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Hippie-Punching

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A Wasted Opportunity. | So Now What?

“The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over — when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse….It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in — and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.”

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.

Update: Right on cue, the NYT delves into Andrew Cuomo’s hobbling of the state ethics commission. “[A] three-month examination by The New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”More here.

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.”

Anatomy of a Tantrum.


This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for, for a hundred years – but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get…somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

“Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intensions are and how tough we are…That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.

As I’m sure most of y’all know by now, the president decided to indulge in some cathartic lefty-bashing at his tax cut deal press conference earlier in the week. [Transcript.] At this point, the fact that Obama feels this way about progressives is not at all a surprise, and I feel like I’ve already responded to his appalling penchant for this sorta thing at length. So, here’re just a few numbered points about this latest sad window into Obama’s “pragmatic” mindset:

1) Alex Pareene at Salon cut right to the heart of the fallacy on display here: “[Obama] continues to imagine that his liberal critics are upset with the idea that compromises need to be made in order to accomplish progressive policy goals. Some of them are that stupid. But lots of them are actually critics of the White House’s legislative strategy, and their apparent willingness to preemptively compromise before the negotiations have already begun.Yep.

2) See also Paul Krugman: “Leave aside the merits for a moment: what possible purpose does this kind of lashing out serve? Will activists be shamed into recovering their previous enthusiasm? Will Republicans stop their vicious attacks because Obama is lashing out to his left? It was pure self-indulgence; even if he feels aggrieved, he has to judge his words by their usefulness, not by his desire to vent…[W]hat we really don’t need right now is a president who blames everyone but himself, and seems more concerned with self-justification than with sustaining the alliances he needs.

3) As I noted on Twitter, the president’s argument here is inherently contradictory. He began his presser by saying he had to make a bad deal because the Right, however wrongheaded, held stubbornly to their convictions. Then he verbally abuses the Left for…holding stubbornly to their convictions. Uh, it seemed to work pretty well for the GOP.

4) Speaking of Twitter, the Twitterverse response to the presidential presser is well worth perusing for gallows humor and hard truths. Take for example, “Obama: This is like the public option fight all over again where I caved and opposed the thing that reduced the deficit.

5) As many have pointed out now, the president is also wrong on his New Deal history. In the presser, he claimed Social Security was only for widows and orphans. Wrong. He’s thinking of the civil war pension system, circa 1862. I know that law degrees are considered the be-all, end-all of our civilization these days, but an ostensibly progressive president not understanding the origins of Social Security is sort of a big effing deal. (And he didn’t just misspeak — He’s said it before.)

6) As historian Thomas Ferguson noted several weeks ago, this is not the first time the president has badly screwed up the history of the New Deal in a way that was ultimately self-serving. (As an aside: Given they they chose to structure a major policy speech around a fake Lincoln quote, his communications staff isn’t much better.)

7) As Dan Froomkin pointed out, Obama’s argument about the public option is also contradictory. He argues that Social Security and Medicare started out small, than belittles the public option because it “would have affected maybe a couple of million people,” i.e. it would’ve started out small.

8) Obama also no longer seems to understand how the public option was supposed to work. Here’s Froomkin: “What the president conspicuously disregarded was that the central point of the public option was that its existence would exert enormous competitive pressure on the private insurance system. The goal was not to serve a particularly large number of people directly — that would only happen if the private offerings were terribly inadequate. The goal was to keep the private sector honest. So no matter how many people it enrolled, ‘the provision,’ as Obama put it “would have affected” tens of millions.” In other words, the public option was designed to be a yardstick. So, even in terms of recent history, there are some serious revisions going on.

9) Politico’s catty analysis of the president’s relationship with Chuck Schumer offered more insights on Obama’s thinking today: “Obama himself warned Schumer that the millionaire strategy could sink the stock market. When a vote on the millionaire plan came up short last Saturday, the administration gloated.” The vagaries of the stock market? Is that really what we’re basing our tax policies on these days? (Also, I don’t think Chuck Schumer, of all people, needs to be informed of when and how Wall Street will balk. I think he has his finger pretty solidly on that pulse.)

10) A day after the president’s remarks, Larry Summers solemnly informed us that not passing the millionaire tax cut would lead to a double-dip recession. This is basically the economic equivalent of the terror, terror, terror, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 argument. And, as David Dayen and Jon Walker both pointed out: If the economy is resting on that sort of knife’s edge, why’s the White House just reduce purchasing power by announcing a federal worker’s pay freeze? Something does not compute.

