LIEB 104 at the University of Nevada: The Glorious 80s and the Bitter and Partisan 90s
This is another one of my longish posts, so I've separated it out into three sections (all emphasis in quoted portions in mine, unless otherwise stated).
I. The Glorious 80s
II. The Bitter and Partisan 90s
III. Final Observations
I. The Glorious 80s
Time to play the game of Guess the Senator!
I...was especially fascinated by the enormous changes Ronald Reagan had brought to Washington. I was impressed by the strength, comfort, optimism and idealism that President Reagan radiated...President Reagan's emphasis on economic growth and the ease and skill with which he talked about fundamental American values also engaged me. I found his antigovernment rhetoric much less appealing because I retained a steadfast belief in the need for a good government - to maintain security, to increase opportunity and to provide for those who truly cannot provide for themselves.
I do think that for example the 1980 was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.
Who can tell me who Senator A and Senator B are, without peeking below the fold to see the answers?
Senator A likes Reagan for a number of reasons that are somewhat similar to the reasons why Senator B likes Reagan. However, unlike Senator B who somewhat endorses Reagan's anti-Government rhetoric, Senator A came out against that particular attribute of Glorious LeaderTM Ronald Reagan.
Senator A happens to be Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Indeed, it is Senator B who has recently been referring to Government as a "bureaucracy" and saying how he does not see himself as the chief operating officer of the Government (I tried not to fall off my chair when I saw that) - but sees himself as someone who will mostly provide the "bureaucrats" with his "vision" and be more hands-off in governing. Hmmmm.
The Lieberman quote (Senator A) is from pages 72 and 73 of his book In Praise of Public Life. Here's what a Republican reviewer of the book wrote in Amazon.com:
While I do disagree with some of his views (I am a Republican), and while I view his criticism of Clinton over certain scandals with less admiration that would have been the case if concience had led him to vote in favor of impeachment (Lieberman voted against confirming Clarence Thomas), I likewise admire a Democrat who would be forthright enough to describe George W. Bush's 'Compassionate Conservatism' as a centerist attempt to moderate the GOP, writing as he did in the midst of the primary season. Sen. Lieberman is also virtually the only Democrat whom I am aware of who has had a good thing to say about Ronald Reagan (pp. 72-73). Lieberman calls for more civility, the relegitimization of religion and morality as points of reference in public life, and for viewing public service as a noble calling. As a citizen and a public servant, I thank him for that.
Civility, religion, public service. Sounds familar...
Here's another comment on the same page:
In the context of the corrosive, angry political environment, with the "gotchya" media, which has bred disaffection in the body politic, Senator Joseph Lieberman's short volume is a refreshing antidote to the prevailing cynicism.
The angry political environment, the disaffected public. Sounds familar...
Especially, since our public officials are viewed with a great deal of skepticism. But as I read this book, I found out that public life is still an honorable profession. Senator Lieberman, in many ways reinforced my interest in pursuing a career in politics. In the book, Senator Lieberman points out a lot of the problems that we have in Washington D.C., namely to much partisan bickering. He also offers the solution to this problem, which is that members of the House and the Senate, must put aside this partisanship and work together in a bipartisan way to do the work of the people. I highly recommend this book to all of those people who are interested in public life. But I would also recommend it to those who have little interest in politics, simply because, Senator Lieberman points out that many people who go into politics, do it not for their own benefit, but as Senator McCain put it "To serve a cause greater than oneself." Which is what Senator Lieberman is saying in a different way. I felt that by including examples from his own political career, will help to show to people that public life can be the noble profession that it truely is. I am a young Republican, and I like the fact that Senator Lieberman has crossed Partisan lines to get things done in Washington D.C.
All that partisan bickering in Washington and the need to work in a bipartisan way (to pass what the Republicans want passed). Sounds familar...and it is as Establishment as it gets.
Now, of course, Sen. Obama's voting record is to the left of Sen. Lieberman's on many issues, but the similarities between their Establishment approaches to politics are significant - and Sen. Clinton can't hold a candle to Sen. Obama in the latter's mimicry of Sen. Lieberman's Establishment style and approach.
