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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Can "Real, Transformative Change" Actually Happen?

If Democrats win this fall, what will it take to bring about change? Here are two answers. First, a call "to address Americans' insecurities about their economic futures as well as the future security of their nation":

A New Social Contract, by Michael Kazin and Julian E. Zelizer, Commentary, Washington Post: For the first time since 1964, Democrats have a good chance not just to win the White House and a majority in Congress but to enact a sweeping new liberal agenda. Conservative ideas are widely discredited...

The long Democratic primary battle masks the fact that the party faithful agree on the basic outlines of a new social contract. It fits a post-industrial society that was barely visible when Lyndon B. Johnson was ramming a series of landmark measures through Congress.

The new agenda focuses on protecting middle-class families from the insecurities of the global economy. ...

The emphasis on protecting middle-class families reflects a major historical shift. During the 1930s and '40s, liberals struggled to create a vibrant middle class out of the industrial wage-earners who had immigrated to the United States and rural people of all races who lacked electricity and jobs. New Deal programs focused on workingmen and depressed regions. The National Labor Relations Act legitimized unions and boosted the purchasing power of the working class. The Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority enabled Southern communities to participate fully in the modern manufacturing economy. Social Security gave support to the elderly, lessening the burden on their children. The GI Bill gave a generation the ability to purchase a home and get a college education.

In the 1960s, Democrats turned to expanding the middle class. John F. Kennedy and LBJ sought to increase the number of Americans who could enjoy the economic and social benefits of a booming economy. The rights revolution made it possible for African Americans, Latinos and women from all backgrounds to compete for most of the same jobs as white men. Medicare and Medicaid provided new health benefits for the elderly and the poor.

Now, Democrats are grappling with insecurities faced by entire families, that institution conservatives always claim to represent. The past three decades have produced growing economic inequality and a shrinking middle class. ... Wage-earners fear for the future of their jobs and incomes. No family is secure.

This is the reality of a global, nonunion economy that the new agenda attempts to address. But before the reunited Democratic Party can start to make a forceful case to the nation, it will have to address its great weakness. Democrats have not yet been able to equal what was perhaps Franklin Roosevelt's greatest political success: to offer a bold foreign policy to match his domestic ambitions. FDR had an internationalist vision: that the United States should use military force only against clearly defined threats and with the aid of international, democratic institutions. This vision, with some exceptions, defined America's stance in the world until Vietnam.

That debacle destroyed LBJ's presidency, and the question of how America should act in the world has haunted his party ever since. Democrats have no coherent view about foreign policy that differs from that of conservatives. ... This weakness gives John McCain his best chance to delay or defeat a new liberal awakening.

Yet if Democrats find a way , they may be able to emulate the only liberal president who ever managed that difficult feat. And for that achievement, FDR became one of the greatest and most beloved leaders in our history.

Kathy G. has a different perspective on what it will take to bring about change:

...Now, on to the main subject of this post -- if you're a liberal Obama supporter, this past week or so has sucked pretty hard. We've seen Obama move sharply to the right on a number of fronts, including:

--  hiring the centrist, pro-Walmart economist Jason Furman as his economic policy director (and yes, I know that Furman's done good work on issues like Social Security privatization, but if you're truly committed to a progressive economic vision, he's not the guy you'd be hiring);

-- naming, as his campaign chief of staff, Jim Messina, who served as chief of staff to Max Baucus, and who appears to strongly support Baucus's pro-corporate agenda;

--  forming a Working Group on National Security that consists mainly of reanimated corpses from the 80s and 90s (Warren Christopher, Sam Nunn, David Boren, Madeleine Albright) rather than fresh, bold new thinkers like Samantha Power;

-- making statements that are strongly supportive of NAFTA and that conflict with his position during the primaries (Obama is now saying he won't unilaterally re-open NAFTA);

--  releasing a campaign ad, his first of the general election, which hits on right-wing rather than progressive themes (it emphasizes "cutting taxes" and "moving people from welfare to work" -- why not "universal health care" and "getting the hell out of Iraq"?);

-- and, finally, throwing his weight behind the FISA "compromise," which deservedly earned him Atrios's dreaded "wanker of the day" award.

I've gotta say, though -- all this was utterly predictable. It's not that only that, once the general election campaign starts, presidential candidates tend to move to the center. It's that, as I've been telling anyone who would listen, Barack Obama is an extremely cautious, utterly conventional, center-left politician. If you want to see real, transformative change in this country, he is not your guy.

