Stoller: What Democrats can do about Obama

Matt Stoller in Salon:

Obama has ruined the Democratic Party.

So why isn’t there a legitimate primary challenger to Obama to make this case? Forty years ago, primaries were instituted in the Democratic Party as a response to party insiders having too much influence over nominations. These reforms were implemented before the prevalence of money in politics was as extreme as it is now. At this point, primary challenges are so expensive that a serious 2012 campaign would ironically require support of party insiders for viability. The party, inflexible as it was in 1968, is perhaps even more rigid today. As a result, no candidate has stepped up to challenge Obama in a primary, even though 32 percent of Democratic voters want one.

This is an institutional crisis for Democrats. The groups that fund and organize the party — an uneasy alliance of financiers, conservative technology interests, the telecommunications industry, healthcare industries, labor unions, feminists, elite foundations, African-American church networks, academic elites, liberals at groups like MoveOn, the ACLU and the blogosphere — are frustrated, but not one of them has broken from the pack. In remaining silent, they give their assent to the right-wing policy framework that first George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama, cemented in place. It will be nearly impossible to dislodge such a framework without starting within the Democratic Party itself.

Stoller’s emphasis on the role party insiders can play in taking action here is insightful. There is no need for acquiescence. Stoller suggests first that party leaders run as favored son candidates, sparking energy and discussion in different geographies that opens the door for a real discussion about the direction the base wants the party to go in and who we want to lead us there:

Harkin could run as a “favorite son” of Iowa, and encourage people in the caucuses to send a message to the party and to Obama by choosing him. Other candidates could then emerge in early primary and caucus states, as a way of repudiating Obama’s leadership. Candidates wouldn’t have to pretend to be running for president or be presidential quality; they could simply stand in as favorite sons or daughters of their own geographic area. This would immediately fire up a highly aggressive and needed debate about the direction of the Democratic Party and the country at large. It would build a new set of leaders, and elevate others who would like to distance themselves from the Obama policy agenda.

In a few months, we’ll know better if Obama still looks like a loser next year. If he does, that does not mean the Democratic Party must follow him down the path to oblivion.

He concludes:

Political parties need to be flexible enough to allow for new ideas to come into the process, or else third parties or civil disorder are inevitable. All it would take to provide this flexibility are well-known Democratic elders who understand that rank and file Democrats deserve a choice, and a few political insiders who realize that they can increase their own power by encouraging a robust debate. I don’t think this will happen. But just imagine if it did.

I think this is exactly right. I’m really not afraid of the consequences of a primary. I don’t think something that 32% of Democratic voters want is fringe – it’s a legitimate idea, and one has achieved that legitimacy without a single party insider, media figure, or liberal leader advocating for it. If a primary challenger were able to emerge and beat Obama from the left, that person would offer voters a real choice of vision for how to right the economy and rebuild the middle class. If primary challengers emerged, but failed to knock Obama off of the top of the ticket, then at least the base had a choice in opposition and made it with their vote.

One element Stoller doesn’t address is that Obama’s poll numbers are weak now. There’s a very real chance that no only will he have taken the Democratic Party far to the right, but that he’s not even going to win reelection, ensuring four to eight years of Republican rule (which may well be similar to what we have, but without the whimsy). But there is recent history of the Democratic Party forcing an incumbent to not run for reelection due to poor polling: the 2010 Senate race in Connecticut, where poor polling lead the administration and party leadership to not only encourage Chris Dodd to not run again, but were recruiting an alternative candidate while Dodd was still running. Dodd did what was probably best for the party and stepped down in a timely fashion and Democrats were able to hold the seat. While there may or may not emerge primary challengers to Obama, there also may need to be a discussion not about his candidacy on ideological grounds, but his candidacy on electability grounds. I don’t expect that there will be this degree of critical introspection within the administration, but if there ways, very interesting things could happen that might not otherwise be possible.

