Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Birth of a Backbone?

Writing for The Nation, William Greider claims that the jury is still out on whether President Obama somehow lost his strategic and tactical genius as the health care “debate” has unfolded or whether the more progressive aspects of his mishmash of vague proposals were always just window-dressing and that he is and always has been a Blue Dog-Max Baucus think alike. Perhaps Greider is right. I think it’s pretty clear, though, that the latter hypothesis is the right one. My evidence: that from the moment his campaign got going, Obama positioned himself towards the center-right of the group seeking the nomination (only Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were worse); and that from the moment he won the nomination, he bounded further rightward; a process that has only become worse since Inauguration Day. I have supported these claims in countless preceding entries.

I have also argued repeatedly that the Democrats are nothing if not pusillanimous, and that “progressive” Democrats are among the most pusillanimous of all. I think Obama and Company were of a similar view. They seem to have been convinced that no matter how thoroughly the Obama administration would morph into a more competent version of the Bush administration, that liberals would stand by their man. But now, for the first time since Obamamania began, it’s beginning to look like the jury may be out on this last contention too. At long last, some House Democrats – in both the Progressive and Black Caucuses – along with some of their supporters in organized labor and on Obama-friendly web sites are showing signs of evolving into the vertebrate subphylum.

It seems that the retreat from a “public option,” floated over the weekend by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and others, was the last straw for many, and that at least some Democrats are now prepared to do the right thing – which, as I maintained recently, requires standing firm, even if it means scuttling heath insurance reform altogether. It now appears that this show of nascent courage has even registered in the highest circles of our “bipartisan” President’s administration. This is a turn of events to be welcomed wholeheartedly, and encouraged by all means. This means turning up the heat, and demanding action – not just on Obama and Company, but on liberal Democrats as well. Remember, liberal Democrats are, in the end, still Democrats -- so, no matter how hopeful things might seem, there is always the danger that they will revert back to their true, spineless nature.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Now Is the Time!

Even by the standards to which we’ve become accustomed, Republicans have long been, almost without exception, morally and intellectually execrable. They would be nothing more than a joke but for the fact that, with Democratic connivance, their power, as a wing of the reigning duopoly, is effectively institutionalized. Then remarkably, in the past few weeks, they’ve become even worse: rousting America’s Pathetic White Furies into action at the behest of those of their corporate masters who feel most threatened by Obama’s milquetoast health insurance reforms. In short, the Republican Party is fast approaching the point where it can no longer count as a “respectable” Right.

But there is nevertheless something sublime about Republican obstinacy; something “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” needs urgently to take on board.

If reports this weekend are correct, if Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress are willing to give up entirely on “the public option” – not just to gut it, but to abandon it altogether – in order to appease right wing (“Blue Dog”) Democrats and to aim for “bipartisan” support; and if it’s true, as it seems to be, that, in order to win over (i.e. neutralize) the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbyists, Obama and Company have agreed to permit the lobbyists’ clients to charge pretty much whatever they like for their wares, as they have been doing all along, then the time is now past due for our ever so “reasonable” democratic Democrats to “just say No” too.

Now is emphatically not the time to win one for the Gipper – or rather for his twenty-first century “liberal” incarnation —but rather to outdo the (barely) respectable Right in obduracy. Democrats may think they need a “victory” at all costs, and many so-called progressives may agree. But if Obama gives up on even the pale semblance of reform he had been defending, then he is headed for a Pyrrhic victory only, and that’s the last thing anybody this side of the Blue Dogs needs.

In 1993, the Clintons set the cause of health insurance reform back a generation. Win or lose, Obama is doing it again.

Because he has been following the Clintons’ lead, this was to be expected. Of course, the conventional (Cokie Roberts) wisdom is that Obama learned from the Clintons’ mistakes. And, indeed, he involved Congress in crafting the legislation, as they did not (until too late), and he didn’t involve his wife, as they did. But these are trivial differences. Obama’s big mistake, like theirs, was to put the “stakeholders’” interests, the interests of the profiteers, above everything else, especially the interests of the stakeholders’ victims. Thus he set out to patch up a system that needs to be radically overhauled. In this way, Obama gave it all away before the “negotiations” even started, just as the Clintons did. Now he’s giving even more away as negotiations proceed.

This is why now is the time for Democrats who have not sunk to the Blue Dog level, to learn from those who have nothing but obduracy to offer. If it comes to that, they should have the courage to scuttle Obama’s “reforms,” not acquiesce in them. If they are clear and emphatic now, though, it might not come to that. In any case, as the public “discussion” bounds rightward, there is no other way.

