EIDELSON AND THE UNNECESSARY EXEGESIS

That’s what Alek and I recently decided my band would be called, given my penchant for, well, unnecessary exegesis (take these seven paragraphs analyzing one from Barack Obama). If that didn’t satiate you, here’s some more:

Last month, I argued that there was only room in media discourse for one “Un-Hillary,” and that the lack of consensus about Hillary Clinton’s political profile creates the potential for that “Un-Hillary” to emerge from the left or from the right. Over at TNR, Ryan Lizza suggests, I think rightly, that John Edwards’ star as a candidate for the Un-Hillary mantle is rising at the moment. There’s plenty to agree with in his analysis. And then his piece ends with a peculiar turn of phrase:

A southern, moderate, antiwar, pro-labor candidate with low negatives and high positives who has already run for president is not a bad combination.

Why “moderate”?

Now, opposing our invasion of Iraq and the President’s plan to “stay the course” there is a majority position in this country, as is support for the right to organize a union free of intimidation and the negotiation of trade deals that don’t accelerate the race to the bottom. These are both areas where, at least for now, a majority of Americans are on the left. As Paul Waldman argues, there are more of them than one would think from listening to talking heads. And as David Sirota argued in a series of pieces after the 2004 election, “centrism” in the dominant media discourse has been warped to describe a set of policies with much greater support among the elite than the electorate. That said, the fact that most people in this country take a progressive position doesn’t in and of itself make that position moderate, at least in the short term.

Sure, in the long term social change depends on pulling the center towards your end, as the right has done much better than the left over the past few decades. And the most effective political leaders we have are the ones who can communicate progressive positions in ways which resonate with fundamental shared values even amongst people who don’t see themselves as on the left. But I still think it’s worth questioning what, especially in the pages of the New Republic, qualifies Edwards as a representative of moderation – other than the fact that he’s popular, and if you believe moderation to be popular with the American people, you’re inclined to look at someone as popular as him to be moderate as well (remember the DLC essay right when it looked like Kerry was going to beat Bush that celebrated how Trumanesque he was?)

Otherwise, what is it that makes Edwards moderate in Lizza’s eyes? His voting record when he last held office (by which standard the likes of Howard Dean and Ned Lamont – neither likely to win any popularity awards from TNR – are at least as moderate)? His support for the death penalty? His equivocation on civil unions? Or is it just the fact that he’s from the South, and liberalism in some pundit’s minds is a cultural affectation and not an ideological vision, and thus not something a southerner could or would want to take part in?

Look, Edwards is no uber-leftist by any means, and there are certainly issues on which he could be more progressive and deserves criticism for not being. But it’s hard to escape the sense that he wins the moderate label here and elsewhere because he comes off as likable and electable, and it’s assumed that any likable electable politician must be a moderate.

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FIGHTING WORDS

Nathan Newman: “If progressives want a killer political response to Bush’s calls for making the Estate Tax permanent, it’s to keep the estate tax and devote the proceeds to long-term health care. The purpose is the same — preserving assets for the next generation — but ending the “sickness tax” would have far broader appeal than conservative wailing about a “death tax” that applies only to a a tiny percentage of the population.”

Sam Smith: “It was on this show that I got conservative journalist Marc Morano to admit he was a ‘a la carte’ socialist since he used Washington’s subway system. ‘You’re a subway socialist,’ I had told him. ‘You’re just not a healthcare socialist.'”

David Sirota: “This blunting of the left’s ideological edge is a result of three unfortunate circumstances. First, conservatives spent the better part of three decades vilifying the major tenets of the left’s core ideology, succeeding to the point where “liberal” is now considered a slur. Second, the media seized on these stereotypes and amplified them – both because there was little being done to refute them, and because they fit so cleanly into the increasingly primitive and binary political narrative being told on television. And third is Partisan War Syndrome – the misconception even in supposedly “progressive” circles that substance is irrelevant when it comes to both electoral success and, far more damaging, to actually building a serious, long-lasting political movement.”

MEET THE NEW BOSS, STRANGELY REMINISCENT OF THE OLD BOSS

(Apologies to The Who, and by extension, to Zach)

Via David Sirota, here’s an illuminating Post piece from ’03 on then-Whip, now-Majority Leader Roy Blunt:

Only hours after Rep. Roy Blunt was named to the House’s third-highest leadership job in November, he surprised his fellow top Republicans by trying to quietly insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the 475-page bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, according to several people familiar with the effort. The new majority whip, who has close personal and political ties to the company, instructed congressional aides to add the tobacco provision to the bill — then within hours of a final House vote — even though no one else in leadership supported it or knew he was trying to squeeze it in. ..Blunt has received large campaign donations from Philip Morris, his son works for the company in Missouri and the House member has a close personal relationship with a Washington lobbyist for the firm…Several [GOP insiders] say they were struck by Blunt’s willingness to go out on a limb for a company to which he has ties. What’s more, he did it within hours of climbing to the House leadership’s third-highest rung, a notable achievement for a man who came to Washington less than six years ago…

Psyched to see what new and innovative kinds of cronyism he rolls out now that he’s on the second rung from the top?

