Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Farewell, reform; hello, triangulation.

December 22, 2009

Here’s President Obama today:

Obama said the public option “has become a source of ideological contention between the left and right.” But, he added, “I didn’t campaign on the public option.”

And here’s what he said last year:

…the Obama plan will: (1) establish a new public insurance program available to Americans who neither qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP nor have access to insurance through their employers, as well as to small businesses that want to offer insurance to their employees.

In fact, here’s what his campaign website promised:

Offers a public health insurance option to provide the uninsured and those who can’t find affordable coverage with a real choice.


Through the Exchange, any American will have the opportunity to enroll in the new public plan or an approved private plan… The Exchange will require that all the plans offered are at least as generous as the new public plan and meet the same standards for quality and efficiency.

As usual, Obama framed his triangulating as sensible centrism, pretending that he opposes the extremes of left and right alike. Why, then, did this eminently sensible, cool-headed, unflappable non-extremist prominently include support for a public option among his campaign promises? And why is this crackpot, extremist, highly unsensible public option favored by most Americans? In October:

Americans remain sharply divided about the overall packages moving closer to votes in Congress and President Obama’s leadership on the issue, reflecting the partisan battle that has raged for months over the administration’s top legislative priority. But sizable majorities back two key and controversial provisions: both the so-called public option and a new mandate that would require all Americans to carry health insurance.

Independents and senior citizens, two groups crucial to the debate, have warmed to the idea of a public option, and are particularly supportive if it would be administered by the states and limited to those without access to affordable private coverage.

That was two months ago. Where do things stand today, now that most Americans “mostly disapprove of” the neutered health care bill that just passed through the Senate? This way:

While voters oppose the health care plan, they back two options cut from the Senate bill, supporting 56 – 38 percent giving people the option of coverage by a government health insurance plan and backing 64 – 30 percent allowing younger people to buy into Medicare.

How to explain this disparity? Simple: A majority of Americans clearly understand that without a public option “to keep insurance companies honest,” as Nancy Pelosi herself put it, this “reform” bill is just another bailout, another massive government subsidy for big business. The difference is that insurance companies hold an even more terrifying power over ordinary Americans than do banks. It’s mildly awe-inspiring that, after a year of being told that a public health care option will bring about another Cultural Revolution, the majority of Americans remain level-headed about the issue.

What can Obama do now? Well, there is one thing he can do: He can wage a full-blooded political war to get the public option restored in committee, by urging Americans to put pressure on their senators to support it. A sustained outcry from the citizenry could conceivably put the fear of God into enough senators to restore it. But it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll do that. Both Howard Dean and Russell Feingold have put the blame for the public option’s disappearance from the bill on Obama, with Feingold declaring that “the lack of support from the administration made keeping the public option in the bill an uphill struggle.” And in politics, as Obama ought to know, not to support something is to effectively oppose it, just as not opposing something is effectively supporting it. As Arendt put it, politics isn’t the nursery.

President Obama may be a lot of things, but he’s no fighter. He’s made that eminently clear with his surrender to what might politely be called “politics as usual” on one issue after another. Guantanamo, habeas corpus rights, Afghanistan — on the one hand, there was what the citizens wanted, but on the other hand, there was what the Washington establishment and the money power wanted. Of course, he has again and again opted for the latter, usually with a long, eloquent, apologetic speech addressed to the former. Now he’s on the verge of sacrificing the well-being of every American for the sake of “politics as usual.” Ironically enough, that was the very thing every American who voted for him thought they were voting to kill.


The future is unwritten.

September 2, 2009

Should we measure a president by his cultural impact, or by his political decisions? Judging by the country’s reaction to Obama, we’ve decided on the former. The Right’s pseudo-populist assault on “Obamanomics,” despite some lone voices of principle, reeks of desperation. The New York Times’ current nonfiction Top Ten bestseller list includes no fewer than four right-wing attacks on Obama, but there’s something second-hand and shoddy about the bile-slinging — as with Reagan, most of the attacks bounce off the president’s smile. The crazy conviction with which the Right attacked Clinton (a conviction made all the crazier by Clinton’s gradual swerve to the right himself) isn’t here. If Obama weren’t trying to steerhead a change in the country’s health care policy even he admits is radical, these books would plummet to earth unread.