This is a matter of the utmost urgency. It is becoming as clear as can be that as health insurance reform goes, so goes the rest of what most Obama voters thought they were electing. If there’s to be any chance of stopping the Bush (now Obama!) wars, establishing a “new deal” for organized labor, moving forward in a serious way to avert ecological catastrophes and, for that matter, setting our decrepit capitalist economy on a better course, a little backbone – here and now – is an indispensable first step.

Will Democratic “progressives” in the House and Senate evince a little backbone now, in the face of impending disaster, or will they cave? If the future is like the past, the answer is, alas, all too predictable.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Town Hall Meeetings

There are so many questions Obama should be made to answer. To cite just a few timely ones, he should be forced to explain:

-why he thinks it’s so important not to concede defeat in Afghanistan, even at the cost of squandering American and Afghani lives, depleting the U.S. treasury, and insuring the generation of a fresh supply of terrorists?

-why, along with putting everything else pertaining to organized labor on the backest of back burners, he let the so-called Amigo Summit just concluded pass without even a mention of renegotiating NAFTA (as he promised to do repeatedly during the campaign)?

-and why he’s intent on violating U.S. and international law by not prosecuting everyone, from the top down, involved in torture, rather than, at most, just a handful of underlings who “went beyond” the criminal instructions supplied by functionaries of the Cheney/Bush administration?

But since health care (actually, health insurance) reform is the issue of the moment, how about this: “don’t you think, Mr. President, that a coherent and defensible plan for reform – in other words, a plan for transitioning from the mess we now have to a single-payer system – would have incurred no more opposition than the incoherent and still unformed mishmash you’re now promoting?” Or, equivalently, “don’t you think profiteers in the insurance, pharmacological and for-profit health care industries would (indeed, could) then have done no more than they already are: “lobbying” (essentially bribing) legislators while enlisting unscrupulous Public Relations operatives to spread lies, strike fear and stir up racial animosities within the most benighted sections of the American populace – formerly the useful idiots, now the “base” of the Greater Evil Party?” Or simply, “don’t you think it would be easier to promote a plan that is bold and genuinely “pragmatic,” rather than a plan that, like the one Democrats will put forward, is neither?”

Somebody, please ask him! And if some certifiably delusional idiot on Medicare, railing against government programs, tries to shout you down, don’t be intimidated. If Obama is too stuck on “bipartisanship” to vanquish the Furies, then it’s up to us; and if he’s too stuck on conventional ways of thinking to do what is plainly necessary, then it’s up to us to make him and his bought and paid for Democratic colleagues and co-thinkers do the right thing.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Perils of Bipartisanship: the Dark Side

It may not yet be too late to salvage something decent out of the mess that “health care reform” has become, but time is running short, and the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress are still up to their old, bipartisan tricks. It is becoming increasingly clear that this bipartisanship of theirs is putting more than just health care reform in peril.

Obama won the presidency in large part because it had become clear to a majority of voters that the Cheney/Bush administration had been flagrantly god awful. It helped too that John McCain was uncharismatic, and that he picked a cartoon character for a running-mate. In those circumstances, all Obama had to do to win large sectors of the electorate over was to position himself towards the center of our rightward-skewed political spectrum. Then, as in judo, he was able to turn his opponents’ attacks into instruments of their own undoing – in a way that even ill-informed, clueless, apolitical “swing voters” could appreciate. But that was then, and this is now. Now it’s legislators, not the people they purport to represent, who must be won over. These are not people who can be persuaded by compelling arguments; they’re too busy paying the piper. The judo maneuvering that won the election for Obama is therefore powerless against them; especially not while health care profiteers are busily stuffing their pockets.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party had long ago turned itself over to its useful idiots, the folks who appeal to the Fox News/right-wing talk radio demographic. While shamelessly playing to this “base” in the 2008 election, John McCain at least had enough decency to reign in the looniest of his supporters when the mood at some of his rallies turned ugly (and, in a not very disguised way, racist). But nowadays, there is no one in charge, and the Republican leadership, such as it is, only wants to obstruct. Being outnumbered in Congress and vastly outnumbered in the general population, they have therefore hit upon the strategy that worked for their German and Italian counterparts in the 1920s and 30s. They have taken to stirring up the furies.