Stoller on Schneiderman & Obama

Matt Stoller has been consistently writing thoughtful analysis about the Obama administration and what’s happening in American political life, but this piece at Naked Capitalism is undoubtedly one of his sharpest pieces of writing, pulling together a number of different threads of analysis around what we’re seeing out of New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman. Stoller pushes the analysis (bold in its rarity) that Schneiderman, like Obama and any other politician, is doing what he wants to do.

In all the absurdly stupid punditry, the simple application of free will to our elected officials goes missing. Yeah, Obama got money from Wall Street. But Obama is choosing to pursue a policy of foreclosures and bank bailouts not because of any grand corporate scheme. He just wants to. He thinks it’s the right thing to do, and he’s doing it. If you don’t think it’s the right thing to do, then you shouldn’t be disappointed in him any more than you might have been disappointed in Bush. Obama is not trying to do the opposite of what he’s doing, he’s not repeatedly suckered by Republicans, and he isn’t naive or stupid. Obama is simply doing what he thinks is right. So is Eric Schneiderman. So is Tom Miller. So are any number of elected officials out there.

In positions of power, the best expression I heard is that “up there the air is thin”. That is, you have enormous latitude, if you want to use it. Power can be wielded creatively and effectively on behalf of whatever it is the wielder wants. Now of course there are constraints, plenty of them. Smart politicians spend their time working to maximize the constraints they want to impose and weakening the ones they want to overcome. But the basic Reaganite liberal argument defending supplication towards Obama these days is that Obama is “disappointing”. In this line of thought, powerful corporate interests and Republicans are preventing him from enacting what his real agenda would be were he unfettered by this mean machine. Eric Schneiderman, who is in a far less powerful position as New York Attorney General, shows that this is utter hogwash. Obama is who he is, and anyone who thinks otherwise is selling something.

The rest of the piece is really sharp and definitely worth reading. There aren’t many people consistently putting out clear-minded analysis of the Obama administration and political dynamics in America today, but Matt is one of them.

House progressives blast Obama

Originally posted at AMERICAblog.

The relationships between progressive House Democrats and the administration seems somewhat strained. Jim McGovern (MA-3):

“We need to get the focus back on jobs,” said McGovern. “Here we are at the end of August, and Congress hasn’t done anything about jobs.”McGovern voted “no” on the debt ceiling compromise, calling is “a catastrophe” that disagreed with both President Obama and the American people’s stance on revenues.

“I didn’t run for Congress to dismantle the New Deal,” said McGovern.

The Massachusetts Rep is a loyal supporter of the president, but feels that the current political climate in the country calls for bolder leadership.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR-4)is only slightly less pointed in his criticism of President Obama.

“I believe Oregon is very much in play. I mean we are one of the harder hit states in the union, particularly my part of the state. I’ve just done six town hall meetings, have seven to go but people are shaking their heads and saying ‘I don’t know if I’d vote for him again.’” Defazio said.Asked if he was surprised, the congressman shrugged.

“Not at all,” DeFazio said. “One guy asked me, ‘Give me 25 words what he’s about and what he’s done for me.’ I’m like, ‘It could have been worse.’”


Ezra’s World

What world does Ezra Klein live in?

To govern responsibly, Democrats cannot simply raise taxes on the rich and call it a day. That’s a world in which Republicans continuously force crises, refuse taxes, and extract deeper and deeper cuts. Already, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called the GOP’s debt-ceiling brinksmanship “a new template” and promised that “in the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore.”

Um, Ezra, that’s the world we already live in. Republicans continually force crises, refuse to raise taxes and extract deep and deeper cuts. So given that Republicans are already doing what Ezra fears they will do if Democrats suddenly and miraculously started believing in and realizing real tax hikes for the rich, why wouldn’t Democrats do this? Again, not for the reasons that Ezra says, because they are already realized. No, the real reason would be that Democratic elites, including most of the Senate, much of the House and the administration just don’t believe that the rich should have their taxes raised, for the rich are job creators and while a small jet tax here or a slight increase for oil companies there is okay, going back to Reagan’s 1986 top bracket rate of 50% would be class warfare. And today’s Democrats just don’t do class warfare against the rich – they’re too busy doing it against the poor, working, and middle classes of America.

