Ron Radosh

How the Left Opinion-makers Spin the Brown Victory: Bad Advice for Obama

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?

What he proposes is not a bipartisan approach that could lead both sides to agree upon the kind of reform that ends inequities most all Americans know need changing. Instead,  Dionne seems to favor an overhaul that is so far-reaching the country at large has let Obama know it does not support it. He calls it nothing but a “political crime” to do anything but forge ahead and get the legislation through. The Brown victory was due to Coakley’s “poorly run campaign” and Obama’s failure to “come out fighting” for meaningful far reaching measures.

Dionne ignores the obvious: that the very independents and swing voters who supported and voted for Obama in 2008 are deserting him in droves. Politico reported accurately how suburban union members who were independents followed their New Jersey and Virginia counterparts in overwhelmingly supporting the Republican candidates.  Brown had a 5 percentage point victory in a state in which only 12 percent of voters are Republicans. As they conclude, this happened “because centrists fled into the arms of the GOP.”  And interviews with these voters showed that the Democrats made a major mistake focusing on health care when voters see the loss of jobs as their primary concern. Moreover, they do not like an all Democratic Congress, and want some political diversity that stirs the pot up.

Moreover, the very independents who are dismayed are the group that used to be the key Democratic base: “white, middle-class, middle-aged suburban ticket-splitters.” If you recall the time during the campaign when Hillary Clinton was surging ahead in the contested swing-votes states, it was precisely these groups that were alienated from candidate Obama and who were casting their votes for her. But once the economy crashed and the Obama boom began, her support evaporated. Yet a little over one year in office, Obama has found that this was a temporary shift, and the alienation of this group from his policies is again apparent.

Yet Obama’s other columnist supporters persist in not taking reality into account. In his New Yorker blog, editor Hendrik Hertzberg writes that Obama can be faulted because he “allowed the right to profit handsomely from the economic disaster that their policies … brought about.” In other words, as Obama himself obviously thinks, “it’s all Bush’s fault.” Thus what the liberals and the House have to do is not listen to the electorate — who obviously misunderstood their own real interests and voted incorrectly — but tighten their “stomach muscles, pass the Senate version of the health-care bill A.S.A.P., and move on to jobs and the economy.” If they don’t, and do nothing, it will be a “failure that would reverberate for a generation.”

As for the failure to do what was necessary, administration policy had absolutely nothing to do with it; it was all the fault of “an essentially nihilistic opposition party dominated by a pro-torture, anti-intellectual, anti-public-spirited, xenophobic ‘conservative’ movement; and a rightist propaganda apparatus.”  In other words, the masses watch Fox News and don’t read The New Yorker, in which each week Rick Hertzberg would instruct them how to vote and whom to support. Clearly, to Hertzberg, the people — especially in liberal Democratic Massachusetts — have lost the ability to think for themselves, and have succumbed to what liberals keep calling the “right-wing echo chamber.”  I guess even if they are watching Fox News, he does not seem to realize that they can easily switch their remote and turn it to Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. But somehow they are too stupid, and were bamboozled to vote for Scott Brown, instead of voting the way they had in November of 2008.

On the site of The New York Review of Books, author Garry Wills joins Hertzberg in a similar torrent of advice. The reason for Obama’s growing low polling points, Wills argues, is not policy. It’s Obama’s personality! He appeared during the campaign as a uniter, a mild mannered and non threatening black man who didn’t look or sound like Al Sharpton. Harry Reid, he notes, was “basically right” in his much derided recent comments. Wills argues that Obama “swallowed his own Kool-Aid,” acting as if he believed he actually was living in what “really was a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state-blue-state America.”

Thus he failed to fight for what he obviously believed in: the public option, or as he promised in the campaign, a single-payer system. Obama should have taken the offensive and sold that as the only real solution, rejecting “less effective compromises.” He should have attacked the Blue Dog Democrats and put them on the defensive and not try to appease them. Wills would have preferred a fighting, radical Obama — not one who posed as something he was not.  And worse than all of the above, Obama kept on Bush people and authorized “a new dumb war” in place of the old one.

No wonder the new issue of Newsweek features a major story by David Margolick called “The Neo-Cons Are Back,” in which the author essentially says that they now run Obama’s foreign policy, and are the people who advise Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. Even Jacob Heilbrunn of the Nixon Center, who wrote a book claiming that the neo-con moment was over and they were in a state of permanent decline, now tells Margolick that “they are winning” and that Obama is “catering to them.”

So Obama is so weak that he lets himself be run by the hated Jewish Trotskyist cabal, even though so many conservatives persist in seeing him as a stealth Marxist. He should be a real fighter, Gary Wills says, like Teddy Roosevelt busting the trusts, FDR welcoming the attacks of the Old Right, and Truman “giving them hell” when he took over the so-called “do-nothing” 80th Congress. Doesn’t he know the hated George W. Bush was applauded when he showed himself to be a fighter?

Hmm — somehow, I can’t remember Wills and others applauding him, except when they branded him the worst president ever, if that can be seen as applause.

No one summed up the left’s advice better than Katrina Vanden Heuvel, in her post-election column.  A wake-up call is not the one suggested by Evan Bayh, who called for moderation and moving to the center. Rather, Vanden Heuvel argues, Obama has to go “populist,” which is both “smart politics and good policy.” In other words, fight hard for a really left-wing program, get rid of his old economic team which led to the tea parties and right-wing populism, and mobilize his old base.

Nothing like calling out the ACORN troops en masse, rather than “demobilize” his own base and suffer another Massachusetts. Let’s not reach out to Republicans, or Blue Dog Democrats. Instead, Obama must fight for a strong and radical health care bill — one that the people (substitute Nation readers for the people) really want and need. Then we can not only have true health care and universal coverage, but financial regulation and, of course, “employee free choice,” or as others more honestly call it, forced unionization of non-union workers by ending free elections in contests for union recognition. “President Obama,” she writes, “don’t pay attention to those who counsel going slow.”

I say. Take her advice President Obama. The Republicans won’t be content with nothing but taking over both houses of Congress and eventually the White House. Go over the cliff and hand it to them.  Or, if you really are smart, perhaps you should beware taking the advice of your left-wing friends.