In Salon, Thomas Frank laments the wasted opportunity of the Obama years. “Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?”
Frank’s piece is definitely a bit overwritten, with its “mausoleum of hope” and all. That being said, I’m on board with his central thesis, as I’ve said several times before. (In fact, I was glad to see when fixing the old archives lately, that however hopey-changey I felt in 2008, I was more measured in my writing than I remembered, bringing up the ominous example of Herbert Hoover in my post-election post and wondering what the heck was going on within two weeks of Obama’s inauguration.)
Also, to get a sense of what a bad place our party is at these days, just look at Kevin Drum’s ridiculous response to this Tom Frank piece. Drum, mind you, is the official blogger of Mother Jones, named after the famous labor leader. And he writes: “It’s easy to recognize this as delusional…Because — duh — the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn’t have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed…As for Obama, could he have done more? I suppose he probably could have, but it’s a close call.”
A close call? C’mon. As I responded on Twitter: “And all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This neoliberal horseshit would’ve made Mother Jones blanch. This piece sidesteps O’s GWOT record. 2. It ignores O’s penchant for starting negotiations where they should finish. 3. It presumes filibuster reform impossible. 4. It ignores that financial crisis response grew inequality. And so on.”
And, remember: This fatalistic “Americans are all centrists anyway, Obama did all he could” shrug is coming from the house blogger of one of our foremost progressive journals. It’s pathetic. This is yet another example of we progressive Democrats no longer having the courage of our convictions.
See also this very worthwhile Salon piece on Zephyr Teachout’s challenge to notorious douchebag Andrew Cuomo, by my friend and colleague Matt Stoller, which talks about this exact same phenomenon.
“The basic theory of the ‘New Democrat’ model of governance is that Wall Street and multinational corporate elites produce wealth through the creation of innovative financial practices and technology, and that Democrats should then help middle class and poor citizens by taxing this wealth, and then using some of it to support progressive social programs…This method of running the economy has become so accepted among Democratic leaders that writers like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Vox writer Matthew Yglesias now argue that there simply is no alternative…
“There is a hunger in the Democratic Party for making the party serve the interest of regular voters, not the rich. In 2008, liberal Democrats decisively broke from the Clinton legacy and voted for Barack Obama, with his mantra of hope and change. Obama, however, stocked his administration with Clinton administration officials like Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Janet Yellen. A joke going around Democratic circles after the election was that ‘Those supporting Obama got a president, those supporting Clinton got a job.’ Obama broke with the Clinton name, but brought the Clinton intellectual legacy, and Clinton’s Wall Street-backed machine, into governance…”
“The potentially transformative message of the Teachout-Wu campaign is that the problem is not solely one of personalities or tactical political approaches. Rather it is that the New Democrat model itself, and the Democratic party establishment, is fundamentally at odds with the party’s traditional liberalism…Teachout and Wu are trying to place the citizen at the center of policy. They do that through their proposals for public financing, for antitrust, for social insurance, infrastructure and labor.”
Without vision, the people perish. If we ever want to see the real and positive change that Americans were promised back in 2008, we progressives have to stop acting like we have no other option than to fall into line behind the leftiest of the centrists and clap harder for every occasional, diluted-to-all-hell scrap they throw our way. There’s more to life than Rockefeller Republicanism, and it’s not like we don’t have excellent historical templates to borrow from. We need to dream bigger, stop thinking the status quo is all there is, and push back.
Are Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu going to knock out Andrew Cuomo, a guy who’s quite obviously the poster child for everything that’s wrong with our party? Alas, probably not. But one does not always fight because there is hope of winning. And New York in 2014 is as a good a place as any to start the long uphill slog of taking back our party.
Meanwhile, Blake Zeff thinks Cuomo may have met his match in US Attorney Preet Bharara. “[Bharara] has not only taken possession of the files from the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission that Cuomo recently closed down as part of a budget deal, but has also publicly floated the possibility of investigating the governor’s alleged meddling in its investigations.”
“Bob radiated a passion for justice, and with joyful fervor he inspired everyone around him to share his belief in, and commitment to working for, a more democratic and just society. Through a long and varied career, Bob took on many roles and causes – but all of the chapters in his remarkable life were connected by his essential decency, kindness and compassion.” Bob Edgar, former Congressman, campaign finance activist, and president of Common Cause, 1943-2013.
