Friday, October 31, 2008

Having It Both Ways

If our institutions were more (small-d) democratic, there would be less of a gap between what candidates say and do during electoral campaigns and how they govern if they win. But, of course, our institutions are hardly (small-d) democratic, especially at the national level. Ours is a quasi-official two party system in which privately raised money makes all the difference – for buying media time (which ought to be widely available and free) and even for organizing so-called ground forces. Under these conditions, there are only two ways to run a general election: by appealing to one’s own party’s “base” or by appealing to “undecided” voters -- those clueless apolitical people who somehow can’t make up their minds.

[I confess that I’m still “undecided” too, though not about the obvious need to defeat the McCain-Palin ticket. I can’t make up my mind between Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney. If the Greens were not a lost cause and/or if McKinney were less of a flake, it would be a no brainer. I’ve consistently maintained that, in the face of Obamamania, for Nader to run as an independent this year was foolish. Nevertheless, I’m likely to vote for him – because, living in a “safe” Democratic state, I think that’s a better way to use my vote than by adding it on to the Obama majority.]

The conventional wisdom has long had it that going after the handful of clueless people in “the middle” is the best path to electoral success, though the Rove-Bush campaign of 2004, targeted at the Republicans’ godly contingent, could plausibly count as a counter-example. Looking forward to 2008, there was some hope, probably illusory, that John Edwards, if he won the nomination, would go against the conventional wisdom – by running to the left. That hope vanished when he withdrew from the race, even before Super Tuesday. So, last spring and summer, it was the same old same old. Barack Obama started out to the right of the (big-D) Democratic center, positioning himself just a tad to Hillary Clinton’s left. No sooner had he secured the nomination than he surged to the right – towards the perceived center of the general electorate (where those “undecideds” live, along with “moderate” Republicans). Then, having discovered that serenity works well in these troubled times, he implanted himself in that place – while his doddering opponent flails about mindlessly, wreaking of incompetence, and making a cult out of ignorance and stupidity. Sarah Palin is the goddess of that cult, and Joe the Plumber its “revelator.”

Somehow, though, while running center-right, Obama has succeeded in energizing the (big-D) Democratic base – as well or better than Edwards might have. Being “of color” has helped. So has Obama’s charisma and his considerable political skills. So too is the fact that he is intelligent and articulate – a welcome rarity in our political culture, notwithstanding Joe the Plumber. Thus, for the time being, Obama has it both ways: he has the Democratic base and he has the general electorate’s center. Barring some unforeseen and unforeseeable misfortune, he is on track for winning big.

The conventional wisdom has it too that to govern well, one must govern from the center. Hence, the babble, emanating from both parties and the servile corporate media, about “bipartisanship” and reaching “across the aisle.” Despite Obama’s example, I still believe that, even just to “win,” the way it looked like Edwards might go is at least as efficacious as the way Clinton and Obama actually went – and that it took a “perfect storm” for Obama to have it both ways. But I could be wrong. When it comes to governing, though, I’m as confident as can be that the conventional wisdom is wrong; that the way to get “real change,” the change people want, is, as the early Obama and the late Saint-Just would say, through audacity, audacity and more audacity. That’s why I’m gloomy about the coming Obama presidency. Unless Obamamania somehow morphs into a popular movement for what Obama only seems to promise, changing the constraints Obama shamelessly accepts, we will be in for a level of disappointment in comparison with which the disappointments following the 2006 Congressional elections will pale. If you think the war-abetting, impeachment preventing Nancy Pelosi is bad news, as indeed she is, just wait.

I fear a repetition of what Bill Clinton did in 1992, when, for at least a while, there was a chance (not as great as at present, but a significant one nevertheless) of moving the country, ever so slightly, to a better place from where it had stalled when it set out to “save Vietnam” (from the Vietnamese). If Obama governs the way he has been campaigning, expect it to be déjà vu all over again; expect the Hillary health plan writ large – with most of the prize given away at the start, and whatever is left negotiated into oblivion.

There is every likelihood that Obama will govern as he has run, or at least that he’ll try. His declared policies are evidence enough. But his silences are more revealing. It isn’t just that, on the Middle East and the former Soviet Union and on Latin America, Obama and McCain, along with the rest of the political class, are on the same page. It isn’t that Obama, like the others, still acts as if he thinks that what’s good for the duopoly’s corporate paymasters is good for the country. It’s worse than that. Gone entirely now is Obama the anti-war candidate: he’ll get out of Iraq, but only if he can make it not look like the abject defeat it has been. And then he’ll intensify Bush’s Afghanistan War, while building up the military generally. On accounting for Bush’s and Cheney’s high crimes and misdemeanors, not to mention their war crimes, crimes against the peace and crimes against humanity, not a peep emerges from the Obama camp.

One shudders too to think of the cabinet appointments that will follow on the heels of Obama’s all but certain victory. If we’re lucky, he’ll stay away from the old Clinton hands, the devils we know. Then perhaps we’ll be able to delude ourselves, for a few months at least, that the devils we don’t know are better. Most likely, though, we’ll get a motley assortment of the old and the new, and it will be hard to tell which is worse.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Loyal to the malefactors who own them, subservient to the lobbies that run them, and disposed, in any case, to “pay any price, bear any burden” for the empire’s sake – the Democrats have done everything in their power to quash a stubborn fact. But that fact remains: thanks to Cheney and Bush and their aiders and abettors on both sides of the aisle, there is a constituency for real change out there – one that is big enough to carry the day. The problem is that with Obama in the Oval Office – unless the never-ending Bush wars take a turn for the worse or America’s economic decline becomes even more painful – that great sleeping Giant will continue to delude itself or to lapse back into the acquiescent apathy that permitted the depredations of the past several decades.

We must not let that happen. Circumstances have conspired to let Obama have it both ways – for a while. But circumstances change. If Obama is to steer clear of disaster, he will have to put the bipartisan nonsense he has been promoting to rest. He’ll even have to govern against his fellow Clintonites in the Senate and House. He won’t do that on his own. We’ll have to make him. Otherwise, in 2010 and 2012, expect a repeat of 1994, when Republicans swept back into office as the execrable Newt Gingrich took out his Contract (on) America. That dreadful prospect is a change we can “believe in” – much more than the ones willfully oblivious Obamamaniacs imagine.

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