Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fire Next Time

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water -- the fire next time."

A Spiritual

The great political storm came, sweeping the Democrats into power, first in the Congress in 2006 and to the Presidency in 2008. And, what did they with that power? What lessons were taught and learned? What change was promised, and what change delivered?

I'm afraid that the main lesson delivered to date is that American democracy doesn't work. It doesn't matter, who you vote for, the corporations still run things, and the powers that be, deliver Republican policy, no matter what.

Mike Lux at Huffington Post and Open Left takes note of an opinion poll by Stan Greenberg.

What [the poll] basically showed was that Democratic arguments, even relatively well framed one, have little credibility with the majority of the likely voters in the 2010 elections. Greenberg tried four different sets of competing Democratic and Republican arguments, and the Republican arguments won each time- by 10, 12, 12, and 13 points. Not a single one of the four was even competitive. In past years, similar lines of debate have tended to favor Democrats, but not this time.

Here's Greenberg:

62 percent of Republicans in Democratic districts describe themselves as very enthusiastic about the upcoming election. That compares with 37 percent of Democrats in those same districts.

By 57 to 37 percent, voters in these 60 Democratic seats believe that President Obama’s economic policies have produced record deficits while failing to slow job losses — and not averted a crisis or laid a foundation for future growth.

Republicans are encouraged; Democrats are discouraged, and independents are, what?

Mark Kleiman reports on a survey of two, his dinner guests.

I just had dinner with two people – one an old and trusted friend with a sophisticated knowledge of public policy, one a relative stranger with limited information – both of whom plan to vote for Carly Fiorina over Barbara Boxer this fall.

Why, you might ask?

For each of them, the Access to Care Act is an important reason. Their concerns were opposite; the stranger loves Medicare and fears that ACA will cut into Medicare spending, the friend has caught Peterson-itis and is convinced that Medicare is going to eat the GDP, and hates ACA for not cutting Medicare enough.

Similarly, the stranger thinks that extending the Social Security retirement age would be a crime, while the friend regards it as an obvious response to increased longevity.

The fact that they were voting for Fiorina for opposite reasons didn’t bother either of them; the stranger has decided that all incumbents ought to replaced, and indeed offered John Boehner’s proposal to raise the retirement age as a reason to vote against Boxer. (All this while railing against “socialism.”)

Mark Kleiman explains this existential political confusion, as the success of Republican propaganda:

Anecdote isn’t data, but the hint here is that the Repubilican strategy of obstruction plus obfuscation is, so far, working pretty well.

On the other hand, one might consider it a failure of the Democrats' messaging and policy. The success of Republican obstruction is the failure of Democratic administration and strategy.

Kleiman is inclined to see the Left of the Democratic Party as the problem. He complains, "the problem with trying to make change is that you have strong enemies and lukewarm allies", but he doesn't see Obama as the lukewarm ally of change. His co-blogger, Jonathan Zasloff, has complained about progressives, dissenting from Obama-love, demanding a pejorative term be coined,
for a progressive who holds out against a good bill, under circumstances where it is virtually impossible to get something better, and thus undermines his/her own party’s ability to govern, while pretending to uphold the “true” values of the party, movement, coalition etc.

It's one view of the political situation, I guess. I find it hard to reconcile this view with what I know of reality. Kleiman wants to praise Obama for his "courage" in supporting, for example, the military's anti-gay Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy -- a policy repeal that has the support of 3/4s of the population!

It seems to me that the ability of the Party to govern has been impeded by the President, not by the Left of the Democratic Party, which has dutifully supported every move, albeit with ever diminishing enthusiasm. If a Democratic President is going to govern as a Republican, what is the point?

Brad DeLong, not exactly Jane Hamsher's soul mate, had an excellent post on how the political problem and the policy problem have married at the putrid center, in Obama's style of governance:

In fighting the recession, Obama decided early on that he would push for a fiscal stimulus program about half the size of what his Democratic economic advisers recommended, and he decided to count that as a total victory rather than press for expanding half a loaf into the full amount.