11) Obama at the presser again: “Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.” Um…do we really want to go there? Because I’m sure this would be news to Maher Arar. In any case, as a friend pointed out, this isn’t kindergarten — You don’t get a gold star just for “trying.”

Anyways, so, yeah, Obama doesn’t like “the professional left” very much. And, at this point, it’s safe to say the feeling is mutual. As for myself…well, these days I just feel like a sucker.

Minority Report.


Imagine for a moment you are president of the United States.

You were just elected in the midst of a worsening economic crisis, one that demands bold action and decisive leadership to confront. Fortunately, you enter office with an historic wind at your back: You enjoy unprecedented enthusiasm and goodwill from millions of new voters, a clear mandate for change, and, most importantly, sizable majorities in both the House and Senate.

You also know that the political opposition — who hold a long and storied record of being ruthless, craven and despicable to get what they want — will try to prevent your agenda by any means necessary.

And, being a student of history, you know that, particularly in the face of a poor economy, this political opposition is very likely to pick up congressional seats in the next election (with a few notable exceptions, one of which I’ll get to in a moment.) In other words, a pendulum swing against you is highly probable, and so the majorities you have are probably as big as they are ever going to get.

Basically, you have two years, and likely two years only, to do pretty much anything you want in order to grapple with this economic crisis. Do you [a] take a page from FDR’s 100 Days, go big, and push hard for the progressive agenda you laid down in your election campaign, which has the added benefit of enthusing the “rising American electorate” that got you elected? Or do you [b] try to ingratiate yourself with people who will always hate you, water down your signature legislative initiatives from the outset, and seemingly go out of your way to depress the lefty base that got you elected?

I think you see where I’m going with this.

First things first, let’s be clear about why the Republicans took back the House so decisively two days ago.

1) It’s the Economy, Stupid. Though it may be mostly Dubya’s fault, the economy is obviously still in terrible shape. The official unemployment rate hovers just under the double-digits, and real unemployment and underemployment levels are much higher. Household incomes are down, consumer debt is up, millions of homeowners are stuck with underwater mortgages, and millions more feel in danger of slipping under. As everyone knows, when economic times are bad, the party in power suffers.

Compounding the situation, families are feeling under the gun at exactly the same time that those same wealthy few who precipitated the Great Recession are now rolling in dough. Having evaded pretty much any and all serious consequences for the meltdown they created, the Big Brains on Wall Street are instead giving themselves record bonuses, and trying to profit from even more rampant corruption on the foreclosure front. To no one does this ugly sight look like change we can believe in.

2) Republicans voted, Democrats didn’t. Again, not rocket science: Democrats lost because Republicans came out and Democrats stayed home. Look at the breakdown of exit polls: As per the norm in midterms, the 2010 electorate was older than the population at large. (23% of the vote versus 13% of the population.) And 57% of those seniors, worried that the threat of Creeping Socialism might somehow interfere with their federal retirement security and universal health care, pulled the lever for Republicans.

Conversely, 29 million Obama voters did not show up to vote. “Hispanics, African Americans, union members and young people were among the many core Democratic groups that turned out in large numbers in the 2008 elections…In 2010, turnout among these groups dropped off substantially, even below their previous midterm levels.” Take voters under 30, for example, who vote Democratic at about the same rate seniors vote Republican. They went from 18% of the electorate in 2008 to 11% this year. Obviously, that’s a problem.

So, working back from these factors — economic performance and voter turnout — it follows that the two best things the administration could have done to improve Democrats’ standing this year would have been to get the economy moving again and to get the Democratic base fired up and ready to go. So what happened? Let’s look at the tape.

The Economy: As Paul Krugman has already pointed out, much of the story of this election was written way back in February 2009, when the Obama administration chose to settle on a stimulus package that was watered-down to appease Republicans who would never, ever vote for it. In fact, thanks to Larry Summers, the stimulus was low-balled from the start — Summers made sure Christina Romer’s higher-end projections for the amount needed never even made it to the president’s desk.

So the crystal was in the steel at the point of fracture, and mainly because Obama, doing the President Goldilocks routine that would become a trademark, watered down the Recovery Act early-on to appease an opposition that was unappeasable.

By late 2009, the warning signs that ARRA was probably too small were all over the place — not the least in the growing state budget crises seen all across the country. But even as Republicans throttled congressional attempts to remedy the situation, the Obama administration remained mostly passive…or, in the case of food stamps, worse. Many in the White House took up the standard of the deficit witchhunt. (Yes, there was some rhetorical urging of the tsk-tsk variety eventually, but that, as on so many other fights, was after the chips were already down.)

