Red meat for the day… or: is it time to worry yet?

Politics, US Politics

Red meat for the day comes courtesy of Jello Biafra, the doyen of US punk (“doyen” is the most un-punk word I could come up with).

In an interview the week before the elections, he warned of the prospect that the Obama administration will steer an all too centrist course, conjuring up the failures of the Clinton era. Somehow the latest spate of appointments and developments make his warnings seem a little too topical again:

Let’s not forget it was not Bush but Clinton who gave us NAFTA, the WTO, the Telecom Act of 1996 that opened the floodgates for Clear Channel and Fox News, and [..] abstinence-only sex “education.” Clinton signed Newt Gingrich’s cruel welfare reform bill at the urging of Al Gore. And, yes, it was Clinton who planted the seeds of the economic meltdown when he gleefully deregulated the banks.

If Obama turns out to be another Clinton – and surrounding himself with Biden, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin and Zbigniew Bzrzinsky is not a good sign – I fear he will break the hearts of [a] whole energized generation of voters [..].

When Clinton got in, people rejoined “Ding Dong, Bush is gone. Now we can finally sleep at night” – and went to sleep for the next 8 years! We can’t rest easy and sleep this time. There will be no change from Obama or a congress of corporate-owned Democrats unless we increase the pressure and keep a blowtorch up their ass [..]. We need leaders, not more deal makers [..].

Right on. I’m fatally nuanced compared to Biafra, I’m afraid. I don’t, for example, see the WTO as an evil in itself; I see it as something that needs to be fundamentally reformed, not abolished. I’m as critical of the free market as anyone, but I also think that real free trade would actually be a good step up for developing countries — that is, compared with the West’s current, toxic mixture of forcing them to open their markets for our dumping while barring off ours from their products with trade barriers and massive domestic subsidies.

I also don’t see the Democratic Congress caucus as some uniform corporate-owned entity. There’s a Waxman for every Dingell, and Waxman’s victory this week shows an encouraging degree of independence from corporate control on the part of the House Democrats. Finally, I am sadly sceptical that a “whole energized generation of voters” has set its hopes on a Biafra policy agenda; I think most young Obama voters are actually a bunch more moderate than I am, alas. In short, Biafra would probably say I’m a wuss.

But he gets a “right on” regardless. I see the Clinton era in much the same terms: a massive failure of resilience and imagination, and the biggest missed opportunity this side of Jimmy Carter. Along with Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder and in my home country, Wim Kok, Clinton came to personify a centre-left infatuated with the 1990s market fetishisms of deregulation and privatisation. After the crash-and-burn of the first two Clinton years, his attempts to stop the hard right’s political machine were mostly reduced to fighting off its attempts to impeach him.

Image used under CC-license from Flickr user Angus McDiarmid

Jello Biafra (Image used under CC-license from Flickr user Angus McDiarmid)

All he ended up offering was the “four more years / of things not getting worse” Steve Earle sang about. And as much of a relief that even that may have felt like after 12 years of Reaganomics, it also broke the soul of hope for any more systemic change for a decade. It wasn’t until Obama’s nomination that Democratic voters dared shrug off the cowed instinct to, by all means, go with something unoffensive, something that wouldn’t scare anyone, someone like John Kerry.

Now that the first wave of confirmations about who will populate the new administration is coming in and outstanding business is being dealt with, Biafra’s comments seem like an appropriate warning to dig up. There are a great many Clinton veterans being moved into place. There are a great many centrists being moved into place. The choices are persuasively defended as revealing an uncompromising emphasis on competence – at least that lesson is learnt from the Clinton-era failures. But are the only competent, experienced candidates out there really all centrists?

Most eye-catchingly, there’s Hillary herself, who will be the Secretary of State, it became clear today. That is to say, she doesn’t get to do a job reforming, say, health care, on which she stands to the left of Obama, but instead gets responsibility for foreign policy, on which she has been notably more hawkish than Obama. It was just in 2007 that foreign policy – Iraq, Iran – was at the very core of Obama’s fundamental push against the Hillary candidacy, but it seems long ago now.

Meanwhile, Tim Geithner seems like a very sharp mind and competent administrator, but you don’t need to want Dennis Kucinich in the Cabinet to wonder whether someone else wouldn’t have represented a more fundamentally critical revision of past economic policies. What about former Chief Economist at the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz? Also a Clinton-era veteran with tons of experience, but one who’s actually spent much of the last decade dissecting the substantive flaws of the 1990s economy and the prospects for systemic changes?

Wouldn’t it be reassuring if the names we recognize from the centrist wing of Clinton-era economic policy (Rubin c.s.) were at least balanced out by some explicitly liberal voices? James Galbraith perhaps, Robert Kuttner? If Obama wants to prove, as with appointing Hillary, that he can get beyond grudges easily and work with strong personalities, what about approaching Krugman? If Obama wants to showcase how big a tent, how heavy-weight a team of rivals he can shape together, what about appointing a prestigious progressive politician as well, someone like Russ Feingold?