Blunt’s ascension only underscores the importance of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s point about how unnecessary DeLay is to DeLayism, and of Nathan Newman’s observation that making the GOP pay for DeLayism requires a willingness to take on the corporate interests that bankroll it.

(Update: Post altered to erase all evidence of my total lack of culture)

THE WEEK IN COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM

Well, the Republican Majority has finally left DC for another one of those extended vacations that most of them like to impugn when French workers take them. They didn’t go home nearly soon enough though.

Wednesday night – by two votes – the House passed CAFTA, voting to accelerate the corporate-driven race to the bottom in working standards. As Mark Weisbrot reminds us:

CAFTA will increase some barriers to trade while lowering others. One of the barriers it increases is on patented pharmaceutical drugs. This is the most costly form of protectionism in the world today. The benefits from free trade in these goods are much appreciated by the millions of Americans who cross the Canadian or Mexican border to get their prescription drugs. But CAFTA will make it more difficult for countries like Guatemala to get access to affordable medicines…Over the last 30 years the typical (median) wage in the United States has hardly grown — only about 9 percent. Productivity — output per employee — has grown by 82 percent over the same period…Over the next decade, the dollar will fall further and our trade deficit will shrink. Measured in non-dollar currencies, the value of U.S. imports is expected to decline over the next decade. This means that CAFTA countries are making costly concessions for a prize that most likely won’t be there.

House Democrats did a much better job of bucking the “Washington Consensus” than their counterparts in the Senate, a quarter of whom backed the bill. That only fifteen House Democrats voted with Thomas Friedman on a “free trade” bill is a hopeful sign of how much that consensus has fractured in the past decade. Those fifteen votes, sadly, seem to have made all the difference Wednesday. David Sirota provides a helpful list of the eleven Democrats in Congress who voted not just for CAFTA but for the Bankruptcy and “Class Action Fairness” bills as well, and some much-needed skepticism about claims that they acted out of electoral necessity.

As if CAFTA wasn’t bad enough, yesterday the Senate passed up a bill protecting detainees’ human rights and passed a bill curtailing victims’ rights to a day in court against the gun industry. And an Energy Bill which, as John Podesta observes,

gives away our tax dollars to energy companies already making record profits. The challenges we face in moving to more secure and sustainable energy use are large. We need a bold energy policy for the United States. Sadly, even the modest commitment to increase the use of renewable sources for electricity or language acknowledging the danger of climate change did not survive in the final bill. We must continue to challenge the Bush administration and Congress to get serious about decreasing the oil consumption of the United States and combating global warming. The energy bill the Senate will vote on today ignores those challenges.

And the Senate voted to extend the PATRIOT Act, though in a slightly more constitution-friendly version than that passed by the House. As Lisa Graves of the ACLU said yesterday:

Although the ACLU was unable to endorse the final bill, it contains some provisions mindful of the Bill of Rights, and does not include such broad and unnecessary powers like administrative subpoenas.

Small victories.

FROM CHICAGO TO WASHINGTON

One of the contentions which largely cuts across the AFL-CIO/ Change to Win divide is a recognition that the labor movement has yet to match the power of its Electon Day turnout operation with an effective mechanism for holding accountable the politicians it helps elect. Still more controversial is the recognition that a winning agenda for the movement demands a broad conception of the interests of working people and a more comprehensive social vision.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO followed progressive unions like SEIU in passing a strong anti-war resolution condemning the impact of the war on working families and urging that civil rights be strengthened in Iraq and that the troops be brought home “rapidly.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when they used to half-jokingly call it the AFL-CIA. We’re not in Kirkland-Land anymore…

And Monday, as SEIU and the Teamsters were leaving the federation, the two unions’ presidents joined the presidents of eighteen other unions, AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition alike, in sending a strongly-worded letter to the Democratic leadership rightly condemning the party’s refusal to put its full force behind defeating CAFTA (David Sirota offers a good overview of the damage CAFTA could do if approved tonight by the House).

Good signs, in the wake of Monday’s split, for a more muscular movement. Here’s hoping John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, who were re-elected without opposition this afternoon, will be driven further in this direction, and can find a way to facilitate – rather than block – the co-operation with the Change to Win folks necessary to make it happen.

AN ECHO, NOT A CHOICE

Faced with the the real possibility of a rejection of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the House, which would mark a significant defeat for George Bush and for the already-cracking “Washington Consensus” on free trade, the Democratic Leadership Council has stepped up to bat in CAFTA’s defense. As David Sirota writes:

As if the DLC is just an arm of the Bush White House, the organization timed this release perfectly to coincide with Bush’s final push for the legislation, as if they are just an arm of the Bush White House. Despite the DLC’s pathetic, transparent rhetoric about wanting to “bring a spirit of radical pragmatism” to the debate, what the DLC is showing is that it is an organization devoted to urging Democrats to sell their souls to the highest bidder. That may sell well with the DLC’s corporate funders in Washington, D.C., but out here in the heartland, that kind of gutless behavior only hurts the Democratic Party over the long run.

