Progressives Have Leverage NOW: Use It Or Lose It
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
November 11, 2008
As with most Americans, my emotions were on overdrive last Tuesday night as
the symbolic and actual enormity of Obama's victory hit home. So much to
think about, but for the first few days I felt as if I were wandering
through a dream-world and was somewhat fuzzy in the head.
Now, after a week of coming down and ruminating on the meanings to be
derived from this tumultuous event, here are five observations that may
resonate with (or perhaps even provoke) you.
1. OBAMA THE SUPPOSED "RADICAL"
Despite outrageous Republican lies during the campaign that Barack Obama was
a "socialist/Muslim/terrorist-supporting" danger to the Republic, in reality
he is a pragmatic centrist, with generally liberal leanings. In this, he is
reminiscent of our most recent Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Obama is
not a consistent progressive, not a radical, he's not about to lead a social
President Obama will be presiding over a serious economic recession that
could well turn into a mini- or even prolonged Depression. Given that
situation, probably the most we can hope for in his first few years in
office is a slow movement away from the most catastrophic of CheneyBush
policies. Turning a ship of state in roiling open waters takes a lot of time
and extraordinary dexterity.
Does this mean that progressives should back off and keep their mouths shut
while Obama is attempting that delicate, turn-the-boat-around maneuver?
Should we simply agree to support him based on trust that he'll do the right
Not at all. Certainly, despite the Democratic landslide last week,
Republicans already are declaring that Obama won "no mandate," and that the
election results are evidence that the country is in a "middle-right" mode.
Therefore, they loudly assert, Obama should not push liberal programs but
should govern from the "center" (by which they mean right-center). The
HardRight extremists, the Limbaugh/Drudge/Savage wing out there on the far
edges, certainly are not going to agree to any "honeymoon" period for the
new President and already are
attacking fiercely, based on their claim that the Republicans lost
because they "weren't conservative enough."
We can't let the Republicans dominate the field with their attempts to frame
and frustrate the Obama presidency.
Already, Obama's initial appointments and economic advisors and most of
those talked about as possible Cabinet officers seem to be within the frame
of "middle" or even "middle-right" Establishment mode. (Some of the
economists meeting with Obama are even partially responsible for the
deregulationist attitude that led to our current recession.)
All of this means that we progressives, who furnished a lot of the money and
ground troops and votes for the Obama victory, need to gear-up and speak-up
now. A squeaky wheel gets the grease. If we don't make our desires known
now, Obama may well drift even more to the center, perhaps even to the
center-right, as he tries to accommodate the conservative Republicans in the
Senate in order to get legislation passed.
This doesn't mean we on the left should be unmindful of the political
difficulties facing the new president. He may have to compromise, tack
right, on occasion, and we understand that. But we need to exert a strong,
forceful, constant pressure that keeps him mindful of the correctness of
many progressive and liberal policies. In other words, we must create an
antidote for rightwards drift.
2. RE-PROTECTING THE CONSTITUTION
Obama stayed "on-message" throughout the entire campaign, and had precious
few news conferences, leaving little room for discussion of how he might
start altering the CheneyBush Administration's cavalier attitude toward the
Constitution. During the past eight years, under a cockamamie, neocon-extremist
theory of "the unitary Executive" as the ultimate "decider" for everything
(the term we use for leaders in other countries trying something similar is
"would-be dictators"), Constitutional protections were shredded and the
"separation of powers" between the Executive and Legislative branches was
rendered essentially non-existent by CheneyBush.
Progressives need to lean on Obama to appoint a civil libertarian/strong
Constitutional advocate as Attorney General. We need to hold Obama's feet to
the fire if he attempts to continue the CheneyBush approach to civil
liberties, torture as state policy, over-reaching executive branch, signing
statements that try to vitiate laws passed by Congress, etc.
We simply don't know how Obama will act in this regard. One would think his
better liberal instincts would prevail (and already his staff has made a
200 executive actions that should be overturned soon after Inauguration
Day). But earlier this year, he voted to support the revised FISA
bill authorizing warrantless eavesdropping on and surveillance of American
citizens. Not a good sign.
Obama needs to make clear at the outset that he will not be following the
authoritarian impulses of the CheneyBush era, and we need to help him move
in that direction. Remember what FDR told Democratic activists after he was
elected in 1932: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." In
other words, demonstrate enough citizen support for the reforms that need to
be made so that I can be seen as responding to public clamor, not just
pressure from a self-interested faction of party activists. Smart.
3. FOREIGN POLICY DANGERS
My biggest worry about Obama has to do with his foreign/military policy.
