"To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows"
Republican Doomsday Cult
Via Scott Lemieux
Should it be surprising President Obama has largely maintained the support of the left of the Democratic Party? According to a number of critics—notably Matt Stoller and David Sirota of Salon—the answer is yes. Essentially, this contrarian case depends on obscuring two crucial truths:
In obfuscating this case for supporting Obama despite the undeniable flaws of his administration, third-party fantasists rely on three categories of argument: dismissing the achievements of the Obama administration, inventing a moderate of Mitt Romney, and exaggerating the benefits of third-party nihilism. None of these arguments can withstand any scrutiny.
To put this in plain terms, Obama has the third most impressive record of progressive achievement of any president of the last century. Moreover, the two presidents with better legislative records—FDR and LBJ—were working in far more favorable circumstances, with larger majorities in Congress and rapidly growing economies. (Lyndon Johnson, who had the most impressive record of all, benefited not only from his own formidable skills but from the presence of liberal Republicans who increased his bargaining leverage and the halo effect of an assassinated president.) If Obama is re-elected, the Affordable Care Act—which will make health care more accessible to tens of millions of people, succeeding where numerous presidents had failed—will be seen as a monumental achievement. And as Michael Grunwald’s terrific new book demonstrates, as much as liberals grumble about the stimulus package, it was a substantial achievement. Assumptions that Obama left lots of potential money on the table are clearly wrong. These major bills are just the beginning.
Part of the problem is that once major progressive reforms have been achieved, they can seem inevitable—it can be easy to forget they wouldn’t have happened with John McCain or Mitt Romney in the White House. Overriding the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter decision and ensuring that women received coverage of contraception for their health care premiums were major feminist priorities before Barack Obama took office, but these accomplishments inevitably vanish down the memory hole when leftists urge people to reject Obama. Ten years ago, an administration that secured the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and came out in favor of same-sex marriage would have seemed like too much to wish for—but, again, these remarkable advances are ignored when critics suggest we should be indifferent about whether Obama wins or loses.
This is not, of course, to say that leftists don’t have real reasons to be disappointed with Obama. His civil liberties record has generally been poor. The Bush administration’s torture regime was stopped but went unpunished. He wasn’t creative enough with using appropriated funds to alleviate the mortgage and housing crisis. But there’s no president in American history who doesn’t have demerits as bad or worse on their records. To call any of these issues “dealbreakers” is to inherently trivialize gender equity, access to health insurance, gay and lesbian rights, the enforcement of civil rights and environmental laws by the executive branch and the courts, the saving of the American auto industry, and the many other issues on which there are huge differences between the national parties. There’s nothing remotely progressive about doing so.
To read Stoller and Sirota, you would think that the Republican primaries came down to battle between Lincoln Chaffee and Zombie Nelson Rockefeller. Sirota, asserting that the election won’t really affect the Supreme Court, points out that Earl Warren was a Republican appointee, a fact that’s about as relevant to politics in 2012 as Pat Boone is to today’s teenagers. Dismissing the Affordable Care Act, Stoller asserts that ” whether you call it Romneycare in Massachusetts, or Obamacare nationally, it’s the same healthcare program.” By this farcially transparent sleight of hand, Stoller transforms a statute that received zero Republican votes in Congress and was ruled entirely unconstitutional by four of the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court into a bipartisan consensus.
It is true Mitt Romney talked like a moderate when he was the governor or Massachusetts, and if both houses of Congress consisted of supermajorities of Massachusetts Democrats this would be relevant to how he would govern as president. In the actually existing political context, there’s no reason to believe the Romney running for election in Massachusetts is the “real Romney.” If Romney wins, we’re not going to get someone like John Paul Stevens appointed to the Supreme Court and a moderate deficit-cutting deal; we’ll get another Alito and as many of the upper-class tax cuts and savage cuts to social programs in the Ryan budget as the Republicans can pass. Senate Democrats can contain the damage, but they can’t eliminate it—especially when it comes to executive branch actions and judicial appointments.
Another way of avoiding the fact that Obama is far superior to Romney for progressives is to evade the question by comparing Obama to a candidate with no chance of becoming president. In a particularly revealing argument, Robert Prasch uses the trite language of consumer capitalism to urge progressives to throw the election to Romney: “[a]nyone who has ever gone shopping knows that their bargaining power depends ultimately upon his/her willingness to walk away.” Voters, based on this line of reasoning, should see voting not as part of a collective project to choose the best available majority coalition for the country, but as an act of self-absorbed individual expression, like choosing a favorite brand of designer jeans.
