Friday, August 30, 2013


President Barack Obama had hoped for a quick, convincing strike on Syria, but growing opposition and Great Britain’s stunning rejection of the attack has thrust him into the uncomfortable position of go-it-alone hawk.

Just how Obama, whose career sprung from the ashes of George W. Bush's Iraq policy, got to this extraordinary moment in his presidency is a tale of good intentions, seat-of-the-pants planning and, above all, how a cautious commander-in-chief became imprisoned by a promise.


Andrew Sullivan used to say that we needed to elect Barack Obama because he was the guy who was going to save us from the Clintons and their generational peers, all of whom were still endlessly re-fighting the Vietnam War decades later. But more and more, it's starting to look as if the generational cohort we need to rid ourselves of is one that includes both Obama and the Clintons. It's the cohort that came of age in national politics in the past thirty years.

The Republicans in this cohort are crazy, of course. But the Democrats are problematic: stung by the success of Reaganism, they're in a defensive crouch, desperate to prove that they're post-liberal, at least on the biggest issues. They don't want to frighten bankers or Joe Scarborough's pals. They especially don't want to frighten heartland white people, who, they assume, are all still Reaganites -- obsessed with government spending and determined to be muscular in foreign policy.

I supported Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 because I thought Hillary, like her husband, would tend toward precisely this sort of don't-frighten-the-centrists timidity. It wasn't just that she initially backed the Iraq War -- it's that she tended toward panders like her support for a ban on flag-burning. I feared she'd frequently tack right as president, under the slightest pressure. I thought Obama might do so less often -- I thought preemptive surrender to right-wing demagoguery was a Clinton family tic.

Alas, it seems to be a tic common to virtually every big-league Democrat who lived through the Reagan years (and, for that matter, the Dukakis campaign).

And so we get Obama's craving for an economic "grand bargain" (although he at least insists on a quid pro quo, which means he'll never get a deal, because Republicans don't compromise). We get Obama's surveillance regime and drone policy and, now, an impending go-it-alone war. It's because no Democrat his age or older with national ambitions would ever dare to venture left of Reagan Lite.

Now, I still support Obama, and I'll support Hillary in 2016 if she's the nominee because, well, consider the alternatives -- Republicans are crazy on everything, except Rand Paul, who's crazy on everything except militarism. But I'm wondering when, if ever, we'll see an A-list Democrat who's not terrified of deviating from centrism on defense or economics.

I say this because I'm in New York and I'm watching Bill de Blasio break away from the pack in the mayoral primary -- two new polls this week show him with a double-digit lead -- based on an expressly progressive campaign focused on reducing economic inequality and dialing back stop-and-frisk (crime-fighting being the city's version of foreign policy).

It was assumed that de Blasio wouldn't do very well, that a city where Rudy Giuliani won twice and Mike Bloomberg won three times would go for a moderate Democrat pledging a significant level of continuity with Bloomberg, someone like Christine Quinn or Bill Thompson. But talking about inequality and hyperaggressive police tactics is actually striking a chord here. It's not because de Blasio comes off as a bomb-thrower a la Alan Grayson (or even Anthony Weiner in his congressional days) -- it's because he seems like a steady guy who's also progressive.

I know, I know -- that's how Obama has campaigned, twice. And yes, he's given us a health care law of some progressivity and some significant breakthroughs on social issues. And he did raise taxes on the wealthy. And he's certainly saved us from the right's worst excesses.

But de Blasio, in attacking stop-and-frisk in particular, is veering toward the very shoals where Democrats have foundered in this city. The last Democratic mayor (David Dinkins, for whom de Blasio worked) lost reelection because it was widely believed that he was a squishy liberal who'd failed on crime. The rap on Democrats here has long been that they're soft on crime the way Democrats nationally are said to be soft on defense. Obama never stops overcorrecting to rebut the latter belief. De Blasio doesn't seem to care about the former. And it's working for him.

I don't see any Democrat on the horizon willing to test the premise that being skeptical about militarism and being in favor of economic progressivity could actually be acceptable to heartland voters -- or even quite appealing. So I'll settle for the Dems we've got. But I wish we could do better.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the Democrats on social issues, but I like that Obama has a beefy foreign policy, I voted for him because he kept talking about entitlement reform, and I want that grand bargain... all of it.

If Democrats moved to the left on economics and foreign policy issues... I could probably swallow my hatred of the Jesus crowd and vote Republican.

Lawrence said...

We don't need your help speedy. Go be with the log cabin republicans.

Unknown said...

Left on social issues and right on economic issues? I confess myself tired of those who continue to voice such a tired, tired cliche. The right's ways and means do more than merely contribute to most of our social ills/problems-they lead directly to these problems. The days are long gone whence one could hold both ideals. As they are singing in the Capitol building in Madison- "Which Side Are You On Boy, Which Side Are You On?".

Unknown said...

