I USED TO THINK

Anyone who reads the New York Times on-line without a pop-up blocker has been subjected to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison exulting that “I used to think. Now, I just read The Economist.”

Of course he’s kidding. But it’s not so funny.

Leaf through the past few issues of The Economist, and you’ll find unsigned articles calling on Lula to cut back pensions, on David Cameron to promise shrinking social spending, and on the Democratic Leadership Council not to go wobbly against organized labor. Then read over this parade of praise for the magazine – as a news source that saves you the time of having to read any of the other ones. Ted Turner draws a favorable contrast with Time Magazine (yes, that Time Magazine), which apparently is “too populist.” No need to worry about populism from The Economist.

Now if the same roster of CEOs stepped up singing the praises of, say, the Wall Street Journal, heads would turn over why a “conservative” paper’s reporting was being taken as holy writ by so many powerful people (never mind that the news section of the paper isn’t so different in bent from what you would get in the Times). But when so many in the global overclass quote chapter and verse from a “neoliberal” paper laying down structural adjustment through shrinking spending and shredded security as the best medicine for every situation, that’s another story. Or rather, it’s not a story.

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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.

THE SILENT PRE-PRIMARY

The past few weeks, with Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic party endorsement for Senate and an ensuing wave of articles about her politics and personal life, have brought speculation about the Democrats 2008 primary and the role that she will play in it. The emerging conventional wisdom consensus of today seems to be that she’s much less popular with party activists than was assumed in the conventional wisdom of yesterday, but that denying her the nomination would require an “Un-Hillary” capable of clearing the field of other viable aspirants and gathering together the disparate constituencies that don’t want to see her as the party’s standard-bearer in the next Presidential election. What the pundits seem to disagree about or, in many cases, ignore entirely, is whether that alternative candidate will come from the left or from the right of the Democratic party.

Since pundits and party hacks are likely to force the narrative of the coming primary into either a “Hillary versus the Un-Hillary” mold or a “Hillary versus a slew of guys” one – the latter of which pretty much secures her the nomination – who emerges from the primary will turn in some significant part on how the part of “Un-Hillary” is scripted. What kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will help determine who gets to seize the mantle and get the attention and the activists that make it possible to win. And what kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will depend in good part on who Hillary herself is perceived to be: the ostensible feminist firebrand committed to subversion of culture and nationalization of industries, or the hawk who’s proud to have voted for the war and wants government to regulate video game content more and credit card interest rates less. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are running against the former; Russ Feingold and John Edwards are running against the latter.

So while the ostensibly-right-of-Hillary majority of Democratic presidential aspirants are each other’s immediate competitors for the right-of-Hillary niche, they are also allies in working to ensure that Hillary is seen as a left-winger who could be stopped by a right-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary” and not a right-winger who could be stopped by a left-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary.” The opposite is true of the minority of Democratic presidential aspirants who are gunning to run to her left.

Which camp will get the Hillary they want? The right-of-Hillary folks still have the media largely on their side, in that even the increasingly publicity around her moves to ban flag-burning and such still frames these acts as feints to the right by a unreconstructed liberal with the political savvy to disguise herself (this coverage often pivots around the myth that “Hillarycare” was a solidly left-wing proposal). The left-of-Hillary folks have Clinton herself on their side – both the conservatism of her record on the issues that divide the party and the intensity of her campaign to highlight her centrism. Judging by the approach she’s taken (with exceptions on some votes on seemingly forgone conclusions, like Bush’s nominations), as well as the comments of her advisors, she seems much more concerned with protecting herself from the right-of-Hillary competitors than from the left-of-Hillary ones.

Last month, Jonathan Chait noted the bind Clinton is in: “instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening.” The logic of her circle seems to be that her gender, her rhetoric, and the relentless multi-decade assault on her from the right will be enough to secure the support of the left even as she offers policies to woo the center and beyond. If she succeeds, then progressives will be confronted not just with the comparatively conservative Clinton as frontrunner but with the comparatively conservative Clinton as the leftie of the crop of frontrunners. But given the increasing anxiety about her amongst the Democratic base, there’s reason to hope she won’t.

NEAR-VICTORY HAS A THOUSAND FATHERS

Democrats got the closest thing to a surprise electoral victory we’ve had in a while on Tuesday when Paul Hackett pulled over 48% in the most Republican district in Ohio. Understandably, spin machines on all sides have been in overdrive in the week since to claim vindication in the results. Case in point: Ed Kilgore’s claim that Hackett made it to 48% because the unreconstructed liberals in the “netroots” were willing to face facts, eschew their litmus tests, and let Hackett run with the kind of centrism the DLC has been shopping around the country:

The best sign, IMO, is that all this excitement was generated on behalf of a candidate nicely tailored to a “red” district, whose policy views probably were at odds with those of a lot of the folks generating the excitement and the cash. And I gather the national groups and bloggers involved in Hackett’s campaign let the candidate and his staff call all the important shots.

Reading Kilgore’s take, you’d think Hackett was a regular Zell Miller – or at least a conservative Democrat, emphasis on the conservative, like Ken Salazar. It makes good copy if your organization is devoted to pulling the party away from the left: in a sudden fit of reasonableness, the liberal fringe recognizes reality and gets behind the centrist candidate who can win. Trouble is, Paul Hackett is no Ken Salazar. Don’t take it from me – check out his website. He bucks the party on guns, but otherwise, he’s in or to the left of the mainstream of the House Democrats. Not only is he resolutely opposed to Bush’s social security privatization scheme, he takes the step most Americans support but too many Democrats are afraid to talk about: calling for an increase in the cap on the payroll tax (hear that suggested by the DLC recently? Didn’t think so). He condemns outsourcing, and rather than echoing GOP rhetoric about “big government,” he exposes it for the sham argument that it is. And on perhaps the signal issue of the campaign – the war in Iraq – he stands well to the left not only of the DLC of a significant chunk of the Democratic party in the House. If not for his being a veteran, one would expect the DLC to respond to his rhetoric opposing the decision to go to war with the usual hand-wringing about the party’s flagging credibility on national security.

Of course, if Paul Hackett hadn’t been a veteran, it would have been a very different race. But if all Kilgore means is that liberals conceded to pragmatists by getting behind a veteran, then the obvious question is whhere he got the idea that liberals in their hearts of hearts would rather have men and women in Congress who’ve never served in war. Maybe by reading all those DLC memos about how the Democratic party has no credibility on national security.

Bottom line is, if Paul Hackett had tanked, we’d be hearing from the conservative wing of the party about how his unreconstructed liberalism failed to resonate with mainstream voters. Making Hackett out to be an extreme left-winger would certainly be less of a leap for them than it was to make one out of John Kerry or Al Gore.

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.”

I’ve been hard – I’d say appropriately so – on John Kerry recently. I’ve also tried to acknowledge intermittently the moments of political courage when he’s rejected the DLC mantras by hewing to the left of where Bill Clinton ran in 1992. The major one of these areas, as I see it, is crime. I’d say it speaks well of the electorate that even after Clinton’s eight-year concession to counter-productive right-wing assumptions on crime, Kerry could run on a promise to attack crime by funding Head Start rather than more prisons, intimate concerns about the drug war, and only somewhat scale back his opposition to the death penalty – all without seeming to lose any support. Another issue where Kerry deserves some measure of credit, apparently, is gay marriage. Turns out his position, shameful as it was, wasn’t as shameful as Bill Clinton’s would have been. But don’t take it from me:

Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the Red States, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with Kerry, urged the Senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, “I’m not going to ever do that.