The perils of pivoting to jobs

Originally posted at AMERICAblog

Though it sounded like spin to keep liberals quiet at the time, there was a lot of talk prior to this deficit deal that once it was passed, the administration and Democrats on the Hill would shift towards job creation efforts and a jobs narrative.

To the extent that Politico’s Mike Allen is a leading indicator that political insiders use to preview political work, it seems that the pivot to jobs is actually happening. Today’s Politico Playbook has an in-depth look at how the administration and congressional Democrats plan to switch the conversation to job creation and getting the economy back on track.

Before anything else, I think it’s important to say that I absolutely support the pursuit of job creation legislation. Lots of liberals who write online and lots of left-leaning institutions – from labor to MoveOn and other campaigning organizations – have been pleading for months for there to be a focus on job creation. A stronger economy built through the creation of good-quality, well-paying jobs is the cure for what ails America. It will reduce the suffering working and middle class Americans are going through now. It will keep more people in their homes. And a stronger economy driven by higher employment would dramatically increase tax receipts, reduce the deficit and at least from a purely economic standpoint, reduce the likelihood for social programs to be on the chopping block.

I just worry that there’s either (a) a lack of recognition of what just happened in the deficit debate and how the “deal” will impact all other legislation that requires money to work, and (b) a continued assumption that Republicans will be reasonable and good faith negotiators. To wit:

A Senate Democratic official tells Playbook: “There is nothing stimulative or jobs-based in this final deal that got struck. That’s unfortunate, but it also gives us an opening in September that we can say, ‘We’ve met you halfway and passed a huge, historic debt-reduction measure. Now it’s time to do something for jobs. The administration has been saying for weeks, ‘Once we get off this debt-ceiling thing, we’ll be able to get back to jobs.’ In the last 24 to 48 hours, one of their selling points of this deal has been that it resolves this thing so we can get back to jobs.

Dems, hoping to actually pass something, plan to emphasize tax cuts, and spending measures that have been embraced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, giving them cross-party appeal. [Emphasis added]

Four of the seven measures Allen previews are tax cuts. If I had to put money down, I’d predict that if any jobs bill moves forward, it will consist of more than 50% tax cuts, and probably more likely, a four or five to one ratio of tax cuts to stimulative spending measures.

Two thoughts here.

First, the language from Democrats sounds disturbingly like the mindset of December 2010, where after the deal extending the Bush tax cuts it was taken on faith that the GOP would behave like grownups on the debt ceiling and not play games.   Regardless of why that analysis coming from the White House was wrong, it was devastatingly wrong.  Even if you never paid attention to how the modern Republican Party behaves prior to the last eight months, there’s zero reason any person who has followed recent events should think that the Republican Party is interested in anything close to responsible governance.

There will be no GOP concessions to reciprocate for what Democrats have given during the deficit deal negotiations. Expectations to the contrary should be rejected on their face, and anyone who posits them is at best stupid and at worst lying.

Second, the fight we just had was not about the debt ceiling. It was about the deficit, and everyone (well, other than the top 2%) is going to have to swallow some pretty bitter pills as a result.   I simply don’t know how the GOP is going to let through any new government spending to create jobs without at least equal cuts elsewhere.  Conservatives – and clearly we must count President Obama as one of them – have created a zero-sum game when it comes to the federal budget. The sole caveat here is that because conservatives don’t actually care about the deficit, I can easily see a scenario where tax cuts will be allowed without comparable spending cuts elsewhere. But that still puts Democrats in a position of adopting failed Republican policy solutions to try to fix the economy, while simultaneously stipulating that liberal ideas are not a viable solution to our weak economy and our high unemployment.

To put it differently, by operating in such a framework, the Democratic Party is actively destroying liberalism as a valid set of ideas to be considered by the American public.