More importantly, Sen. Obama basically rewrote history about the Reagan years - and he has been rewriting history for some time (more on this below) because a key part of his base is often young enough not to notice and the other part of the electorate that he is courting (Independents and Republicans) probably don't mind it or might like it. As Big Tent Democrat points out:
Obama simply misunderstands how Reagan achieved that transformational change - to the detriment of the country I must add - he ran a partisan, ideological divisive campaign that excoriated Democratic values and trumpeted GOP values. He also race baited.
Obama is running a post-partisan, nonideological campaign that is bereft of defenses of Democratic values and ideas. He is running an anti-Reagan campaign. His argument is simply ahistorical. It is precisely BECAUSE he refuses to try and make this a transformational campaign, a campaign to fight for Dem values, to persuade the country that the Dems are right, that his campaign is a promise unfulfilled.
In short, Obama STILL does not get it.
The only part about Big Tent Democrat's comment that I disagree with is the last sentence. Sen. Obama does get it. The evidence indicates that, just like Sen. Lieberman did in CT, he is intentionally running his campaign using ahistorical references, especially because he is particularly seeking the Independent and Republican vote and needs to insulate himself (if he becomes the general election nominee of the Democratic party) against attacks from the right.
As Matt Stoller points out at Open Left:
Obama admires Reagan because he agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable.
Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement. The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives to take advantage of the backlash against these 'excesses'.
It is extremely disturbing to hear, not that Obama admires Reagan, but why he does so. Reagan was not a sunny optimist pushing dynamic entrepreneurship, but a savvy politician using a civil rights backlash to catapult conservatives to power.
Let me add these comments from Taylor Marsh which illustrate the ultimate irony of who Sen. Obama, a person who claims to be running against the politics of fear, is embracing:
After Desert One, as well as the hostage crisis going on and on, the election of 1980 left many of us feeling embarrassed that our government could be so incompetent and present such a weak image to the world. I'm not telling you that is the correct feeling [...] That Mr. Obama thinks Reagan was all about personality is frighteningly ignorant. There are many other things about Reagan, which I've written and talked about a lot, not the least of which was his southern strategy, but you cannot talk about Reagan's rise without a national security framing, that is if you want to tell the story of how Republicans were able to frame Democrats, using Vietnam as a backdrop, as weak on national security and military issues, while Republicans were the leaders. Reagan was their political poster boy for that, which they've been using until this very day. You cannot accurately talk about Reagan's rise without the national security component mixed in, which is still being used to paint Democrats as weak.
That's what Daily Kos diarist grannyhelen also points out in her Recommended Diary (emphasis in original):
If you notice, people actually weren't feeling that they wanted clarity, optimism and a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.
People were in fear. The 1980 election was about fear. It was not about hope. The GOP has been attempting to spread the message of Reagan the Great Optimist/Hopemonger/etc. in an effort to cannonize [sic] him. This spin is far from reality.
No, Ronald Reagan didn't appeal to people's optimism, he appealed to their petty, small minded bigotry and selfishness. Jimmy Carter told people to tighten their energy belts and act for the good of the country; Ronald Reagan told them they could guzzle gas with impunity and do whatever the hell they wanted. He kicked off his 1980 campaign talking about "state's rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- the site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964's Freedom Summer. He thus put up a welcome sign for "Reagan Democrats," peeling off white voters who were unhappy with the multi-ethnic coalition within the Democratic Party.
One of his first acts was to fire 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 -- one of the most devastating union busting moves of the past century. And his vision of deregulation didn't free the country up for entrepreneurship, it opened it up for the wholesale thievery of the savings & loan crisis. He popularized the notion that all government is bad government and in eight short years put in place the architecture for decades of GOP graft and corruption.
There's enough hagiography of Reagan on the right, I don't think Democrats really need to go there.
II. The Bitter and Partisan 90s
Sen. Obama has also been intentionally hiding the real history of the 'bitter and partisan' 1990s (and beyond). On this topic, let's read what progressive fighter Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) had to say at the Huffington Post:
By historical standards -- or any other -- the Democrats have an excellent set of presidential candidates from which to choose this season, and I look forward to campaigning enthusiastically and without reservation for our nominee. But this does not mean that we should be suppressing the discussion of differences, and it is in this framework that I think it is important to express my discomfort with a major theme of Senator Obama's campaign.