The Left, meanwhile, attacks Obama from the left — and the rest of the country meanders somewhere in the middle, still unwilling to feel too cynical toward the man. The magic of the election and the inauguration hasn’t quite lifted — above all, perhaps, of that night when Obama began: “It’s been a long time coming … but change has come to America.” Even those who didn’t recognize the allusion to Sam Cooke’s great 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come” — a sermon of sorts that seems bolder and louder and more wrenching and joyful every time you hear it, so firm and unyielding that you can’t believe segregation lasted a second longer than its release date — felt the chill and grace of that moment. The much-lampooned word “change” itself, so empty and meaningless in political speeches for years, at last meant what it said. Every syllable hammered a nail into the coffin of the distant evil of the American past, the evil that still made its presence known when anonymous McCain supporters barked out “He’s an Arab!” (“Arab,” here, stood in for a term that no Obama-hater would have dared say in public.)

Already that moment seems strange and far away. Obama has proved himself every bit the “pragmatist” he campaigned as. Already it’s easy to be reminded of the hints — his tacit alliance with Boss Daley, his praise for Truman’s “sensible” foreign policy. We never should have expected Obama to be Russ Feingold — if we did, we allowed ourselves to be taken over by the wondrousness of the moment. I did that myself. The Obama who confessed that Malcolm X’s autobiography spoke more deeply to him than any other book and the Obama who complained about the “smallness of our politics” are the same person as the man who looks to each side during his speeches and then, slyly, indicates that he isn’t really in the club with either of those crazy extremes, even though he perfectly understands where they’re coming from, because after all, America is… And on, and on, and on, and on.

But if Obama is (probably) a deeply safe sort of politician, the response to him isn’t safe or predictable at all. He’s sent surges of political hope through the populace of a sort that haven’t been felt in a long time — not since the progressive era, perhaps. He’s ended a political regime whose daily message, delivered with cold relentlessness, was that some people didn’t belong in the country. That is not nothing.

Ever since the inauguration, with the painstaking scrutiny and unforgiving relentlessness of Tom Paine (who blasted George Washington himself as a tyrant), Glenn Greenwald has tracked Obama’s political achievements and betrayals with the assumption that none of this matters, that a president (like any politician) should be judged by his deeds alone. Reading him, I sometimes feel my skepticism slumping, something in me rebelling against this assumption. Surely this isn’t all Obama is, I’ll think — surely his good qualities add up to more than a prudent stance on Iran, a couple of good speeches here and there. But how does one measure a gut feeling? Does it have any real-world relevance at all?

Writing in Dissent, Charles Taylor damned Obama’s critics for failing to see the mystic aspect of the president, the side that no political critique could possibly touch:

Just like those rock fans who approach music as if they were English majors, looking for the significance in lyrics, there are disappointed and cynical white pundits who believe Obama, like any other president, should be judged by his decisions alone. … Do Greenwald, Sirota, et al, grasp that those who believe Obama stands for something beyond the sum of his decisions are not all blind Democratic loyalists or starry-eyed disciples? Judging politics by listing each action on a balance sheet to see how it adheres to the catechism, much of the left seems unable to comprehend the visionary aspect of politics. The vision that emerges from their journalism is the clichéd and puny view that politicians are finally members of the establishment representing the same small and powerful set of vested interests.

This is an extremely seductive view — the view that critics are always missing something, some intangible thing that can’t be reached through regular channels, but only through the subjective lens of culture, of sex and race and everything and anything but politics. (Taylor, by the way, is the former movie critic for Salon who declared that anyone who couldn’t see the genius of Brian DePalma’s flop “Mission to Mars” was only parading his ignorance of the cinema.) It’s seductive and it’s dangerous, because it means suspending our disbelief to the point of childishness. If politics means the use of power, then “the visionary aspect of politics” is nothing more than boilerplate, apologist hooey. Rereading this passage, I’m inclined to think it is.

