a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Dear Jim: why I still won’t vote for Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th October 2012

“Peace, fellow Obama voters, I support the same war criminal you do for president, but just like the title.”
— Jim Henley, Rock-’Em, Sock-’Em Obots

As Obama’s poll numbers continue to swirl down the drain following his first debate with Romney, this whole post may be another example of what my brother once called my “comically bad timing.”  Nevertheless, I want to respond to a number of excellent posts by Jim Henley that have (as usual) challenged me to think again about my own positions.  The quote above is an appetizer; here’s more of a main course, with a memorable title — Justice Will Take Us Millions of Intricate Moves, Some of Them Annoying and Even Dispiriting — borrowed from the poet William Stafford:

I personally don’t think anything we do re this November’s ballot, including voting Libertarian or Green, will fix the country’s bipartisan commitment to militarism and panopticon. So I favor deciding what to do with November’s ballot for other reasons. That does unfortunately mean choosing which slate of war criminals should occupy the White House starting in January, as opposed to whether a slate of war criminals should do so. That hurts! I mean, I’m not putting you on here. It’s a shitty choice. In my case it compounds the stupidity I feel over thinking I was voting for something else entirely in 2008, and I hate feeling stupid. The reasons why I think it’s worth doing anyway are:

1. This (making the country more humane) is going to take more than one night.
2. On issues from health care to women’s rights, a Democratic victory will make many people’s lives better than a Republican one.
3. The actual voting will be over quickly.
4. Because voting will be over quickly, it will not stop us from doing all the other things we might choose to do to make the country genuinely better over time.

C’mon, it’s funny.

He even proposes a way out for “wavering progressives,” especially in swing states, proposing they make deals to vote for Obama if Obama supporters make it worth their while with the right action pledges.  And he hits uncomfortably close to my own mark in suggesting (to Obama supporters, actually), that “You’re not going to shame somebody onto your side. And at some point, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re no longer even trying to convert them. You just want to hurt their feelings.”  I suspect there’s going to be much more of that coming the other way, but I’ve done some of it myself, and I’ll try to stop.  Soon.

It’s interesting that Jim brings up the “what’s your vote worth to you” approach.  In “Why vote? When your vote counts for nothing“, Kevin Baker of Harper’s sees the elimination of votes for liquor/cash/connections as the key but temporary triumph of American democracy in the early 20th century.  To be sure, Jim doesn’t advocate trading votes for material gain — but the idea still essentially concedes that the alleged connection between voter and candidate is only a fiction in the early 21st century: we’re more sure of value in our vote if we trade it for something else than if we merely vote for a major party candidate based on his/her statements to us.

To be clear: that’s not Jim’s fault.  He’s got a point, though he doesn’t quite put it the way Baker does:

Try to imagine, if you can, candidate Barack Obama in 2008 running on a platform of balancing the budget and appeasing Wall Street by reducing Social Security benefits, restricting Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, increasing the retirement age, and never challenging the established hierarchy of the Democratic Party but rather returning members of the old Clinton regime to positions of power in his administration, especially those advocates of unregulated capitalism who did so much to bring on the economic crisis in the first place.  This candidate Obama would not have been elected, which is of course why you did not see him.  Yet President Obama has pursued these policies throughout his administration — and they appear to be exactly what he had in mind all along.  […]

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The curious incident of the 47% in the debate

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th October 2012

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
(“Silver Blaze“, Arthur Conan Doyle)

We watched last Wednesday’s presidential debate at the neighbor’s house, and their young daughter brought down a white board to keep score as the debate proceeded.  And one thing even a sixth grader — are you paying attention, David Axelrod? —  knew to watch for was the word “forty-seven.”

As may or may not be well known, that score at the end of the evening turned out to be 3-0 for Romney.*  What happened?  Why did Obama refuse to land a completely legitimate punch painting Romney as the out-of-touch, contemptuous plutocrat he is?  David Corn — the Mother Jones reporter who broke the “47%” video that had the Romney campaign reeling for much of September — was understandably interested as well.  The answer he got from a “top campaign official”:

Not that we won’t talk about it again. We will. But [what’s] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We’ve got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it’s sunk in. Ultimately the president’s goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.

