Sunday, August 01, 2010

On issues like Afghanistan and Social Security, is the Obama administration a latter-day "Nixon in China"?


Nixon in China -- going where perhaps no one without his lifelong history of virulent red-baiting could have gone

by Ken

Following a well-established DWT tradition, neither Howie nor I went to this year's Netroots Nation gathering, the closest thing there is to a gathering of the progressive movement. (Of course everyone is always shocked to find Howie among the missing.)

Because so many people I know -- at least in the online sense of "knowing" -- are there every year, I get no shortage of reactions, and the most interesting one I've seen (I honestly don't remember whose it was) was that this year's version displayed a clear split in progressive ranks, between those who accept the Obama agenda as, realistically, the most we on the left can reasonably hope for, at least in this time and place, and those who regard what we've seen in this administration as a betrayal so intense that it's not that much better than an openly right-wing administration -- and in some ways worse, since so many ideas that we cherish for reform, such as health care reform and economic stimulus, have been so mishandled as to (wrongly) discredit the ideas.

This seems to me an important point, including the observation that the battle lines are hardening, and each of these sides views the other with growing suspicion and hostility. Where we go from here is a subject for serious and worrying speculation. I don't think anyone who's even visited DWT will have any confusion regarding where Howie and I stand, so that's not the point I want to make tonight. Between Howie and me, there's hardly a day when we aren't back to this.

I'm thinking rather about a point I first heard made by our friend Ian Welsh (and see this post I wrote largely about Ian.) It must have been in the early days of the Obama administration, when its ideological direction was becoming alarmingly apparent (that damned right-wingery that nowadays passes for "centrism") and on a wide range of issues it was all but impossible to distinguish "Obama policies" from "Bush policies." I have to add that this wasn't especially surprisingly to some smart colleagues who had been listening carefully to the Obama campaign and hadn't been led to expect anything else.

At that time Ian evoked an image Ian evoked that really stopped me in my tracks:

Nixon in China.

Indeed, in many areas the Obama policies were worse than the Bush ones, because positions that would have aroused strong Democratic pushback from a Republican regime were being given a pass from a Democratic one. On national security, civil rights, health care, energy, and on and on, the suggestion was that the new president was championing policies so far right that almost assuredly no openly right-wing government could have hoped to ram them through.

Think about it. Even the great "achievement" of the Obama administration, the health care package, isn't a reform; it's a package that could have been supported by any sane Republican, if there were sane Republicans anymore. The war in Afghanistan is supported by Democrats who would be screaming bloody murder if it were being done by, say, George W. Bush. And the deficit commission, loaded with all those deficit hawks selling the same discredited right-wing prescriptions being sold by right-wing economic "thinkers" since the New Deal, is something that could almost surely never have been sold by a Republican administration.

Of course those people like to refer to economic "realities" claimed to be recognized by "all economists," but this is, well, I can't think of a polite way of saying it -- this is a lie, the same sort of lie still told by the same sort of people about the housing bubble and the subsequent economic meltdown and depression. The official line is the age -old "nobody could have foreseen it," even though lots of economists not only foresaw it but screamed as loud as they could about it. Those economists, however, don't exist when they defy economic orthodoxies, even economic orthodoxies that turn out to be catastrophically wrong. The "Chicago school" economic ignoramuses who did so much to create an economy that works for the rich and fucks everybody else -- those people should be happy to have jobs parking cars these days, but instead they're still be treated respectfully, as are mainstream hacks like Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

And in just the way that "nobody could have foreseen" the catastrophic mess the Bush regime made of Iraq, even though plenty of courageous people were screaming bloody murder about that too at the time, the people who were so ignominiously wrong not only survived but flourished while the people who were right were either forgotten or actually punished. (Don't think that the implicit lesson is in any way accidental: that when you stake your professional reputation on going up against an accepted political or economic orthodoxy, be prepared to pay the price, and that price may actually be higher if you have the temerity to have been right.)

Maybe there's nothing to be done about the American habit of lining up behind any undertaking that's undertaken under the banner of "national security." The people who market these undertakings know this and count on it, and I don't know how you fight it. I especially don't know how you fight it when the package is being marketed by a Democratic administration, whose supporters won't say a word against it.