And yet.

I’d be lying if I said I was sure what Obama would look like three years from now. If he fails to pass health-care reform, the fallout throughout the country — the fury and despondency — would be shattering. If foreign crises come upon him unbidden, that could change the entire game — as it did for so many other presidents before him. So I won’t pretend I have any settled impression of him or an opinion that couldn’t change in a week. For the first time in decades, politics doesn’t seem hopeless — and that is not nothing.

Pragmatism, ideology and bad history.

December 15, 2008

Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates complains about the “fetishizing of pragmatism” that’s come with the giddy media head-fever over the election of Obama. He’s certainly right. The notion that more “pragmatism” and less “ideology” would have kept us out of the Iraq War, for example, seems far too limited. Was Congress being “pragmatic” or “ideological” when it voted to give Bush the power to wage whatever kind of war he wanted?

The notion that technocratic know-how and Yankee ingenuity can triumph, all by themselves, over arrogant over-reaching ideology is just another species of the progress-worship that became popular at the end of the 19th century. It ensnared Mark Twain, who invested a fortune in useless gadgets even as he ridiculed a technology-obsessed society in his novels. It ensnared the Progressives. It was popular during the Clinton years, when one heard again and again about the “end of history,” the world-flattening power of Globalization, the species-transforming force of the Internet. The refrain is as persistent as it is desperate: If only we could free our bodies and our minds from the trammels of foolish human nature and turn civilization over to the forces of logic, reason and technology, everything would be okay.

It’s all bunk, as they used to say.

Ideology is at the core of republican government. The notion that we are ruled by laws and not men is an “ideology”; belief that the Constitution should be upheld is an “ideology”; belief that power rests in the hands of the people is an “ideology.” Ideas matter. They cannot be divorced from our society; when they can, we will no longer have a society.

The thing that troubled me most about Barack Obama during his campaign was his reluctance to state any principles he believed in other than “getting things done.” Pragmatism, to be sure, is a positive attribute. I’d rather have a pragmatist in office than a giddy, empty-headed idealist any day of the week. But pragmatism alone doesn’t make policy. It doesn’t explain what leaders do. “Pragmatism” can be used to justify corrupt politics as easily as it can be used to justify anything else. It’s an instrument, not an end.

Unfortunately, after a promising beginning Coates declines into one of those odious leftist lectures on Awful American History, worthy of the worst excesses of Howard Zinn:

No one should ever, ever forget that Lincoln said that. Not because it makes him a bad president, but because points to the limits of naked untempered, pragmatism. Indeed the history of black people in this country offers evidence that pragmatism is, itself, just another ideology. Lincoln may well have been a great president, but on arguably the most vexing question facing this country, his record is mixed. He opposed slavery as an institution, but also opposed equality and voting rights for blacks. To my mind, his thoughts on race were pedestrian, ordinary, and unimpressive. He was, in a word, pragmatic.

I don’t have much inclination to unpeel this particular wrapper of cliches, half-truths and deliberate misunderstandings. Suffice to say, however, that I agree with Coates’ main point: Pragmatism alone (“untempered,” if you will) is a useless and empty creature. It can also be used in the service of evil — not merely corruption, but evil.

That’s as far as I can go. Coates is as wrong in his estimation of Lincoln as are the foolish liberals now hailing him as the godfather of “pragmatism.” Lincoln was the one American president — or, at least, the only one since the founding era — who fully embodied the spirit of the Republic. To denigrate his accomplishments — for my money, the most astounding political record of any republican statesman in history — by an ahistorical reading of an out-of-context quote is exactly the sort of flaccid sentimental drivel designed to drive people out of politics. (Were it coming from a court historian like Doris Kearns Goodwin, I would suspect this sort of commentary to be designed to do just that. But leftist carping like this is only designed to justify leftists’ disdain for political action.) He’s also flat wrong about Lincoln’s record — Lincoln didn’t “oppose voting rights for blacks,” he endorsed them in his final speech. Since the speech prompted the racist John Wilkes Booth to murder him, one can venture that Lincoln ended his life on a supremely unpragmatic note.

