The special election in Massachusetts has highlighted the vast disconnect between commentators on the right and the left about what President Barack Obama stands for. To libertarians like Glenn Beck and conservatives like Sean Hannity, Obama is either a Marxist or confirmed radical, who has sought to put over an overt socialist or even communist agenda. But to proud leftists like the editors and writers for the Nation, he is, as Gary Younge puts it, a candidate “who never claimed he was a radical,” but who offered the left only “hope and inspiration.” He was a progressive candidate, which Younge argues “is not the same as his actually being progressive.” Take that, Glenn Beck!
The same refrain comes from Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel and left-wing activist leader Robert L. Borosage. Obama in his first year, they write, did not create the “transformational presidency” some thought he promised; instead, he gave in to the big banks, big pharmaceuticals and the corporate world as a whole. Indeed, their side learned a hard lesson: “Obama is not the Messiah.” Some of us might have told them that a year ago, when to all indications, the entire left viewed Obama the candidate in just such a fashion. But Vanden Heuvel and Borosage, like their colleague Younge, note that Obama “has never been a movement progressive the way Reagan was a movement conservative.” Thus he has ceded the “terrain to the legions of the old order that are mobilized to fend off real reform.”
Their editorial statement, written before the election, indicates that they were probably not too surprised at the election results, although their compatriots immediately would join in spinning it in a way that allows them to try and save face. Seeing Obama as a failure who raised hopes only to smash them when president, their argument essentially is that it was their fault not to create the mass movement that might have pushed Obama to really enact their socialist (i.e., “progressive”) agenda, and to let the right-wing populists of the tea party movement usurp the frustration of the people.
So what are these self-proclaimed “progressives” saying about the meaning of Scott Brown’s victory? Are they going to learn the lesson that Bill Clinton learned early in his administration? Clinton learned that to get something done he had to listen to the electorate and move to the center/right. Rather than forge ahead with a highly unpopular attempt to create universal health care, he had to stand for programs that had bi-partisan support and that were opposed by the left. As we know, it was with Republican backing that Clinton got NAFTA through and initiated welfare reform, much to the consternation of that era’s leftists.
If the president listens to his supporters, he will not, and will surge forward in the same car that is about ready to go over the cliff in next November’s election. Take the advice of E.J. Dionne, who at one time was the most sensible and nuanced of liberal commentators. Now, Dionne argues that the failure was not Obama’s, but that of the Republicans who refused to support programs they had valid reasons to oppose. If Obama engaged in secret “inside deal-making,” Dionne says, it was the opposition’s fault. The administration’s secret measures alienated Obama’s own base, who “believed in his promises of transformation” as well as the center that liked the president’s “conciliatory” style.
If only the Republicans backed a bill that would have greatly increased the deficit, resulted in new high premiums for insurance and higher taxes, then all would have been well. But they didn’t, and hence, Obama had to make deals for no lower priced drugs and create a program that was a windfall for the insurance companies. So, Dionne says, moderates “saw expanding deficits and high unemployment,” which opened the electorate to accept a “Republican story that linked the two and blamed the Democrats.” Does Dionne really think there is no connection?