Obama has been so committed to that cautious policy that even now, with the unemployment rate kissing 10%, he will not grab for the low-hanging fruit and call for an additional $200 billion of federal aid to the states over the next three years in order to prevent further layoffs of teachers. Rather than stemming further erosion of the national commitment to educate the next generation, Obama has shifted his focus to the long-term goal of balancing the budget – even while the macroeconomic storm is still raging.

And, in order to move forward on long-term budget balance, Obama has appointed a fiscal arsonist, Republican ex-Senator Alan Simpson, as one of his fire chiefs – one of the two co-chairs of his deficit reduction commission. Simpson never met an unfunded tax cut proposed by a Republican president that he would vote against, and he never met a balanced deficit-reduction program proposed by a Democratic president that he would support. Partisans whose commitment to deficit reduction vanishes whenever political expedience dictates simply do not belong running bipartisan deficit-reduction commissions.

Likewise, in dealing with the financial sector’s distress, Obama has acquiesced in the Bush-era policy of bailouts for banks without demanding anything of them in return – no nationalizations and no imposition of the second half of Walter Bagehot’s rule that aid be given to banks in a crisis only on the harsh terms of a “penalty rate.” Obama has thus positioned himself to the right not only of Joseph Stiglitz, Simon Johnson, and Paul Krugman, but also of his advisers Paul Volcker and Larry Summers.

On environmental policy, Obama has pressed not for a carbon tax, but for a cap-and-trade system that, for the first generation, pays the polluter. If you were a major emitter in the past, then for the next generation you are given a property right to very valuable emissions permits whose worth will only rise over time.

On anti-discrimination efforts, the repeal of the US military’s “don’t ask, don't tell” policy toward gay soldiers is on an extremely slow track – if, that is, it is hooked up to an engine at all.

On policy towards the rule of law, the closure of the mistake that is Guantánamo Bay is on a similarly slow track. Moreover, Obama has joined George W. Bush in claiming executive powers that rival those claimed by Charles II of Britain in the seventeenth century.

On healthcare reform, Obama’s proudest moment, his achievement is...drum roll...a scheme that almost precisely mimics the reform that Mitt Romney, a Republican who sought the presidency in 2008, brought to the state of Massachusetts. The reform’s centerpiece is a requirement imposed by the government that people choose responsibly and provide themselves with insurance – albeit with the government willing to subsidize the poor and strengthen the bargaining power of the weak.

In all of these cases, Obama is ruling, or trying to rule, by taking positions that are at the technocratic good-government center, and then taking two steps to the right – sacrificing some important policy goals – in the hope of attracting Republican votes and thereby demonstrating his commitment to bipartisanship. On all of these policies – anti-recession, banking, fiscal, environmental, anti-discrimination, rule of law, healthcare – you could close your eyes and convince yourself that, at least as far as the substance is concerned, Obama is in fact a moderate Republican named George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Colin Powell.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My complaints about Obama are not that he is too bipartisan or too centrist. I am at bottom a weak-tea Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller social democrat – that is, with a small “s” and a small “d.” My complaints are that he is not technocratic enough, that he is pursuing the chimera of “bipartisanship” too far, and that, as a result, many of his policies will not work well, or at all.

And, that brings us back to Mike Lux and Stan Greenberg's poll, which has Democrats, even in Democratic districts, deeply depressed, and Republicans, while foaming at the mouth like mad dogs, enthusiastic.

Obama achieved power in 2008 by shifting a small, but critical slice of secular, conservative Republicans into the Democratic coalition. It represented a big chunk of money, because financial sector bigwigs were a big part of the slice, and it resulted in several Republicans in key posts in Obama's cabinet -- Defense Secretary and Transporation Secretary, most prominently.

It wasn't a campaign strategy or a coalition strategy, which required anyone to change his mind about anything. It wasn't based on George W. Bush and the Republican Party being wrong; it was based on George W. Bush being incompetent.

Obama's governance has followed, on the same, faulty premise -- that Bush policy, well-executed, would be some kind of ideal. The Democratic Party has not been able to offer the electorate an alternative, or to articulate an alternative philosophy or to enact substantive change.

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