Going along with this frustrating passivity was the increasing sense over time that this administration, elected to be change we could believe in, was more than a little cozy with the Wall Street yokels who caused the economic disaster in the first place. Yes, TARP was originally Dubya’s baby — not that very many voters seemed to remember that fact. (And it’s hard to blame them when folks like Geithner keep touting its merits.) Still, acceding to the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street — with little to no strings attached — was an extraordinarily inopportune way to kick off an administration theoretically premised on fundamental change.

I have to confess that, at the time, I thought TARP was unfortunate but probably necessary. Two years later, I’m thinking I probably just just got railroaded, and didn’t know what I was talking about. (Hey, it wasn’t the only thing I was wrong about in 2008.) But, even back then, I argued that TARP had to come with game-changing restrictions on Wall Street’s behavior. Those, clearly, were not forthcoming.

Yes, Congress did pass financial reform — But let’s remember, Team Obama worked openly to weaken the bill, and even now certain admin folks are clearly trying to derail Elizabeth Warren, the best chance the financial reforms, however tepid, have at working as intended for consumers. (Or, to quickly take another example, there’s the matter of the HAMP foreclosure program, which, as David Dayen has documented, seems more concerned with recouping money for lenders than helping families in trouble.)

As on the finreg bill, so too on other fronts — and this is where we get to the suppressing turnout issue.

On health reform, which thank god eventually passed, we now know that the administration cut deals early on to kill drug reimportation on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry (even after Sen. Dorgan reintroduced the idea) and, more egregiously, to kill the public option on behalf of AHIP and the hospitals. Looking back, the president signaled the public option’s expendability in his September 2009 health care address, another classic example of the wait-too-long-then-try-to-swoop-in-and-save-the-day legislative strategy usually preferred by the White House. And by the eve of the midterms, he was openly mocking public option supporters at fundraisers.

But, even those fundamental breaks with real reform aside, the entire health care process got badly screwed up when the administration, in a misguided attempt to curry bipartisan favor for reform, let Max Baucus dink around for weeks on the Senate Finance Committee. While Republican Senators Snowe and Grassley played Lucy to Baucus’ Charlie Brown and kept moving the football, the Tea Party August of 2009 took shape, and almost a year in legislative time was lost. And, by the time Baucus finally released the durned thing, the bill had once again been watered down to gain imaginary Republican votes that were never, ever going to be forthcoming.

The litany of Obama’s other sins by now are well known. As noted before, this administration has been absolutely egregious on civil liberties, all the while telling us to “look forward, not backward” on Dubya’s torture regime. (But different rules for everyone else, it seems.) Meanwhile, Gitmo is still open, and DADT is still enforced. Immigration reform did not happen. Nor did energy reform, despite House Democrats going out on a limb to pass a bill way back in June of 2009. (Yesterday, Obama the “shellacked” buried this bill for good.) And so on.

If all these compromises and capitulation — which were never political necessities so much as unforced errors — weren’t enough to depress the base, the administration’s press arm continued a steady diet of hippie-punching. “Left of the left“, pajama-wearing bloggers, the “professional left” — time and again, “senior advisors” and press flaks went out of their way to scorn the people who sweat blood and tears to get them elected. I already mentioned Obama ridiculing public option supporters — Well, where did folks ever get the notion that a wonky, badly-named fix like the public option was the ground to fight on anyway? Because the president told us it was important.

To be clear: I am not arguing that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything (although, in almost all cases — including health care reform, much more credit should really go to the very unfairly maligned Speaker Pelosi — she’s the one who made it all happen.) But, at every point down the line, for every piece of legislation that did pass, you have to factor in the opportunity costs that were lost. And consistently, this administration has pursued the politics of the lowest common denominator. To quote the prescient Drew Westen once again:

I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is ‘liberalism,’ and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either. What’s they’re seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast — but getting there by November.

And, hey, look what happened.

Remember how I mentioned a midterm outlier way up at the beginning of this post? That was 1934 — when, in an economy even worse than the one America faces now, Roosevelt managed to pick up seats in both the House and Senate. FDR gave us the 100 Days, a flurry of political activity we haven’t seen before or since. Now, granted, the Roosevelt team did not have to contend with either unfettered money corrupting the system or a pathetic Fourth Estate in a death spiral — both severe problems with our current political culture that must be addressed. Still, when elected in the midst of a similar economic crisis, with similar expectations, this administration did not bring about a 100 Days. It gave us Three Months of Max Baucus dicking around to appease intractable Republicans.