Hm. Simple folk like you and me might think that Romney’s Boca Raton “47%” remarks might be the perfect vehicle for speaking to voters about their economic choices.  While Romney could simply disavow those remarks (and did the next day), even a rudimentary political talent might have had some good responses ready during the debate, whether short and brutal (“there he lies again”) or amused (“as usual, it’s even hard for Romney to keep up with Romney’s positions!  The one thing you can be sure of is that whatever he says now in public, he’ll gladly say the opposite in private — especially when he’s talking to his campaign contributors.  Whose side are they on?”)

Clearly, Obama thought about the “47%” gambit,” played out the moves, and decided he didn’t want to go there.  Why would that be? Could it be that Romney and Obama aren’t the high-contrast economic policy choices they’re commonly described as?  Might the Obama campaign be just as interested in how it will win as in whether it will win?

I think so, and I think the reason has to do with Obama’s plans for one of the most fundamental pocketbook issues there can be for the 47%: Social Security.  During the debate, Obama actually preferred to stress agreement between himself and Romney on the safety net centerpiece: You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. ” 

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Post-debate impressions

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th October 2012

Though I’m an Obama critic, I say it without joy: I think Romney arrived eager for a fight, Obama didn’t, and it showed.

I also say it without great surprise, and I think even if you’re a died-in-the-wool Obama supporter, you know it’s true you aren’t surprised either.  The question for each of us is how we evaluate and explain that an Obama doesn’t come ready to rumble with a Romney.

For some, I suppose the answer is, “Pfft.  Not the president I’d want anyway — loaded down with a bunch of populist zingers about 47%, Bain Capital harvesting the weak, whatnot.  Nope, I like No Drama Obama, cool and aloof, at most shaking his head mildly about some Romney charge.”

My answer is different: I think the fundamental problem is that Obama doesn’t really disagree with Romney on all that much — from “Race to the Top,” to Dodd-Frank, to Simpson-Bowles, to deficit reduction ueber alles, to — as he pointed out himself — health care reform.  And so he magnifies the differences there are.  And then he has no terribly persuasive, simple rejoinder when Romney is able to wriggle free of Obama’s judgments by disputing the premise in the case of health care, or to “even” out-populist Obama by relabeling as “too big to fail” the SIFI (systemically important financial institutions) feature of Dodd-Frank.*  And instead of persuasively “welcoming their hatred,” as FDR once did, Obama can only stand figuratively slack-jawed when someone like Romney accuses him — him! — of fomenting partisan gridlock.

I’ll check out reactions on the Internet next, so maybe I’ll learn that Romney’s affect was too cocky — a “Gore sighing”/”Bush checking his watch” moment — or that everybody’s embarrassed for him on the $5 trillion dollar dispute.  But I doubt it; Obama’s other problem is that even if Romney tells outright whoppers, voters aren’t going to be able to suss out what’s fact and what’s fiction in the next four weeks — and tonight, Obama certainly wasn’t much help on that score either.

I think if you’ve just tuned in and you’re a dissatisfied citizen looking for change and energy, you might decide to give Romney a shot.  Maybe that won’t be enough for Romney.  But if I were Obama’s campaign team, I’d be worried. Their romp through September is over.

* And he may have a point; Bloomberg reported that in the wake of Dodd-Frank — ostensibly written to prevent “too-big-to-fail” — the 5 largest US banks actually increased their share of the market from 43% in 2006 to 58% in 2011, leading critics to speak of “too bigger to fail.”

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Pre-debate prep

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd October 2012

“Heyyy wealthy ladies!”