The second coming of FDR he is not. As president, I think he's far more likely to resemble Bill Clinton... Which does not thrill me...

This is not say Obama is a bad guy at all. He's whip-smart, he's a compelling speaker, he's honest, and he has a pretty decent voting record overall. His campaign so far has been most impressive, particularly in the managerial and grassroots organizing departments. I will always give him enormous credit for speaking out against the Iraq War at a time when almost everyone else in public life was running scared. ...

And also, it must be said -- in case you haven't noticed, in this country, we do not elect liberal presidents. FDR was a fluke -- he was elected when the country was suffering an economic crisis of epic proportions, and even then few believed he'd end up governing as far to the left as he did. LBJ was the other great liberal domestic policy president, but that, too, was a fluke. ...

So, in all honesty, I think Obama is about the best we can do. Yes, he opposed the war from the start. But he's been vague about when he'd start withdrawing troops, and unlike candidates like Bill Richardson, he supports letting residual troops remain. His voting record is decent overall, but it contains some serious disappointments, such as his support of the FISA compromise. Like 95% of the other Democrats in Congress, he's not exactly a profile in courage. ...

The fact is, in his entire public career Barack Obama has never stuck his neck out for anyone or anything. He's never once taken on a big, high-profile cause or project that was highly controversial or risked failure. Yes, there's his early opposition to the war on the one hand; but on the other hand, once he got to the U.S. Senate he did little to, you know, try to stop the war, and his votes on the war have been utterly conventional Democratic votes.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, when she was about the age Barack is now, took on the daunting task of developing a health care plan. And even though that ended up being a huge failure, at least she took the risk. If she became president, I truly believe that she'd do her damndest to make universal health care a reality in this country. If John Edwards became president, he'd work like hell to enact populist economic vision.

But Barack Obama? Honestly, I don't have a freaking clue. I think he'll govern like the utterly conventional Democrat that he is, but I have no idea what his policy priorities are, or what burning issue drives him.

Over this past election season, on websites and listservs and in conversations, I've seen an awful lot of cheap, hacktacular electioneering in favor of one candidate or another. But at the end of the day, I don't think there was ever all that much of a difference between Hillary and Barack. Or between those two and Edwards, for that manner. Hillary and Barack had voting records and positions on the issues that were closet to identical. They've both taken shitloads of money from Wall Street, and it's pretty clear to me that each of them is captive to corporate special interests. Indeed, I interpret Obama's recent rightward shift -- Furman, Messina, the remarks about NAFTA, the FISA compromise -- as saying to the corporate interests, "Never fear -- we'll be playing ball as usual with you folks."

As president, either Barack or Hillary, or Edwards, would be infinitely better than any Republican, but from a progressive point of view, each of them would also far short in some pretty profound and powerful ways.

But you know what? Ultimately, I don't think that they as individuals are to blame for that. I don't think Barack, or Hillary, or Edwards, are bad people. I don't think that Barack Obama, for example, went into politics so he could sell civil liberties down the river in favor of giveaways for the telecom industry. But the incentive structure in politics these days is such that he decided he had more to gain by supporting the FISA "compromise" than by opposing it.

This is where we, as liberals, progressives, lefties, activists, whatever-you-want-to-call-us, come in. ...

Instead of shilling for Barack, or Hillary, or whoever, we should have been pressuring the candidates to work for our votes. We should have been pressing them to take firm, non-negotiable positions in favor of things like no immunity for the telecoms, or immediate withdrawal from Iraq with no residual troops. Instead, we were really cheap dates. And when you act like suckers, don't be surprised when something like Obama's support for the FISA compromise comes back and bites you in the ass. ...

Obama, like just about every other politician out there, is cautious, but also highly pragmatic. Like everyone else, he responds to incentives. As activists, what we need to do is to move the political center of gravity in this country to the left. To change the incentive structure so that it will be easier for him to do the right thing. This is a far sounder strategy, over both the short and the long term, than waiting for saints or messiahs to come along.

I'll close with one of my favorite political stories. It concerns my all-time favorite president, FDR. He was meeting with a group of reformers trying to persuade him to support one of their goals. After they finished speaking, FDR said to them, "You've convinced me. I want to do it. Now make me do it."

And that, my friend, is the task at hand.

    Posted by on Saturday, June 21, 2008 at 12:42 PM in Economics, Politics, Social Insurance | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (79)


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