Saturday, August 20, 2011

Some Musings on the Campaign
Because watching things fall apart can be fun...
  • Tim Pawlenty ended his campaign last week after losing to state-mate Rep. Batshit in Iowa. As he continued on in the race, Pawlenty increasingly reminded me of a fictional Minnesotan: Jerry Lundegaard, William H. Macy's hapless car sales manager/would-be kidnapper in "Fargo." Like Jerry, "T-Paw" seemed constantly to be trying to project a confidence and charisma he didn't feel, and perhaps thought himself smarter than he was. The theory of Pawlenty's campaign was that he could emerge as more tolerable to the Zombie Army than Mitt Romney while remaining acceptable to the money gang whose preferences are usually determinative. But this required showing something to both groups--and Pawlenty delivered for neither, failing to take Romney on in an early debate and proving unable to raise enough money to endure a setback in the silly straw poll.

  • I think this probably could have been predicted from Pawlenty's memoir title, "Courage to Stand." To stand for what? I think the silent subtitle is "For Whatever You'd Like Me to Believe." Even there, he was never going to out-pander Romney. That awful title has me trying to think up equally lame political memoir names: Forward to Our Future? My American Adventure? Patriotism and Principle? Blech.

  • The new Republican contender who's aiming to be mutually acceptable to the nuts and the greedheads is Rick Perry. He's got a much better chance than Pawlenty, because he's not boring. Perry's problem is that he's so obviously an asshole, and unlike New Jersey governor Chris Christie--another unapologetic asshole, but a pretty clearly intelligent and engaged guy--there seems to be little principle and less thought behind it. The Bush comps are obvious and valid as far as they go, but what the pundits seem to be missing is that the press corps on some level must feel remorse at having given Dubya such a relatively easy ride in 2000; they won't do that with Perry. His personality is just much uglier than Bush's, his politics far more raw, and the public will see all that in high-def.

  • I'm starting to wonder if Jon Huntsman has it somewhere in his head to go independent. The mullahs of right-wing radio surely will go fatwa on him after his TV appearance tomorrow morning, if they haven't already. His polling is in Gingrich territory. He's got little institutional support. But he projects reasonableness, he's got some clear admirers in the press corps... and the country is utterly disgusted with politics-as-usual. Also, his family is really, really, really rich. There are efforts in progress to secure national ballot access for independents. What if Huntsman announces in December or early January that he's leaving the Republican Party because our country's problems are too big for partisanship-as-usual--the same logic he can claim for his decision to serve in the Obama administration--and that he'll seek the presidency as an independent? If he could claim endorsements from every disaffected Republican--Colin Powell, Bruce Bartlett, Alan Simpson--and a bunch of civic-minded business leader/officials like Bloomberg? Maybe some of the old Clinton machinery would come around for him. It's a long shot, but I think there's a certain logic to it. He's damn sure not going to win as a Republican, and I think Sullivan is being over-optimistic yet again if he thinks the Rs will be more receptive to a Huntsman campaign by 2016.

  • Speaking of Sullivan, he published a letter of mine that essentially covered the same ground as the previous post. See it here, if you'd like. This is where I think both his own biases and his deep investment in Obama--which I readily grasp--blind him; Obama's "restraint" isn't even the issue so much as his willingness if not eagerness to continually shit on his "base." The evidence is coming in that this will be a huge problem for him next year.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Hollow Man
I'll admit to a great deal of personal embarrassment, almost to the point of shame, at how wrong I seem to have gotten Barack Obama. He was elected, in my view, above all else to change the story we Americans had been telling ourselves about the role of the public sector in the life of our country, and there was reason to believe he'd do this superbly.His 2005 Knox College commencement speech, which I've written about here many times, is an absolute masterpiece in this regard.

But Obama either no longer believes that story, or doesn't feel he can tell it. For all the political and policy successes his defenders can point to--and they are real--he hasn't done anything to restore the view held by Americans of past generations that government was on their side, actively defending their vulnerabilities and advancing their interests. As has been pointed out many times, he's bent over backwards to exonerate and incorporate many of the same Wall Street figures who were involved with the meltdown. The result is that If anything, the dysfunction of the federal government has people thinking even less of their representation than was the case three years ago--and increasingly drawing the conclusion that the system itself is broken. Hence Joan Walsh's piece in a couple days ago (which I was going to write about at greater length, but I think it fairly speaks for itself) making a strong case that the real "crisis of confidence" in the country is that of government, and Democrats as the "party of government."

