Is it time to divorce the progressive movement from the Obama presidency — and can a primary challenge succeed?
As disappointments rack up (the latest here, here, here and here) and the ever-growing stream of anti-Obama criticism from the left continues unabated, talk of a primary challenge now permeates progressive circles.
From blogs to Twitter and other online discussion forums, a fundamental question is being asked: is it time to divorce the progressive movement from the Obama presidency?
To some, the answer seems obvious: the White House has already separated itself from the left; all that remains is for the left to sign the divorce papers.
To others, talk of a primary challenge in 2012 is absurd. History shows that not only do they not succeed, but these quixotic quests can hobble the candidate in the general election.
Still others say that because President Obama is the figurehead of progressives (whether he likes it or not), even a futile challenge sends a message to America that the Obama presidency does not represent the objectives, policies, hopes and dreams of the left. The point is that because the rightwing noise machine has effectively portrayed Obama as a raging liberal, his failure to actually be one creates a dissonance that will damage the left for years, perhaps decades to come. A good number of progressives simply want to pull Obama to the left and see a primary challenge – or the threat of one – as an effective way to do it.
Skeptics and Obama supporters shrug this off as idle chatter, pointing out that the vast majority of rank and file Democrats and liberals still support the president and have no interest in opposing him.
Recent polling, however, puts some weight behind the notion that Obama could face trouble from the left in 2012:
Democratic voters are closely divided over whether President Barack Obama should be challenged within the party for a second term in 2012, an Associated Press-Knowledge Networks Poll finds. Among Democrats, 47 percent say Obama should be challenged for the 2012 nomination and 51 percent say he should not be opposed.
Despite all this, and even among strong advocates, the consensus seems to be that a credible primary challenge is wishful thinking.
But I wonder if they are factoring in the media’s hunger for a ratings-boosting 2008 redux, a bruising primary battle that can be covered like a 24/7 cage-fight. I suspect they’re not. If the media and online commentariat want a Democratic primary fight and a candidate steps forward with a modicum of legitimacy, Obama will have a serious fight on his hands.
But here’s what Obama and Democrats ended up with: the appearance (and reality) of crumbling on a matter of core principle. That is far more damaging in the long run than any marginal benefits of the deal. It further weakens Democrats and undermines the progressive cause. And that hurts America.
Obama and his advisers are in the habit of looking to past presidents for guidance. The days of Lincoln and FDR are long gone, but recent presidents like Reagan, Carter, Clinton and Bush still offer a roadmap of what – and what not – to do.
One admonition from President Clinton seems particularly apt for Obama’s predicament:
“When people are insecure, they’d rather have someone strong and wrong, rather than weak and right.”
This is a truism and George W. Bush banked it for six years until New Orleans drowned and the reality of his policies finally collided with his studiously cultivated image of strength and resolve.
Amazingly, Obama and Democrats have the opportunity to be strong and right, yet refuse to do so.
This is a time of great insecurity and fear, a time of confusion where millionaire media moguls feed think-tank crafted soundbites to a believing public. In this atmosphere, a premium is placed on strength and principle, not on faux-compromise.
It matters very little whether Barack Obama is a pragmatist, a multi-dimensional chess player, an inept Democrat, a Blue Dog, a centrist Lieberman protege, or a closet Republican. Good luck trying to read his mind.
All that matters from a political perspective is that he and his once-vaunted team have misread the public mood for two demoralizing years and hobbled the progressive cause in the process. They are clearly misreading it again.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it: If you stand up for your principles, you may lose an election but keep your principles; if you ditch your principles, you’ll lose both.
I don’t agree with everything Bill Maher says here, but his take is instructive:
Paul Krugman is getting lots of attention for a scathing piece that concludes:
Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse — a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.
Interestingly, Krugman is on the forgiving side of a new divide on the left over President Obama.
Here’s what I mean: For some time, the basic division over Obama on the opinion-making left was between those who argued that he had accomplished much considering the obstacles and those who believed he was selling out progressive principles out of a misguided desire for bipartisanship.
Today, the predominant rift appears to be between those who believe he is selling out progressive principles out of a misguided desire for bipartisanship and those who say that he is actually getting the policies he wants, i.e. that he is perfectly comfortable ditching progressive principles because he doesn’t believe in them.