“Sometimes I think that peace prize winners shouldn’t have a kill list”

“US political system is hostile to Americans.”
Wait, what? Oh. This one won’t be at the debate, but have a look…

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Lockstep liberals police the field

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th September 2012

One weekend recently I was helping coach my daughter’s community league soccer team; to start the 2d half, we put in a new goalie so the first half goalie could get some field playing time.  But she’d never played the position before, so I thought I’d run over and give her a few tips even I was aware of: don’t stand squarely on the goal line, cut off angles, direct your defense, find the open outlet rather than just whacking the ball up the field.

Within about a minute, the opposing coach came kind of scuttle-walking over at high speed in a weird, bent-over, I’m-not-really-here-but-I’m-embarrassed-for-you fashion and informed me that coaches in our soccer league can’t be on the back line of the field.  Then he kind of banked and scuttled back.

His team was ahead 4:0.

I’m put in mind of this by any number of recent finger-wagging missives by supporters on the topic of what real progressives would do instead of complaining about Obama, e.g., Rebecca Solnit’s “Stop Leftsplaining” in Mother Jones, or Erik Loomis’s ongoing Lecture Series for Dull Progressives at “Lawyers, Guns & Money.”  Solnit, variously:

O rancid sector of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like a Teletubby.  […] I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing.  […] …as a Nevada activist friend put it, “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don’t vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters.”

And here I was this close to donating some cash to the magazine for their role in the Romney 47% expose. Instead of a line by line rebuttal of Solnit’s screed, I’ll just say this: if a few “bitching radicals” can really “suppress” — honestly, how dare Solnit repeat that slander — the vote in Nevada by talking about stuff Solnit simultaneously says “a lot of us already know,” then bitching radicals aren’t her problem, her candidate is.

At least Loomis — who loved Solnit’s piece, of course —  is more specific.  I’ve already mentioned his spluttering “Only a White Person” rejoinder to the Friedersdorf “Why I Can’t Vote For Obama” Atlantic Monthly cri de coeur/quality concern trolling/call it what you need to, call it what you like. In an earlier post, Loomis explained that he “realized the folly of my own political errors and regretted my Nader vote” in 2000 because Nader, in his view,

…wasn’t committed to pushing progressive change from either within or outside the system. He took no leadership positions within progressive movements after 2000 to move the country back to the left except to make another vanity run for president in ’04.  […]  You turn the Democratic Party into what you want it to be by controlling the mechanisms of everyday party life. By becoming a force that must be reckoned with or at least co-opted.

Now I actually do try to do that — kind of — not by burrowing into the local Democratic Party, but by pushing local action about local civil liberties and civil rights concerns.  Thing is, as far as I can tell there often aren’t that many of us: the Washington Post recently reported that “Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35.”  It appears that power doesn’t just corrupt politicians, it can corrupt all too many of their supporters as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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Drones, civil liberties, and other stuff only a white person would write about

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th September 2012

So Conor Friedersdorf wrote “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” and Erik Loomis at the well known, sensible, liberal blog “Lawyers, Guns & Money” called that “An Essay Only a White Person Could Write,” explaining that Mr. Friedersdorf’s essay was “all about drones, civil liberties, and such,” which Mr. Loomis manfully admitted “Obama has indeed sucked on,” but “given that Friedersdorf probably doesn’t have to worry much about his next paycheck or be concerned about having an unwanted fetus in his body, it’s a luxury for him to be a one-issue voter on this particular issue.”

Actually, Friedersdorf raised not one, but a bunch of issues, and while yes, they mainly come back to human rights “and such,” he also says this:

Obama ran in the proud American tradition of reformers taking office when wartime excesses threatened to permanently change the nature of the country. But instead of ending those excesses, protecting civil liberties, rolling back executive power, and reasserting core American values, Obama acted contrary to his mandate. The particulars of his actions are disqualifying in themselves. But taken together, they put us on a course where policies Democrats once viewed as radical post-9/11 excesses are made permanent parts of American life.

Put a little more bluntly, by now you know you can’t really believe a word Obama says, which seems like a fairly substantial “meta-issue” to add to the little bitty human rights ones.

