A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
The debt-ceiling debate has been a sad one for the Left—and also, in large part, a boring one. Boring because we haven’t had too much to add. As a friend said to me, you know things are bad when the New York Times liberals say pretty much all there is to say.
In this case, they have. Paul Krugman noted that the debt deal
“will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status….Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats.”
Joe Nocera added, “America’s real crisis is not a debt crisis. It’s an unemployment crisis. Yet this agreement not only doesn’t address unemployment, it’s guaranteed to make it worse.”
Plenty of people have already explored in detail how bad the debt compromise is. For those who consider themselves part of a social movement Left, the real conversation concerns something different: namely, how we can avoid being betrayed again.
Progressives felt hugely let down last December when President Obama caved on extending the Bush tax cuts. And they almost uniformly feel betrayed now. Yet this problem is not exclusive to Obama. Certainly, the Left felt just as badly abused under Clinton. (NAFTA anyone?) And the history of ill feeling toward the actions of Democratic presidents could be traced back much further.
Some argue that we should not be surprised that Obama has crafted the compromises he has. Rather than assuming he’s a poor negotiator whose blundering is undermining progressive outcomes, they contend, we’re better off recognizing that Obama isn’t actually seeking progressive outcomes. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, a leading advocate of this position, argued in April:
“I read all of these laments from liberal pundits that Obama isn’t pursuing the right negotiating tactics, that he’s not being as shrewd as he should be. He’s pursuing exactly the right negotiating tactics and is being extremely shrewd—he just doesn’t want the same results that these liberal pundits want and which they like to imagine the President wants, too. He’s not trying to prevent budget cuts or entitlement reforms; he wants exactly those things because of how politically beneficial they are to him—to say nothing of whether he agrees with them on the merits.”
Greenwald added to his position this week by countering the idea that Obama was “forced into” the current debt deal “by the Tea Party hostage-takers”:
“For those who believe this narrative, please confront the evidence there; how anyone can claim in the face of all that evidence that the President was “forced” into making these cuts—as opposed to having eagerly sought them—is mystifying indeed. And, as I set forth there, there were ample steps he could have taken had he actually wanted leverage against the GOP; the very idea that negotiating steps so obvious to every progressive pundit somehow eluded the President and his vast army of advisers is absurd on its face.”
I think this line of reasoning has been a useful counterpoint to the widespread liberal tendency to make excuses for Obama and to claim him as someone who may be faring poorly against a rabid Republican Congress, but who is still a progressive at heart. It’s also useful for highlighting the Democratic tendency to campaign as a liberal (or at least as a center-leftist), and then govern as a market-focused neoliberal—as opposed as the Republican tendency to campaign as a moderate and then govern as a hard-right conservative.
Yet, while it was valuable as a corrective, I think the argument has problems of its own. Those who claim that the president is, at heart, a conservative (or at least a right-leaning centrist) are ultimately engaged in the same process of trying to discern the nature of the “true Obama.” And in the same way there is a yearning hopefulness—and perhaps a naivete—in the “progressive at heart” position, there’s a type of smugness in the “conservative at heart” position that I find troubling. It usually contains some contempt for those yearners, and I think that’s a problem. Any mass movement pushing toward the left in America in the future will certainly need to rely on a base of people who are hoping—even against the evidence—that Obama wants to advance progressive goals. We should take these hopes as signs of support for a more socially just and economically equitable political program, not merely dismiss them as foolishness.
Beyond that, I don’t think it is necessary that we divine Obama’s true desires. We don’t need to know what policies he’d chose in his heart of hearts. I think it is more useful to see the president as someone who is being constantly lobbied and pushed to appease different interests. He is surrounded by appointees representing a variety of ideological positions. Many of them are far more conservative than I would like (as are Washington Democrats as a whole), while some are solid progressives. Through the work of its many and varied branches, the administration is doing some things that are admirable (as I have argued with regard to the Department of Labor) and some things that totally stink (as I am inclined to say of the Department of State).
For his part, President Obama is making constant judgments, not only about which of the groups lobbying him he will appease, but also about what policy options he perceives to be politically acceptable and expedient. Forces outside of Washington go far in determining the range of those options. Indeed, those who believe in the power of social movements argue most forcefully that popular mobilizations can affect the range of policies seen as desirable, advantageous, or even inevitable.
Believing that Obama is more “conservative at heart” than the Left would like him to be—even if this is accurate—doesn’t lead very far in terms of suggesting a political response. It seems to lend support to those who, in utter disillusionment, would simply abandon electoral politics. In contrast, recognizing the multiple and sometimes contradictory faces of the administration—and seeing White House decision-making as reflecting a constant balancing act between different interests—gives us a different sense of what we need to do.
Obama is willing to compromise and cave because progressive movements are not strong enough to enforce discipline among politicians. Nor are they strong enough to consistently outweigh corporate influences within the Democratic Party. Immediately after Obama was elected, there was a widespread acknowledgment that those same forces who fueled his populist field campaign would need to “make him” stay true to progressive ideals. As it turns out, we have not made him do much of anything. Organizing for America, an outfit that was supposed to carry forth the grassroots energy of the Obama campaign, largely fizzled as the White House demonstrated that it preferred a loyal PR operation to a genuinely engaged and independent-minded base. Other efforts—such as the labor-backed American Dream Movement, MoveOn.org, and other significant progressive players—have only recently started trying to remedy the situation.
Until a vocal, dedicated, progressive grassroots, taking a page from the Tea Party, can show that it’s far more effective to reposition the center of the debate than it is to forever triangulate in hopes of appealing to “independents,“ Democratic politicians will continue to do the latter.
At this point, we can do little about the horrific budget compromise. We can only start working to stop the next betrayal.
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As a postscript, I would note that one leftist who has had something different to say about the debt-ceiling debate is Marxist scholar David Harvey. He argues that, since capitalism relies on the continual expansion of credit and debt spending, “a vote against further debt creation is a vote to end capitalism!” You can read more of his very interesting rationale here.