Which simply goes to show, I think, that “pragmatism” and “ideology” are a false dichotomy to rank with, say, “interventionist” and “isolationist,” or “idealist” and “realist.” That is, it’s a fake rivalry that serves to mask what actually happens. What should matter to us is not whether our president has ideas, but whether they are good or bad.

In favor of national service (or, at least, not in favor of some arguments against it).

November 20, 2008

As usual, I can’t argue with the eloquence of Connor’s response to some jerk’s defense of Obama’s “national service” program. I do have a couple of quibbles with some of the points he makes:

1. The entire reply — column plus post — never addresses the important point that public service is being incorporated into the public school curriculum. An argument could certainly be made that students shouldn’t be wasting their time cleaning up parks when they could be studying for the SATs, or playing hackeysack, or whatever it is kids do these days. But I think the point deserves to be addressed. I can’t find the quote where Obama says he’d like to “require” rather than “encourage” public service, but requiring something of public school students is quite a different matter than requiring it of free men.

2. The most powerful point Connor makes, about the sincerity of Obama’s interest in public service arising from his own experience (which happened entirely in the private sector), is difficult to counter. This point, however, stems entirely from the notion that any form of government is alien to and opposed to the way people actually live and conduct their lives. This is certainly the only reason I can see for constructing a Chinese Wall between “private” and “government” matters. I personally think this notion the purest balderdash, but this is, after all, the inevitable divide between republicans who believe in the possibility of popular government and libertarians who think that any manifestation of “the state” is, in Murray Rothbard’s words, “a criminal band.”

3. I can’t really go along with a dismissal of a proposal meant to improve the life of the commonwealth as “bad fiscal policy.” I realize I’m the one standing athwart history on this one, but for me, politics precedes economics.

Connor asks why we should pay “unskilled youngsters” to do jobs that “hard-up workers” would be happy to do for minimum wages — or lower. Well, OK. But why aren’t “hard-up workers” lining up to fill those jobs? Because the private sector, frankly, doesn’t have much of a stake in mundane but essential community-service type jobs. Having the federal government hire drudge workers at starvation wages to do those jobs might make more “fiscal” sense than universal public service. But to me it seems a miserable, mean sort of alternative.

Alternatively, I suppose communities could take it upon themselves to hire people to plant trees for them, et al, but that raises the question of where they’re to get the money. More than likely, they won’t. As much as libertarians (though not, perhaps, classical liberals) might hate to admit it, leaving local democracy to the mercy of the free market is a recipe for no local democracy at all.

The runaround.

November 9, 2008

“Will he govern from the center?” Chris Matthews asked today, then blurted out, mid-rant, “He should govern from the center.” So oligarchy prepared, with profound unease leaking out from behind its veneer of hysterical pride, to unite behind the new president.

An obsession with “the center” united them. Praising Obama’s pick of Rahm Emanuel, a well-known Clintonish “centrist,” the Washington Post declared: “Emanuel can help Mr. Obama understand when he needs to ignore the pleas of the left and govern from the center.” The Wall Street Journal warned the new president not to fall under the sway of “left-wing barons who have their own agenda.” Who were these fearsome “left-wing barons”? Poor Barney Frank, apparently, is one of the fierce ideologues our new president must learn to beware of.

Party leaders, too, spoke cautiously. “A new president must govern from the middle,” said Nancy Pelosi, as if it were an iron rule (What of Reagan, or FDR? Hell, what about Bush?). “This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology,” Harry Reid explained, as the Democrats tightened their grip on the Congress and enjoyed their biggest presidential landslide in history. Americans, apparently, have no political beliefs or “ideology” whatever — none, at least, that plays any role in who they vote for. Obama, too, was said to have campaigned as a “Reaganite” or “fiscal conservative” — by the same people who’d been condemning him as a maniacal socialist only a week before. So it goes.

A peculiar transformation happened immediately after the election. “The center,” which means everything and nothing, had somehow replaced Barack Obama’s actual platform as his “mandate” in the eyes of oligarchy.

