Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Precisely what we dont need.

I'm thinking of this.

It's a piece recently written by DLC ideologist William Galston, published in the New Republic. According to Galston, Obama must avoid the impulse to pursue ambitious reforms. Why? In part because, "the not-so-good-news is that expectations are sky-high". People actually expect Obama to try to change things. On this view, the task for Obama should be obvious: work to diminish the expectations of all the voters who were inspired by notions like "hope" and "change". For those hoping for a resurgence of the reformism of FDR and LBJ, Galston's advice that he scrap those illusions and accept that the political landscape of America is permanently center-Right. Moreover, Obama would do well to recognize that "despite today's crisis environment, there are economic and political limits to government activism that the president-elect will ignore at his peril." It comes as little surprise, then, that Galston's advice for the first 100 days is to heed "economists of every ideological stripe" and dole out tax credits in the form of a "stimulus package", coupled with an effort to above all, pay down the Federal deficit. Only after these priorities should Obama even consider his "ambitious investment agenda--in energy, health insurance, infrastructure, education, and many other areas", at which point Galston thinks Obama will realize that these undertakings simply aren't realizable under current conditions. If Obama were to try to undertake his proposed "orgy of deficit spending", then the USA's global debtors could decide to raise interests rates and "torpedo" the prospects for "sustainable growth" (Compare with Bill O'Reilly's recent blathering that if Obama increases funding for 'entitlement programs' then the US Dollar and economy will 'totally collapse'.) Further, on Galston's view Obama should confine himself to snagging "low hanging fruit" like the S-CHIP funding bill that Bush vetoed. But not because such an undertaking is good in it's own right, but because constituents might get angry if someone doesn't give them something tangible. But the reforms should halt right there: venturing any further into health care reform would be a serious mistake, one that Clinton 'made in 1993' and which Obama should simply avoid altogether.

In other words, Obama should follow the DLC strategy of eschewing social spending, fetishizing 'balanced budgets', grabbing only low-hanging fruit, pursuing tax-cuts as the only path to sparking growth, and endorsing the neoliberal dogma that "state intervention" and "government activism" are best limited as much as possible. Classic "Third Way" stuff. Thus, accommodating these goals would be best accomplished by finding creative ways to suppress those pesky constituents that helped Obama get elected, to attenuate their enthusiasm and euphoria, to stifle their expectations that some change is really going to come.

Unfortunately, this process appears to already be underway. Recent NYTimes headlines aren't helping the case either. Still, I think its far too early to judge precisely what course the Obama administration will chart once the presidency is underway. Nonetheless, the purported candidates for cabinet posts is not encouraging. Madeline Alrbight and Robert Rubin are hardly representative of change occurring.

There is a lot of what Galston is saying that is well taken. From the perspective of cold political calculus, there is a sense in which the expectations facing Obama could prove counterproductive even if many reforms were signed into law, given that realignment and governmental reordering take time. To the extent that they're virtually always virtues, foresight and caution should factor into the decision calculus every step of the way. But what, strictly speaking, would concrete instances of those virtues amount to?

This is not a time for bipartisanship. True, Obama should seek Republican allies that could prove crucial in defeating filibusters. Any means of fracturing or dividing the Republicans could prove very useful as well. But that's as far as it should go. All the talk of the value of consensus in itself, of reaching across the aisle as its own kind of virtue, is preposterous. The thought behind elections is that you hold them so that citizens can change the balance of political power and choose one party rather than others. The Democrats have sizable majorities in both chambers and have shed the cumbersome obstacle of a GOP president not afraid to use his power to veto. At this moment, there is simply no excuse for Democrats not to pursue an ambitious reform program on their own terms.

Of course, part of Galston's worry is that the Democrats "own terms" are not easily established. The party must first be unified around a program for change. Galston's answer to this problem is, of course, that the more conservative Obama's agenda, the less controversial it will be among Democrats writ large.