Give me some examples, you say?  Well, going to war in Libya without a declaration of war, for one.  In his otherwise excellent post “Is It Moral for Lefties to Vote for Obama?” Henry Farrell waves this one off, but he shouldn’t; Obama expressly said in the 2008 campaign that he wouldn’t do that,* a lot of people believed him, it mattered because lots of Americans wanted some pretty high barriers between us and the next unnecessary war, and (foolishly, it turned out) hoped Obama would be better than rivals such as, say, Hillary Clinton in this respect.

Just as Obama seemed to promise a less wartorn future, he also seemed to herald a future unsullied by the ethnic witchhunts of the Bush years.  As early as 2004, in his famous convention keynote speech, he warmed my heart and others by saying, “If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties”; he returned to the theme again in his inaugural speech: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’ sake.”

But give them up he did — and not just in some “Whereverstan” halfway around the world, but right here.  Among the top examples:

(1) With the help and encouragement of the CIA, the New York Police Department conducted blatantly racist, unconstitutional, unfounded surveillance of entire Muslim-American communities — without finding a single terrorist, though they did manage to photograph some suspicious child care centers.

(2) There’s a deeply disturbing pattern of “preemptive prosecutions” of Muslim-Americans, a practice in which young Muslim-American males are coaxed and baited into considering wrongdoing, are merely arguably in the process of doing so, or have simply found themselves in the crosshairs of some overzealous prosecutor.  I attended an event last January in which the desperate families of such men spoke up on behalf of young men like Ziyad Yaghi, arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison for decades for what amounted to loose talk and paintball practice:  32 years in Supermax prison.  Or like Ahmed Abu Ali, for studying Islam in Riyadh and having a terrorist “confession” beaten out of him by Saudi police: life sentence in a Supermax prison.

(3) Meanwhile, another Muslim-American, Tarek Mehanna, was sentenced to 17.5 years in a Supermax prison for… wait for it… simply translating a document written by Al Qaeda members from Arabic to English.  The case led ACLU’s Nancy Murray to write, “It’s official. There is a Muslim exemption to the First Amendment.

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Outgrowing Booker T. Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd September 2012

In my previous post, I took up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President,” writing that “Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear,” and concluding “As Coates suggests elsewhere in his essay, there are interesting parallels with Obama in America’s past.”  To wit:

“[Obama’s] approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity.”  

That sounds about right to me — extremely sad, at best, but about right: someone who (despite slogans of “Hope” and “Change”) routinely settled for a situation instead of setting out to fundamentally change it.

Sad at best, because Obama has considerably less justification for cautious, tactical, “temperamental” conservatism than Booker T. Washington had.  And unlike Booker T. Washington’s constituency, 21st century Democrats have considerably less justification for settling for it either.  Washington was an unofficial leader of a besieged, impoverished people facing not only the daily indignities of prejudice and racism, but brutal ethnic cleansings, unspeakable lynchings, widespread debt peonage and a vicious convict labor prison gulag.   It wasn’t that unreasonable to prefer cautiously building strength to the shorter, more dangerous choice of confrontation.*

Obama, by contrast, is the President of the United States of America; he took office after an electoral landslide that solidified his party’s control of both houses of Congress; he was inaugurated before an adoring, mobilized throng of millions.  The ongoing ‘racialization’ political handicap that Coates discusses is no figment of the imagination —  but it also can not have suddenly become a decisive handicap to President Obama’s political ambitions once he had reached the Oval Office.

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
Instead, it’s fair to reflect (yet again) on what, precisely, those ambitions are or ever were — not for high office, but for what Obama would do and how he would do it when he got there.  David Sirota’s 2006 piece “Mr. Obama Goes To Washington” remains one of the most useful analyses of that question.  In Sirota’s judgment,

…[Obama] appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).

This being a time when he was still courting progressive voters, Obama valiantly… tried to have it both ways.  Sirota reports:

““You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in,” he said. “The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that’s different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council].”