These arguments are self-refuting. In actual politics, walking away “empowers” the left about as much as being able to choose between Coke and Pepsi “empowers” a worker negotiating with Wal-Mart. Conservatives didn’t take over the Republican Party by running third-party vanity campaigns. The legislative victories of the Great Society happened because civil rights and labor groups stayed in the Democratic coalition after decades of frustration (it was the segregationists who were repeatedly threatening to take their ball and go home by running third-party candidates.) And not only does third-party voting at the national level carry no benefits, there’s a serious downside risk. Ralph Nader throwing the 2000 election to George W. Bush didn’t radicalize the Democratic Party, but it did lead to the horrors of Iraq as well as a great deal of awful domestic policy. Indulging in fantasies that the Democratic Party could win as a European-style social democratic party if only Republicans make things bad enough is both bad strategy and grossly immoral.
There is, in other words, nothing complicated about the progressive choice in the 2012 election, which is Barack Obama. There are merely attempts by people unwilling to accept that major-party candidates are unlikely to represent their beliefs in every detail to make the choice appear more complicated than it is. Progressives should be critical about the inevitable failures of a second Obama term—but they should also be clear-eyed about the fact that this would be infinitely preferable to Romney and Ryan occupying the White House.
The 2012 campaign began on Aug. 2, 2011, when President Barack Obama signed the deal ending the debt-ceiling fiasco. At that moment, the president relinquished his last illusions that the current, radical version of the Republican Party could be dealt with as a governing partner. From then on, Obama was determined to fight – and to win.
It was the right choice, the only alternative to capitulation. A Republican majority both inspired and intimidated by the tea party was demanding that Obama renounce every principle dear to him about the role of government in 21st century America.
And so he set out to defeat those who threatened to bring back the economic policies of the 1890s.
Now, it’s up to the voters.
Obama took the oath of office before a vast and euphoric crowd, but as he raised his hand, he was inheriting an economy worsening by the day. And he was about to confront a Republican Party that took its setback as an imperative to radicalize.
In the wake of the failures of George W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans would ascribe their party’s problems to Bush as a big-spender, ignoring the major culprits in the country’s fiscal troubles: a downturn that began on their watch, and their own support for two tax cuts at a time of two wars. They would block, obstruct, stall and denounce all of Obama’s initiatives, and abuse the rules of the Senate to demand that every bill would need 60 votes.
And then came the tea party. It was, all at once, a rebirth of the old far right from John Birch Society days, a partisan movement seeded by right-wing billionaires, and a cry of anguish from older, middle-class Americans fearful over the speed of social change. The GOP establishment rode the tea party tiger to power in 2010, and then ended up inside it. Republicans who dared to deal or compromise risked humiliation in primaries at the hands of a far right certain that the president of the United States was a subversive figure.
Nonetheless, Obama kept trying to work with them. His plans and proposals were geared not toward his progressive base but toward moderates in both parties: no public option in the health care law, plenty of tax cuts in a stimulus whose size was held down, a very temperate reform of a dysfunctional financial system.
Obama’s aides are unanimous in saying that the breaking point came when Republicans, filled with tea party zeal, were willing to endanger the nation’s financial standing to achieve steep budget cuts during the debt-ceiling fight. When House Speaker John Boehner walked away from a deal that conservatives of another era would have hailed as a great victory, Obama realized that a grand bargain would be a chimera until he could win the battle about first principles.
Everything you needed to know about Obama’s argument was laid out Dec. 6, 2011, at a high school in Osawatomie, Kan., the place where Theodore Roosevelt had laid out the core themes of American progressivism a century earlier.
“Just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time,” Obama declared, “there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. ‘The market will take care of everything,’ they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. … even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty. Now, it’s a simple theory. … But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked.”
In Mitt Romney, Obama was blessed with an opponent who embraced that theory, not only in his move far to the right to secure the Republican nomination but also in his own career as a private equity capitalist. Romney may have flipped and flopped and flipped again on issues he didn’t care about, but his view of American capitalism and American government never wavered. If Teddy Roosevelt fought against the policies of the Gilded Age, Obama is fighting a Republican Party determined to bring the Gilded Age back and undo the achievements of a century.
And so, beneath the attacks, the counterattacks, and the billions invested by small numbers of the very rich to sway the undecided, we face a choice on Tuesday that is worthy of a great democracy. My hunch is that the country will not go backward, because that’s not what Americans do.