So why did the 2010 shellacking happen? Because of the economy, yes. And because of low turnout, yes. And also because of troubling trends like corrupting money everywhere and a national press in severe decline — The fact that the media followed Christine O’Donnell more than any other 2010 candidate tells you all you need to know about that broken-down disaster we call the Village these days.

But, nonetheless, all of these determining factors were exacerbated in the wrong direction by the administration’s fatal addiction to the Fetal Position fallacy. As I said of this year’s State of the Union address, “people were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins. You’d think we Dems would have learned this by now. But curling up into a fetal position and mouthing moderate GOP-lite bromides will not stop the Republicans from kicking us, ever.

Some argue politics is the art of the possible. That’s true, but I believe much, much more was possible if this administration had actually deigned to fight for it.

Some say the president can only do as much as Congress lets him — he needs 60 votes, yadda yadda yadda. I’d say that he had 60 votes, and even then did not push to make things happen as much as he could. I would also argue that the presidency of the United States is actually a remarkably powerful position these days, that Obama has showed no inclination to act progressive on crucial matters like civil liberties that are totally in his bailiwick, and that, even now with a Republican House, the administration could move forward with a progressive agenda, if it so desired.

Some — such as pathetic, DLC-brand fortunate sons like Evan Bayh and Harold Ford — say progressivism was tried and found wanting. I would argue progressivism was not even tried.

Some say it is time to go for the Dems to embrace a more “centrist”, GOP-lite Third Way from now on. I think we’ve been experimenting with that sad sack of failure for decades now — it’s our First Way — and it’s been proven over and over again not to work. (Just ask the Blue Dogs, who got eviscerated on Tuesday. Why vote for Republican-lite when you can have the real thing?)

Basically, it comes to this. Without vision, the people perish…and vote GOP. And because this administration did not go big, because it did not produce the change people so desperately desired, and because it forsook the possibility of real progressivism early and often to indulge their fantastical belief in the magical unicorns of High Broderism, the Democrats have now lost the House — ironically the one branch of government that, under Speaker Pelosi, actually tried to get done what had been promised.

Now, matters are worse.

Illusion of Fulfillment.

The president told Democrats that making change happen is hard and ‘if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.’” As part of a continuing pattern of late, President Obama tells Rolling Stone that progressives need to stop whining about the way things are going and get happy, because, in what’s become a new talking point, “If you look at the checklist, we’ve already covered about 70 percent [of the 2008 campaign promises.]” (70%?! Uh, can I see this checklist?)

Anyway, this latest weird effusion against the base has already been well-critiqued and well-answered many times. See, for example, Glenn Greenwald and David Dayen: “I’ve never seen a politician run an election with the message ‘Don’t be stupid, quit your bitching and vote for me.’” I would only add two things:

1) As it turns out, the unhappy Dems among us are more likely to vote, so perhaps berating them for not clapping enough is not altogether productive. (Unless, of course, the WH is doing it as a Sistah Souljah bank shot to get independents, on the classic establishment premise that indies love hippie-punching.)

2) I’d love to live in a world where progressive bloggers have the power to move ginormous voting blocs, I really would. But it takes a certain type of top-down, Beltway-obsessive mentality to think that’s what’s going on here. The biggest reason voters are depressed is because the economy is, quite obviously, not doing so well at the moment, and people are feeling the pinch. And, that aside, most Obama voters don’t need blogs to tell them that this administration, on all too many fronts, hasn’t lived up to its promises.

If this White House wants to engage the base (and I really, really hope they do, for reasons personal, professional, and patriotic), then, for Pete’s sake, don’t browbeat and lecture the Left for being disappointed — Try to make them less disappointed! Give them some red meat, respond to their concerns, and, you know, do the things you were elected to do. Why this even has to be said is beyond me.

Clap louder, hippies.

They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.’ Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: ‘They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.’” In the virulently stupid department, insulting the base and further depressing midterm turnout = change we can believe in? Um, no, not really. Thankfully, I was away from civilization when press secretary Robert Gibbs threw his whiny temper tantrum about “the professional left,” so I missed out on the initial bout of aggravation about it.

Suffice to say, Robert Borosage, among others, was on the case: “The left is pushing the president from the left? The horror. The shame…The president is in trouble because his historic reforms were too timid, not too bold…We can argue about whether the president fought hard enough, or compromised too soon — but the reality is that the reforms, as bold as they were, are not sufficient to deal with the mess we are in.” And that doesn’t even get into the torture and civil liberties clusterfrak, where reform has been non-existent. Dennis Kucinich? I’d be happy with the Barack Obama I ostensibly voted for, thanks much.