Yesterday I wrote about the disappearance of the Left, the absence of any force to balance the Zombie Army of Tea Partiers that has emerged from the closed informational loop of FOX News and right-wing radio, identified the many choke points within the system devised by the Framers and dragged our country rightward... and down. I think it's a fair charge that almost everyone who worked so hard and gave so much to put Obama into office has faltered badly since then. But the other side of the argument--that Obama himself sold us a bill of goods, and has proven to be someone very different from the inspirational progressive leader and impassioned reformer we thought we had elected--is valid too, and today in the Times has perhaps its most powerful and persuasive case that I've seen, by the researcher and consultant Drew Westen.

When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

The point that technological/economic change always precipitates a concentration of wealth as the best-connected use their informational advantages to take a disproportionate share, and the role of centrist populism (my words, not Westen's) in pushing through reforms in response to re-level the playing field, is 100 percent correct. I'm a little embarrassed that this hasn't previously occurred to me; that is *exactly* what happened with both Roosevelts, abetted by their successors of both parties (Taft and Wilson, Truman and Eisenhower). FDR was successful enough in creating a new regime of regulations and domestic institutions, in response to the Great Depression, and international institutions toward end of and following World War II, that the half-century after he died saw the flowering of the most successful civilization in human history--the America we all grew up in and expected would last indefinitely.

During the '90s and '00s, that order began to break down and things got badly out of whack. In addition to a new technological revolution (a tide that initially lifted all boats, as the lowest quintile saw income gains, and certainly did more than anything else to make Bill Clinton's presidency successful), we had the end of the Cold War, which had held things in check; the politically driven erosion of the New Deal regulatory apparatus; and the increasing role of money in politics, which was regarded widely, and on a bipartisan basis, as an enormous threat... but was never really addressed, at least not in a lasting way.

Clinton either didn't see all these things coming or didn't realize it would present such a problem; in any event, he owns a large share of this through his signing the repeal of Glass-Steagall which did a tremendous amount to set up the damage of a decade later. And of course George W. Bush was perfectly cast in the McKinley/Harding/Coolidge role of self-righteous schmuck who actively made things worse, throwing in unnecessary and calamitously expensive tax cuts and wars for good measure.

Elected in 2008 to set all this right, Obama seemed like our last, best chance to put everything back into balance. In this, it's hard to judge him as anything but a near-total failure. Westen tries to figure out why:

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling. [...]

THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. [...]

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

A lot of this stings. I read "Dreams From My Father" in summer 2007 while on vacation in California, and it moved me from likely favoring Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination to absolute, active, full-throated support. I left the book with a friend whom we stayed with and haven't re-read it since. I loved the idea of a president who was a better writer than me, but it also seemed clear that this was a man with unusual gifts of observation and analysis. As Westen observes, though, the truth is that he didn't really do that much in his pre-governmental career. And the "present" votes, in both the Illinois legislature and the Senate, seemed like such a transparently political attack that I shrugged it despite a slight tug of concern.

The last part especially registers, though. Obama's dual and dueling platforms were a perfect match for many of us conflicted ("self-hating" seems strong but maybe not inaccurate) liberals, who both wanted fundamental progressive reform and an end to the zero-sum politics of the previous twenty years, the Wars of the Clintons and Bushes. Our mistake, and maybe Obama's, was in thinking that this was somehow inherent to the Clintons: that the epistemic closure on the Right might open itself to a transparently temperate individual who both seemed to embody the possibilities of America and went out of his way to honor the perspective of his political opponents, even leaving rhetorical offerings at the Shrine of the Blessed Reagan. We thought that maybe Obama could win his political fights by co-opting his enemies rather than destroying them.

He could not, and in trying to do so only hurt his cause, and ours. The rising frustration so many of us now feel probably involves both our own culpability and increasing disbelief that he's still trying, rather than recognizing and responding to the true nature of an enemy that bears him a relentless, implacable and essentially lizard-brain hatred.

Edit: See here a vehement disagreement with Westen's argument. If you read it carefully, though, I think it's clear that 1) the writer's issue is less with the content of Westen's message than its form and some of the devices he uses, and 2) he blames liberals of Westen's stripe for seeing what they wanted to see in Obama rather than the candidate/president himself. Both points are fine, but neither really rebuts Westen's diagnosis of the problem: Obama isn't fighting, and as a result he, and progressivism, is losing. Badly.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

How the Left Was Lost
I'm surprised to find out that it evidently was John F. Kennedy, rather than Thucydides or someone like that, who said, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." Taking his turn on the historical stage in a time when it was all but taken for granted that liberalism was the mainstream political philosophy of the United States, that Democrats were the country's national governing party, and that Democrats were reliably liberal, I doubt JFK would have an easier time making sense of what's happened in our country these last three years than I do. But I think even he would conclude that all of us who call ourselves liberals own a piece of the latest defeat.