Proponents of the latter view have new ammunition with a story making the rounds about Obama’s private self-assessment:
Privately, Mr. Obama has described himself, at times, as essentially a Blue Dog Democrat, referring to the shrinking caucus of fiscally conservative members of the party.
Whichever position wins out, one thing is for certain: Obama has lost the left’s opinion-making machinery. Of course, some would say that’s exactly what he wants.
Early in 2007, as I was working on preparations for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign announcement, I had a conversation with one of her senior strategists about her chances of winning the nomination.
I said that I worried about one thing above all others: the day the aura of inevitability and invincibility surrounding her candidacy was punctured. It wasn’t a matter of if that day would come, simply a matter of when.
Once it happened, a virtuous circle would become a vicious circle, a vortex which could destroy her campaign. Sort of like the inverted passion in a relationship where love turns to hate, and the positive energy of one feeds the negative energy of the other.
To be clear, contrary to what many pundits believed and wrote, Hillary Clinton never bought into that aura; she was confident, but she was also a realist, understanding that only hard work, focus and discipline would get her over the finish line. And she was true to that dictum until the very end, showing inspiring strength of character and resolve.
Still, that moment I feared came, starting with a debate late in 2007 and culminating with her defeat in Iowa. Barack Obama expertly surfed the ensuing wave and captured the nomination.
Today, he’s having his Hillary Clinton moment. Inevitability and invincibility have turned inside out and opinion-makers across the political spectrum are writing his political obituary, doling out advice and criticism by the bucketful, bemoaning the demise of hope and change.
It was bound to happen. Bubbles are born to burst. I’ll be the first to say that he and his strategists accelerated the process by failing to adhere to core Democratic and progressive values and by telegraphing to the public that “compromise” was more important than principle. But either way, this moment was fated.
So, where does it lead? If Hillary Clinton’s current stature is any indication, President Obama has good reason to be hopeful.
If you’d like to know how Roger Ailes sees the world, read Howie Kurtz’s exclusive interview with the Fox News chief:
The 70-year-old Ailes, dressed in a lavender shirt and tie, goes on in this vein, saying the network isn’t singling out Obama for criticism but that its style “tends to be more direct” in challenging presidents. Then he offers this observation about Obama: “He just has a different belief system than most Americans.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the twisted worldview of the far right, that’s code for Kenyan, un-American, socialist, treasonous, Muslim-sympathizer.
Further illuminating Ailes’ worldview, here’s his take on Glenn Beck accusing George Soros of being “a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps”:
Ailes says Beck relied on Soros’ own account and that “his point wasn’t really about Nazis or the Holocaust, more about the character of George Soros.” There are some “left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anybody can ever use word, Holocaust, on the air.” As for Soros, “if he has a problem with Glenn Beck, he ought to man up, come on [the air] and talk to him about it.”
Finally, he supports Beck “because he’s so intelligent and basically sensitive.”
More on Beck’s sensitivity here.
Paul Krugman makes an excellent point today (when doesn’t he make excellent points?):
Democrats, declared Evan Bayh in an Op-Ed article on Wednesday in The Times, “overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession.” Many others have been saying the same thing: the notion that the Obama administration erred by not focusing on the economy is hardening into conventional wisdom.
But I have no idea what, if anything, people mean when they say that. The whole focus on “focus” is, as I see it, an act of intellectual cowardice — a way to criticize President Obama’s record without explaining what you would have done differently.
After all, are people who say that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy saying that he should have pursued a bigger stimulus package? Are they saying that he should have taken a tougher line with the banks? If not, what are they saying? That he should have walked around with furrowed brow muttering, “I’m focused, I’m focused”?
The issue, says Krugman, is not the lack of focus, but the inadequacy of the White House’s economic plan. This is something Krugman has been hammering from day one and who knows where we’d be if Democrats had listened to him and others who were advocating for a more audacious stimulus.
This raises another point. I actually think Obama was smart to use the momentum of the 2008 campaign to pass a health insurance bill. My complaint – and that of many progressives – was that the administration was ceding too much ground in the debate, was flat-footed in response to the rightwing noise machine, was blithely negotiating away key bargaining chips, and was getting bogged down in appeasing a few centrist Democrats who appeared to be negotiating in bad faith. Remember, progressives were agitating for the threat of reconciliation long before Scott Brown’s stunning victory.