…the unreported story of our times is that birtherism isn’t an isolated example of paranoid lunacy taking hold of a disturbingly large segment of the population — in fact, modern conservatism is driven by multiple lunatic theories that are precisely as delusional as birtherism.
True…but the mulitple lunacies have been reported time and time again. The problem is that the people who should be paying attention aren’t listening to anyone whose first name isn’t Rush, Glenn or Sean.
And on it goes…the delusional theories of a self-destructing political party.
Most Conservative Congress in How Long?
There is a new study out by a pair of political scientists saying that the current Republican caucuses in Congress are the most conservative in a hundred years. I think they are underestimating.
The 1911-12 congressional Republicans, after all, at least had some Teddy Roosevelt Republicans still in the Congress, so while a distinct minority, the party had some reformers and moderates in their caucuses. No, I think you would have to go back into the 1800s, into the Republican Congress swept into power with William McKinley‘s 1896 election, to find a party as thoroughly reactionary as this one. This is somehow appropriate, because these Republicans clearly do want to repeal the 20th century. Starting with the early Progressive movement reforms Teddy Roosevelt got accomplished, the tea party GOP is trying to roll back all the progress our country has seen over the last century plus.
Let’s go back to those late 1890s Republicans — who they were, what they believed, how they operated. This was the heart of the era dominated by Social Darwinists and Robber Baron industrialists, and the McKinley presidency was the peak of those forces’ power. The Robber Barons were hiring the Pinkertons to (literally) murder union leaders, and were (literally) buying off elected officials to get whatever they wanted out of the government: money for bribery was openly allocated in yearly corporate budgets. These huge corporate trusts were working hand in hand with their worshipful friends in the Social Darwinist world, the 1800s version of Ayn Rand, who taught that if you were rich, it was because that was the way nature meant things to be — and if you were poor, you deserved to be. Any exploitation, any greed, any concentration of wealth was justified by a survival of the strongest ethic. It was an era where Lincoln’s and the Radical Republicans of the 1860s’ progressive idea of giving land away free to poor people who wanted to work hard to be independent farmers through the Homestead Act was being overturned by big bank and railroad trusts ruthlessly driving millions of family farmers out of business. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was being completely ignored by McKinley. And of course, none of the advances of the 20th century were yet in place: child labor laws, consumer safety, the national parks or later environmental laws, consumer safety, popular election of Senators, women’s suffrage, a progressive tax system, decent labor laws, a minimum wage, Social Security, Glass-Steagall, the GI Bill, civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid, Legal Services, Head Start. None of it existed.
Flash forward to today. With the exception of women’s suffrage (and given the gender gap, I have no doubt that secretly Republicans would be happy to get rid of that), various high-level Republicans from this session of Congress have argued for the repeal or severe curtailment of all of those advances. This is not just Conservative with a capital C, but Reactionary with a capital R.
This is why the worship by so many pundits and establishment figures of bipartisanship and meeting in the middle as the all-around best value in American politics is so fundamentally wrong as a political strategy for Democrats. With the Republicans in Congress actually wanting to repeal the gains of the 20th century, for Democrats to meet them halfway becomes a nightmare strategy. Repealing half of the 20th century is just not a reasonable compromise, even though that would be meeting the Republicans halfway. What we need to do instead is to propose our own bold strategy for how to move forward and solve the really big problems we have. Our country needs to have this debate, and I am confident once people understand the two alternatives, they will choose our path forward rather than the Republicans’ path backward.
Ultimately, this is a debate about values. Conservatives believe in that old Social Darwinist philosophy: whoever has money and power got that way because nature intended it, and they ought to get to keep everything they have and to hell with anyone not strong to make it on their own. Selfishness is a virtue, as Ayn Rand said; greed is good, as Gordon Gekko proclaimed in the movie Wall Street; in nature, the lions eat the weak, as Glenn Beck happily proclaimed to a cheering audience. That is the underlying ethic of the Ryan-Romney Budget. What progressives argue is the opposite: that we really are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; that we should treat others as we would want to be treated, and give a helping hand to those who need it; that investing in our citizens and promoting a broadly prosperous middle class that is growing because young people and poor people are given the tools to climb the ladder into it is the key to making a better society and growing economy.
The debate is well worth having. The good news is that the Republicans are hardly shying away from it: by embracing this radically retrograde Ryan-Romney Budget, they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves and openly yearning to return to 1896. The Democrats should welcome this debate with open arms.