Saturday, August 25, 2012

Thomas Frank: Obama's bipartisan fixation didn't let him "seal the deal" after 2008 election

Thomas Frank has a new essay in the print edition of Harper's, called "Compromising Positions," about President Obama's fixation on bipartisanship.

David Daley interviewed him for Salon on the topic (Thomas Frank: Obama’s squandered hope 08/22/2012). Daley poses the question/comment, "Obama thinks he is reaching across the aisle, the Republicans move farther to the right, and as he stretches and stretches for compromise, he’s being dragged to an entirely new part of the political spectrum." And Frank replies as follows.

Yes, which they have done. And that’s the thing that nobody understands, which is when you declare — which Obama did and Clinton partially did before him — that the two parties are the only thing that matter, and bridging the differences between them and the distance between them is what matters, it makes the issues themselves kind of secondary. It’s the centrism that comes first, and the bipartisanship that comes first. Everything comes down to this sort of geometrical relationship between the two parties. If that’s the case, then everything is freed from its moorings and the Republicans are allowed to move whichever way they want. Obviously that’s going to be to the right in order to drag the debate with them.

It's not just game theory, of course. The Republicans were presented with the same challenge as Obama, which is how do you deal with the financial crisis and this incredible economic setback. And they actually came up with a compelling answer to this question. Obama came up with an answer to the question of what should we do about partisanship, because like many people here in Washington, he thinks partisanship is the real challenge. He thought the real problem with America is that we have these parties and they fight with each other over every little thing. And he’s right to some degree. It is a problem, and it’s annoying if you turn on the TV and here’s Fox News, and you turn on another channel and here’s MSNBC. They’re both insulting and stupid in their own way. Yes, it’s a problem, but it’s not the main problem. It’s not even in the top 10 problems, as far as I’m concerned, but for Obama it’s the No. 1 problem.

Now the other side looks out at what is actually the real problem, which is economic catastrophe. What the public really wants is not someone who is going to reach out across the aisle and shake hands with the other side and say that “we aren’t red states and we aren’t the blue states, we’re the United States.” No. They wanted an answer to the problem at hand, and here’s the crazy thing: the Republicans came up with one. It’s a fanciful answer, the answer that we deregulate more, that we have to reach out and achieve that perfect capitalism that’s eluding us. [my emphasis]
He also makes the important point about how damaging Obama's Look Forward Not Backward approach has been in establishing a strong Democratic profile against the Republicans. Daley asks, "Obama cleaned the Republicans’ clock in 2008. And then, as you write, handed 'a vanquished but utterly intransigent foe a veto' over his agenda. How does that happen?" Frank responds:

That part of it, it’s the insult added to the injury. The worst part of it is that he didn’t seal the deal after he won in 2008. He did not want to talk about the economy and what went wrong; he did not want to talk about what went wrong with the Bush administration, and you think of all of the sort of regulatory disasters ... You want to talk about what went wrong, about the people regulating Wall Street, and you couldn’t have an easier way of making that case about regulatory capture. You look at these agencies, who was in them, who was in charge of them, who they answer to, and they’re filled with lobbyists from the financial industry. It was open and shut. He doesn’t want to go back and talk about it.

Then you have the oil spill disaster, where the regulators were, again, asleep — completely missed it. Another perfect example, perfect object lesson for him to go back and talk about what’s wrong with the regulatory state. He never does. And this is something where protesters on both the left and right are talking about regulatory capture now, and about the insiders ruling the country. Everybody is talking about this—except for him. He let that victory just slip through his fingers because he doesn’t want to go and speak about the dark side of people’s suspicions. He wants to remain cheery and upbeat. [my emphasis in bold]
At one point, Frank uses the phrase "original sin" to refer to how key Obama's failure to aggressively address the economic crisis with a strong enough stimulus program was for his Administration.

I don't disagree with Frank's analysis, though I might nitpick a couple of points. In fact, I think he states the hollowness of Obama's dogmatic commitment to bipartisanship well.

But there's also an aspect of this that's intellectual and ideological, the neoliberal ideology of deregulation and privatization, an outlook that is backed up with boatloads of corporate lobbying and campaign money. It's not just a matter of Obama's personality, though that undoubtedly plays a large part. But Obama chooses his drive for compromise between the corporate Democrats and the Republicans, not between labor and progressive Democrats, on the one hand, and corporate Democrats on the other. He doesn't have a problem soundly rejecting compromise with his own party's base, as Tom Tomorrow captured so well in his Middle Man cartoon image:


The horizon for compulsory compromise in which Obama works is one bounded by the ideology of neoliberalism. There are differences between the two major parties. If anything, Frank in that interview understates the difference between Obama's recovery program and what we could have expected from Cheney and Bush. Most notably, the rescue of the auto industry would not likely have occurred under a Republican President. That's not a small thing.

A lot of this has to do with our national security state and the militarism of our foreign policy. There's no necessary connection between the specific kind of neoliberal ideology that dominates the major right and left parties of the US and Europe today. But there is a huge one in fact, especially in the case of the United States.

A number of good writers and analysts like Andrew Bacevich have been chronicling the problems with our current foreign policy of global dominance and the far-reaching militarization of our foreign policy. In his last full column for Salon, Glenn Greenwald talked about the perpetual fear-mongering and threat inflation involved in the ongoing War on Terrorism, which doesn't seem to have receded in priority in the least with the death of supposed terrorist super-mastermind Osama bin Laden: The sham "terrorism expert" industry 08/15/2012.

This Administration's "original sin" in my view was the Look Forward Not Backward policy toward torture perpetrators in the Cheney-Bush Administration. Prosecuting those crimes and not only reversing the torture policy - which I'm not convinced the Obama Administration has done completely - but also prosecuting the perpetrators at all levels was essential to re-establishing the rule of law that was so badly undermined by the previous Administration. And Obama refused to do it.

The politicization and dubious political prosecutions of the Ashcroft-Gonzales Justice Department is something that also should have been thoroughly vetted by the current Administration.

Obama's reluctance to prosecute the torture perpetrators was clearly related to his desire to continue the basic lines of the Cheney-Bush foreign policy. Such a prosecution would have exposed not only the misdeeds of policymakers in the previous Administration but also the collusion of military officials with them. It would also have meant the Republicans would have opposed him intensely on military and foreign-policy issues. As it is, they rhetorically condemn him for being insufficiently militant and too "weak" in foreign policy. But in practice, they have been largely in agreement with Obama's foreign policies.

Obama so far has been more restrained on Iran policy than a Republican President would likely have been. But he continues to escalate the confrontation with the Islamic Republic there. We can't be confident that Obama would not initiate a military attack on Iran in a second term.

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