My takeaway from Obama’s statement (and the ensuing 6 years) is therefore that when Obama adopts some neoliberal Beltway conventional wisdom, then that’s what he believes in — and meanwhile he’d like us to believe his goals are ours.

The trouble for Obama is that now that he’s president, the “shared goals” part is easier to disprove, starting with the extrajudicial drone assassinations and terror strikes Coates put front and center in his own essay.  The Obama administration has also given up on any prosecution of torturers; it’s allowing detainees to rot and die in indefinite detention –uncharged, unprosecuted, even approved for release.  It has engaged in unprecedented, punitive investigations, harrassment,  and prosecutions of national security journalists and whistleblowers.  It has pushed for renewals of the egregious PATRIOT and FISA Amendment Acts.   And Obama notoriously co-designed and then signed the NDAA and its indefinite detention provisions — with the signing conveniently timed for the evening of  New Year’s Eve, 2011.

And even if you’re bored with mere human rights, civil liberties,  or rule of law issues, there are plenty of bread and butter reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s leadership and policies, or even outraged by them: income inequality growth that was worse under Obama than Bush; a pitiful mortgage relief program intended to “foam the runway” for banks instead providing real relief to struggling homeowners — and intentionally leaving $300 million in potential mortgage relief unspent; a White House triumphantly touting a debt ceiling agreement that “Reduces Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower” — at just the time when Keynesian domestic spending was urgently needed to revive a strangled economy; taking Bush era tax cuts off the table prior to the 2010 election; repeatedly putting Social Security and Medicare benefits ‘on the table.’

Indeed, where at least “economic progress in exchange for political impotence was the touchstone of Washington’s creed,” as W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Lewis has put it*, Obama’s bargain may be the preservation, even exacerbation of a failing economic and political status quo in return for his own political stature — but ongoing progressive/liberal impotence.

I think the common denominators are more important, though: elite support for the political aspirations of a conveniently conservative, charismatic black leader.  In both cases, the rise to fame and power began with a nationally celebrated speech, one that served constituents less than the speaker’s own relentless climb up the ladder.

In Washington’s case, it was his 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition speech — an eloquent call for racial peace, an argument to focus on economic growth …but arguably also a surrender speech to white supremacy. Not surprisingly, Washington was suddenly white America’s — and (thanks in part to the “without strikes and labor wars” line) especially white business America’s — favorite black spokesman.  Washington was able to set up an increasingly powerful nationwide black political machine from his desk at Tuskegee Institute, fueled by the dollars of magnates like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Wanamaker, and George Eastman, to name a few.  Benefactors and recipient shared a common outlook on what to do with those dollars: hire or support those who didn’t rock the racial boat, deny those, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who would not accept long term second class citizenship, social inequality, and racial terror.

Similarly, Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address launched Obama onto the national stage.  And in retrospect,  like Washington’s Atlanta speech, it succeeded less by telling hard truths than by flattering its listeners that the country was basically fine, they were basically what was right with it,  Obama was basically the proof, and all that was required was pretending we all agreed with each other.    The upshot was to “affirm the greatness of our Nation” in light of Obama’s own “unlikely” and “improbable” presence on the podium, and (just as Washington established in his 1901 autobiography ‘Up From Slavery’) in light of his compelling biography.

There’s another parallel between Booker T. and Barack H. that’s closely connected to the elite support they received: their frequent validations of outsider critiques of and attacks on their constituencies.  Even Jesus just said “turn the other cheek” —  he didn’t say “agree with the one who slaps you.”

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Eisenhower Democrats

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th August 2012

It’s easy to dismiss the froth of election-related ads, articles and Internet campaign memes that’s accumulating as the November election approaches, but if nothing else, it can show how candidates and their supporters would like to appear.  For Democrats — and unfortunately, even for ones in the White House — the answer often seems to be: I’d like to be an old school Republican — I like Ike.