WH to Bloggers: Drop Dead (Again).

[T]o the extent that the ‘liberal left’ is upset at the President, it’s because they are seeing a great opportunity slip away in real time. The only one that told the base that they could change America from the bottom up and bring forth a transformative new era of leadership is Barack Obama. If he didn’t want one, he shouldn’t have said anything.

In response to the most recent disparaging of liberal and progressive blogs by “senior administrative official” to his or her media lap dog of choice, FDL’s Dave Dayen gets to the heart of progressive consternation with Team Obama: “Nobody had a bigger challenge coming into office than Barack Obama but nobody had a bigger opportunity. And liberals like myself are generally peeved that the opportunity has been squandered. Yes, squandered.” Yep, sounds about right.

In very related news, with the passage of financial reform in the Senate today, The Prospect‘s Kevin Drum gets off a zinger about Obama’s legislative accomplishments thus far. I think, overall, this president could have accomplished much more than Drum’s biting joke suggests — most obviously on executive power issues like torture and indefinite detention. (Or, put another way, I just get irritated with people who throw up their hands and say the problem with our politics is entirely structural when you have an ostensibly-lefty president saying patently dumb things like this. Choices matter, and this administration makes terrible ones.) All that being said, Drum’s comment was still worth a (rueful) laugh regardless.

Kagan’s Time to Shine.

“‘I am confident that she’s a solid, reliable modern Democrat…She’s not George McGovern or whoever the liberal left of the Democratic party would want, but the left of the Democratic party isn’t where the party is any more. She’s a good, solid Clinton-Obama Democrat.‘”

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.


Update: Having said all that, this recently unearthed 1996 internal campaign finance reform memo to Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, on which Kagan is one of six signers, suggests she is in fact on the right side of the campaign finance reform issue: “It is unfortunately true that almost any meaningful campaign finance reform proposal raises unconstitutional issues and will provoke legal challenge. This is inevitable in light of the Supreme Court’s view — which we believe to be mistaken in many cases — that money is speech and attempts to limit the influence of money on our political system therefore raises First Amendment problems. We think…the Court should reexamine its premise that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment always entails a right to throw money at the political system.” So that’s a big check-mark in my book — Unfortunately, other Clinton-era memos are less promising.

Brownian Motion.


So, slow news evening, eh?

Well, first off, thanks, Massachusetts! To my many friends from the Bay State, I say this: Speaking as a son of South Carolina, I never, ever want to get the “you-hicks-are-keeping-us-back” routine from y’all again, thanks much.

So, yes, Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. And thus, in a truly bitter irony, a man who spent his life trying to achieve health care reform for all Americans has now been replaced by a guy sworn to kill the health care bill and armed with the 41st vote(?) that could potentially make it happen. (Yes, Virginia, it’s true. In our system, 41 > 59.) Well, in Brown’s defense, he has a nice truck.

Why did this happen? Well, everybody has a theory. Here’s mine, which boils down to two reasons.

1. Martha Coakley. I didn’t watch enough of the MA race to determine if she was a lousy candidate through-and-through, although I have my suspicions. Nonetheless, Ms. Coakley was undeniably a gaffe-prone standard-bearer. From calling Curt Schilling a Yankee to misspelling the name of the state in a political ad to, weirdly, insulting the very idea of glad-handing in public, Coakley was an out-and-out gaffe machine. Couple that with a lackadaisical campaign and the inexplicable decision to take an extended vacation in the heat of the race, and you have a recipe for disaster. There’s a reason we’ve been telling the story of the Tortoise and the Hare for a couple thousand years now.

2. Change. In fending off Rahm Emanuel’s charge that she’s at fault for this fiasco, pollster Celinda Lake aptly summed up the main problem here: ““If Scott Brown wins tonight he’ll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it.” Put another way: All across the country, the current occupants of the White House tapped into a deep and strongly-felt yearning for a transformative presidency in 2008…and then spent pretty much the entirety of their first-year in office playing the same old tired in-the-Beltway reindeer games that made people ill in the first place. This is not change voters believed in, and it has made voters angry, or depressed, or both.