Still, the bill passed, and I don’t buy into the congealing conventional wisdom that Obama should have postponed tackling health care.
This story should be as big as the midterms, but it won’t be. The U.S. media long ago determined that George W. Bush’s transgressions have ceased to be newsworthy. One of the reasons is that the Obama administration made the disastrous decision not to investigate Bush. That cop-out allows Bush to freely admit he approved torture:
Human rights experts have long pressed the administration of former president George W. Bush for details of who bore ultimate responsibility for approving the simulated drownings of CIA detainees, a practice that many international legal experts say was illicit torture. In a memoir due out Tuesday, Bush makes clear that he personally approved the use of that coercive technique against alleged Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an admission the human rights experts say could one day have legal consequences for him.
In his book, titled “Decision Points,” Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was “Damn right” and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said, “Waterboarding is broadly seen by legal experts around the world as torture, and it is universally prosecutable as a crime. The fact that none of us expect any serious consequences from this admission is what is most interesting.”
M. Cherif Boussiani, an emeritus law professor at DePaul University who co-chaired the U.N. experts committee that drafted the torture convention, said that Bush’s admission could theoretically expose him to prosecution. But he also said Bush must have presumed that he would have the government’s backing in any confrontation with others’ courts.
Georgetown University law professor David Cole, a long-standing critic of Bush’s interrogation and detention policies, called prosecution unlikely. “The fact that he did admit it suggests he believes he is politically immune from being held accountable. . . . But politics can change.”
The disparate threads of 2009/2010 politics come together in this admission:
First, it reminds us how radical Bush really was and why America recoiled in disgust, lurched left and elected a Democratic president.
Second, it highlights the irresponsibility of the press, who should be blasting this on every front page. Remember, the media still has agenda setting power and tells the public what matters.
Third, it bring into stark relief the political and moral tone-deafness of the Obama White House. If you can’t hold an American president accountable for breaking the law on a matter as grave as torture, then you have no moral authority — and questionable political acumen.
Fourth, it explains why someone like Sarah Palin can get elected president.
Fifth, it is yet another vindication of the progressive community, whose warnings about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bybee, Yoo, Rove, Rice, Ashcroft, etc. have proven to be prescient.
The final insult is that it takes Darrell Issa to threaten investigations of Bush while Democrats mope around after their midterm drubbing:
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) pledged on Wednesday to investigate both Barack Obama and George W. Bush with his newfound subpoena power when he takes over as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“I’m going to be investigating a president of my own party, because many of the issues we’re working on began [with] President Bush or even before, and haven’t been solved,” Issa said during an interview on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.”
America is not America if we lose our moral compass. It matters not one iota if round-the-clock indoctrination by the rightwing noise machine numbs the majority of our citizens and makes the unacceptable acceptable to them. The rest of us must speak out forcefully in defense of the fundamental principles that undergird our nation.
Don’t listen to me, listen to the Bible: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
UPDATE: Marcy raises an intriguing point about Bush’s confession:
At least from Smith’s description, it appears that Bush says nothing about approving the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah (nor the reported waterboarding of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi). Mind you, Ron Suskind has reported that Bush was intimately, almost gleefully, involved in ordering torture for Abu Zubaydah. But Bush doesn’t cop to that in his book. Now, there may be good reason for that. After all, John Yoo had not yet written the memo claiming that waterboarding did not amount to torture at the time Abu Zubaydah was first tortured.
According to multiple reports, the White House–Alberto Gonzales at least, if not his boss–approved the torture of Abu Zubaydah on a daily basis. And when you read the Bybee Memo and the OPR Report on it, it’s very clear that the memo carved out legal authorization specifically for the torture directly authorized by the President. Indeed, the White House’s prior approval for torture–potentially up to and including waterboarding–may explain the urgency behind the memo in the first place, to provide retroactive legal cover for Bush’s unilateral disregard for US laws prohibiting torture.
Over the course of two years, President Obama and the Democratic Party achieved a remarkable feat: they passed significant, in some cases historic, legislation, yet managed not to tell the America public what they stood for and why they stood for it.
What’s worse, elected to be the anti-Bush, Barack Obama took page after page from the Bush playbook, on war, civil liberties, gay rights, executive power and women’s reproductive rights, among several other things.