I am referring to his denigration of "the Washington battles of the 1990's" and, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, of those who fought them....
This brings me to my particular concern with Senator Obama's vehement disassociation of himself and those he seeks to represent from "the fights of the nineties." I am very proud of many of the fights I engaged in in the nineties, as well as the eighties and before. Senator Obama also bemoans the "same bitter partisanship" of that period and appears to me to be again somewhat critical of those of us who he believes to have been engaged in it.
I agree that it would have been better not to have had to fight over some of the issues that occupied us in the nineties. But there would have been only one way to avoid them -- and that would have been to give up. More importantly, the only way I can think of to avoid "refighting the same fights we had in the 1990's", to quote Senator Obama, is to let our opponents win these fights without a struggle.
It would have been nice in the nineties not to have had to fight to defend a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, and I would be very happy if that fight ended tomorrow. I was troubled when Newt Gingrich and his right wing band took over Congress after the election of 1994 and sought to put an end to programs to deal with continuing racial discrimination and the resulting inequality, and I am even more distressed that we have to continue to fight that battle against a Republican party largely opposed to all of these efforts -- consider the Bush Justice Department and its role in dealing with people's right to vote. As a gay man, additionally, I would have been delighted in the nineties if our conservative opponents had been willing to recognize our rights to be treated fairly under the law, and I would have saved a lot of time, as recently as this past year, if there was not continued strong right wing opposition to the "radical" position that people should not be denied jobs because of their fundamental nature, or that hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be treated less seriously than those based on racial or religious prejudice. These are three of the major fights in which I was engaged in the nineties, and I literally do not understand what Senator Obama means when he says that he does not want to keep fighting them. I know that he understands that those who were opposed to all three of those causes in which many of us deeply believe in the nineties continue their opposition, and I do not understand how we can avoid fighting those battles other than by conceding them, which I know he does not advocate.
In some cases, Senator Obama does not seem to remember what some of the fights of the nineties were. I agree that it would be a good thing to have the 2008 election be in part "about whether to...pass universal health care" but that in fact is one of the central fights we had in the nineties. The effort of many of us to pass a universal health care plan is precisely one of the battles of the nineties, and it seems to me one that we very much want to keep fighting. Again, the only alternative to fighting it is losing it by concession.
Another major fight of the nineties which seems to me essential -- not simply relevant -- to the current election is tax policy. Few fights that we had in the period when Senator Obama is denigrating our battles was more important than the successful effort to pass President Clinton's tax plan in 1993. That battle was so hotly fought that it contributed, sadly, to the Republican takeover the next year, because a number of the Democrats who had voted for a progressive tax plan which made the tax code less unfair and provided important revenues for important programs lost their seats because of it. I make no apologies for having fought that fight, and in fact I hope that whoever is the President of the United States in 2009 will take up the battle against excessive tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country, both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of being able to afford fundamental programs essential to the quality of our lives. I also remember fighting hard during that period for the rights of working men and women to join unions, and while we lost that once the Republicans took power in '94, we did score one victory when we were still in the majority in passing, in a "bitter partisan battle," the Family and Medical Leave Act -- the need for us to wage that battle is once again as strong if not stronger in 2008 than it was in 1995.
Finally, I do take pretty strong exception to Senator Obama's evenhanded denunciation of "the same bitter partisanship" of the nineties. It is true that American politics became much more partisan in the nineties, but that was primarily the result of the successful right wing takeover of the Republican Party, embodied at the time--he has since become a little more moderate for some tactical purpose--by Newt Gingrich. Again I do not think those of us who fought back against Gingrich's poisoning of the atmosphere should apologize for that. If anything, the apologies should come from those who were too slow to respond. It was Gingrich and his right wing allies who decided to inject a much harsher note of partisanship by explicitly rejecting the notion that the Democrats were honorable people with whom they disagreed, and instead decided, as Gingrich's own printed and taped materials argued, to portray us as treasonous, corrupt, immoral and otherwise vile. And when Gingrich was forced by his own flaws to step aside, Tom DeLay took up those cudgels with a little less rhetorical flourish but with an even heavier hand. If Senator Obama was denouncing the outrageous tactics of Gingrich and DeLay, I would be very much in support of his comments. Instead, he evenhandedly denounces the "bitter partisanship" of that period and seems to me to be distancing himself equally from the Gingrich/DeLay attack and the efforts of many of us to combat it. The comment calls to mind the marvelous words of John L. Lewis, at a point when Franklin Roosevelt pronounced a plague "on both their houses" with regard to a significant labor dispute. "It ill behooves one who has supped at labor's table and who has been sheltered in labor's house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace."
