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Progressives Have Leverage NOW: Use It Or Lose It
As with most Americans, my emotions were on overdrive last Tuesday night as the symbolic and actual enormity of Obama's victory hit home. So much to think about, but for the first few days I felt as if I were wandering through a dream-world and was somewhat fuzzy in the head.
Now, after a week of coming down and ruminating on the meanings to be derived from this tumultuous event, here are five observations that may resonate with (or perhaps even provoke) you.
1. OBAMA THE SUPPOSED "RADICAL"
Despite outrageous Republican lies during the campaign that Barack Obama was a socialist/Muslim/terrorist-supporting" danger to the Republic, in reality he is a pragmatic centrist, with generally liberal leanings. In this, he is reminiscent of our most recent Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Obama is not a consistent progressive, not a radical, he's not about to lead a social revolution.
President Obama will be presiding over a serious economic recession that could well turn into a mini- or even prolonged Depression. Given that situation, probably the most we can hope for in his first few years in office is a slow movement away from the most catastrophic of CheneyBush policies. Turning a ship of state in roiling open waters takes a lot of time and extraordinary dexterity.
Does this mean that progressives should back off and keep their mouths shut while Obama is attempting that delicate, turn-the-boat-around maneuver? Should we simply agree to support him based on trust that he'll do the right thing?
Not at all. Certainly, despite the Democratic landslide last week, Republicans already are declaring that Obama won "no mandate," and that the election results are evidence that the country is in a "middle-right" mode. Therefore, they loudly assert, Obama should not push liberal programs but should govern from the "center" (by which they mean right-center). The HardRight extremists, the Limbaugh/Drudge/Savage wing out there on the far edges, certainly are not going to agree to any "honeymoon" period for the new President and already are
attacking fiercely, based on their claim that the Republicans lost because they "weren't conservative enough."
We can't let the Republicans dominate the field with their attempts to frame and frustrate the Obama presidency.
Already, Obama's initial appointments and economic advisors and most of those talked about as possible Cabinet officers seem to be within the frame of "middle" or even "middle-right" Establishment mode. (Some of the economists meeting with Obama are even partially responsible for the deregulationist attitude that led to our current recession.)
All of this means that we progressives, who furnished a lot of the money and ground troops and votes for the Obama victory, need to gear-up and speak-up now. A squeaky wheel gets the grease. If we don't make our desires known now, Obama may well drift even more to the center, perhaps even to the center-right, as he tries to accommodate the conservative Republicans in the Senate in order to get legislation passed.
This doesn't mean we on the left should be unmindful of the political difficulties facing the new president. He may have to compromise, tack right, on occasion, and we understand that. But we need to exert a strong, forceful, constant pressure that keeps him mindful of the correctness of many progressive and liberal policies. In other words, we must create an antidote for rightwards drift.
2. RE-PROTECTING THE CONSTITUTION
Obama stayed "on-message" throughout the entire campaign, and had precious few news conferences, leaving little room for discussion of how he might start altering the CheneyBush Administration's cavalier attitude toward the Constitution. During the past eight years, under a cockamamie, neocon-extremist theory of "the unitary Executive" as the ultimate "decider" for everything (the term we use for leaders in other countries trying something similar is "would-be dictators"), Constitutional protections were shredded and the "separation of powers" between the Executive and Legislative branches was rendered essentially non-existent by CheneyBush.
Progressives need to lean on Obama to appoint a civil libertarian/strong Constitutional advocate as Attorney General. We need to hold Obama's feet to the fire if he attempts to continue the CheneyBush approach to civil liberties, torture as state policy, over-reaching executive branch, signing statements that try to vitiate laws passed by Congress, etc.
We simply don't know how Obama will act in this regard. One would think his better liberal instincts would prevail (and already his staff has made a list of 200 executive actions that should be overturned soon after Inauguration Day). But earlier this year, he voted to support the revised FISA bill authorizing warrantless eavesdropping on and surveillance of American citizens. Not a good sign.
Obama needs to make clear at the outset that he will not be following the authoritarian impulses of the CheneyBush era, and we need to help him move in that direction. Remember what FDR told Democratic activists after he was elected in 1932: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." In other words, demonstrate enough citizen support for the reforms that need to be made so that I can be seen as responding to public clamor, not just pressure from a self-interested faction of party activists. Smart.