Even as joyful students stood on the Mall and sang, with no trace of irony, “God Bless America,” the voices of liberal sanctimony — ever apologists for liberal oligarchy — strained to put a downer on this most unpleasant affair. Christine Stansell, the voice of liberal academia, dismissed Obama’s win this way: “incredible luck.” “Decades of dysfunction.” “The break-down of the Republican Party.” Anything and everything we can credit for the win except Obama and the people who supported him. A national grass-roots movement successfully elects a man to the White House for the first time in a century and Stansell credits the Democratic Party for the win because, for once, they “behaved like a functional party.”

Barely disguising her contempt for Obama supporters’ lack of cynicism, Stansell snorts: “It looks like the ‘new’ politics comes down to Hispanics, women, and blue-collar Democrats returned home from the Republican fold.” In the world of liberal academia, we count not as individuals, as citizens, but as members of groups. Anyone so foolish to think he’s only a voter who happens to be Hispanic is sorely wrong. He is a Hispanic voter, nothing more. (From this thinking, of course, comes not “reverse racism” but racism, since racism, as Walter Karp said, is nothing more than thinking of other people as if they are nothing but members of a race.) Enthusiasm about what a president might do for you, too, is to be dreaded; it might mean that people won’t shut up and go away after the election.

Before we hear any more idle chatter about “reaching across the aisle,” too, let’s get something straight. “Bipartisan” action can mean one of two things. It can mean congressmembers uniting to challenge party leadership (as we saw happen in the first House vote against the bailout two months ago) or it can mean party leaders clamping down on honorable “partisan” debate in order to quash democracy (as we saw happen in the second House vote). In short, “reaching across the aisle” can mean a challenge to political power or a repressive exercise of political power.

The notion that our government is torn between a “left” and a “right,” too, is largely without merit. There certainly are left and right movements in America. But a policy isn’t necessarily produced by leftist or rightist ideology. (For that matter, “conservatives” aren’t necessarily right-wingers, “liberals” aren’t necessarily left-wingers, and “moderates” aren’t necessarily wishy-washy.) Again, consider the bailout. Self-identified conservatives and liberals opposed it for the exact same reason. To be sure, they said different things about it; conservatives talked about a “free market” and liberals talked about “corporate greed.” But at bottom they opposed the same things about the bailout.

Things to consider, as we prepare to learn how Obama will govern this “conservative,” “right-center,” “centrist,” “progressive” nation of ours.

A moment of (expected) grace.

November 5, 2008

I’m listening to Obama’s acceptance speech again as I write this and marveling at what a superb speaker he is. The words flow so naturally, one right on top of another, each syllable hitting home with a very satisfying bass thud. There’s a confidence and grace and easiness that I’ve never heard in any other politician’s words. This is why the right’s warnings about Obama being a charismatic demagogue fall so flat. Demagogues are eager to win you over, to make you like them. Obama has the air of a leader, not a dictator. The difference is unmistakable.

As someone who (believe it or not) once resisted getting into politics because he couldn’t stand listening to politicians speak for longer than two minutes, I’m pretty happy at the prospect of listening to this man every day for the next four years (at least).

Obama vs. the Constitution

November 3, 2008

You’ve got to admire the insane chutzpah of the Republican Right in their latest, last-ditch rhetorical effort to prove that Barack Obama is unworthy to be our president. They’re trying to argue that Obama somehow opposes the Constitution because he referred to its “negative liberties.”

Of course, as any fool could tell them, the Constitution does consist largely of “negative liberties” — that is, it is largely composed of what the government can’t do. What the Supreme Court can’t do, what the Congress can’t do, what the president can’t do, what the federal government can’t do, what the state governments can’t do. To use this familiar term — used by conservative scholars all the time, in fact — is pure mendacity. But it hasn’t stopped the lying ideologues of the Right from trying to turn it into a major issue.

“This election is not about Obama versus the Republican nominee,” thunders one lunatic. “It is about Obama versus this great republic and its founders, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Rush, and Jefferson.” (Wow, Rush helped found the country and went platinum 14 times?)