I would love to be wrong, but right now I’m not optimistic about how the next few months will play out – whether it’s the supposed pivot to job creation, the budget fight, or the highway bill reauthorization (which includes the gas tax), there are ample opportunities for conservatives to grind things to a halt with deficit hysteria.

The GOP just learned that President Obama is an enthusiastic partner in this hysteria, and the Democrats on the Hill are equally willing to go along with “deficit panic.” This doesn’t mean that Democrats should not try to pass a stimulative jobs bill – given the anti-stimulative effect of the deficit deal it’s needed now more than ever. But the chances of a good bill, that doesn’t come at the continued cost of reducing other important social support programs, seem low, and will only be made lower if Democrats continue to expect conservatives to come to the table as good faith partners in job creation.

Debt Ceiling Craziness

Writing about specific proposals being floated about how to get Congress to address the looming debt ceiling is a bit crazy. There’s a new band of pols, a new gang or a new Grand Bargain (none of which are ever grand or bargains) every 36 hours. But the latest one is pretty remarkable, in that the Senate Democrats are now essentially offering the GOP everything that they want and are asking for nothing in return. Even for Democrats, this is remarkable.

Ezra Klein makes the case that the Republicans have won (duh) but likely won’t be able to take the victory and move on. But this is basically what President Obama said in his press conference Friday – that the Republicans are incapable of saying “yes.” Given that this is coming from both the President and Klein, a favorite outlet for administration thinking, it’s hard to see what the political plan of Democrats is at this point. From what I can tell and separate from any assessment of the policy content, the White House and Reid are implementing a strategy that looks like this:

  1. Give the GOP everything they want so that…
  2. The GOP rejects the Democrats’ deal that has everything they want
  3. ???
  4. PROFIT!

I really don’t know what #3 is meant to be. Obviously the President made a forceful case on Friday that the GOP is incapable of accepting a deal on their own terms and are trying to leverage this all to their electoral advantage. But to believe that giving the GOP what they want and expecting them to reject that is a winning political strategy, you have to believe that the American public is paying as close attention to the deficit debates as the most savvy political reporters in Washington. Or at leas that the general tone will be “Democrats tried to make a deal and Republicans wouldn’t accept it.” But even that doesn’t convey that the GOP would be rejecting what is essentially a Republican proposal.

Maybe I’m wrong that giving the GOP what they want and hoping they reject it is not the strategy currently being employed by Reid and the White House. But if it is, I don’t get the politics of it. The policy explanation is pretty straightforward – the outcomes sought by the White House and most congressional Democrats is not dissimilar from the outcomes sought by Republicans. The sole difference has, to this point (and with the exception of Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus), been one of optics. Both sides have always proposed massive spending cuts, while Democrats have sought a fig leaf of tax increases on the rich and Republicans oppose any revenue increase.

The differences here between trying to evaluate a political argument around effective policy agreement here matter, simply because you have to presume that Obama does want to win reelection, as do Democratic members of Congress. Making similar policy proposals look different is important for them politically.  If I had to make a guess, I’d think the administration is going to have #3 be a large part of what the reelection is about. Maybe the public will buy it, maybe they won’t. But I can’t say any of this approach makes me happy in the slightest to be associated with the Democratic Party.

Democrats are the 3rd wing of the Republican Party

Drew Westen pulls no punches in describing what he sees as one of the three major factors in the Republican Party. The whole piece is worth a read, but this passage is important:

And that brings us to the third wing of the Republican Party, the Democrats. Their standard-bearer, President Obama, has proven himself perhaps the strongest potential challenger to Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination if he decides to join the debates, having established his conservative bona fides on a wide range of social and economic issues:

  • Deporting more immigrants and breaking up more families than George W. Bush (or to put it in more business-friendly language, increasing U.S. “exports” of poorly documented human capital).
  • Coming out in support of expanded off-shoring drilling just before the BP catastrophe in the Gulf; repeatedly touting production of a mythical substance (seen only, legend has it, by industry executives) as “clean coal” (widely believed to be found in the Fountain of Youth); and calling for the building of more nuclear plants, which the Japanese have shown to be a safe complement to offshore drilling (perhaps with the hope that water contaminated with radioactive materials discharged into the ocean might prove useful as a dispersant for oil).
  • Extending the “Hyde Amendment” to allow GOP lawmakers to exclude abortion coverage from even private health insurance.
  • Cutting 120 billion in taxes for the rich while proposing billions in cuts to “entitlements,” such as home heating subsidies to people who are poor or elderly.
  • Making sure the nation’s largest banks remained solvent so they could continue to foreclose on the homes of millions of Americans, whose tax dollars supported the multi-million-dollar bonuses of the executives who continue to refuse to renegotiate their mortgages.
  • Saying virtually nothing as Republican governors and state legislators around the country attack organized labor (e.g., remaining almost entirely mum on the Wisconsin law stripping workers of the right to negotiate their contracts).

But that’s just the president. We can’t blame the party whose name he never utters for the actions or inactions of its titular leader, who prefers to remain “post-partisan.”

Westen goes on:

Americans need a choice again between two parties, not between two strains of Hoover Republicanism. The more Democrats offer them the latter, the more they will both sink the economy and blur any distinctions left between the parties. Frankly, if the question is, “Who can do the better job slashing programs to finance tax breaks for the rich?” I would vote Republican. If you want trickle down, vote for people who really believe in it, not the ones who say they believe in it when they are too frightened to say what they really believe.

I don’t know that it’s true that Democrats – particularly the Obama administration and the Senate caucus and Blue Dogs in the House – aren’t doing what they believe. Granted, many ran on doing liberal things in 2008, but have consistently chosen to do Republican things while in office.  The DLC, Third Way, and the Blue Dogs have spent decades trying to move the Democratic Party to the right. The Obama administration is an exhibition of those efforts in many unfortunate ways. But Westen’s point is true – if given a choice between a Democrat acting like a Republican and a Republican, why wouldn’t voters choice the authentic Republican?

I’m at a presentation today with union organizers from around the world. A presenter from Spain’s Pirate Party just talked about the rise of apolitical resistance here in Spain. Rather than backing corrupt parties that care more about corporate (and foreign corporate) interests, they are focusing on putting forward good ideas and achieving those ideas. There’s a huge popular movement here behind this apolitical form of organizing around ideas. At least right now, it resonates for me far beyond the idea of finding less bashful liberals to run for Democratic offices.

Cannon Fodder

Digby responds to a long, interesting piece on the differences between how Republicans and Democrats maintain their political coalitions across time and legislative battles by Robert Cruickshank. Digby writes:

Cruikshank is making an appeal to progressives to apply the GOP coalition rules to themselves and stick together, even if the centrists continue to play their games.. And that’s certainly necessary advice. Warring amongst ourselves is about as destructive as it gets. But there needs to be an understanding of how progressives are being manipulated in the Party — and a plan to thwart it — or there is going to be some kind of crack-up eventually. You simply can’t have a working coalition in which a very large faction is constantly used as political cannon fodder. If the anger doesn’t kill you the disillusionment will. The old bipartisan way is dead for now and Democrats had better adjust to dealing fairly and equitably within its own coalition or they’re going to find that they don’t have one.

I think Digby is largely right, but I guess I would just question the extent to which there actually is a Democratic coalition any more. No doubt there is a party, run by neo-liberals and conservatives, and quite a large number of progressives and progressive groups associate with this party. But it’s hard to see the various non-establishment elements of the Democratic Party as anything other than cannon fodder and as a result, not really a part of the coalition in any sense than they are sometimes used as pawns by neo-liberals and conservatives in their quest to be Serious Adults. The question then becomes, does it make sense for the Democratic coalition to learn how to operate by taking turns or should the cannon fodder recognize that they don’t want to continue to be treated like political cannon fodder?