The first inklings of this strategy were the “tea parties,” organized, not very surreptitiously, by Fox News and like-minded (and funded) public relations firms. The tea parties were a joke, but the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina for the Supreme Court, nevertheless breathed new life into “the movement.” As per the conventional wisdom, it unleashed the anxieties of the most “left behind” segments of the still (barely) majority white community, and incited the pent up rage of those who feel most in jeopardy. Then came the Gates affair and Obama’s indisputably correct (but nevertheless rescinded) remark that Gates’s arrest and shackling in his own home was “stupid.” After that, it all went viral, as the corporate media – including its “liberal” wing -- desperate for ratings, took the bait, showering derisory publicity on each and every lunacy the far-right can conjure up. But even bad publicity has been good for changing the terms of the debate – even farther to the right.

Thus even the so called “birther movement” has become a factor in our politics. These are the folks who insist that Barack Obama is not a “natural born” citizen, and is therefore not “really” the President. No matter that they have made a cause of a delusion – an expression of a wish in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Their dumb obstreperousness has given them a mainstream hearing.

The crowds turning out to disrupt town hall meetings on health care reform are cut from the same cloth – and are often the same people. They too are impervious to rational argument, oblivious to the facts –and, in this instance especially, militantly opposed to their own best interests. Evidence is mounting too that their “spontaneous” demonstrations are supported financially by public relations operatives in the pay of the insurance industry and other health care profiteers. This is diligently reported and exposed. But, no matter: right-wing obstreperousness, shading off into threats of violence, has helped put even Obama’s milquetoast reform proposals on the defensive.

For this, Obama and his advisors are largely to blame. The problem isn’t just that, wanting to avoid the mistakes the Clintons made a generation ago, they erred in the opposite direction, turning much of the task of fashioning health care legislation over to lobbyists for the so-called stakeholders (the health industry profiteers) and to legislators who do their bidding. That misdeed explains why reform is still a work in progress, and why what will finally emerge becomes worse with each passing day. But it doesn’t, by itself, explain the reemergence of the dark side. That is a consequence of a more far-reaching mistake on Obama’s part -- his dogged insistence on going bipartisan; in other words, in this instance, on taking seriously the views and desires of a morally and intellectually bankrupt, but nevertheless semi-“institutionalized,” political party that has been taken over by its loonies.

No doubt, in the end, Obama will score some kind of “victory” on health-care reform. But, increasingly, it seems that any bill that passes will do little more than mandate a few worthwhile insurance reforms. At this point, it is even still up in the air whether the proposals that Congress will finally enact will include a “public option” worth having, or will permit states to institute worthwhile public options on their own.

In a saner environment, private, not public, options would be in jeopardy. After all, single-payer trumps all the other contenders: it alone makes health care a right, not a commodity; and it alone promises to cut costs without diminishing the quality of care. But despite widespread popular support for making health care a right, and despite significant Congressional support as well, single-payer is, for all practical purposes, “off the table.” Even proponents of Obama’s “public option” now have to fight to keep that pale approximation of a solution alive. Thus, in recent weeks, we have witnessed the evolution of a “debate” between those who want much too little change and those who want no change at all – while proponents of genuine change, “change we can believe in,” are cast into the margins.

This sad state of affairs is a consequence of Obama’s unrequited but determined “bipartisanship,” and of the Democratic Party leadership’s determination to “win” at all costs -- even to the point of sponsoring and supporting Democrats who might as well be Republicans. The result is plain: right-wing, aka “Blue Dog,” Democrats and two or three “moderate” (not flagrantly obdurate) Republicans have become the “swing voters” who hold the fate of health care reform in their bought and paid for hands, while a newly empowered Right drags our political culture ever more deeply into the realm of the irrational and the vicious.

The empowerment of the Republican mob is arguably even more to be regretted than yet again missing an opportunity for bringing America’s health care system into the mid-twentieth century. Sensing victory, the health care profiteers and their functionaries in the media and the public relations industry have taken it upon themselves to do whatever is necessary to keep their income flows intact. The result is already ugly and it is likely, in the weeks ahead, to become even uglier.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had Obama and Company not gone for a vague and indefensible mishmash intended to bring Republicans along, but instead opted from the outset for a coherent and defensible plan – for a single-payer system or some close facsimile -- they would have encountered no more virulent opposition than they have already. Indeed, they would now stand a better chance for success, if only because they’d be promoting a plan that makes sense. But instead they went the “bipartisan” route.

In doing so, they empowered the Fox News/talk radio audience even more than Republican plutocrats had done previously – breathing new life into the most morally and intellectually retrograde currents of our political culture. In this way, Obama’s bipartisanship has put even more than health care reform in peril.