“Does Mr. Obama support the Constitution as it is written, or does he support amendments to guarantee welfare?” wonders the co-founder of the anti-constitutional Federalist Society in the Wall Street Journal. “The federal courts hang in the balance, and it is the left which is poised to capture them.” (1)

“McCain’s judicial nominees would be far more likely, by light years, than would be Obama’s nominees, to maintain the Constitution’s balance between national and state governments, and its restrictions on Congress’s powers,” declares the American Spectator. Then it goes further, into truly demented territory: “It is likely that no administration in history will be so concerned with maintaining high ethical standards as a McCain administration would.”

“Simply put, the survival of the historic American experiment in representative government will be in serious jeopardy if Barack Obama is our next president,” drones the ever-awful National Review. “Our system of representative government, already under siege, would be lucky to survive an Obama presidency.”

Obama’s presidency will certainly bear watching, as any presidency will. But the basic premise of these attacks — that “left-wing” Democrats like Obama (who is in fact a moderate, despite Republican extremists’ weird conviction that anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman is a Bolshevik) detest the Constitution, while Republicans cherish it — is ludicrous.

Forget McCain and Palin for a minute. This party is still led by a president who has ignored and devalued the Constitution as no other president in our history has. George W. Bush has, in one observer’s words, declared his right “to wage undeclared wars … his right to create military courts, to authorize extraordinary renditions, secret prisons, more severely coercive interrogation, trials with undisclosed evidence, domestic surveillance, and the overriding of congressional oversight in every aspect of government from energy policy to health services.” He can jail citizens at will, order them to be tortured and kept behind bars for years without any charges being presented. The Constitution he dismisses as “a goddamned piece of paper,” a story our “liberal” media resolutely refused to pursue. He has stood before the American people as a usurper of our liberties and a tyrant over this Republic, and only the contemptible cowardice of Democratic leaders (as well as the hypocritical unction of Republican leaders) has kept him from being impeached and sent to prison.

And McCain has never repudiated Bush’s methods — nor, to say the least, have the majority of his ideologue followers, who think executive tyranny all to the good if it counters the power of a liberal Congress. That is more than enough reason to send him and his demagogic running mate into the dustbin of history tomorrow night.

1. One of the odder developments of the past 30 years is the growing assumption that Republicans cherish the Constitution, and Democrats don’t. Things like the Federalist Society (which unambiguously backed Bush’s illegal and unconstitutional reading of the president’s powers) get away with calling themselves things like the Federalist Society (would that be the Federalist of The Federalist Papers or the Federalist Party that proposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, by the way?), and people like Robert Bork get away with declaring that no one has a right to privacy and calling it “strict construction of the Constitution.” All I can say is, it was Obama, not McCain, who named the works of Jefferson and Lincoln, and The Federalist Papers, among his favorite books.

Whatever happened to the antitrust movement?

October 31, 2008

Antitrust legislation is the single most important kind of economic legislation in a republic. As every important republican thinker since the 19th century has realized, an economy governed by price-fixers and monopolies is corrosive to self-government and the independence of the citizenry.

Of the two major candidates, Barack Obama is the only one, as far as I can tell, who’s made serious public statements on antitrust. Here’s what he said in May: “We’re going to have an antitrust division in the Justice Department that actually believes in antitrust law. We haven’t had that for the last seven, eight years.”

Back in January, experts thought Obama was just OK on antitrust, and that the “pro-market emphasis” at the University of Chicago had probably had some effect on him. (Oddly, the implication seems to be that antitrust law is anti-market, instead of pro-market as it certainly is.) That said, Obama has a pretty decent statement about the issue, and he seems to understand what’s at stake.

Despite that fact, the last president with a good antitrust record was, of all people, William Howard Taft. (Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, suspended the Sherman Antitrust Act with his National Industrial Recovery Act.) Needless to say, the current administration wasn’t enthusiastic about enforcing anti-monopoly laws.