Megg at Quiddity uncovers a keen historical reproduction of the time Theodore Roosevelt fought Bigfoot. (Actually, kids, this is really just a metaphorical representation of TR’s 1910 Oswatomie speech quoted above — unlike the time Abe and Iorek Byrnison brought forth the Emancipation Proclamation. That actually happened.)
Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call: In a decent companion piece to James Fallows’ foray on the subject earlier this year, The New Yorker‘s George Packer tries to figure out what the hell is wrong with the Senate. And one of the best answers is buried in the middle of the piece: “Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, ‘Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising.’“
The other big and much-needed solution: Filibuster reform. But with a handful of Democratic Senators already balking at the idea, that’ll be a tough climb this coming January, and no mistake. Nonetheless, it is very much a fight worth having. “[O]ver the past few decades the reflex has grown in the Senate that, all things considered, it’s better to avoid than to take on big issues. This is the kind of thing that drives Michael Bennet nutty: here you’ve arrived in the United States Senate and you can’t do fuck-all about the destruction of the planet.“
“The SpeechNow decision effectively widens the field of organizations that can raise and spend money on politics more freely in light of the Citizens United decision, which swept aside decades of legislative restrictions on the role of corporations in political campaigns.“
The disaster on the Gulf isn’t the only gusher to worry about. Relying almost exclusively on Citizens United for their reasoning, the three-judge DC Court of Appeals struck down limits on individual contributions to advocacy groups last March, paving the way for even more cold hard cash overflowing the system. [FEC overview.] “The D.C. Circuit’s ruling was the first to apply and significantly expand [Citizens United], which invalidated limits on corporate expenditures in federal campaigns.“
I had heard very ominous rumblings about this hearing in the days after CU, but somehow missed that the actual decision had been handed down (Working as intended: It was dumped on a Friday) and only caught it on account of yesterday’s injunction. (Weirdly, there was no press release from CREW, Common Cause, or Public Citizen either, although PIRG was on the case.) The FEC does seem to be looking toward a Supreme Court appeal…but it’s hard to see that turning out very well, is it?
Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Particularly that she’ll be replacing the irreplaceable John Paul Stevens. In any case, President Obama has made his second pick for the Supreme Court, and it is his Solicitor General and former Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan. “As solicitor general, Ms. Kagan has represented the government before the Supreme Court for the past year, but her own views are to a large extent a matter of supposition.“
Making the progressive case for Kagan: Larry Lessig, an old friend of hers: “The Kagan I know is a progressive…[T]he core of Kagan’s experience over the past two decades has been all about moving people of different beliefs to the position she believes is correct. Not by compromise, or caving, but by insight and strength. I’ve seen her flip the other side.” Lessig expounds on this coalition-builder argument here: “To hear the liberals talk about it, it sounds like they think we need a Thomas or Scalia of the Left…But nobody who understands the actual dynamics of the Supreme Court could actually believe that such a strategy would produce 5 votes.” (To which one must ask, really? Who’s gonna flip?)
Making the progressive case against Kagan: Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald: “[G]iven that there are so many excellent candidates who have a long, clear commitment to a progressive judicial philosophy, why would Obama possibly select someone who — at best — is a huge question mark?…I believe Kagan’s absolute silence over the past decade on the most intense Constitutional controversies speaks very poorly of her.” This was a follow-up from another piece, where he argued: “Kagan, from her time at Harvard, is renowned for accommodating and incorporating conservative views, the kind of ‘post-ideological’ attribute Obama finds so attractive.” Interestingly, this last part seems much the same argument Lessig’s making in her favor, with the valence changed.
(As an aside, this feud got a bit heated, with Greenwald deeming Lessig a liar and stooge. Having been on the wrong end of Greenwald’s wrath myself on the Citizens United case, Lessig’s rebuttal to this charge sounded all-too familiar: “Chill, Glenn. Dial down the outrage. Dial back the hyperbole. And stop calling those who applaud you liars…[Y]ou can make your point well enough without painting everyone else as liars or constitutional crazies.” True story.)