This is a really stupid message

Popular and well-spoken pundit Rachel Maddow, for instance, once famously defined “liberal” as being “in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform” ; the quote is making the rounds again in 2012.  Chalk that up as one last victory for 1956 Republicans; Ike was probably a better Republican than most of the current crop, but that’s no reason to hold him up as an icon to the left.

Sure, I get it: the intent is to say “Republicans used to agree with us on things they don’t now.”  On the other hand, of course, those Republicans are all dead.  And even with the “almost” Maddow wisely includes, the main thing this approach accomplishes is to shrink away from what Democrats do or might stand for, adopt past Republican views as a “good enough” standard, and give a pass to Republican disasters like the Taft-Hartley Act or interventions in Guatemala and Iran.*

And it’s not just Maddow.  After the debt ceiling debacle of 2011, the Obama White House itself invoked the good old days of Eisenhower to defend that disastrous deal.  Touting the outcome as a “bipartisan compromise,” the White House fact sheet “Bipartisan Debt Deal: A Win for the Economy and Budget Discipline” trumpeted the bullet point “Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower.” Like Maddow, the Obama White House effectively abandoned the goals of Eisenhower-era and post-Eisenhower *Democrats*; using Eisenhower-era spending as a benchmark all but conceded that worthy, signature Democratic efforts like Medicare or the Great Society were wastes of time.

Nevertheless, “Eisenhower Democrats” have taken up points like this one as some kind of triumphant vindication of the Obama team’s economic policies.  This May, Forbes columnist Rick Ungar relayed a Marketwatch finding pointing out that Obama’s own year-over-year budget increases were the lowest of any post-World War II president —  — as if that were a good thing during a crippling recession with hundreds of thousands mired in debilitating, long term unemployment.

So is this

The graphic to the left may mark some kind of low point in the trend of Democrats trying to out-Republican the Republicans.  Think about its message for a second:

“The next time someone tells you that Obama is destroying the economy, remind them that the stock market and corporate profits are at all-time highs.  When they tell you that this hasn’t helped them any, remind them they’ve just admitted Trickle-Down Economics doesn’t work.”

With friends like these, Democrats don’t need any enemies. Corporate profits and the stock market index aren’t the measures of the economy’s health that Democrats should be watching — employment, inequality, and access to baseline public goods should be.  To me, the statement just proves (1) Obama executes Republican goals well, (2) it doesn’t do regular folks (like Obama’s *opponents*!) any good, and (3) Obama’s *supporters* don’t seem to get that.   It’s a really, really strange argument to showcase. “Boom.” Actually, if someone’s telling you these days that the economy is being destroyed, chances are they’re not “admitting” trickle down economics doesn’t work — that’s their whole point.  It just doesn’t seem to be Obama’s.  Or, it would seem, many Democrats’ points either.

Defense spending, 1970-2011 in 2011 dollars.
Note the final three years, 2009-2011.
(Source: Defense Department via CATO Inst.)

While more and more of them are apparently adopting the Eisenhower-era slogans “I like Ike” or “what’s good for corporate America is good for the country,” one thing Democrats ought to remember the Eisenhower era for generally goes unheeded — his warning about the military-industrial complex and the vast amounts of money the nation squanders on defense spending. Instead, the typical Democratic talking point these days boils down to “we are *so* spending too much on the military!”  The syndrome is perfectly illustrated by a February, 2012 Center for American Progress headline “Wall Street Journal Graph Falsely Suggests Military Spending Is On The Decline.”

Indeed it isn’t. But that’s not something for progressives to adopt a tone of injured pride about.

The 1956 GOP platform included paeans to brutal and/or anti-democratic US interventions in Guatemala and Iran. Also, as the 1956 Democratic Party platform notes, the Republicans were taking credit for a minimum wage hike they wanted to be lower than the Democrats who passed it did.  Similarly, Democrats wanted to repeal the disaster for labor that was the Taft-Hartley Act, while Republicans wanted to improve it to better protect the rights of management.  Democrats were no cup of tea in the 1950s either, but there was still a reason they were FDR’s and Adlai Stevenson’s party, not Ike’s: they were more consistently on the side of the average American, not the one percent.