Instead, some extremely troublesome names are being floated. Former National Counterrorism Center head John Brennan is apparently already recruiting a team he hopes to bring with him if he’s appointed the new head of the CIA. This is someone who, “in interviews since leaving the government, [..] has expressed support for the government’s rendition policy, [..] “enhanced” interrogation techniques and immunity for telecommunications companies involved in government spying efforts.” For Agriculture, the choice is apparently between the bad (Vilsack) and the worse (Wolff, Stenholm, Peterson). For National Security Advisor, the bet of the day is on General Jim Jones, who is apparently best described as “non-partisan”, although he supported John McCain in the elections.

No wonder impatience is growing. “[A]t this point,” writes Matthew Rothschild in The Progressive, “progressives are getting absolutely nothing from Obama”. Chris Bowers at Open Left feels “incredibly frustrated“:

Let’s say that all of the leading contenders for Obama’s national security team end up in his administration. This would give him a core foreign policy team of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Jim Jones, and Robert Gates. [..] All of them, with the possible exception of Jones, supported the Iraq war from the outset. At least two of them, Gates and Napolitano, opposed withdrawing troops as recently as 2007 [..]. [T]wo members of this group, Gates and Jones, supported McCain. [..]

Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans? Isn’t there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration? [..] It seems to me as though there is a team of rivals, except for the left, which is [..] being entirely left out of Obama’s major appointments so far.

Christopher Hayes at The Nation chimes in:

Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one. Remember this is the movement that was right about Iraq, right about wage stagnation and inequality, right about financial deregulation, right about global warming and right about health care. And I don’t just mean in that in a sectarian way. I mean to say that the emerging establishment consensus on all of these issues came from the left. [..] And yet, no one who comes from the part of American political and intellectual life that has given birth to all of these ideas is anywhere to be found within miles of the Obama cabinet thus far. WTF?

Commenting on Hillary’s appointment, Michael Crowley reminded us how “at times during the campaign, Obama seemed to be promising to flush out and rebuild the Democratic Party.” Howard Dean style, without the screaming. And while Obama’s modus operandi was always very different from Dean’s and he always talked at length about bipartisanism and reaching across the aisle, there were clear signs that Obama did realise that Clinton’s failures were not just a matter of being too “polarising”. TNR had a good review up, some time last year (which means it’s lost in its hopelessly messed up archives), of the advisers Obama was surrounding himself with. Few Clintonites. Instead, a good number of policy wonks and critics who had shaped, in the past decade, a substantive, progressive critique of the Clinton years, in particular on economic policy. Where are they now? As far as that flushing out and rebuilding the party is concerned, “clearly that’s not going to happen,” Crowley writes.

Already homesick for Howard Dean? (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Mr. Wright)

Already homesick for Howard Dean? (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Mr. Wright)

Even before the big names came rolling out, there was too much preemptive surrender going on already. Obama’s role in protecting Joe Lieberman, for one, was disappointing – after all, here was the first incumbent Senator endorsing the opposition’s presidential candidate since 1964. Yet the only punishment the Democratic caucus deigned to dole out was leaving him the plum position on the Governmental Affairs Committee that he so misperformed in, while taking away the lesser position on the Environment Committee where he’d actually done good work.

That, however, still remained a question with a high partisan controversy factor but relatively little immediate impact on the future of policy. What you should definitely keep your blowtorches fired up for are major surrenders on the kind of policy questions that will directly affect millions. What to think, for example, of Noam Scheiber’s interpretation of Rahm’s remarks to business leaders this week?

Is it possible that Rahm’s essentially saying to corporate America: Look, we have to help middle-class workers. We have a number of ways we’d like to do that–health care reform, tax cuts, green-energy investments, other infrastructure projects, education, on down to card check. But we also understand that card check is absolutely anathema to you. So work with us on our other priorities and maybe we can make card check go away for a while.

I mean, good God. Think about this. Obama is more progressive than Clinton, making him the most progressive president in 28 or 40 years. He was elected with the biggest share of the popular vote any Democrat got in 44 years. And he’s got a Democratic majority in both the Senate and the House – imposing ones too. If even he is supposed to give up something as simple as a return to card check, you’re screwed.

For the last eight years, not to mention going back to the Reagan years, big business and conservative politicians have worked together to positively disembowel union rights. Now you’ve finally got a centre-left President who has a big enough mandate to do something about stuff like this, and the first thing you do, even before the guy’s taken office, is start talking about which long-overdue correction you’re willing to give up first?

A little more audacity please. Both card check and health care reform are simple basics that you just need to get down to business with. To quote Biafra again, “our civil rights and environmental awareness as we know them today didn’t happen because our corporate lords granted the peasants new rights out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. [..] We got where we are because we got together and fought for it. [..] So don’t give up, OK?” You can’t depend on the “corporate lords” cooperating on the long-overdue advances America needs on things like health care if you’re just willing enough to give up other pressing concerns in exchange. It’s time for hardball. Or as Kevin Drum put it on the subject of health care a propos of the same Rahm/business meeting:

a blink is a blink [..]. It means the health insurance industry is scared that we might actually do something in 2009 and they want to be seen as something other than completely obstructionist. That means only one thing: they’ve shown fear, and now it’s time to bore in for the kill and gut them like trouts. Let’s get to it.

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