It would certainly be nice to see this made a national issue again. As Ralph Nader rightly puts it: “The way to really deal with small businesses is to [enforce] competition policy. They never talk about enforcement of antitrust laws. Small business is the principle victim of monopolistic policies and price fixing. The Justice Department is asleep.”

The future looks bright ahead?

October 15, 2008

With the race all but over, ambitious Democrats are already girding themselves for what most observers agree could well be the first era of lasting Democratic rule since the fall of Lyndon Johnson. The question of what Democrats would actually do if they got power remains an open one. Certainly they couldn’t get away with a Clintonish “centrism.” Nor could they knife their progressive president in the back; Obama is no Carter, and he’s not at odds with party leaders. Nor are the American people in the mood to be roused to international do-gooderism in the mode of Kennedy. Yet Obama will probably be a popular president, and the Democrats are almost certainly going to seize a majority.

This in an era when the people are more furious with corrupt business and corrupt government — closer to seeing the essential link between them, the fact that one cannot really exist without the other — than at any time since the brief public outcry that accompanied the Enron scandal (and which Bush permanently derailed by dragging the country into Iraq). Are the Democrats going to transform themselves into the reformist party of our dreams and make us forget about the last two years?

I suppose it’s always possible, but if we’re not vigilant, who knows what we might end up with. This Politico story hints at what might be in store for us:

Come next year, the new administration and the new Congress may be able to build an entire new bureaucracy to govern the economy for decades. Essentially, Democrats want to put some institutional permanence behind the sweeping executive actions taking place as the Bush administration moves to shore up banks and other financial institutions with Treasury’s new powers.

The same “executive actions” that so many Democrats — and a majority of the American people — bitterly opposed? What the American people actually want — what they would certainly cheer — is an end to the corruption and collusion that led to the financial crisis, an end to the tyranny of the faux free market and an end to the Washington/Wall Street alliance. But who knows? If we demand it, and hold our leaders accountable — not inconceivable in this day of the Internet and instantaneous news, when it’s harder than ever to hide the actions of the powerful and their consequences — it just might happen. Never say never.

Of Salon, Daley and Obama

September 20, 2008

From 2002, Charles Taylor’s account of a brutal 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 739 people — more than died in the famous 1871 Chicago fire, more than died in the Oklahoma City bombing, and more than die in most hurricanes. The grim details speak for themselves:

Obviously, many of those people died. But even in death, the bureaucracy let them down. So many bodies came into the medical examiner’s office that eventually nine refrigerated meat trailers had to be set up in the parking lot to house the corpses. With the city’s 56 ambulances overworked, police had to transport bodies to the morgue (many in a state of decomposition), where they often had to wait an hour and a half to file their paperwork, thus delaying them from answering calls about elderly neighbors who had not been seen in a few days. The city finally offered parolees the opportunity to cut their parole time if they volunteered to move bodies.

“It was a classic case,” Taylor contends, “of how deciding to run a city like a corporation can put citizens’ lives in danger. … The Chicago city government operated exactly as a government is intended to operate when it’s following the entrepreneurial model. [Italics his.] When saving money takes precedence over providing adequate services, even in an emergency, then we can no longer expect government to do the basic job of saving the lives of citizens in danger.”

The villain of the story, in Taylor’s view — and he piles up more than enough evidence for most readers to agree with him — is Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, son of that other Mayor Daley (“a bully,” Taylor calls him, considerably understating it), whose officials considered the deaths the “inevitable” result of an “act of God.” Unwilling to treat the heat wave as a crisis, they expressed the most appallingly callous attitude toward Chicagoans: “It wasn’t going to matter … I think the people were going to die anyway.” In fact, the story reads like a harrowing anticipation of the way the federal government threw away an entire city in the aftermath of an even deadlier natural disaster in 2005. Clearly, the Republicans have no monopoly on short-sighted autocrats.