I fully agree with Senator Obama that we should be arguing for the policies we advocate and the values from which they derive in a manner that appeals to the broadest possible segment of the public. His own ability to do that is one of our great assets. But I worry when people on my side underestimate the difficulty of our most important work, and I believe that is what Senator Obama does when he dismisses our efforts to fight the right wing in an earlier period because it suggests to me that he does underestimate the difficulty of the job. I think the best way to summarize my concern is that if you tell people that we should not be willing to refight the battles of the nineties -- including many very important ones that we are far from having won -- and if you tell people to refuse partisanship, you may be inviting people to leave the battlefield to those with whom we have the biggest differences. Racial fairness, reproductive rights for women, an end to discrimination against sexual minorities, universal health care, the right of working men and women to bargain collectively with employers -- these battles we waged in the nineties remain essential to our vision today, and I do not understand why we should either be embarrassed about having fought hard for them, ten, fifteen or twenty years ago, or why we should not be determined to keep fighting until we have achieved success.
III. Final Observations
If there's one thing that stands out in Sen. Obama's campaign strategy, it is that what he's promising to deliver is *not* change. He's promising to deliver what is really status quo in Washington - namely, Establishment Democrats (and Independents like Joe Lieberman) who believe that Bipartisanship and Civility are most important to get things done (i.e., help Republicans succeed) in Washington. This is what led to seven appalling years under the Bush administration. This is why it is no surprise that although Sen. Obama campaigned for his U.S. Senate seat on grandiose visions on Iraq, the Patriot Act and so on, he could never deliver on those visions. His career in the Senate has made it clear that all of his Bipartisanship and Civility mostly helped Republicans continue their dangerous or obstructionist agenda. Today, he's running on more of the same. I believe that the reasons why he's been successful so far are the following:
- The youngest voters - a key part of his base - are not that familiar with the political history of the 80s and 90s and are not likely to notice that what Sen. Obama is campaigning on is ahistorical and is exactly what has enabled Bush and the Republicans for a long time
- The media - who have been cheering his candidacy and trashing Sen. Clinton - are inherent believers in the Bipartisanship and Civility model and love it when Democrats say nice things about conservatives or run on conservative memes
- Independents - whom Sen. Obama is actively courting - tend to like those who refer to bipartisanship and post-partisan solutions to the country's problems (just ask Joe Lieberman who won in the blue state of Connecticut against fighting progressive Ned Lamont)
- Republicans - whom Sen. Obama is also courting aggressively - absolutely love the hagiography of Reagan and lap up Sen. Obama's repeated attacks on fellow Democrats using right-wing memes
- Progressive Democrats who should know better keep wondering why "he doesn't get it" on so many of these things - or keep coming up with fanciful Theories of Change - when the truth keeps staring us in the face - he does "get it". He's one of the smartest people in the country and he absolutely "gets it". However, the success of his campaign depends on his pretending not to "get it" and on his continuing to campaign the way he is. (Unless, of course, he is much less smarter in reality than how he comes across - which I doubt).
If Sen. Obama becomes the general election nominee, I have a pretty good sense of how the campaign will evolve. Of course, once the GOP makes him the primary target, the love from the media, Independents and Republicans might not stay in place.
Let me conclude by saying something I've been saying in a few posts now. Sen. Edwards has made it clear he considers Sen. Obama a virtual alter ego. If Edwards supporters can explain that nonsense to me, I would certainly find it useful.
P.S. A final word. I would not be surprised if Sen. Obama's campaign celebrates every time progressive blogs keep pointing out how he is running like a Republican or tacitly attacking Democrats, because posts like this will help him in the general election. That is, if they even really care about what progressive blogs have to say, which I seriously doubt they do.