Judging from his statements during the campaign, he seems to accept the
"American exceptionalist" frame that is largely responsible for the mess
we're in abroad: That the U.S., because we are so morally pure and
especially blessed by God, has the right, and duty, to intervene wherever
and however it wants in order to bring the "bad guys" and other recalcitrant
leaders into compliance with American desires.
True, Obama also has said, in the context of Iraq, that he wants not only to
bring the troops out of there but also deal with the faulty "mindset" that
sent them there in the first place.
That's a hopeful sign, along with his assertion that diplomacy would come
first and military action be employed only as a last resort. But Obama's
bellicose statements with regard to Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan do
make me nervous, wondering how much more the U.S. will be sucked into how
many other quagmires in the Greater Middle East. He certainly needs to be
more even-handed when dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians, so that
seminal problem can be moved toward solution.
In this, and in his overall military and foreign policy, Obama needs to be
much more clear where he stands, and we on the progressive left need to be
prepared, in advance, to oppose him if he continues the CheneyBush's neo-con
policy of the U.S. as world policeman.
4. REPUBLICANS IN SHOCKED CONFUSION
After eight long years of CheneyBush, which seemed more like decades given
the amount of damage they did to the economy, body politic, the
Constitution, and America's good will abroad, we are in a time of major
realignment in almost every aspect of our society.
The Republican Party, for example, is essentially in a state of leaderless
chaos after its major rejection by the American voting public. Their entire
philosophy, resting on greed, rapaciousness, voluntary ignorance and
legalized looting of the treasury, was soundly repudiated.
The Republicans now have to figure out whether they want to continue their
Karl Rovian approach to electoral politics, which counts on their
fundamentalist and HardRight conservative base to bring them victory, even
if only by a single vote. To continue this approach risks continued GOP
defeat at the polls for years to come. The alternative for the GOP is to
shed much of that extremism, perhaps even push that beyond-the-mainstream
thinking out of the party, and move to capture the growing ranks of
moderates and Independents. In other words, a center-right party in
opposition to the center-left one offered by the Democrats.
We'll know which way they're going by how the party deals with the rightwing
firebrand Sarah Palin. If she's treated as a respectable potential leader of
the party, that would be great for the Democrats, who can demonize her
forever and continue to win elections (aided by Palin herself, who is, how
can one say this delicately, perhaps equipped to lead a successful city
council but in no way qualified to lead a national political party, let
alone a nation). But what's good for the Democrats in this regard may be
terrible for our democratic system, which needs a good, strong, intelligent
party in opposition.
If the traditional core of the Republican Party, probably coming from the
U.S. Senate, recognizes that the Palin brand of extremism and demagoguery is
what helped take them down to an ignominious defeat, they might agree on the
need to broaden their base to win elections. At which point, no doubt
someone will have to step forward to lead that development.
Colin Powell, even though a bit long-in-the-tooth, could do it, but would
he? Probably McCain is just sullied goods at this stage. Maybe Mitt Romney
or Newt Gingrich or Mike Huckabee, but they're tainted by their far-right
positions and tactics. And Ron Paul is too far out there in Libertarian land
The longer there's a hole in the GOP leadership, the more the Palin-type
throwbacks in and out of the Senate can feel free to fill the vacuum with
their vitriol, ignorance, incendiary accusations and underlying racism. (The
Republican Party is so desperate for fresh ideas that last week it launched
an online invitation to ordinary members to write in with suggestions for
The Republicans probably need new, younger leadership, similar to what the
Democrats latched onto with Obama and what they have waiting in the wings
with a number of talented young Dem governors and senators. We'll just have
to wait to see who moves to the GOP fore in 2009.
5. DEMOCRATIC RE-THINKING
The Democrats also will be going through a major re-thinking, especially as
Obama begins to unfold his program. If it's inclusive and generally
liberal-centrist in nature, he might be able to hold onto his broad
Democratic/Independent/moderate Republican alliance with few problems. But
if he starts imitating CheneyBush policies abroad, or makes too many
domestic-policy concessions to the wingnut Republicans, he could potentially
force his progressive/liberal base into open opposition or, in extremis, out
of the Party and into a potential future alliance with the Greens or another
party yet to emerge.
That latter possibility probably wouldn't happen, of course. Now that the
Democrats finally are in effective control of the government in Washington,
the perks of power married to the ability to shape public policy no doubt
will keep most Dem legislators, if not the progressive base, happy.
But if Obama already is thinking about getting controversial legislation
passed and aiming toward a second term, he's going to need the
liberal/progressive base and thus has to pay attention to that huge
constituency in the party during the next four years. That's leverage and we
need to embrace it and use it.
Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught
government & international relations at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two
decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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