UPDATE, 8/31: more and better on the Democratic Party’s adoption of deficit-reduction ueber alles by Corey Robin (“We’re Going To Tax Their Ass Off!”)  and Alex Gourevitch (“Pastiche without Purpose: Democrats and the Politics of Debt”).

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Todd Akin: the best opponent a corporate Democrat could buy

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd August 2012

In the so-called false good Samaritan con, one con artist first creates a problem (e.g., steals a wallet, lets rats loose in the neighborhood), then another rides to the rescue (e.g., retrieves the wallet, offers pest control services) and demands a reward.  Something similar is happening in Missouri’s Senate race: a created problem, a less than fully deserved reward.

Over the weekend, Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin repeated a revealing, reprehensible, and medically false statement* popular among pro-forced birthers about how “legitimate” (read: forcible) rape was somehow different from other rape and was less likely to lead to conception.  He has since compounded the insult by saying what he really meant was that women often lie about rape.  The result has been a well-deserved firestorm of disapproval, thereby considerably boosting beleaguered incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill’s chances: one poll showed Akin losing 8 points overnight, dropping him into a statistical tie with Senator McCaskill.

The thing is, though, that Akin became the Republican candidate with help from… Claire McCaskill and the Democratic Party.  On August 8, Sunlight Foundation’s Keenan Steiner reported:

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Democratic outside groups, pouring in over $1 million during Missouri’s Republican Senate primary, got the guy they wanted: Rep. Todd Akin, who Tuesday upset two other Republicans to take the GOP nomination.

The thinking was he was more beatable by Democrats than the Republican frontrunners he defeated. So as Akin portrayed himself as the most conservative candidate to Republican primary voters, McCaskill ran ads agreeing with him.

Now Akin is definitely a misogynist moron. But that’s what makes him so very useful to nebbishy corporate-Democratic politicians like Claire McCaskill, who among other things sponsored “CAP Act” legislation essentially putting Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, who helped kill an “audit the Fed” bill for bailout transparency, and who boasts companies like Monsanto, Boeing, and (wait for it) Bain Capital among her top 20 campaign contributors.  If it weren’t for crazy Akin, a lot of people would notice McCaskill looks a lot like a Republican herself. And as another Missourian once said, “if it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time.”

So let’s get off our high horses about Akin for maybe just a minute or two, and not pretend real Democrats and/or progressives benefit much when Democratic backroom political decisions court disasters like him.

First of all, of course, Akin might still hang in there and win.  What does that say about Democrats stewardship of women’s reproductive rights as opposed to stewardship of Senate seats?  Should running this kind of risk really commend McCaskill to her number one contributor: Emily’s List?

But focusing on extremists like Akin also lets McCaskill and elected Democrats like her avoid defending, discussing, or above all recalibrating their own conservatism: they don’t need to.   To the extent rank and file Democrats have one or two other issues on their minds every six years besides post-rape abortions, that’s an important opportunity lost for those voters, and an all-too useful pass for their Senator.

UPDATE, 9/8: Don’t Look Now But Todd Akin Has Crept Back Into the Missouri Senate Race (Voorhies, Slate): “McCaskill enjoyed leads of nine and ten points in a pair of polls taken last month as Akin was being hit from all sides. But the two most recent polls show a different story, with Akin clawing his way back within one point of the Missouri Democrat in the (liberal-leaning) PPP survey and into a three-point lead in the (conservative-leaning) Wenzel Strategies poll.”

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Liberal establishment ISO “right” movement

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th June 2012

Does the Liberal Establishment Care About Anything But Itself? The Hard Lessons of Wisconsin” is an unintentionally revealing title for a disappointing discussion with Rebuild America guru Van Jones.

In the interview, conducted by Adele Stan of Alternet, Jones starts by saying the Wisconsin governor’s recall race was lost due to the “inaction of the liberal establishment.”

