Wayne O’Leary

Getting Their Crazy On

Maybe it’s the phase of the moon or the alignment of the planets, but whatever the cause, a certain craziness has overtaken the political world as the new year begins. At the State of the Union, President Barack Obama, the “socialist” scourge of the Right, came across more like Herbert Obama or Barack Hoover with his ahistorical call for more constrictive government in a time of recession. The president’s speech was satisfyingly liberal, if not exhilaratingly populist, in atmospherics (those damnable bankers, that retrograde Supreme Court), but it was disappointingly conservative in policy.

After effectively setting the stage for a resurgent progressivism with his rhetorical skewering of the Republicans, Obama proceeded to offer a succession of GOP-lite bromides calculated, apparently, to soothe deficit-wary independents. The irrelevant Democratic base will just have to swallow hard and go along. To offset the failure of states and the private sector to hire in hard times, the president bizarrely proposed an anemic jobs program combined with a three-year federal spending freeze on everything except national defense and entitlements. Any congressional departure from anti-Keynesian budget austerity, he warned, would be met with an executive veto.

On the tax front, Obama called for an elimination of capital-gains taxes on small business, a presumed job creator. But as Americans learned during the Bush years, tax cuts, especially on unearned income, rarely create much employment. The 2009 stimulus package, which was one- third tax cuts, has produced precious few new jobs. The key, of course will be how a “small” business is defined.

If a Hooverian spending freeze and a Bushian tax cut were not enough, the president announced plans for a Reaganite offensive against entitlement spending. Two radical deficit hawks, Senators Judd Greg (R-N.H.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), will be charged with heading a “bipartisan” fiscal commission aimed at cutting future Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security outlays. This amounts to putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coop. Seniors will have to hope a staunchly Democratic Congress is still in place when these two flinty-eyed guardians of the public purse bring in their report.

President Obama is not the only one who’s been baying at the moon and getting in touch with his inner crazy. Inside the Supreme Court, a five-to-four conservative majority greeted 2010 by voting, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, to imperil democracy by throwing open the door to unlimited corporate campaign contributions in federal elections. Henceforth, the Court ruled, corporations can spend freely from their treasuries to produce and run campaign ads for or against candidates for president or Congress, thereby overturning decades of established law and legal precedent banning such activity. Invalidated in the process was the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act provision that had barred issue-oriented saturation ads sponsored by corporations in the closing days of election campaigns.

In a disingenuous gesture of evenhandedness, the partisan Court also applied its decision to labor unions, but corporations routinely outspend cash-strapped unions by up to 15 to 1 in every election cycle. This means a decided future advantage has been given to corporate-funded Republican candidates for office over labor-endorsed Democrats and to pro-business candidates over those not toeing the corporate line. What must be especially galling to bamboozled Democratic senators is that most of them resisted ideological considerations and voted to confirm the two Bush appointees, Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who tipped the scales.

Roberts and Alito, fawned over at their confirmation hearings as judicial moderates who respected precedent, have shown themselves to be the very sorts of judges progressives warned they were at the time - - extreme legal activists with a hard-right view of the Constitution. Along with the Court’s intellectual godfather, Antonin Scalia, they are determined to overturn settled law in a variety of areas and return the country to an antediluvian jurisprudence that meshes with their political biases.

In the Citizens United case, this entailed reaching back more than a century to revive the antiquated and long-discredited Court doctrine that inanimate corporations are actually “persons” whose rights under the Constitution, conferred by the 14th Amendment (mistakenly thought by its authors to pertain only to former slaves), include freedom of speech, a freedom not to be circumscribed by government regulation. Further (and this is the pièce de résistance), money equals speech; when a corporation spends millions to influence politics, according to the current Court crazies, it’s merely exercising its First Amendment guarantees. In short, money talks, and it should talk.

Not only did the Supreme Court figuratively stick it to the public during the January silly season, the public, in the form of the voters of Massachusetts, stuck it to themselves. Meet Republican Scott Brown, tea-party conservative and proud owner of a truck, a barn coat, and a seat (Ted Kennedy’s seat) in the US Senate. Mad at the Democrats for botching health-care reform, for not sufficiently punishing Wall Street’s banksters, for not energetically resolving the jobs crisis, and for presenting them with a lackluster field of second-team senatorial candidates, Bay State voters naturally opted for an off-the-wall politician who will address none of their concerns.

A perfect addition to the congressional No party, Brown radiates a persona that can only be described as “charming jackass.” Still, his unlikely ascension is the proverbial wake-up call for the somnolent Democrats, a warning to produce and not, in the president’s words, to “run for the hills.” Running scared has become second nature for members of the majority party, but if they instead pass the financial reforms presidential advisors Paul Volcker and Elizabeth Warren have advanced, enact a liberalized health-care bill through legislative reconciliation, and add a strong, follow-up jobs stimulus, this could yet be a progressive watershed year. As for Sen. Brown, his mad-as-hell Everyman act will likely wear thin by 2012, and assuming Bay State Democrats send out a member of their first team (say, former Congressman Joe Kennedy or Rep. Ed Markie) to contest his full-term promotion, the 2010 special election, and Brown himself, may be nothing more than footnotes in political history.

In the meantime, enjoy the craziness. It’s not often a president, a Supreme Court, and the voters all go off the deep end at once. Must be cabin fever, or maybe something in the water.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010


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