Tuesday, October 6, 2009


In the beginning Reaganites did their best to free American capitalists from vestiges of New Deal and Great Society reforms. Their guiding idea was that capitalists have a “right” to do pretty much whatever they want to the rest of us. They didn’t quite succeed in turning back the advances of recent decades, but they did leave a lasting mark on the political culture – disabling the spirit of New Deal and Great Society institutions, if not the institutions themselves. The task of demolition fell mainly to the Democrats under Clinton. For electoral reasons, Reagan and then (Poppy Doc) Bush continued Nixon’s “southern strategy” – mobilizing Know Nothing and racist enthusiasms for the back to laissez-faire cause. The Clintons had less benighted constituencies to appease. Thus, whether from conviction or plain opportunism, they were “liberals” – social liberals – while their Republican rivals, radical as they might be, were “conservatives – social conservatives. Around that essentially apolitical axis, “partisanship” has intensified in recent decades. At the same time, on traditional political differences pertaining to the economy and society, there has been a remarkable degree of consensus.

Thus “Clintonism” (as I have referred to the phenomenon in preceding entries) is, at its (rare) best, a version of Eisenhower Republicanism -- though, as befits the times, with better racial politics. Ike never tried to reverse the New Deal; it was enough for him just not to advance it. Bill Clinton sometimes did play Ike to Reagan’s (and Poppy Doc Bush’s) Taft, the anti-New Dealer, but for the most part, he played the Reagan game. He was better at it than Reagan was, partly because Reagan and Bush had moved the political culture so far to the right. But the main reason he was more successful was that he was able to talk “left” (socially liberal), while acting right, covering his deeds with legitimating words. This is how, more even than Reagan himself, Bill Clinton led “the Reagan Revolution” to victory.

It was much the same on foreign policy. Reagan still had to contend with
”the Vietnam Syndrome,” a drag on the empire’s predations. He did his best to put it to rest – securing public support with military victories over such foes as Grenada. Bush continued along similar lines -- taking on Panama. Then, by invading Kuwait, Bush’s old buddy, Saddam Hussein, presented him with just the opportunity imperialists craved. With no Soviet Union to restrain him and with competent advisors leading the way, he rose to the occasion. Even so, the empire was not quite free of the Vietnam Syndrome; thus it fell to Bill Clinton to deliver the coup de grace. He did so mainly, but not only, by participating (from a safe distance) in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the ethnic cleansing of its constituent parts. Among its many, mainly untoward, consequences, that “humanitarian intervention” showed those uppity Europeans, who wanted to rule the roost in their own continent a thing or two! Liberals, of course, still credit Clinton for his Balkan adventures. Typically, though less enthusiastically, they also credit him for his murderous sanctions against Iraq, the condition for the possibility of the Bush boy’s continuing war there. In short, his social liberalism enabled him to win a lot of mileage for his capitalist masters – not just on the home front, but overseas as well.

As I have argued many times before, what I call “Pelosiism” is the stage of Clintonism appropriate for the waning days of the Cheney/Bush administration, a time when public opinion had drifted leftward. Pelosiites talk left – to a degree the Clintons would never have dared, even if they had the inclination. But when it comes to doing anything constructive, much less “radical,” Pelosiites go missing. Or, what comes to the same thing, they see to it that the obvious solutions are “off the table,” so long as there is any chance they might offend their paymasters, the powers that be.

Thus it was that the prototype for Obama’s governing style was Nancy Pelosi’s insistence that the impeachment of Cheney and Bush would never be. No matter how obvious their high crimes and misdemeanors, the Democrats would do nothing about them. Tellingly, even now, the Obama Justice Department is still doing nothing, or next to nothing.

It is much the same with “Obamaism” – that is, Pelosiism (and therefore Clintonism and, in a sense, Reaganism) in power. This latest evolutionary stage involves more than just talking a good line and then doing nothing, or almost nothing, to make it happen. It has more to do with the other dimension of the Pelosite “advance” on classical Clintonism: with taking solutions to pressing problems that are obvious – not radical or visionary, but just obvious -- “off the table,” and then starting out from, and willingly backing off, pale approximations of those solutions.

Health care reform is a plain example. Obama knows well that if the goal really is to lower costs substantially and to institute universal coverage, a single-payer system is the only way. He has even said so explicitly several times lately (not just in the good old days when he was not yet a national political figure). But, at the same time, in league with the Pelosiites in Congress, he has taken single-payer “off the table,” replacing the obvious solution to the many problems besetting the current system (or lack of one) with an incoherent and vaguely specified mishmash that includes a milquetoast “public option.” That pale approximation of what the situation calls for is the most we can now hope for. Moreover, if we’re lucky enough to get it, it will most likely fail. After all, what Obama and the others will eventually settle on will have been designed by the insurance industry, which, from the beginning, has been calling the shots.

Or consider the ongoing “debate” within the administration (and between the administration and unchastened insubordinates in the military, like the vaunted General McChrystal) about how to continue the Bush-Obama Afghanistan (and now Pakistan!) War. If the idea is to combat “terrorism,” the obvious first step is to stop churning out terrorists; and the way to do that is, again obviously, to end the occupation of Afghanistan with all deliberate speed – in other words, to admit defeat and withdraw, as the moribund British and Russian empires did (in the British case more than once). But according to the old CIA hand and Bush (then Obama!) Defense Secretary, Bill Gates, on CNN yesterday, that too is off the table.

Why are our later-day Pelosiites so intent on squandering lives and treasure in that distant quarter of the world? The details await historical inquiry, but the short answer is already clear enough: because the elites Obamanians serve are like Mafia bosses. Anything that smacks of “cut and run” is unthinkable for them and therefore for their functionaries; because what matters, above all, is saving face or, as they used to say expressly in the Vietnam era, maintaining “credibility.”

The same principle is at work in the health care debate too: the interests of elites – in that case, of health-care profiteers in the insurance, pharmaceutical and for-profit health care industries – must, at all costs, be served. Needless to say, these costs too are measured in lives and treasure.

Thus has Reaganism evolved – through a series of small steps out of which what we have gotten, despite the hopes generated by that Grant Park moment last November, is a discernible, though, in the end, only a barely cosmetic change.

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