This past week, the United States narrowly avoided an unprecedented default on our national debt, when a Democratic President and Democratic-majority Senate acceded to almost every demand of a Republican-majority House of Representatives, which had put the national credit at risk to win a political fight. The Republicans took a hostage they probably weren't really willing to kill, and were lavishly rewarded for it: at best, the deal that was struck gives Democrats a partial and provisional chance to win the portion of the fight that was deferred.

It's a shocking, almost unimaginable turnaround for a party that took unified control of the federal government just two and a half years ago, on the strength of consecutive huge victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The credit rating agency Standard and Poor's added a final, bitter punch line Friday night when they downgraded the country's credit even though default was averted, mostly because "we see ... America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy."

Both the spending to be taken out of the budget as a result of the agreement and the possible higher costs that will ensue from the credit rating downgrade will further hurt the economy, which increases the odds that a Republican will win the presidency in 2012. Again, it would be difficult to imagine how things could have played out better for Republicans.

How did this happen?

Observers seem to split along two lines of explanation: the Democrats are either false--in other words, not at all unhappy with a set of outcomes that seem utterly dismal for liberalism, the view held by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi--or inept, as mainstream voices on the left seem to be arguing. (There's a third camp, which features Andrew Sullivan: he thinks Obama's playing rope-a-dope with the Right. I'd love to believe that, but I don't.)

Ultimately, though, Obama's reasoning or motivations, and those of the Democrats in the Senate, don't matter. What I think is more to the point is that even the greatest general can't lead an army that doesn't exist. There's no longer any effective Left to speak of in American public life.

This feels a strange complaint for me to make, as I'm probably an almost perfect example of a Left-disdaining moderate liberal Democrat: in other words, a stereotypical Obama voter. But what I'm realizing is that when you have a strong, active, determined Right, the absence of a countervailing Left means that the center will drift to starboard. Hence the dreary repeated pattern we're seeing of Obama compromising himself, and us, into virtual capitulation: unlike FDR and the question of whether or not to desegregate defense industries, nobody is "making him do it." (The link here, which I'd never read before to my recollection, is almost heartbreakingly prescient.)

I don't know how we turn this around. Ralph Nader--who has to be the absolute last fucking person I want to hear from on this particular question--thinks it's inevitable that Obama will face a primary challenge. I have to admit that the idea occurred to me last week, and not in a bad way. But all that's likely to accomplish is to push the president's re-election odds from about 50-50 to maybe 15-20 percent; incumbent presidents who face serious primary challenges simply don't win, because they take fire from their own co-partisans and have to expend badly needed time and resources simply winning renomination. (I'm not sure Nader's right. Any potential challenger will have to face an unprecedented deluge of money, and the complete and utter end of any further ambitions they might have for a role in public life.) Worse, we really can't afford another Republican presidency, with its likelihood of further tax and "discretionary spending" cuts and another war or two.

So what's to be done? It's not like there haven't been efforts made to build an activist infrastructure on the Left--but they only seem to work in certain even-numbered years (almost sufficing to beat Bush in 2004, then helping the Democrats to their big wins in 2006 and 2008). I found groups like increasingly annoying and ineffectual after an initial burst of enthusiasm for them in 2002-4, and thus tuned out... but my sense is that the Obama campaign pretty much ate them all in 2008. Again, that's not a good vehicle for obvious reasons.

Maybe, though, politics as such isn't the answer at all. Direct action, in ways that are fun for participants and attention-grabbing for press, could be one answer; another that I keep thinking about is if, say, ten million middle- and upper-class liberals announced they would tax themselves at the 15 percent rate applied to hedge fund managers rather than the higher rates they actually pay. That would both sting the government and highlight the crying need for tax reform. There have to be hundreds of other, similar ideas that could put meat to the bone of liberal thought and engage the public in a newly direct and powerful way.

Back in a day or two, hopefully, with thoughts on the centrality of government and how the narcissistic impulse might help explain why the un- and under-employed have been so quiet in their desperation.