New Clinton Presidency

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have a lot more in common than anyone would have thought during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Back then, candidate Obama made a point of running against the Clinton years, saying it was time for a fresh start and new direction, that the years of the Democrats being a corporate party were over.

It was his chief selling point during a primary in which the creation of a potential Clinton dynasty — in the person of former first lady Hillary Clinton — appeared to be on the minds of many younger voters, who flocked to Obama, helping him overcome racial hostility to become the first African American to win the White House.

Obama, however, has proven to be an extension of the Clinton presidency, one in which a timorous incrementalism and fealty to Washington assumptions has turned his bold language into a string of broken promises.

That is the backdrop for what happened Jan. 19 in Massachusetts, where a Republican state senator knocked off a sitting Democratic state attorney general to win the US Senate seat formerly held by an iconic liberal Democrat.

As the Boston Globe wrote on Jan. 20, the day after Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley and stripped the Democrats of their mythical filibuster-proof supermajority, a huge turnout was spurred by “a surge of angry voters looking to upset the status quo,” with “frustration over health reform and anger with Congress” motivating many to vote for the Republican.

Let’s be clear: This election was a warning shot on the bow of the Democrats’ ship, one that must send a message to elected officials that they have failed to engage not just independents — the supposed Holy Grail of politics — but their own progressive base.

By all accounts, Coakely ran an awful campaign and Democrats proved hypocritical in their willingness to rewrite election law in the state to try and maintain their 60 votes in the Senate. But it wasn’t just these factors that allowed the Republicans to get up off the mat. Unlike the gubernatorial race in New Jersey, where the vote turned on local issues and local personalities, this one was about more than Massachusetts. The fault for this loss lies in the Democrats’ failure to energize progressives by getting real health reform passed, enacting a more robust and effective stimulus or writing strict financial regulations to rein in banks.

The reality of the last 12 months is that voters were promised significant change — even if that promise was never explicit in the kinds of programs then-candidate Obama offered voters. He talked about hope and change, of making big strides into the future, of returning America to its earlier glories — essentially mixing JFK and MLK into one, overarching narrative designed to plug into the nostalgic streak that drives conservative politics while also offering liberals a progressive idyll to which they could connect.

Liberals heard what they wanted, disaffected conservatives and independents waited and the president, once in power, turned out not to be FDR, Truman and LBJ, but a triangulating Clinton-type without the benefit of the humming economy to keep everyone happy.

The problem is and will continue to be the economy and the Democrats have shown that they have few answers — or lack the will to aggressively rebuild, to do battle with the interests (banks and investment houses, insurers, the permanent military industry) that stand in the way of real change.

We have been hearing calls from the right wing of the Democratic Party — people like Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana — for the party to move right. This, of course, as was pointed out on Truthdig, ignores a simple fact: The party has been heading right “ever since our community organizer in chief walked away from a public option, opened up the national checkbook for the banks and doubled our troop levels in Afghanistan.”

Basically, voters see little change and are right to see the Democrats as having failed to improve much of anything since Obama became president. Rather, the party has offered the nation the spectacle of a handful of conservative Democrats from small states holding the rest of the party hostage.

The Democrats deserved to lose this seat, one that had been held by the Liberal Lion, Ted Kennedy for decades, a progressive champion (despite his warts) who always championed the progressive cause. If they want to staunch the bleeding and avert a potential catastrophe in November, they need to move to the left. They have to stop worrying about what the media has to say, stop worrying about strategizing for November and just stand for something more than one-sided bipartisanism.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. E-mail; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2010

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