation devotes a lot of space to an essay by Eric Alterman, Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now, though the article itself is dated 07/07/2010. He begins by listing a number of disappointments the Democratic base has experienced in 2009-10: the public option and the anti-abortion provisions in the health care reform; failure to even attempt to pass the Employee Free Choice Act to facilitate union organizing; lack of action on climate change.

He could also have added (as of today) an unwillingness to pursue a jobs program of the magnitude the current economic crisis requires; a financial reform that failed to restrict financial institutions from some of the practices that wrecked the system in 2008; the failure to close the Guantánamo station of the Bush Gulag; caving in to anti-immigration hysteria by backing off on comprehensive immigration reform and approving a bill for more border enforcement without getting concessions from Republicans in return; sounding an uncertain trumpet on the "Ground Zero mosque" brouhaha; and, a general failure to confront Republicans hate-mongering, as illustrated by his embarrassing response to Andrew Breitbart's despicable smear of Shirley Sherrod. And, certainly, the escalation of the Afghanistan War, the expansion of drone attacks in other countries, continuing massive and excessive domestic surveillance, and proceeding with what sound like some very dubious covert war actions whose "blowback" on the US could be serious.

The most basic failure in my mind for the Obama administration is one to which progressives have been most vocal in calling attention, but which really isn't a liberal or conservative matter in principle. And that is the failure to prosecute those who committed serious crimes in office during the previous administration, and especially the torture perpetrators. The torture crimes aren't going away: they are too serious a breach of the basic rule of law and the implications of the US having committed them are too far-reaching. The Torture Convention of 1984, a treaty obligation that is the law of the land on a level with the Constitution itself, requires prosecution of such crimes. Failing to do so is a problem of a fundamental kind, no matter what the airheads on television news infotainment shows may think about it.


The failure to prosecute torture perpetrators (including for and the related murders committed by the torturers in a number of cases) is the most significant failure in the Obama administration obligation to the rule of law. But it's part of his larger Look Forward Not Backward policy of immunizing the previous administration for even the most serious crimes. And it has lead this administration to make claims for government secrecy even more expansive than those of the repressive Cheney-Bush administration. And to continue the disgrace to American justice that the military commission system represents.

None of this is to say that Obama is an evil man in the sense of a Dick Cheney. It's to say that the policy he has chosen to pursue, especially on the torture crimes, inevitably leads to bad results.

Alterman makes an important point: the fact that mainstream press conventional wisdom agrees in part with the Republican propaganda that Obama is governing from the left doesn't mean that it's so. He quotes Newt Gingrich calling Obama "the most radical president in American history" who is running a "secular, socialist machine." Alterman isn't quite ready to embrace the notion that Obama is "much closer to a conservative corporate shill", though he carefully writes this "perspective cannot be completely discounted."

As I see it, how Obama responds to the recommendations of the Catfood Commission in December, which will almost certainly recommend major cuts in Social Security, will be a decisive moment in making that judgment. If he endorses Social Security cuts, whether in the form of benefit cuts or another raise in the retirement age, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that he is essentially a conservative leader, more a Grover Cleveland than a Franklin Roosevelt, heading a part whose base is essentially liberal, in the way those terms are generally understood in the United States.

That dilemma is what Alterman is addressing in this long piece. I'll be commenting on it in other posts. But I'll close here by saying that Alterman's piece is focused on the particular problems for the prospects of a progressive Presidency. He's not trying to draw the typical Breathless-but-sterile pundit horse-race analysis, e.g., liberals like his nuclear arms treaty with the Russians and his policies on the General Motors bankruptcy, but don't like this, that and the other thing. And in commenting on the piece, I'm not going to try to insert "oh but there's this to like" points every other paragraph.

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