THE ONE AND ONE-HALF PARTY SYSTEM
Thirty years have elapsed since November 1980, when the post-Watergate era officially began. It was the first Presidential election between two candidates not named “Nixon” or “Ford." (Since Gerald Ford was Tricky Dick’s hand-picked successor, Watergate still loomed large over the election of 1976.) During these past 30 years, we’ve had 16 years of Administrations that governed far to the right – eight years of Reagan and eight years of Cheney (or W, if you assume that the latter was really President). Four of the other 14 years have similarly involved a Republican President, George H.W. Bush, but you’d have to say in hindsight that H.W. was a centrist leader. In fact, it was his willingness to raise taxes that many view as responsible for his defeat in seeking a second term.
So what should we make of the other ten years -- the period of the Clinton Presidency and the first two years under Obama? Since they were elected as Democrats, the temptation is to call their Administrations “progressive” or “left-leaning.” But what’s notable is how far from the truth that is. As has been noted before in this sector of cyberspace, the top marginal tax rates under Clinton and Obama are significantly lower than they had been under past Republican Administrations, and not even close to what they were under Eisenhower or Nixon. As for social policies, those Democrats might talk a big game, but what they deliver is hardly satisfying to progressive interest groups. Just consider today’s favorite domestic “civil rights movement” – the fight for gay rights. Clinton gave us “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – the privilege to remain in the closet while you bleed to death on the battlefield -- and Obama hasn’t exactly fought like a Banshee to change that policy. As for the idea that gays should be able to get married, both President Clinton and President Obama have been solidly opposed. I’m not sure I know a progressive who shares that attitude, and believe me, I know zillions of progressives.
The fact is that in the post-Watergate era, the pendulum of American leadership has swung from far-right to the center, and then back again. We’ve seen moments that have flirted with progressive ideas, but the Presidents who proposed them soon see the error of their ways and then style themselves as “moderates” or “pragmatists.” Those are not words you’d hear from the lips of a Reagan or a Cheney. As their patron saint, Barry Goldwater, once said, “Extremism in the face of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
“Moderation” is a great word for peacemakers and mediators. But when it comes to Commanders in Chief, it’s a weasel word. Strong leaders have a vision, communicate that vision clearly to the country, and make it happen. They lead, and the rest of us either follow or get out of the way. It’s the way Republican Administrations tend to rule. However, at least in the recent past, whenever Democratic Administrations try the same tack, they end up like dogs who’ve attempted to grab some food from their master's table. These dogs get yelled at, perhaps even spanked, and then droopily walk away with their tail between their legs.
Such is the state of American politics today, at least on the Presidential level. We are now witnessing an era in which the country is led by two types of Republicans – conservative and moderate. The latter usually go by the name of “Democrat,” but they are Democrats in name only. The closest thing I can compare it to is the old Fox News show Hannity and Colmes. It pitted Sean Hannity, an articulate conservative, against Alan Colmes, a sheepish, semi-coherent “liberal.” They would alternate talking, but Hannity was the dominant one and Colmes the side-kick, kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. Something always seemed a little off-kilter whenever Colmes spoke, because you kept waiting for him either to make a forceful point for once or just shut up and let someone else talk. Unfortunately, that has become a metaphor for the Presidents elected as Democrats.
To be fair, Clinton at least campaigned as a new kind of Democrat. He was from the South, and he appealed to the nation largely as a Blue Dog. Whether he was tacking a bit to the left, or tacking back to the center, it never seemed like a complete betrayal. But President Obama campaigned as a transformational leader who combined a unifying spirit with a solidly progressive philosophy. As many pointed out, he had one of the most progressive voting records in the Senate. And as a candidate, he was the anti-Iraq War visionary, who pledged to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, close GITMO, and end the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Progressives had plenty of reasons to believe that Candidate Obama was one of them.
Obviously, things haven’t worked out that way, and when we consider the recent history of the two American Parties, that should be no surprise. Just consider the difference between the two Parties at the legislative level. That difference can best be summarized in one concept: the Republicans are unified and the Democrats are not. That makes it not even a fair fight. When the GOP representatives act in lockstep and the Democrats are all over the place, the GOP’s mathematical advantage will be prohibitive. And once you realize that 60 Senators are needed to enact laws, the prospects for true progressive legislation become virtually impossible. Now add to all that the idea that the conservatives have been presented with a new weapon: Obama’s concession that whenever the Republicans are poised to act like terrorist “hostage takers” and enact some really tragic legislative change (like taking away unemployment benefits), the Democrats are compelled to pay the ransom. What you’re left with is one Party that can pretty much dictate to, and dominate, the other every bit as much as Hannity could run roughshod over Colmes.
From what I read, Colmes eventually left the show because he got fed up playing Gilligan to Hannity’s Skipper. Somehow, I think that is now happening to a lot of Democratic voters and donors – they’ve just had it. The last straw may have been Obama’s use of the term “sanctimonious” to refer to those progressives who dared criticize him when he proposed to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, coupled with a decrease in the estate tax. It was an early Christmas present for the upper income bracket – or as they are known in Democratic circles, the “filthy rich.” At a time when the President had been talking about federal pay freezes, unacceptably high deficits and joint sacrifices, extending those tax cuts was a bitter pill for progressives. But for their leader, the man they fought to elect, to accuse them of acting holier than thou when they dared to criticize his actions, that was just too much to bear. To a progressive, it felt like a woman must feel when she walks up to her prom date who has just dumped her for another woman, only to be told: “Now listen, you sanctimonious bitch. This is for the best. People break up. That’s the process. Deal with it.”
The question is, how should progressives deal with it? David Broder and David Brooks – columnists for the Washington Post and New York Times, respectively – would have us all celebrate the situation. The Centrist Davids believe that Obama’s flip-flop on taxes was a stroke of genius that will catapult him into a second term. They view it as Obama’s Sister Souljah moment – the time when he was able to position himself right smack at the heart of the American political spectrum, and well to the right of the left-wing nuts who are obviously clueless about governance.
The problem is that when Clinton criticized Sister Souljah, he was taking on the hip-hop community, which wasn’t exactly a large fragment of his base. By contrast, when Obama took on his “sanctimonious” critics, he wasn’t just aiming at what an aide of his once called the “professional left;” he was assailing the mainstream of the progressive community. He was, indeed, telling his base “Shut up, bitch, and trust me. I’m the practical one. I’m the one who makes deals and gets things done. Your job is to raise money, volunteer your time, vote, and then let the adults handle things.”
Funny, but it’s a long way from “We are the change we have been waiting for.” Never has the first person plural evolved so drastically in meaning.
So, I return to the question: how should the progressives deal with this? To me, the answer is becoming unmistakable: by growing a pair. That means standing up to the schoolyard bully. Or if you prefer Obama’s terrorist metaphor, then fine: Don’t pay the ransom, lest you encourage more hostage taking. More tangibly, it means to watch the upcoming Congressional votes like a hawk and target the re-election aspirations of any and all politicians who either support this compromise or seem strangely quiet in their willingness to tolerate the status quo.
In other words, start to behave like the Tea Partiers, who felt compelled to take their own (Republican) Party back from those who had lost their way. It’s either do that, or start a new Party, and as the Tea Partiers showed, it’s not impossible to take over an existing institution as long as a sufficient fraction of the rank-and-file is unified, resolute and principled.
Let me say that last word again: principled. Believe it or not, it means more than the willingness to compromise on fundamental issues without a fight.