Wayne O'Leary

Waiting for Hillary

Here’s what it comes down to in Democratic politics: we’re waiting for Hillary Clinton to come save the day. President Obama, barely started on his second term, is already considered a lame duck by significant segments of the party faithful and the mainstream mass media. It’s all up to the retiring secretary of state, riding high in the polls, to redeem the promise of 2008.

In one sense, this rather bizarre yearning is understandable. The next four years will not be pretty. For those who care to realistically assess what remains of the Obama presidency, it’s obvious that, domestically at least, not much is going to happen. No fulfillment of the hope-and-change dream is at hand, and the sheer ugliness of the party struggle will continue to manifest itself; we are not entering a post-partisan era of good feelings.

The Republican House, with its solid conservative majority intact, thanks to the post-2010 gerrymandering of congressional districts by GOP governors and legislatures, is unrepentant and unfazed by the public rejection of its ideas last November. Among its “reform” element, second thoughts seem to mean rebranding, repackaging, and rearticulating — selling the rightist ideology more effectively rather than modifying or abandoning it. In the meantime, “no” will continue to be the operative word.

In the Senate, hapless Harry Reid — possibly the least effective majority leader ever — and an unidentified cadre of traitorous Democrats conspired behind closed doors to put filibuster reform out of its misery. Retiring liberal Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), discouraged by the whole procedural-reform charade, reportedly advised President Obama to consider a four-year vacation, since nothing meaningful would transpire in the upper body for the foreseeable future.

Reid may not have been able to affect the outcome, but he didn’t even try (by, for instance, forcing a public vote on the miscreants); the go-along-to-get-along man from Nevada is, above all, a devoted institutionalist who values precedent and doesn’t believe in breaking eggs to make an omelet. He’s evidently never read Robert Caro’s classic account of how LBJ operated as majority leader in similar circumstances during the 1950s.

So what progressive legislation will move forward between now and 2016? Climate change? Not a chance. Labor-law reform? Forget it. Infrastructure spending? Surely, you jest. Systematizing immigration? Maybe, but only because Republicans see the Hispanic vote slipping away permanently and only if a working proposal is to their liking, that is, larded with punitive features.

Gun control? Not bloody likely except, perhaps, for a superficial tightening of background checks to ease consciences. Gun-crazed Republicans (and many red-state Democrats) won’t tolerate limits on their infantile desire to legitimize ownership and possession of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Remember, federal strike forces and black helicopters are coming to take away our freedoms, and sufficient defensive firepower is a necessity.

Basically, no legislation of any import will pass Congress in the next four years unless Republicans agree to it, which means, in other words, no legislation of a truly progressive nature. President Obama is in a position heading into 2013 comparable to Bill Clinton after 1994: forced to sign GOP-backed proposals or none at all. Clinton was willing to do this, remaining “relevant” by helping conservatives to enact welfare reform, tax reductions, and the deregulation of the financial-services and telecommunications industries.

Will Obama be similarly cooperative with the Right? Not unless he reverts to his first-term quest for bipartisanship. He’s in a somewhat stronger position as a result of the election; the opposition is in turmoil, trying to shed its image as “the stupid party” while remaining true to its tea-party base. Furthermore, the current president is less of an unprincipled opportunist than his Democratic predecessor. That spells domestic gridlock, with Obama doing what most lame-duck presidents wind up doing: concentrating on foreign affairs and trying to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

There is one way out of this gloomy impasse, failing an improbable epiphany of moderation among GOP officeholders, and it’s a historical long shot. Democrats could build upon the momentum coming out of 2012; they could win the 2014 congressional elections, retake the House of Representatives, and pile up a filibuster-proof Senate majority that even Harry Reid could direct. It’s highly unlikely; the party of a two-term president almost always loses seats in the last off-year election of his presidency. In this case, even winning will not be enough; winning overwhelmingly will be required to flip the gerrymandered House. That’s the immense challenge facing the Democrats; they have to hope for a sea-change election.

Alternatively, they can wait for 2016, as many seem disposed to do, and hope for a savior in the form of Hillary the Reluctant — Joan of Arc on a white horse — who will sweep all before her, manage to do what Obama could not, and make the GOP pay. How she would overcome what amounts to a structural paralysis in Washington that has produced permanent minority rule is not explained by Hillary partisans, who are really motivated by myth and symbolism, not by pragmatically advancing a progressive-populist agenda.

The myth holds it was the policies of husband Bill (who, we assume, would be First Adviser) that brought about the fleeting, jobs-rich good times of the 1990s and somehow would again; in fact, the fool’s gold of the dot-com bubble was chiefly responsible, and it led, together with the succeeding housing bubble of the early 2000s, to disaster.

The symbolism relates to gender politics and the notion that a female president is absolutely necessary to realize the American promise; in this context, the particular ideology of the distaff leader, whether liberal, conservative, or centrist, is unimportant next to the symbolic affirmation of having a woman in charge.

At the risk of spoiling the anticipatory celebration, it needs to be pointed out that Hillary is on the right of the Democratic party; she’s a hawk on foreign policy and more conservative on most issues than either Barack Obama or (especially) potential rival Joe Biden. And time may have the last word; she’ll be close to 70 when she runs. None of this will matter, of course, to true believers bent on consummating the Clintonian restoration.

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, March 15, 2013



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