The deficit commission, however, with its implicit war on Social Security, seems to me definitely something that would have been beyond the reach of any Republican administration. Never mind that the "Social Security crisis" isn't a crisis, but is simply a projection of people who want to see Social Security dismantled, or at least want to shake a good chunk of the money tied up in it freed for plundering by the usual suspects among our corporate and financial-sector predators. Even the more legitimate problems of Medicare and Medicaid could be dealt with easily enough -- and that much more easily if we weren't hemorrhaging such vast hordes of treasure on the Iraq and Afghanistan fun houses -- if people in authority actually wanted to deal with them rather than use them as excuses for implementing structural changes that have been at the top of the right-wing agenda since those programs' inceptions.

And now, God help us, we've got the president claiming he's going to call Republicans' bluff on deficit reduction! What I take this to mean is that the Republicans only talk a good game about turning the U.S. economy over to the rich lock, stock, and barrel, whereas it's going to take a Democratic president to actually do it. You know, the way only a superhawk with Tricky Dick Nixon's record of career-destroying red-baiting could have gotten away with moving to establish diplomatic relations with "Red China."

I'm sure Ian could have laid this out more clearly and persuasively. Then again, is this something there's wide interest in having laid out clearly and persuasively? Because I don't know what the heck we do about it, beyond making sure the case is made as widely and loudly as possible.

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At 6:56 PM, Anonymous DrDick said...

Frankly, in most regards, Obama's policy positions are remarkably similar to those of Nixon or Ford, as were Clinton's. A sad commentary on how far to the right the Republicans have moved and the extent to which the center right has taken over the Democratic Party leadership. The Democratic base is still decidely center left to left of center (at least according to polling data), but power structure has been seized by Rockefeller Republicans.

At 7:15 PM, Blogger Ian Welsh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7:15 PM, Blogger Ian Welsh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Ian Welsh said...

Take 3. Shouldn't comment after a long day and two glasses of wine:

In terms of domestic policy, Obama is rather to the right of Nixon in a number of respects, alas.

And Nixon did end the Vietnam war. We'll see if Obama can claim he ended a war.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I hear you, Ian, and point taken!

Now, since this whole thing was your idea in the first place, I hope you're planning to write about it properly.


At 9:24 PM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

I grappled with this a few weeks ago too and I agree that "only a superhawk with Tricky Dick Nixon's record of career-destroying red-baiting could have gotten away with moving to establish diplomatic relations with 'Red China'," but where, o where, do we find a record of Obama as a progressive? His 2 years in the Senate of standing firmly with Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman? Who was the last good president we had?

At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

I dunno Howie, I honor your choices but would personally feel better if I knew YOU were at netroots.

I can help supply PLENTY of bios and histories if you need a cover:)

At 11:33 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

In answer to Howie: Conservatives always knew that Nixon wasn't one of them either, but he worked tirelessly to maintain credibility with them, in much the same way that Obama throughout his relatively brief public career has worked very hard to establish credibility with us lefties, and as this hardening split in the progressive movement is showing, he's done well enough in this regard that he has been able to advance right-wing priorities that no openly right-wing president ever could have.


At 4:50 AM, Blogger Bula said...

Obama is doing just enough to piss everyone off. Does he have a spine? Or will he just blow in the wind?

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Tono Rondone said...

What I find remarkable in a forum such as this, peopled obviously by educated and informed persons, is that you all seem to be entertaining the illusion that any U.S. President is leading or controlling or can bring about real change in our society, when the fact of the matter is there is no two party system in this country and that there has not been one true leader in the White House since JFK, and we all know what his desire for sweeping reform got him. Why not admit that only puppets inhabit the Oval Office and that while the names of the chefs change, the hamburger is the still the same. Just the fact that you see Obama, or Bush, or any of the other so called leaders of America on the TV and in the newspapers is evidence that they are, in fact, not the true architects of control. Why harp on the merits of one puppet versus another while the puppet masters escape scrutiny?


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