Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama vs. The Left

Obama vs. The Left

Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post looks at Obama and the left, in the context of the President's efforts to keep torture photos from being released.

I consider myself "of the left," though some may see me as a hopeless sellout. "The Left" within our local Democratic Party is hard to define anyway; our splits are more about personalities and competence than about issues. The truly conservative, rural wing of the party left the formal party structure here sometime in the mid-`90s, popping in only occasionally in even-numbered springs for local primary season.

The splits aren't even a Hillary-Obama thing; the Clinton wing was relatively small at caucus time and the Edwardians made it clear early that, after they'd elected their own people to some party jobs, they'd get on board with Obama. Again, that was more personalities than policies.

It's hard to specify, and none of these are perfect descriptions, but those are the broad outlines of current splits in the Johnson County party are:

  • Platform people vs. GOTV people.

  • DFA people vs. non-DFA people. Though DFA is seen nationally as a "progressive wing" thing, it's not as simple here. A lot of the key non-DFA people were nevertheless Dean people.

    The roots go back before the 2004 caucuses, when a schedule conflict made people choose between the Howard Dean Meetup and the central committee proper's meeting. This led to one cluster of people getting committed to DFA as an organization, as opposed to Dean himself, while others had made the commitment to the formal party structure.

  • Non-labor people vs. labor people.

  • Talkers vs. doers.

    Despite these splits, the party structure here is basically the left of the party, and with all those caveats offered, here's what I see the left of the Democratic Party wanting.

  • Single payer health care: Officially labeled a non-starter, a victim of DC Realpolitik. The way single payer pays for itself is by cutting out the profit and the people in the middle, the insurance industry. So it's a life and death battle for them, which they'll attack with the full arsenal of lobbying and campaign finance at their disposal.

  • The troops home now: This resonates less than one would think. The self-selection of an all-volunteer military has created a subculture of military families who disproportionately supported Bush and his policies to the bitter end, which creates a paradox: The people most likely to benefit from the troops coming home are the most likely to continue supporting the war.

    This leaves the larger public less engaged than they were 40 years ago in the Vietnam draftee era. Their kids aren't getting shot at, but the 401k is vanishing right here right now. (There's some class issues here, too, which I can't wrap my head around in any sort of ideologically consistent way.)

  • Serious environmental and climate action: The opportunity came a few months too soon, wasted on Drill Baby Drill. Non-ideological Real People stopped caring the minute gas dropped back under $3 a gallon.

  • Accountability for torture. The uncomfortable and irreconcilable facts: 1) Based on their own public admissions, offered as rationalizations, W and Cheney belong in prison. 2) A serious effort to make that happen would be a national trauma that would stop everything else in Washington dead in its tracks.

    And maybe everything should stop in its tracks, you could argue. Problem is, this is an--oh, I hate to use this word but nothing else works--elite issue. Establishing precedent is important, but it's something civil libertarians and ideologues (like me) care about. Regular folks maybe feel bad about it, but they care about the economy, the economy and the economy. figure it's over now and go back to worrying about their jobs. (Accountability advocates also face the same problem death penalty opponents face: unsympathetic victims.)

    What will eventually happen is less than what the left wants and won't come from Obama. We'll see a watered down truthiness commission, probably with John Conyers carrying the ball, that punishes people somewhat above Lynndie England but somewhat below Rumsfeld.

    So where does this leave Obama vis-a-vis the left? I'm not feeling the frustration there was with Bill Clinton circa 1993. Obama controls the turf and the parameters of discussion, which is more than Clinton did with his triangulation approach and Republican-designed issue frame. I don't see Obama taking a deliberate base-alienating move like, say, NAFTA.

    Obama also has a more united party; the Blue Dogs feel like isolated individuals rather than a full-blown wing like they were in the 1993-94 Congress, when Dixiecrats like Jamie Whitten and Sonny Montgomery still stalked the earth, their seats to be taken by Republicans upon retirement.

    Obama's opposition is a rudderless, extremeified GOP with no leader as visionary as Newt Gingrich seemed in the dark days of `94. All these things together have moved the mainstream a few notches to the left.

    The left is also stranded without viable alternatives. The 2000 outcome set the prospects of an independent party of the left back at least a generation, and those wounds are still festering almost a decade later (still an effective tool in a Democratic primary, right, Leonard?) Obama's main rival for the nomination could hardly be described as left, and she's on the team anyway. And the fellow who campaigned on the Two Americas class issue is persona non grata.

    So the left of the Democratic party is likely to settle into a pattern of qualified, occasionally critical support, pushing for the full loaf but happy with half after eight--some would say 28--years of starvation.
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