Equally demoralizing is the neverending spectacle of a stalled-out health care bill. If I’d hazard a guess, most voters aren’t really delving into the ins and outs of this all-consuming debate, particularly by Month Eight or whatever it is. But they can see just from casually following along that the Democrats are really struggling to get this done, that the White House has been letting the bill get bogged down and eviscerated in the Senate — first in August, and again in November/December — and that, from the Big Pharma deal to the disappearing public option to all of the Lieberman/Stupak/Nelson/Snowe shenanigans on display, the usual Washington rules are in full effect right now. Once again, this is not change people can believe in. With each passing month that the bill has languished, we Dems have looked weaker and weaker. And if you continually force voters to choose between venal and incompetent, they’ll tend to gravitate toward the former.

Now, the good news: 1. First, and this cannot be stressed enough, we have an 18-seat majority in the Senate. It’s 59-41 people…most presidents can only dream of having that kind of majority, Dubya included. So there’s really no good reason — none, zip, zero — that we shouldn’t see more progressive accomplishments from this administration in the year to come. It just takes an act of will. I don’t remember the Republicans getting all kerfuffled about operating with 51 votes. Nor did Hubert Humphrey and the Johnson Senate have any problem with blithely ignoring the Senate parliamentarian when it got in the way of legislation.

2. It’s January of 2010, i.e. almost a full year before the “real” election day. In other words, this Brown victory is really just a shot across the bow. And if the administration course-corrects now, we may even end up gaining a year in time — and several seats we might well have lost — had this lazy centrist drift continued on until next November.

Of course, that’s only good news if the administration and the Democratic Party draw the right lessons from yesterday’s defeat. Suffice to say, this afternoon, it does not look good: Enabled, as usual, by the Serious People™ who comprise the broken-down wreck we once called beltway journalism, all the usual suspects are currently blaming Coakley’s loss on “the Left,” or more specifically the hippie-liberal cast of Obama’s administration thus far. Uh, say what now?

It’s hard to answer this ridiculous charge any better than did the estimable Glenn Greenwald this afternoon: “‘In what universe must someone be living to believe that the Democratic Party is controlled by ‘the Left,’ let alone ‘the furthest left elements” of the Party? As Ezra Klein says, the Left ‘ha[s] gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months’….The very idea that an administration run by Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel and staffed with centrists, Wall Street mavens, and former Bush officials — and a Congress beholden to Blue Dogs and Lieberdems — has been captive ‘to the Left’ is so patently false that everyone should be too embarrassed to utter it.

Truer words and all that. If we want to stop seeing these sorts of Brownian upsets in the future, the answer is emphatically not to curl up within the usual GOP-lite protective camouflage and hope the flak dies down. People see through that malarkey immediately. (As Harry Truman is rumored to have said, “In an election between a Republican and a Republican, the Republican wins every time.“) No, the answer is to move forward from this point with the courage of our convictions, and to start delivering to American families the real and fundamental change they were promised a year ago. It’s just that simple, folks.

Left Behind.

“‘I don’t understand why the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo,’ said a senior White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘We’ve gotten to this point where health care on the left is determined by the breadth of the public option. I don’t understand how that has become the measure of whether what we achieve is health-care reform.’” In one of the dumbest unsourced administration quotes since “the reality-based community,” an unnamed White House official indulges his/her pique with progressives by marginalizing the public option.

Uh, what? First off, this is your plan, White House folks, and not really the type of thing you want to characterize as “left of the left.” Second, the “left of the left”, as most people know, would actually prefer a single-payer system, and in fact find the public option to be pretty weak tea — the type of compromise between comprehensive reform and the status quo that we should have ended up with at the close of negotiations, not used as the opening salvo of our health care strategy. Third, the quote demonstrates a troubling arrogance toward, and an idiotic contempt for, both the administration’s natural allies in this fight and the very people who put them in office. Spitting in the eye of progressives in order to seem moderate to folks who will never, ever agree with you is not only counter-productive, but pointless and insulting.

Bad messaging, bad politics…This is an amateur move, and no mistake. One hopes Mr./Mrs. Anon. at the very least caught an earful about it this morning. And that there are some people in and around the inner circle who think a little more highly of this same public option that the administration has pushing for months. And that the archetypal DLC/Third Way contempt for progressives evinced in the quote is nipped in the bud, like, yesterday. These type of “let’s scoff at the lefty fringe” insults, like the self-aggrandizing “centrist” careerists who make them, are not part of change we can believe in. In fact, they sound entirely too much like more of the same.

TLDR version: Trying to marginalize the lefties who are behind you in order to appease the righties who hate you is not a winning strategy, in health care or anything else. Nor is it at all what we voted for. Get it together.

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