Monday, March 8, 2010

Just a thought

From the recent NYTimes Magazine piece on Rahm Emmanuel:
After the debacle in Massachusetts that cost Democrats their supermajority in the Senate, Washington has engaged in a favorite exercise, conducting the autopsy before the body is actually dead. How had it come to this? How did the president’s legislative drive drag on for so long that the surprise loss of a Senate seat could unravel it? Did Obama make a mistake by disregarding his top adviser’s counsel? Or was it Emanuel who failed to execute the president’s strategy? Was it both, or perhaps neither?
There is an important question to be asked here: why has Obama's presidency, initially buoyed by a groundswell of enthusiasm and excitement, been such a fucking disappointment? Notice, however, that this is not the question asked in the quote above.

There are two questions above, both of which presuppose that something interesting was underway until it was derailed. But before scrutinizing those very questions, we must ask: why should we accept that presupposition? When, since taking office, has Obama ever been on the track to put together a legislative agenda like the Great Society? What did his administration or the Democratic supermajority do aside from snagging a bit of low-hanging fruit that even Bush might have grabbed if he'd stayed in office a bit longer? For something to be derailed, it had to have been on some track in the first place. Aside from soaring campaign rhetoric, what about Obama has any recognizably "progressive" tinge?

What the magazine piece has to say here has no grounding in reality whatsoever.
For 14 months, the president has struggled with the balance between that pragmatism and the idealism of his campaign. At times, he disregarded Emanuel’s advice to scale back his goals, particularly on health care.
What struggle? The quote imagines an "idealist" pole to a tension in Obama's presidency that doesn't seem to exist. If it does actually exist, where's the evidence? I'm at a loss. And is the bit about "not scaling back his goals on health care" not a complete joke? Is it just me, or has Obama's entire strategy re: health care been one massive compromise after another from the very beginning? Let us not forget that Obama's health care plan itself began, even in the primaries, as a tepid half-measure. In what universe could we construe Obama's health care plan or strategy as "ambitious"?

Now to the questions raised in the quote. The first asks whether the Scott Brown thing in Mass marks the end of the energy elicited by the 2008 election. The second asks whether or not the pitiful legislative record of the President can be chalked up to Rahm's lack of strategic prowess (or Obama's unwillingness to listen).

Both of these seem to me the wrong questions to ask.

Now, to be sure, there is probably something interesting to say about how Rahm's maneuvering has not yielded the results Obama & Co. were looking for. But it would be facile to attribute the manifest failures of the Democrat Congress and Obama to the strategic maneuvers of electioneers in Mass or to Rahm Emmanuel. It would also be deceptive to do so. Because in the liberal squabbling over strategy and tactics (understood in a suitably narrow liberal way), we lose track of the bigger picture, for instance: What, in terms of political content, were the goals and interests of the President and the new Congress? What are their priorities? What are the ideological guidelines within which they are thinking about the issues at hand?

We can't answer these (big) questions by searching for some small strategic mistake or faulty advisor here or there. These questions track deep-seated institutional features of the Democratic Party machine itself, which in turn depend on the way that our two-party electoral system is configured.

Now, there are no easy answers to why it is that we can't seem to get things like full employment, single-payer health care, or an end to occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But whatever the answers are, they are not narrow tactical questions internal to the ongoings of the Democratic Party. What we need to talk about is how to organize people independently of the Democratic Party in such a way that we can make demands on the electoral system itself.

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