Sirota drew some fire from DLC folks after the election for a piece he wrote arguing that the version of “centrism” they promote is well to the right of the average American and thus not only morally but also electorally bankrupt. I’m even less interested now than I was then in trying to evaluate the claims and counter-claims which flew in the wake of the article about which politicians, or talking points have or haven’t gotten gotten the DLC’s approval at what times. As I said at the time, if the DLC wants on board with Elliot Spitzer’s prosecutions of CEOs or Howard Dean’s condemnations of GOP corruption, the more the merrier. We need all hands on deck, and the work is too important to let historical differences avert cooperation where there’s consensus.

About those historical differences though: There’s a constellation of consultants who see class-conscious economic populism as roughly equivalent to racism, see “big government” as a menace to be tamed by technocrats irregardless of the will of the governed, and see the salvation of the Democratic party in policies which fulfill CEOs’ wishlists in the name of liberating their employees. And they have exerted massive, and unfortunate, influence over the direction of the Democratic party over the two decades since their founding, particularly the eight years of the Clinton Presidency. At least for those years, the major proponents of that “business-friendly,” “free-trading” ideological position with the Democratic party, as they themselves would tell you, were the Democratic Leadership Council as an organization and its affiliated thinkers. As Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On?, and even self-described “radical centrist” Michael Lind in Up From Conservatism (on DLC: “an echo, not a choice”) demonstrate, the consequences included ceding the support of all too many working class voters and the control of the US Congress.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that there’s a tendency amongst some of us on the left to throw around the term “DLC” liberally (so to speak) in reference to an ideological position we disagree with rather than to the organization itself, at times even in describing policies the DLC, as an existent think tank and not a symbolic construction, may not fully support (they were indeed in favor of weakening class action lawsuits, but I’m still waiting to know what they make of Bush’s bankruptcy bill). I’d like nothing more than to be convinced never to use the acronym that way again – it’s not hard to come up with other epithets for Democrats who vote for Corporate America’s interests over everyone else’s. But there’s a reason that so many of us associate the DLC, judiciously or not, with corporate courtship and not with, say, crusades against corruption. It’s epitomized, sadly, by the choice to come out swinging for a trade agreement even “dogmatic free trader” Matt Yglesias recognizes as “an effort to impose low labor standards and a misguided intellectual property regime on Central American nations.”

This article by David Sirota has been the subject of spirited criticism over its portrayal of the Democratic Leadership Council’s positions on various issues. As far as I’m concerned, if the argument of the DLC’s defenders is that it’s actually more liberal than we give it credit for, great. Would’ve been nice if they’d come around before incubating Clinton’s erosion of the social contract, but better late than never. But as much as many of us enjoy taking shots at the DLC, and they enjoy taking shots at us, there’s a more salient point to be made in Sirota’s piece: the median American voter is much further left on economic policy than Democrats seem to give him/her credit for:

Yet almost every major poll shows Americans already essentially believe Republicans are waging a class war on behalf of the rich–they are simply waiting for a national party to give voice to the issue. In March 2004, for example, a Washington Post poll found a whopping 67 percent of Americans believe the Bush Administration favors large corporations over the middle class. The “centrists” tell Democrats not to hammer corporations for their misbehavior…A 2002 Washington Post poll taken during the height of the corporate accounting scandals found that 88 percent of Americans distrust corporate executives, 90 percent want new corporate regulations/tougher enforcement of existing laws and more than half think the Bush Administration is “not tough enough” in fighting corporate crime.

On taxes, self-described “centrists” like Senator Joe Lieberman, a senior DLC leader, attacked proposals to repeal the Bush tax cuts to pay down the deficit. Yet even the DLC’s pollster found in 2001 that a majority of Americans support such a policy, and that a strong plurality of voters would actually be more likely to vote for a Democrat who endorsed this proposal…a September 2004 CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans say they have either not been affected by the Bush tax cuts or that their taxes have actually gone up. On healthcare, we are led to believe that it is a “liberal,” “left” or “socialist” position to support a single-payer system that would provide universal coverage to all Americans. But if you believe the Washington Post, that would mean America was some sort of hippie commune. The newspaper’s 2003 national poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans say they prefer a universal healthcare system “that’s run by the government and financed by taxpayers” as opposed to the current private, for-profit system…On energy policy, those who want government to mandate higher fuel efficiency in cars are labeled “lefties,” even though a 2004 Consumers Union poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the policy…more than three-quarters of Michigan voters support it–including 84 percent of the state’s autoworkers. Even in the face of massive job loss and outsourcing, the media are still labeling corporate Democrats’ support for free trade as “centrist.”…Yet a January 2004 PIPA/University of Maryland poll found that “a majority [of the American public] is critical of US government trade policy.” A 1999 poll done on the five-year anniversary of the North American trade deal was even more telling: Only 24 percent of Americans said they wanted to “continue the NAFTA agreement.”