Let me say at the outset that I plan to vote for Barack Obama and other Democrats this fall. There is no real alternative for responsible, if somewhat disillusioned, progressives who care about the country. In the face of tea-party Republicanism, the ideologically pure indulgence of staying home or going third party is just not an option.
Having said this, I’m under no illusions as to where we’re headed in 2013, even if the president receives a second term. The current occupant is no crusading liberal. Never was, never will be. At heart, he’s a centrist like Bill Clinton, who is increasingly becoming his alter ego.
The Obama brand of Democratic centrism does tend to be slightly to the left of the Clinton variety and marginally less beholden to Wall Street; it has an idealistic cast to it and lacks the smell of petty corruption that surrounded the Arkansas version of the 1990s. Nevertheless, it remains middle-hugging centrism based on conciliation and the art of the deal, not combative, full-throated New Dealism of the sort that pushed the envelope of progressive politics in the 1930s and 1960s.
One of the remarkable developments coming out of the Democrats’ quadrennial convention was the extent to which centrism and Clintonism seem to be back in style. The resurrection of “Bubba,” who stole the show at Charlotte, and his rapprochement with Obama may be the key factors in the party’s short-term evolution going forward. Political professionals and casual observers alike detected a barely disguised quid pro quo in which the former president tacitly agreed to help push the current one across the finish line this year in exchange for an implied Obama endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In the absence of an emerging progressive star to challenge New Democrats Clinton and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the presidential nomination from the left, centrism seems firmly ensconced as the accepted guiding philosophy for the next four years and beyond. Policywise, Democrats will likely harken back to what rose-colored hindsight says worked in the 1990s, leaving in place today’s upside-down economy with the power and prosperity of Wall Street and the 1% juxtaposed to the powerlessness and continued slow decline of middle-class America.
Democratic activists will be encouraged to focus their energies elsewhere, on such social issues as gay marriage and reproductive rights, where the party will express its residual liberalism and distinguish itself from the Republicans. One place grassroots activity will not be overtly encouraged is the arena of organized labor, former keystone of left-leaning progressivism. The unprecedented choice of Charlotte, a non-union city in a right-to-work state, as convention venue spoke volumes about the national Democrats’ prevailing labor phobia. So did their general acceptance of the union-baiting education “reforms” emanating from Scott Walker’s Madison and Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago.
More troubling than the triumphal reemergence of Democratic centrism, however, is the party’s pending embrace of austerity. The whole panoply of fiscal retrenchment, complete with entitlement and spending cuts, deficit reduction, and balanced budgets, has taken on an air of post-election inevitability. After dallying with it in 2011 during his on-again, off-again budget negotiations with the Republican congressional leadership, the president put austerity aside to rally his restive progressive base for the election and campaign against the severely austere GOP. Regardless, the concept will shortly be back as a governing principle.
The truth is the American elites, including the establishments of both major parties, have bought into European-style austerity. To them, Germany’s Angela Merkel is not a stubborn, narrow-minded old matriarch, whose parsimonious economic policies have driven Europe to the brink, but rather a Thatcher-like rock of fiscal integrity, whose flinty-eyed crusade against irresponsible Keynesianism should be emulated.
For most of his first term, Barack Obama stood against retrenchment on the German model, but in 2011, he began to waver, and his history is one of always respecting and accommodating elite opinion, not confronting it. Republicans, of course, have always been “all in” on austerity. Now, if rumblings within the Democratic party are any indication, both parties will pursue it post-election, and there will be attempts to revive the much-celebrated “grand bargain” on Capitol Hill.
Listen to most prominent Democratic politicians today, centrists in particular, and you will hear hosannas to Bowles-Simpson, the defunct deficit commission’s short-circuited contribution to the austerity argument. Though less extreme than the GOP’s Ryan budget, it would shrink the total deficit by $4 trillion over a decade, using an absurd and destructive three-for-one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. Included in the original proposal were an increase in the Social Security retirement age (to 69 years), downward adjustments in annual COLAs, curtailed Medicare outlays, and tax “reform” aimed at lowering corporate and individual rates.
Assuming President Obama’s debt-ceiling deal of last year goes “over the cliff” and into sequestration due to congressional inaction, Bowles-Simpson is reappearing as the Democratic fallback austerity position for 2013, the supposed moderate alternative to the Ryan budget. But austerity is still austerity; it’s producing a double-dip recession in Europe, replete with sky-high unemployment and generalized social misery.
And there’s no way out. Austerity, absent any form of government economic stimulus (currently considered verboten) means a rolling recession that never ends. In Europe, it may well write finis to the European Union; here, it could strangle the infant recovery in its crib.
Nevertheless, austerity is what the American elites in business, the media, and both major parties want, so we’re likely to get it. As old Kennedy hand Jeff Madrick notes in the latest Harper’s, it “feels right” for hard times, offering a therapeutic form of sacrificial self-denial, penitence, and machismo, especially if the sacrifice is being borne by others than oneself — say, Mitt Romney’s 47%. What Madrick calls “budget-balancing obsessions” can, at this point, only be countered by a line drawn in the sand by Barack Obama, assuming he’s reelected.
The question is whether the president can break free of his party’s creeping centrist mindset and his own centrist inclinations. A few new Democratic progressives in Congress, such as Elizabeth Warren, would help, as would the emergence of a progressive challenger or two for 2016. At present, we can only hope — for change.
Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2012
Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links
About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us