Heading Back into Clinton-time
What lies ahead politically? Look for an answer back in the '90s. Even if the Republicans don't take over after the midterm elections, the Democratic Party now in Congress is dominated by politicians fashioned in the Clinton era, nourished by such heirs of Aristotle as Rahm Emanuel and, before him, Tony Coelho. Their maps had simple precepts and coordinates. Barring a few yaps, the left will put up with anything and stay loyal. As for corporate America, stick your hand out for the campaign contributions and click your heels.
Progressive outfits tend to use the current cuss word of the left, "bluedog," to mean a faction of Democrats from rural districts who were elected where Obama lost in November 2008. The old and more reliable definition of bluedog—pro business, pro military—extends much further than a mere bloc to well over 90 percent of the entire congressional crew of Democrats.
There is a fantasy that 2010 may get better for progressives: that Obama, fearful of Republican takeover in the midterm elections, will need to rally the progressive vote, which will mean making some effort to cater to their agenda—card check; don't ask, don't tell; a second stimulus package; financial reform regarding credit cards and foreclosures; an end to warrantless wiretaps and renditions; a renegotiation of NAFTA; and replacing fast-track trade authority. Such hopes are vain.
Take a bellwether like the economist Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel prizewinner, a hero to the left for much of 2009 because of his fierce attacks on Obama's bailout for banks, onslaughts on the stimulus for not being big enough and sharp words for sellouts on health reform. But on Christmas Day, Krugman gave the White House a gift it had surely not even dared to dream of: a measured instruction to his audience of progressives that the Senate version of the health care bill, although markedly short of alluring features, was nonetheless a big step forward for America, that the lives of millions would be changed for the better and that the left had better remember that politics is the art of the possible.
"Imperfect as it is," Krugman wrote, "the legislation that passed the Senate on Thursday and will probably, in a slightly modified version, soon become law will make America a much better country. . . . And for all its flaws and limitations, it's a great achievement. It will provide real, concrete help to tens of millions of Americans and greater security to everyone. "
If Krugman can swallow the Senate's health bill, it is proof if any were needed that progressives can swallow anything. In fact, the ghastly health bill, which consumed and wasted most of 2009, was in itself a relict of Clinton time. Obama's political cowardice in refusing to set the health reform agenda himself, and instead ceding the initiative to the Senate, inevitably meant that the parameters would be set in negotiations among the most conservative Democratic senators and Rahm Emanuel, along with other Clinton-era White House staffers. Emanuel, remember, led renegotiations on the administration side, not Biden. What we seem to be ending up with is a bill that has the worst elements of Hillary's '93 bill, as reconfigured during her 2008 campaign.
We see Clintonism on the foreign side, too. Richard Holbrooke runs the hawkish policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Hillary commits herself to be at the heart of a Camp David-type peace initiative in the Middle East over this year. Any deal is going to be contingent on really harsh sanctions against Iran.
As for a second stimulus or increased infrastructural spending, the progressives can dream on. Obama has committed himself, just as Clinton did, to deficit reduction. He's pledged to have all outlays for his stepped-up wars in the Afghan theater on the books, not concealed as in Bush time, which will be another stick against outlays for stimulus, etc. Now watch Obama launch his attack on "bloated entitlement programs"—like Social Security.
What kind of resistance will there be? Organized labor swallowed the death of card check with scarcely a whimper and its performance in the health care fight was scarcely robust, even though AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka is vowing to fight to death the taxing of union health care plans. If labor didn't show for those two fights, what will rally them to the political barricades?
As for the antiwar movement, it swallowed Obama in his 2008 campaign pledging war in Afghanistan. Since Obama's West Point speech, there has been little in the way of impressive public demonstrations. In sum, Obama can triangulate in Clinton-style without too many worries from his left—even though, so far as war and constitutional abuses are concerned, he's just as bad as the hated Bush.
(This column was written with Jeffrey St. Clair.)
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