3. FOREIGN POLICY DANGERS
My biggest worry about Obama has to do with his foreign/military policy. Judging from his statements during the campaign, he seems to accept the "American exceptionalist" frame that is largely responsible for the mess we're in abroad: That the U.S., because we are so morally pure and especially blessed by God, has the right, and duty, to intervene wherever and however it wants in order to bring the "bad guys" and other recalcitrant leaders into compliance with American desires.
True, Obama also has said, in the context of Iraq, that he wants not only to bring the troops out of there but also deal with the faulty "mindset" that sent them there in the first place.
That's a hopeful sign, along with his assertion that diplomacy would come first and military action be employed only as a last resort. But Obama's bellicose statements with regard to Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan do make me nervous, wondering how much more the U.S. will be sucked into how many other quagmires in the Greater Middle East. He certainly needs to be more even-handed when dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians, so that seminal problem can be moved toward solution.
In this, and in his overall military and foreign policy, Obama needs to be much more clear where he stands, and we on the progressive left need to be prepared, in advance, to oppose him if he continues the CheneyBush's neo-con policy of the U.S. as world policeman.
4. REPUBLICANS IN SHOCKED CONFUSION
After eight long years of CheneyBush, which seemed more like decades given the amount of damage they did to the economy, body politic, the Constitution, and America's good will abroad, we are in a time of major realignment in almost every aspect of our society.
The Republican Party, for example, is essentially in a state of leaderless chaos after its major rejection by the American voting public. Their entire philosophy, resting on greed, rapaciousness, voluntary ignorance and legalized looting of the treasury, was soundly repudiated.
The Republicans now have to figure out whether they want to continue their Karl Rovian approach to electoral politics, which counts on their fundamentalist and HardRight conservative base to bring them victory, even if only by a single vote. To continue this approach risks continued GOP defeat at the polls for years to come. The alternative for the GOP is to shed much of that extremism, perhaps even push that beyond-the-mainstream thinking out of the party, and move to capture the growing ranks of moderates and Independents. In other words, a center-right party in opposition to the center-left one offered by the
We'll know which way they're going by how the party deals with the rightwing firebrand Sarah Palin. If she's treated as a respectable potential leader of the party, that would be great for the Democrats, who can demonize her forever and continue to win elections (aided by Palin herself, who is, how can one say this delicately, perhaps equipped to lead a successful city council but in no way qualified to lead a national political party, let alone a nation). But
what's good for the Democrats in this regard may be terrible for our democratic system, which needs a good, strong, intelligent party in opposition.
If the traditional core of the Republican Party, probably coming from the U.S. Senate, recognizes that the Palin brand of extremism and demagoguery is what helped take them down to an ignominious defeat, they might agree on the need to broaden their base to win elections. At which point, no doubt someone will have to step forward to lead that development.
Colin Powell, even though a bit long-in-the-tooth, could do it, but would he? Probably McCain is just sullied goods at this stage. Maybe Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or Mike Huckabee, but they're tainted by their far-right positions and tactics. And Ron Paul is too far out there in Libertarian land for them.
The longer there's a hole in the GOP leadership, the more the Palin-type throwbacks in and out of the Senate can feel free to fill the vacuum with their vitriol, ignorance, incendiary accusations and underlying racism. (The Republican Party is so desperate for fresh ideas that last week it launched an online invitation to ordinary members to write in with suggestions for the future.)
The Republicans probably need new, younger leadership, similar to what the Democrats latched onto with Obama and what they have waiting in the wings with a number of talented young Dem governors and senators. We'll just have to wait to see who moves to the GOP fore in 2009.
5. DEMOCRATIC RE-THINKING
The Democrats also will be going through a major re-thinking, especially as Obama begins to unfold his program. If it's inclusive and generally liberal-centrist in nature, he might be able to hold onto his broad Democratic/Independent/moderate Republican alliance with few problems. But if he starts imitating CheneyBush policies abroad, or makes too many domestic-policy concessions to the wingnut Republicans, he could potentially force his progressive/liberal base into open opposition or, in extremis, out of the Party and into a potential future alliance with the Greens or another party yet to emerge.
That latter possibility probably wouldn't happen, of course. Now that the Democrats finally are in effective control of the government in Washington, the perks of power married to the ability to shape public policy no doubt will keep most Dem legislators, if not the progressive base, happy.
But if Obama already is thinking about getting controversial legislation passed and aiming toward a second term, he's going to need the liberal/progressive base and thus has to pay attention to that huge constituency in the party during the next four years. That's leverage and we need to embrace it and use it.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers. To comment: email@example.com.
First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 11/11/08.
Copyright 2008 by Bernard Weiner.
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