Writing in The Washington Post, Michael Gerson raises the question of whether Barack Obama is a closet radical, or a moderate political figure who “embraced, then discarded, the leftism of South Chicago in pursuit of a restless ambition? There is evidence for both views.” Certainly, Obama has already moved towards the center, taking positions on gun control, wiretapping, the death penalty, and defense of strong military action when necessary that has led elements on the Left to already condemn him for selling out.
So taking the best case scenario, let us for the moment take the view that at present and in his heart, Obama is devoted to reconciling opposites, and governing from the political center. He might, as Gerson puts it, concentrate when President on “achievable goals, run by seasoned, reasonable professionals, reaching out to Republicans in the new Cabinet and avoiding culture war battles when possible.”
The question is the context of his victory. Do the Republicans manage to keep enough seats in Congress to prevent that magical number which gives the Democrats a filibuster proof majority? If Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is successful, the Democrats will indeed achieve that end, and they will have the power and the will to enact the most leftwing legislation on various issues that we have seen since the days of the Great Society under LBJ. Their most radical stalwarts, like Senator Bernie Sanders in Vermont and possibly even joined by newcomers like or Al Franken of Minnesota (who is on the verge of winning) would be pressing hard for the most extreme, or in their eyes forward looking, programs possible.
Gerson thinks that Obama might fight their ability to inflict such “self-destructive tendencies of his own party.” I’m not so sure. For an indication of what kind of things they have mind, two articles in the Oct.27th issue of The Nation, the flagship publication of the American Left, give us solid examples of their hopes. Their goal, Washington correspondent John Nichols writes, is to at least gain 57 Senate seats and “thus ending the need to rely on the McCain backing Joe Lieberman and a handful of hypercautious Southern and Western senators to maintain a majority.” With that number, he posits they could reach out to remaining GOP moderates like Arlen Spector and Richard Lugar to break deadlocks and to gain freedom in making judicial appointments.
But Nichols’ main point is this: “A Democratic caucus that does not have to bow to its most conservative members will be freer to press Obama to take progressive positions, especially when it comes to trade and fiscal policy, in which this year’s Democratic candidates tend to respond more to the needs of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment than to the whims of Wall Street.” He will moreover need a “cooperative Senate” to implement his own promised measures on healthcare, housing and education. Their goal: not only to elect Obama but to provide him as President with a “governing majority that makes the promise of change much more than a rhetorical flourish.
We know what The Nation editors mean by “progressive” positions-revision of NAFTA and institution of protectionist trade policies, combined with massive government spending on new entitlements at home. Their first editorial makes this more than clear. “The idea that government should cut back spending during a recession,” they argue, “is dangerous folly.” There is but one path to take: “The only way to relieve economic suffering…is for the federal government to step in and bolster demand by spending money. Lots of it.” It would go for extended unemployment insurance, universal health care, and “large-scale social programs and infrastructure,” along with, of course, repeal of the Bush tax cuts.
For a long time, Democrats had been arguing that when Clinton was President, he left his office with a large surplus and a giant deficit reduction. They were proud of that. Now they are arguing that deficits do not matter, and the key is more spending, whatever the cost to our children’s future.
Their second editorial, written for them by Howard Zinn (of A People’s History of the United States fame) is so bizarre I had to read his words twice to believe what I had read. Zinn’s model is FDR’s New Deal, when Roosevelt put the nation to work with the CCC, the PWA, the WPA and passed new legislation including the creation of Social Security. The Left has to push for now carrying it further, and press for “free healthcare for all, administered by the government, paid for from our Treasury, bypassing the insurance companies and the other privateers of the health industry. All that will take more than $700 billion.” (my emphasis.)
Of course, we already have allocated that very amount for the bailout of our financial institutions, so Zinn is talking about an additional or greater amount. Where, you might wonder, would that come from? Alright, you know what’s coming. Take a guess. You got it: “The money is there: in the $600 billion for the military budget, once we decide we will not be a warmaking nation anymore.” (my emphasis.) You see, the assumption of Zinn and the magazine’s editors, obviously, is that the United States faces no threats, and we merely have to dismantle our entire military budget! It’s that simple. Why didn’t we think of that before?
Finally, we have yet one more source for these funds, that will extend the New Deal to a socialism for the 21st Century: “the bloated bank accounts of the super-rich…by taxing vigorously their income and their wealth.” Zinn does not define for us what he and the magazine’s editors define as the amount to certify one as super-rich. Perhaps, while we’re waiting, Mr. Zinn could contribute his own enormous royalties for his international best seller and the movie rights and start us off first, before the rest of us are taxed.
On a more practical level, Zinn calls for Obama to distance himself from the “fossilized” old line Democrats, thereby giving his agenda for change real meaning. And if he does not, pursuing the kind of agenda Michael Gerson hopes for, the “people’s” goal is clear: “to raise a shout that will …compel the politicians to listen.” The Nation has given us all warning.