But why should what Galston deems "foresight" only be required of the president? Lack of party unity is a legitimate thing to worry about when attempting to pass substantial legislative reforms. However, simply capitulating to the most conservative elements in the Democratic Party isn't the only possible course of action. Why should the need for party unity only make demands on reformists to be more conservative and centrist? The conservative elements in question (the DLC, blue dogs, etc.) have to also recognize that their aims must be attenuated as well. Bullying them into obedience should be a much more prominently undertaken strategy than simply accepting the preordained 'truth' that consensus is built simply by shifting Right.

Some commentators on Galston's article have also latched onto the thought that LBJ is an instructive example of what Obama should not do. After all, they say, Richard Nixon was president after just 4 years of that. The racism latent in this view (i.e. arguing that the Civil Rights legislation was a tactical blunder because it lost the Democrats votes for generations) notwithstanding, it belies a deep misunderstanding of history and social change. It's perhaps true that the audacious reformist impulse of the Great Society didn't continue to proliferate after its high water mark in '65-66. But consider how much of LBJ is still with us today: Medicare, Medicaid, Federal Student Aid (Pell Grants and Stafford Loans), National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, Public Broadcasting (PBS and NPR), The Urban Mass-Transportation Act, and a slew of ground-breaking environmental protection acts (Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, etc.), not to mention the momentous Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. These achievements were not the result of the tepid DLC conciliatory approach, but rather, they were the fruits of ambitious progressive reformism when a window opened for it to happen (large Democratic majorities, fractured opposition, public mandate). Frankly, I'll take the 1-term LBJ gains of the Civil Rights Act, Medicare/Medicaid, NEH/NEA and Pell Grants anyday over the DLC dream of perpetual centrist 'leadership'.

Yes, Richard Nixon was elected four years after LBJ's massive '64 landslide victory over the ultra-Right senator Barry Goldwater. But if we set aside the ahistorical partisanship of Democrat-apologists who think Democratic electoral success is an end in itself (rather than a crude means of effecting reform), we see that wide-scale realignments are more important than the mere election of a particular party. What do I mean by this? Nixon and Gerald Ford oversaw exponential increases in the programs put forward by LBJ. They didn't continue the feverish pace of enactment of new reforms characteristic of the Great Society era in '65-66, but they basically held the line established by LBJ. The political center of gravity of the American landscape had been altered. "Conservative" came to mean something different than it did before the Great Society; it meant that the Right had to maneuver within a space circumscribed by the wave of left-liberal reform pushed forward by LBJ. As of today, I would rather that the US went through the four-year period of Great Society reformism at the price of Nixon, rather than having experienced a two-term extension of the moderate JFK-style conservatism of the the early 60s.

While some of Galston's concerns have legitimate incarnations, the sense in which he conceives of them is far too heavily steeped in DLC conservatism to be taken seriously by anyone hoping for reformist legislation and 'change'. He's right that government activism (that is, the power of the state apparatus within the context of capitalism) has limits, and that ambitious spending efforts cannot fly completely in the face of government finances. But the limits to government action are far less restrictive than he imagines and the feasibility of substantial spending increases aren't so easily dismissed. You only arrive at Galston's conclusions if you first assume the plausibility of the DLC's obsession with tax cuts as means to growth and its attendant fetishization of 'balanced budgets' (an old-school Republican talking point). It's therefore unsurprising that Galston's agenda is virtually indistinguishable to that of Republican strategists finding ways to contain the Obama 'euphoria' and minimize reform as much as possible.

At this hour, at least, it is still possible that the Obama Administration's first 100 days will buck the will of conservatives like Galston, and pursue a more ambitious reformism. But even at that, we are talking about simply seeing the fulfilment of his campaign promises (themselves rather modest and cautious alternatives to more robust progressive change). Nobody but the most thoroughgoing cynic could fail to feel some kind of excitement about a possible shift in policy, no matter how meager. But being interested in the opportunities unfolded by Obama's victory is certainly not tantamount to the liberal apologetics that are sure to follow no matter what his Administration does or does not do. I think this struggle between reformist and conservative elements in the Democratic establishment is important, but let us not forget that it is fundamentally a disagreement within a crucial pillar of the status quo.

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