Did the Right Set Obama's Agenda?

Adolph Reed Jr.'s powerful March Harper's cover story has generated a valuable discussion about the relationship between the left and the Democratic Party. This discussion has been joined at the Prospect, with Harold Meyerson responding to the original essay and Reed countering. While we may be reaching the saturation point for discussion, however, I did want elaborate on a point made by Meyerson about where the Democratic Party is now. A core question posed by Reed's essay is whether the Democrats have continued to shift to right since their retrenchment in the Reagan era, or whether the left's influence is on the increase. Like Meyerson, I'm not persuaded by Reed's argument that the Obama era represents a continuation or worsening of the left's marginalization during the Clinton administration.

In his initial essay, Reed argued that progressives had to face up to the "absolute impotence" of the left in American politics and the extent to which Democratic Party elites had limited the left to an essentially neoliberal agenda. As Meyerson observes, one obvious response to this argument is that just in the last year, even with Republican control of the House making worthwhile legislation essentially impossible we've seen several cases of a rising influence. The refusal by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to grant fast-track authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the successful opposition to the prospective nomination of Larry Summers to chair the Federal reserve and the removal of Social Security cuts from Obama's budget are not transformative moments in American political history, but they certainly don't reflect a left passively allowing Barack Obama to define the Democratic agenda. Reed concedes in his Prospect essay that the left retains some modest influence, but only in playing defense against an agenda set by the right:

Similarly, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi did, as Meyerson writes, respond to heavy lobbying from the party’s progressive institutional base to stop “Obama’s bid to resurrect fast-track” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That’s certainly a good thing, and it does indicate that progressive tendencies still have some capacity to stop really terrible initiatives within the party. But that’s all it is—stopping some horrible things and occasionally winning incremental moderations of others. The other side still sets the policy agenda.

One thing that has struck me in reading Reed's original essay and its follow-ups is how many of his examples of the perfidy of national Democrats focus on the Clinton era. As applied to the 1990s, Reed's argument that the Democrats were working in a playing field set by Republicans retains considerable force. Much of the legislation passed during Clinton's first term—NAFTA, welfare "reform," the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act—reflected both conservative means and ends, and even when the legislation was initiated by a Republican Congress it was enacted with substantial bipartisan support. There were also some genuine, if relatively small-scale, progressive achievements under Clinton—a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, the Family and Medical Leave Act, federal gun control legislation—but I think few would disagree that the 90s represented a marginalization of the left within the Democratic Party and political battles fought mostly on the terrain defined by Ronald Reagan.

The additional question raised by Reed is whether this trend has continued. Reed repeatedly argues that it has: "the two parties [are] converging in policy" and (in his Nation essay) "we haven't been able to win anything that a left would want in a long time, longer than most of the Nation's ideal readers can remember." Is the Obama administration just a continuation of the Reagan framework that has offered nothing of value to the left and simply reflects some tinkering around Republican policy goals? I think this is an essentially indefensible argument. Consider the major legislation passed during the two years in which the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress under Obama:

  • The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009
  • The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
  • The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act
  • The Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010
  • The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010

Whatever the flaws and compromises in their content, what you can see immediately is that none of these things reflect the agenda of actually existing American conservatives. Indeed. in most cases the legislation reflects issues on which the right is implacably opposed to both the means and ends being advanced, and not just on the civil rights issues on which Reed agrees that the parties have not converged. The right's health care reform agenda is the same as it's always been: nothing. Actually existing American conservatives do not support robust action against employment discrimination, gay and lesbian rights, or more strongly regulating the financial sector. The contrast with the Clinton administration is striking. Then, Democrats were willing to work to advance Republican priorities. With the exception of some free trade agreements, this simply hasn't happened even after Republicans took over the House.

Reed would presumably argue that much of this legislation, even if it reflects the priorities of the left rather than the right in some broad sense, is so compromised in the execution as to be more of the same timorous neoliberalism in practice. But I can't agree. My strongest disagreement with Reed's essay and its follow ups are his implicit and explicit dismissals of the importance of the comprehensive health reform that eluded not only Bill Clinton but (during times of much greater labor power) Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. I'm frankly baffled that anyone could argue that legislation that, among other important achievements, expanded Medicaid from a program that required states to cover only a subset of those well under the poverty line to a program that requires states to cover everyone within 133 percent of the federal poverty level doesn't represent "anything that a left would want." The Supreme Court's appalling decision to strike down the ACA's funding mechanism for the Medicaid expansion has thrown the inadequacies of the original Medicaid into sharp relief—but would anyone assert that it didn't constitute an accomplishment for the left? Nor, I think, is it accurate to describe even the exchanges established by the ACA as "neoliberal." While actual conservative reform proposals leave health coverage to the market with the exception of minimalist catastrophic insurance, the ACA tightly regulates the content of insurance, provides extensive subsidies, and creates a right to the guaranteed issue of health insurance. To call this "conservative" would be like calling the Clean Air Act "conservative" because it merely regulates industries rather than nationalizing them.

This does not mean, of course, that the Affordable Care Act is an unmitigated liberal triumph. It addresses a longstanding priority of the left with a combination of genuinely progressive provisions and others that are less so in order to attract the support of conservative Democrats (each of whom had an effective veto over the bill) in the Senate. While a major improvement on the status quo, it still leaves the United States with a health care system more inequitable and inefficient than any other liberal democracy. The stimulus passed in 2009 looks good compared to an austerity-gripped Europe (particularly remarkable, in retrospect, given that the Democrats did not yet have a filibuster-proof majority), but was still inadequate to the scale of the economic collapse. Dodd-Frank is even more suboptimal, and reflects the increasing influence of the financial sector that remains perhaps the central problem of American politics. But it must also be remembered that unmitigated liberal triumphs are the black swan of American politics. If the ACA doesn't count as any kind of victory for the left, neither do the social programs of the original New Deal, which combined relatively meager benefits with intentional racial exclusion. We can't criticize the limitations of LBJ's comprehensive health care reform because Congress didn't pass one, settling for cherry-picking the insurance industry's least profitable potential consumers instead. What Reed cites as the high point of the labor-liberal alliance in 1944—the year of FDR's proposed Second Bill of Rights—was a period in which the conservative coalition of Republicans and Democrats already had a hammerlock on Congress and was about deliver Taft-Hartley, filibusters of civil rights legislation, and HUAC witch hunts rather than progressive reform. The high veto-point structure of American politics creates a huge bias to the status quo, and at the federal left-wing reform in the United States has almost always required compromise with conservative elements and buying off vested interests. Even compared to legislation passed during rare periods of high labor influence the ACA isn't the exception, it's the rule.

Like Meyerson, I agree entirely with Reed that the legislative agenda of Obama's first term is not something the left can be satisfied with, and a revitalized labor movement is essential. But in arguing that the parties have continued to converge and that the left has become entirely quiescent in the face of neoliberal Democratic elites, I think Reed overstates his case. The left's agenda is no longer being preempted by Clintonian triangulation and the focus on electing the lesser evil every other November. (As Mike Konzcal notes, this is particularly evident at the state level.) The Democratic Party is far, far from where it needs to be—but it is moving in the right direction, and the radicalization of the Republican Party is frightening but also creates opportunities to make more liberal politics politically viable. As is almost always the case, the left is in an enormously difficult political position, but there is at least modest reason for optimism.

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