You really should re-read HRC's 10-10-02 Senate speech on Iraq, and remember that GWB assured the Senate Democrats the authorization of force resolution was only to force Saddam to let the inspectors back in. It might change your perspective.

Examinator said...

Steve Nelson.
I'm always intrigued with how one can
a. BE 'left' on social issues and 'right' on economic issues, as if the two were in different bubbles with no linkages or influences from the other.
b. Then again I can't see the sense/ logic of being on one side or the other. As if either side has the monopoly of sound thinking on either topic.

Then again I think the problem with the average westerner is that they see the world in terms of juxtaposed extremes or in absolutes.
Personally I'm depressingly a post structuralist in that I just accept that the world is just too complex to draw any camps (definitive dogmas). Rather I address each issue on it's context/merits.

Ten Bears said...

If they're singing an old Wobblie - International Workers of the World - tune the left's roots haven't been entirely forgotten and, I would argue, that the "right" - your Reaganites, the Republicans, the Capitalists, the Fascists - haven't quite "won" yet. They know it and it scares the shit out of them.

You're either with us, or against us. Whose side are you on?

No fear.

Victor said...

"But I'm wondering when, if ever, we'll see an A-list Democrat who's not terrified of deviating from centrism on defense or economics."

We're almost the exact same age, Steve, and I hate to say this, but - not in our lifetime.

We had 3 liberal/progressive Presidents in the last 100+ years:
And, Lyndon.
Hoover had the best of intentions, imo - but his actions, based on the people who surrounded him, give a lie to that statement.

And so, there you have it:

None of the Democrats after LBJ was liberal/progressive - and, of course, none of the Republicans.

And in the 19th Century, the only ones who come to mind who were, are Lincoln and Garfield.
The former got shot and killed in the beginning of his 2nd term - and the latter got shot and killed just as after he got elected.
And, in reality, we have no idea how Garfield would have governed - but he was considered to be pretty progressive for his time.

I won't go back before Lincoln, because the issue of slavery hung like 'the sword of Damocles' over every President's head, from Washington, until Lincoln was finally confronted with what his predecessors all feared the most - a Civil War.
So, whatever liberal/progressive things were accomplished, were done by avoiding the billion-ton secessionist starred-and-barred gorilla in the room.

To sum-up - not exactly a lot to hope for, based on prior history.

And so, people like me end up supporting centrist Democratic squishes, because we fear the Manichean Christian & Bircher lunatics, Fascists, and Nihilists, in the Republican Party.

I'm no great fan of Hillary.
BUT, if she's the nominee, I will work like a dog to get her elected - and the same for anyone with a "D" next to their name.

To do anything else but support the Democratic nominee, to support anyone else running as a 3rd Party candidate, could/would result in the Republicans winning, and, I believe, the death of representative democracy in this country.

We can say "Goodbye" to squishy, imperfect, representative democracy, and say "Hello" to Manichean Theocratic Fascism.

America could become a Plutocratic Banana Republic, where the Christian churches act as God's and the Government's police, judges, and jury.

Am I carrying things to an extreme?
But, remember, on the other side of the aisle, we are faced with nothing BUT extremists!
And to think they would rule as anything but extremists, is to ignore the new billion-pound gorilla in the room - today's Manichean, Theocratic, Fascist, Republican Party.

Ten Bears said...

Kerry's speech yesterday wasn't a campaign speech?

Hillary isn't going to run. I don't know why this is such a disappointment though we are indeed, as Vic alludes, of the same cohort and tend to similar drift. They may be running scared, but The Vast Reich Wing Conspiracy never.the.less has a massive momentum. We are already reliving the Clinton years in overdrive, from the institutional obstructionism to the chicken-shit little Israeli Military Industrial Complex wag the dog war. Unless we truly are to devolve squabbling nation.states we cannot do that to ourselves again.

Not to mention that the Rodham family, as in Hillary Rodham Clinton, is as old school money, as Robber Baron, as the Bush, Kennedy and Rockafeller. Old school, skull and bones...

Skull and Bones John Kerry's speech yesterday, his Colin Powell moment, certainly struck me as a campaign speech.

White Hat said...

It is tempting to blame Republicans for a misguided Democratic foreign policy, illegal police-state surveillance, failure to prosecute criminal behavior in the financial sector, and so on.

Those Democratic policies have been in place for over 5 years, though. Democrats, and yes, Obama, have continued and even expanded our programs of "murder by drone," continued to permit a ruinous unregulated financial system, expanded the government's unconstitutional, unmanaged search and seizure, have moved very little on climate change, and... the list goes on and on.

The GOP has clearly staked out its position as hostile to little people. While I too would like to think the Democrats are on the side of the angels, the actual facts suggest otherwise.

Democrats own their own policies. If they don't walk the talk, they haven't met their responsibilities. We can't blame that solely on a simpering desire to avert Republican talking points. That's certainly a (pitiful) factor, but it's not enough to justify many of the damaging policies the Obama administration has promoted. Some, like NSA surveillance, have been entirely covert, not even subject to discussion.