Taylor was once Salon’s third movie critic, and his occasional political articles crackled with righteous indignation and gleeful, balloon-pricking spite. I didn’t often agree with him — he hero-worshipped Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton — but I always loved reading his stuff. While other Salon writers often seemed to be writing solely for an audience of the type of people who read Salon every day (a phenomenon only exacerbated by the introduction of Salon Premium), Taylor could be hard and unsentimental and angry in a way that was genuinely stirring. “The Chicago media regularly talked about the “debate” over what caused the deaths,” snarls Taylor. “But there was no debate: There was scientific fact and there were Mayor Daley’s efforts to cover his ass.”

Since the coming of new Salon EIC Joan Walsh (whose ignorant pronouncements blight the front page almost every day), political coverage has all but taken over the entire site. Taylor has been fired, replaced by an army of professional commentators. With the exception of the great Glenn Greenwald — still the most consistent critic of the Bush administration’s attack on constitutional liberties and everyone who’s letting it happen — their coverage has been blandly serviceable and inoffensive. Salon’s always been a frustratingly hit-and-miss site. Their coverage of the Democratic primaries was so aggressively pro-Clinton that one commenter rightly complained that, were Obama to win the nomination, Salon’s headline would read “Clinton loses nomination.” But there’s a real partisan blankness to the site now, a discernable reluctance to criticize the powerful.

Just compare Taylor’s piece with this truly repellent article by an ex-Daley speechwriter, Dan Conley. The article’s apparent subject is Chicago politics, but we’re left with little impression of what that kind of politics actually results in. We’re left with a vaguely uplifting picture of a kind of boys’ only club where everyone knows each other and likes each other and does favors for each other. To an insider like Conley, that’s “just politics.” In other words, No Big Deal. He seems to think that it’s just a charming local tradition, like eating a hot dog at a Cubs game. As for anyone who cherishes stupid ideals about government: “Chicagoans would respond that the true naif is anyone who thinks that citizens who are inactive in politics — who bring nothing to the table — should share equally in the largesse of government.” Read that last sentence carefully — Conley isn’t just talking about getting a few perks from a few harmlessly shady deals. He’s talking about getting any help from the government. If you “bring nothing to the table” — like all the Chicagoans who don’t happen to matter to the machine — then you’re not worth the trouble. Just like those 739 Chicagoans who it wasn’t worth the Daley machine’s trouble to save.

Inadvertently giving away more than he knows (“You’ll like it here (in Chicago),” Conley recalls Daley telling him on their first meeting. “There’s not a lot of partisan politics.”), Conley attempts to portray the Chicago mayor as, of all things, a principled believer in self-government:

Daley has strong beliefs about personal responsibility. He doesn’t believe that it’s the proper role of government to promise a solution for every problem — citizens have a responsibility to take care of their children, join block clubs, go to police beat meetings, run for local school councils and take ownership of their own communities. It’s a powerful message — one that defines him as a public servant and has made him an effective mayor for two decades — but it can be a difficult message to write without making the speaker sound like a scold.

In other words, shut up and quit pestering those who know better. Somehow one suspects this isn’t what Jefferson had in mind when he proposed dividing the counties into wards!

Conley hopes Obama learned from his time in Chicago. I hope he didn’t learn a thing; Obama’s refusal to stand up against the corruption of Illinois politics is the most troubling thing about him. It’s inaccurate to call him a “machine politician” — he wasn’t supported by Daley on his initial run for Congress and only got a rather reluctant endorsement late in the race when he successfully ran for the Senate — but he’s consistently failed to voice any criticism of Conley’s boys only club.

He certainly doesn’t have to worry about this being an issue in the campaign — the media doesn’t care since no concrete scandal’s attached, McCain’s running the most inept campaign in decades, and the left doesn’t seem to care about crooked political machines at all (perhaps thinking it something only right-wingers are vulgar enough to bring up). But Obama’s wonderfully eloquent speeches — the best of any politician since Reagan — rarely bring up genuine republican issues, the kind you found in the speeches of Lincoln, of La Follette, of Gene McCarthy. To do that, he’d have to attack genuine corruption — the kind that helped put him where he is today. Perhaps it’s too much to ask — but given the amount of, yes, hope we’re all investing in the campaign, I don’t think it is.