Anyway, speaking of Citizens United, since the President has explicitly said that decision is lousy law several times over, I presume he’s made sure Kagan is in agreement on that front. (He has, right?) And, as I said back during John Roberts’ nomination, my feeling is generally the president’s prerogative in choosing Supreme Court justices should be respected. (Can’t countenance Roberts’ lying, tho’.) So, if Kagan’s the president’s choice, I’m prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt and support the nomination.
But, quite frankly, I shouldn’t have to doubt (and here, the next two links are via Greenwald.) As the NYT editorial page well put it: “President Obama may know that his new nominee to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, shares his thinking on the multitude of issues that face the court and the nation, but the public knows nothing of the kind. Whether by ambitious design or by habit of mind, Ms. Kagan has spent decades carefully husbanding her thoughts and shielding her philosophy from view.“
So, sure, I guess it’s entirely possible Kagan is a secret superprogressive of the Leonard Cohen type. (“They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within.“) But there’s another explanation that’s more likely. And, loath as I am to agree with David Brooks, his column today echoes almost exactly what I was thinking:
“Kagan has apparently wanted to be a judge or justice since adolescence (she posed in judicial robes for her high school yearbook.) There was a brief period, in her early 20s, when she expressed opinions on legal and political matters. But that seems to have ended pretty quickly. She has become a legal scholar without the interest scholars normally have in the contest of ideas. She’s shown relatively little interest in coming up with new theories or influencing public debate. Her publication record is scant and carefully nonideological…What we have is a person whose career has dovetailed with the incentives presented by the confirmation system, a system that punishes creativity and rewards caginess.“
That’s my rub too, and it dovetails with larger problems I have with DC political culture. More often than not, the people who tend to succeed here are the ones who keep their head down, play the DC game, stay resolutely non-ideological and unobtrusive in their opinions. never go out on a limb, never say or do anything that could hurt their bid to be a Big (or Bigger) Shot down the road. (Hence, the whole phenomenon of The Village.)The problem is, these plodding, risk-averse careerist types are exactly the type of people you don’t want making decisions in the end, because they will invariably lead to the plodding, risk-averse and too-often rudderless politics of the lowest common denominator.
I’m really hoping the future Justice Kagan isn’t another example of this troubling trend, because as I said when Stevens retired: “The Court needs a strong and unabashed liberal conscience right now. What it emphatically does not need is another centrist technocrat that will help push the Court ever further to the right” But, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And when someone spends decades being so careful and circumspect in the face of so many obvious injustices, both by recent administrations and in the world at large…well, I really have to wonder about their judgment.
Expected it may be, but this is not good news. The President is saying all the right things about picking a Justice who will uphold campaign finance laws in the wake of the Citizens United disaster. But, as the pathetic recent capitulation on Dawn Johnsen showed once more, this White House too often shrinks from a necessary fight in the name of an elusive “bipartisanship” that, quite frankly, does not exist.
With Stevens gone and the fearsome foursome of Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia still roaming the chambers, the Court needs a strong and unabashed liberal conscience right now. What it emphatically does not need is another centrist technocrat that will help push the Court ever further to the right. The ball’s in your court, Mr. President — It’s time to show more of the progressive gumption we voted you in office to provide.
“When the Chief Judge joined in the argument about the continuing vitality of the corruption rationale for campaign finance restraints, he flatly accused Kolker of evading the Citizens United ruling. “I’m not hearing you address Citizens United,” Sentelle said. And Judge Thomas B. Griffith chimed in: “You’re trying to avoid Citizens United. This is a new world: corruption means a lot less than it did before.’”Hey, you said it, Judge. According to the good folks at SCOTUSblog, the doors to unfettered campaign cash are open in a big way in the minds of the DC District Court after Citizens United: “From the opening moment of the 65-minute hearing, most of the nine judges on the en banc Court treated the Supreme Court’s ruling…as the beginning, not the end, of expansion of those freedoms. When an FEC lawyer tried to bring up, and rely on, older precedents, he was reminded repeatedly that those came before Citizens United.“
President Obama’s stern words about the decision in his State of the Union address may have induced Justice Alito to expose himself as a partisan hack, but it seems, alas, that the Justice and his four conservative contemporaries will have the last laugh.