A perfect example is the shameful spiking of the BP spill, a craven political ploy that backfired terribly: as Democrats were getting trounced at the polls, BP was reporting a return to profitability.
No one can deny that the Obama White House and Democratic leadership racked up important accomplishments during the past two years, but voters don’t care what you do if they think you don’t stand for anything. I’ve written about Democrats’ lack of moral authority:
What is moral authority? Broadly speaking, it is the respect and power of suasion conferred on a person who is true to inviolable ethical principles. It is the ability to influence by setting an example of virtue and good character rather than through coercion.
Most politicians campaign using the language of right and wrong, tapping into the power of morality to persuade and sway voters. Once in office, the rhetoric is toned down as grand promises meet the reality of legislating and deal-making. That doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to matter.
The astounding collapse of Democrats and the rightwing resurgence of 2009 and 2010 is a direct result of the squandered moral authority of Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. I say “squandered” because it is something Obama possessed during the campaign and something Democrats prioritized as the antidote to Bush and Cheney’s radicalism.
I keep hearing the retort that it’s all about jobs, that if the unemployment rate were 6%, Obama would be riding high and none of this would be an issue. I don’t buy it. All things being equal, when you cede your moral authority, when you telegraph to the public that you won’t stand your ground in defense of your principles, when you allow your opponent to step into the vacuum and frame your actions for you, you lose the connection to the people, you squander the ability to explain your actions, to buy time when things are going poorly, to earn trust during hard times.
In this case, Democrats collapsed in the face of an obstructionist Republican Party and the Tea Party, an overhyped, media-magnified phenomenon fueled by misinformation from think-tank generated soundbites disseminated by millionaire radio hosts and media moguls and stoked by wealthy conservative interests.
Had the White House laid out a set of core beliefs and values that they vowed to adhere to and that they framed their policies with, Democrats could have kept the American public on board with them through a tough economy. Instead, they flailed from inane attack to inane attack, never telling America what they stood for and why they stood for it, never demonstrating the strength of character and resoluteness essential to viable leadership.
So the “hope and change” of 2008, the singular moment where America recoiled from the disastrous Bush era, has given way to the triumph of the rightwing noise machine, a lumbering, well-greased behemoth anchored by Fox News and talk radio, amplified by blogs and chain emails and juiced by the Drudge Report, cranking out simplistic soundbites that dominate the national discourse: “big government,” “socialized medicine,” “judicial activism,” and “tax and spend.”
The Tea Party isn’t some sort of new, inspiring movement in America politics, it’s just another example of what happens when you feed endless, unrebutted streams of rightwing propaganda to a low-information nation:
Liberals are worse than terrorists — Global warming is a hoax — Obama is a Kenyan socialist — Gays are trying to corrupt our children — “Big government” is oppressing us — All Muslims are bent on our destruction — “Activist judges” are trying to undermine the Constitution – The Constitution’s two main tenets are that everyone should have the right to carry assault weapons and that America is a Christian nation.
Pushed to give an instant reaction to the question, “What do Democrats stand for?”, I’d wager that most people would repeat Republican talking points. There’s simply no clear, captivating summary of Democratic values. Nor is there any sense that there are unwavering values Democratic leaders will fight for.
So what now? As election results rolled in, I suggested that Obama listen to progressive bloggers, not because they’re all policy experts, not because they have all the answers, not because they can magically cut the unemployment rate, but because they learned one thing in the trenches during the Bush years: If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.
This will be a very brief post.
In a word, a handful of liberal bloggers warned you every step of the way for two years: ignore progressive values at your own peril — and ours. Governing on principle is good politics. Trashing your principles because focus groups tell you to do so is bad politics.
I’ll say this again: If you stand up for your principles, you may lose the election but keep your principles; if you ditch your principles, you’ll lose both.
Listen to the bloggers who give a damn whether you win or lose. Don’t listen to crusty Beltway pundits who watched your rise with silent disdain and now watch your fall with silent glee.
Listen to a community of activists who understand politics better than your brilliant insider strategists.
The midterm results speak for themselves. You mocked and marginalized those whose advice would have saved you control of the House. Now it’s time to listen to them, to respect their collective wisdom.
They helped take Bush down. They can help lift you back up.