Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama’s Mandate: Why “Going Slow” is a Recipe for Going Nowhere Fast

Less than 24 hours after Barack Obama won the presidency with a greater share of the popular vote than any candidate in 20 years, talking heads from all quarters (including his own) began the mad rush to contain the tremendous popular energy that had infused his campaign. On November 5th, Robert Gibbs, a senior advisor to the campaign, told the New York Times that the masses of people across the country who spontaneously took to the streets in celebration of Obama's victory need to have "a realistic expectation of what can happen and how quickly.” William Galston of The New Republic, in a rather strange piece, argues that the economic crisis effectively precludes Obama from taking any effective action to remedy the crisis' effects on working Americans. Scott Winship, also of TNR, in one of the denser (as in more stupid) articles I've seen post-election, argues that since the Dems have a lesser margin in the House and Senate today than they did in 1992, 2010 could well see another "Republican Revolution" and its ensuing Contract on America.[1] Paul Krugman writes an effective riposte to such technocratic gibberish: "John McCain denounced his opponent as a socialist and a “redistributor,” but America voted for him anyway. That’s a real mandate."

The comparison of Obama and Clinton has become nothing less than a mantra among those seeking to convince the former to play ritardando. "Remember Hillarycare!" they mouthe with solemnity. The narrative is as follows: Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 promising sweeping changes (universal health care, federal anti-scabbing legislation, and a federal freedom of choice act, etc) and the end of Reaganism. He tried to move too fast, however, and gave the Republicans an opportunity which they took in 1994. Unfortunately, he had to spend the rest of his time in office battling a hostile congress (tear, cue violin.)

Very little of this narrative has anything to do with reality. Beginning with the end, it ignores the boatload of quite unsavory things Bill Clinton did accomplish during his presidency (the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, NAFTA, Don't Ask Don't Tell, the destruction of welfare, the assault on Yugoslavia, etc). Based on this record, one would have the impression that Clinton worked quite happily with a Republican congress.

Beyond this, the core of the narrative is, quite simply, a fantasy. Bill Clinton did not move quickly to enact the progressive promises of his campaign. As Vincente Navarro, the "token leftist" of the Clinton's health care taskforce reminds us in a crucial article, "President Clinton made his first priority a reduction of the federal deficit (a policy not even included in his program), approved NAFTA (against the opposition of the AFL-CIO, the social movements, and even the majority of the Democratic Party), and committed himself to perpetuation of the for-profit health insurance system." If anything, Clinton brought on the Republican Revolution not by moving too quickly to the Left, but by executing a sharp turn to the Right.

Navarro's analysis rings true in several ways. First, Clinton's own staffers admit it. In the same article quoted earlier about the Obama campaign trying to dampen expectations, we find a curious admission from Paul Begala, one of Bill's senior advisors. Begala recounts Bill's reaction to his advice that the candidate needed to cool his backers' expectations:

“I remember talking about this to him in the closing days of the campaign,” Mr. Begala said. “And he started saying, ‘We didn’t get into this overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.’ ”

“So I remember him talking about it and doing it — and it didn’t have any effect on the citizens,” Mr. Begala said. That was one reason, he said, that Democrats lost control of Congress two years later.
This rather extraordinary admission invites no comment from the Times' reporter, who is apparently intent on sustaining the goals of the Obama team.

Begala's comment is vindicated by an electoral analysis of the 1994 Congressional elections. Hailed by the Republicans as a mandate for a return to Reagan, the election illustrates the deadly effect Clinton's triangulation had upon his base. Voter turnout among those making $22,000 (2007 dollars) or less a year dropped sharply, by 21%. A drop in African American voting rates. And a drop in voting rates for women. Democratic turnout was down in every part of the country except the Mid-Atlantic and the Far West, where gains were minute. By turning sharply away from the positions which had fueled his campaign, Clinton drove a nail into his own political coffin. If Obama wishes to avoid a similar fate, he would do well to ignore the advice of the "go slow" crowd.

What Obama does or doesn't decide to do, however, is far less important than what those of us on the ground decide. Based upon the conduct of his advisors and his selection of Clintonite DLC hack Rahm Emmanuel for Chief of Staff, he's already made his decision. What is urgently needed now is for all of us who celebrated Tuesday night to turn a deaf ear to the go-slow liberals both inside and outside of Obama's administration and get down to the hard work of rebuilding the American Left.

[1] Less relevant to my argument, but perhaps more entertaining, is Ramesh Ponnuru's delusional fantasy that the American electorate is best characterized as "center-right."