Yet the recall effort was waged for the Wisconsin liberal establishment more than for anyone else.  As Rick Perlstein noted in a valuable Rolling Stone post-mortem, Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, galumphed into the race on the strength of Democratic establishment connections.  And he did it over the objections of Wisconsin labor… and with a far less resolute approach than Kathleen Falk’s (the prior front runner) to fixing the core issue at stake: restoring collective bargaining to Wisconsin public employees.

But Jones’s purpose apparently wasn’t really to conduct an objective inquest on the Wisconsin recall — it was to artfully (or confusedly, take your pick) blur the lines between “establishment” and “movement”:

“Our national movement was doing its minimum. You didn’t see the big national Democrats there. There were exceptions, but in general, you didn’t see the national civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement — we left a lot of artillery unused.”

Strangely, what that tells Van Jones is that his liberal and progressive audience should be redoubling their efforts for… wait for it… precisely the “one big national Democrat” who did the absolute minimum (well, aside from one tweet) in Wisconsin himself:

Remember how you felt when you woke up and found out that we lost in Wisconsin. Now, imagine how you’re gonna feel waking up to President Romney and a Republican sweep of Congress. Now, I say that because we have a lot of progressives who are saying things like they’re so disappointed with Obama that they’re not going to do anything to help him get reelected. I think that is ill-considered because we feel this way right now, but tomorrow always comes. And when we’re actually living in a world where the Tea Party is the government of the United States, which is where we’re headed, we’re gonna wish we had done more.  […]

Shifting ever more fluidly between “you” and “we”, Jones then buttered up Alternet readers with “you can’t fault the peace movement, we had as many people marching for peace in the streets of America the first six weeks leading up to the Iraq War than we had in the first six years of the Vietnam War.” Not that anyone was faulting the peace movement, one thinks, but whatever, this tastes good.  And so, with readers presumably disarmed, the real rhetorical gambit occurs:

…So, you can’t fault the peace movement, but you had the wrong president.

With Obama, you had arguably the right president, but you had the wrong movement with the Tea Party out there, pulling things in a negative direction. The key is to have the right president and the right movement at the same time. That’s what we’ve got to be aiming for. You’ve got to have a president who is willing to be moved — which is not Bush and not Romney. But then you’ve got to have a movement that’s willing to do the  moving. And that’s what we’ve got to be aiming for, which means that we have to work twice as hard as we did in 2008, not half as hard or a tenth as hard.

You know, I look around and I don’t hear a lot of progressives talking about where they’re going to spend October in terms of the swing states. I don’t hear people talking about the fundraisers that they’re doing. I don’t hear [of] people doing any of the things that we did in 2008. And if we think we’re going to put our minimum up against our opponents’ maximum, when they’ve been given this huge window with Citizens United and all of this voter disenfranchisement, then we’re crazy.

And thus the shabby magic trick is complete.  The best, rightest movements  of them all — the Wisconsin uprising, Occupy Wall Street: forgotten.  Emanuel’s poisoning of the race with Barrett: ignored.  The right president: ‘arguably’ (nice touch) Obama.  Obama’s MIA performance: camouflaged as “big national Democrats.”  The legacy of Wisconsin, as Jones appears to see it: to catalyze Obama 2012 house parties.

For all I know, Netroots Nation ate it up — apparently Jones was recycling some of the comments from a speech there; Adele Stan sure seemed to.

But I’m not buying.  Does the liberal establishment care about anything but itself?  That’s a surprisingly good question, given the adoring interview Ms. Stan conducted.  And judging by Jones’s comments, Obama’s no-show, Bill Clinton’s tepid speech for Barrett, and Barrett’s tepid race against Walker, the answer is: no.

We shouldn’t have to settle for a president who’s “willing to be moved” — we needed and need one to lead the moving.  We don’t need a president who admires and wants to be part of the elite — we need one to impose some boundaries on that elite’s arrogance and power.  And we don’t need a movement defined for us by a Van Jones.  We should do that for ourselves.

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