Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I wrote yesterday that I’d probably vote for Ralph Nader in November, despite misgivings, and that it is even more likely that I’d contribute to his campaign. It was far from my mind yesterday, but I’m going to make a contribution today. For that, the “Nader team,” which can be reached at, can thank last night’s Obama-Clinton debate in Cleveland. To be sure, nothing became apparent that hasn’t been obvious for months. But it is one thing to know what Obama and Clinton are about, and something else to see it displayed. To see them flat on a screen is distressing.

First, there’s the fact that Clinton’s and Obama’s policy proposals are practically identical. According to both candidates, health care is an exception. Obama would require individuals to buy health insurance for their children, but not themselves; Clinton would require adults to buy health insurace for themselves as well. On the face of it, the Clinton plan, because it mandates universal coverage, is better. But it isn’t that simple because it isn’t clear which plan would better lower costs or cover more people. The answer depends, in part, on what else is done to lower costs and on how the mandates are enforced. Last night, both candidates appealed to (unnamed) experts to bolster their respective positions. The truth is that no one really knows. So, in addition to conflicting assertions unsupported by arguments, the “debate” on health care devolved into recriminations about “campaign styles” – about who was distorting whose position more. After the past few days of the campaign, Clinton had to walk a fine line between her hissy fit persona and her above the fray persona. According to the pundits last night and this morning, she did it satisfactorily but without panache. Obama, on the other hand, deflected her provocations with ease. But what has this to do with anything except how skillfully they present themselves?

What everyone should know – and what more people would know had Dennis Kucinich not been marginalized and then cut out of the debates – is that, by far, the best way to achieve universal coverage is to implement Canadian style single-payer, not for profit, health insurance. But that is out of the question; Hillary Clinton saw to that in 1993, when she contrived a plan for universal coverage that cut the insurance companies in. Seeing an opening, they went for total victory. The result was predictable: not only was the cause of universal coverage set back for more than fifteen years, but the very idea of single-payer insurance was permanently marginalized. However Hillary Clinton cannot change the fact that the single-payer model provides, by far, the best way to assure universal coverage and also to cut costs. That fact didn’t register last night or any other night. The “debate,” such as it is, is between two flawed plans.

[For his trouble in pointing this out and for staking out progressive positions on a host of other issues, including impeachment, the corporate sleaze (aka “the business community”) of Cleveland are running a candidate against Kucinich in the March 4 primary. To help him out, go to].

To the best of my knowledge, this was the first debate in which questions about Israel/Palestine arose. It’s no surprise that both candidates pandered shamelessly to the Israel lobby. But how the pandering was framed is distressing. Tim Russert raised the question by asking Obama if he rejects Louis Farrakhan’s support. Farrahkan is no particular friend of the Palestinians, but he did once say that Judaism is a “gutter religion.” That was back in the days when Jews were still running most of the businesses in black ghettoes, and Farrahkahn was promoting black capitalism. Today, Jews are mostly out of the ghettoes, and black-Jewish tensions have largely given way to black-Asian, black-Hispanic, and African American-Afro-Caribbean tensions. Also, thanks to affirmative action and black entrepreneurship, African-Americans are now economic powerhouses in neighborhoods where Farrakhan’s less fortunate African-American supporters live. Thus inter-racial and inter-ethnic tensions have partly given way to straightforward class conflicts, and so-called black anti-Semitism (so called because it never really was of a piece with the lethal European variety) has faded into the past. Farrahkan’s remark comes from -- and was made in -- another age.

Neverthless, Obama had to “reject” (Clinton’s word) and “denounce” (Obama’s) Farrakhan, which he did. Had he said that Judaism is no worse than Islam or Christianity or, better still, that all religions are gutter religions, I’d contribute to his campaign, not Nader’s. Instead he turned Russert’s question into an occasion to voice support, yet again, for Israel. Thus he reinforced two obviously false but deeply entrenched tenets of our political culture: that anti-anti-Semitism implies support for Israel, and that opposition to anything Israel does is tantamount to anti-Semitism. No matter that these claims are preposterous on their face and also “bad for the Jews.” [They are bad because they legitimate real anti-Semitism by identifying it with a defensible, indeed obvious, political position.] But what Obama said, with Clinton cheering on, is what the Israel lobby wants to hear. As I wrote yesterday, Obama may have a problem down the road because he was not always so servile, and because some of his advisors understand American national interests in ways that don’t automatically coincide with Israel’s. If Obama’s aim is to preempt trouble by seeming servile, then his pandering, though unseemly, is not especially noxious. But that’s wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is that the more flagrantly and abjectly he panders, the harder it becomes to expect that, in office, he’ll be any different.

This is an example of the most distressing thing about Obama: how he buys into the liberal Democratic narrative about world affairs and about the Clinton era. According to that story, the Clinton days were a Golden Age. Yes, NAFTA and other trade agreements have not worked out well. Even Hillary has flip flopped on that. And yes, some Democrats, Hillary included, were too quick to accept Bush’s assurances on weapons of mass destruction. But, on the whole, the Clinton years were good. May they come again – but this time with more “unity” and “inspiration.”

This is very wrong. Not only did Bill Clinton continue Ronald Reagan’s anti-New Deal and anti-Great Society agenda, implementing more of it even than Reagan himself; he also did just what Cheney and Bush did in Iraq, though without incurring nearly as much dissent. [The Clintons have always been adept at coopting potential critics to their left. I suppose, since they’re also lightening rods for “the great right-wing conspiracy,” that it all evens out in the end.] The Clinton administration paved the way for Cheney’s and Bush’s wars. Clinton’s (officially NATO’s) bombing campaigns against Bosnia and then Kosovo are perspicuous examples. These were imperialist ventures in the guise of “humanitarian interventions.” They established the routine: demonize the enemy (in near or total disregard of evidence), fabricate threats of looming disasters, and then respond militarily – if need be without UN authorization and therefore illegally, according to international law. [For more on the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the shameful role of liberals and parts of the left in the process, see Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia: A Study in Inhumanitarian Intervention – and a Western Liberal-Left Intellectual and Moral Collapse,” Monthly Review (vol. 59, no. 5, October 2007).]

The fact that the United States never really came to terms with the Vietnam War is what makes a John McCain candidacy – and Presidency -- possible. Because the Democratic Party has never come to terms with the Clinton years – because, with Obama in tow, it glorifies those days -- it offers a prospect of more of the same. If that’s how it is to be, I propose that Obama change his slogan. Instead of prattling on about “change,” he should lay the facts on the line. His slogan should be “Better than Bush” or, to make it more timely and also more laudatory (since anybody would be better than Bush) -- “Better than McCain.” That would be the only non-delusional reason to vote for him in November.

Enter Nader, stage left. For him to run against Obamamania may be a fool’s errand, even if the point is only to pull the “center” towards the left. But this morning, it looks even more worth trying than it did yesterday afternoon. We lesserevilists have our thresholds, after all, and if Obama only wants to be a more Kennedyesque Clintonite, then he fails to meet the standard.

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