Should it be surprising President Obama has largely maintained the support of the left of the Democratic Party? According to a number of critics—notably Matt Stoller and David Sirota of Salon—the answer is yes. Essentially, this contrarian case depends on obscuring two crucial truths:
- Either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will win the 2012 presidential election.
- Whether you're a moderate liberal or a democratic socialist, Obama is much better on many issues and worse on none.
In obfuscating this case for supporting Obama despite the undeniable flaws of his administration, third-party fantasists rely on three categories of argument: dismissing the achievements of the Obama administration, inventing a moderate of Mitt Romney, and exaggerating the benefits of third-party nihilism. None of these arguments can withstand any scrutiny.
Underrating Obama's achievements
To put this in plain terms, Obama has the third most impressive record of progressive achievement of any president of the last century. Moreover, the two presidents with better legislative records—FDR and LBJ—were working in far more favorable circumstances, with larger majorities in Congress and rapidly growing economies. (Lyndon Johnson, who had the most impressive record of all, benefited not only from his own formidable skills but from the presence of liberal Republicans who increased his bargaining leverage and the halo effect of an assassinated president.) If Obama is re-elected, the Affordable Care Act—which will make health care more accessible to tens of millions of people, succeeding where numerous presidents had failed—will be seen as a monumental achievement. And as Michael Grunwald's terrific new book demonstrates, as much as liberals grumble about the stimulus package, it was a substantial achievement. Assumptions that Obama left lots of potential money on the table are clearly wrong. These major bills are just the beginning.
Part of the problem is that once major progressive reforms have been achieved, they can seem inevitable—it can be easy to forget they wouldn't have happened with John McCain or Mitt Romney in the White House. Overriding the Supreme Court's Ledbetter decision and ensuring that women received coverage of contraception for their health care premiums were major feminist priorities before Barack Obama took office, but these accomplishments inevitably vanish down the memory hole when leftists urge people to reject Obama. Ten years ago, an administration that secured the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and came out in favor of same-sex marriage would have seemed like too much to wish for—but, again, these remarkable advances are ignored when critics suggest we should be indifferent about whether Obama wins or loses.
This is not, of course, to say that leftists don't have real reasons to be disappointed with Obama. His civil liberties record has generally been poor. The Bush administration's torture regime was stopped but went unpunished. He wasn't creative enough with using appropriated funds to alleviate the mortgage and housing crisis. But there's no president in American history who doesn't have demerits as bad or worse on their records. To call any of these issues "dealbreakers" is to inherently trivialize gender equity, access to health insurance, gay and lesbian rights, the enforcement of civil rights and environmental laws by the executive branch and the courts, the saving of the American auto industry, and the many other issues on which there are huge differences between the national parties. There's nothing remotely progressive about doing so.
Imagining a moderate Romney.
To read Stoller and Sirota, you would think that the Republican primaries came down to battle between Lincoln Chaffee and Zombie Nelson Rockefeller. Sirota, asserting that the election won't really affect the Supreme Court, points out that Earl Warren was a Republican appointee, a fact that's about as relevant to politics in 2012 as Pat Boone is to today's teenagers. Dismissing the Affordable Care Act, Stoller asserts that " whether you call it Romneycare in Massachusetts, or Obamacare nationally, it’s the same healthcare program." By this farcially transparent sleight of hand, Stoller transforms a statute that received zero Republican votes in Congress and was ruled entirely unconstitutional by four of the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court into a bipartisan consensus.
It is true Mitt Romney talked like a moderate when he was the governor or Massachusetts, and if both houses of Congress consisted of supermajorities of Massachusetts Democrats this would be relevant to how he would govern as president. In the actually existing political context, there's no reason to believe the Romney running for election in Massachusetts is the "real Romney." If Romney wins, we're not going to get someone like John Paul Stevens appointed to the Supreme Court and a moderate deficit-cutting deal; we'll get another Alito and as many of the upper-class tax cuts and savage cuts to social programs in the Ryan budget as the Republicans can pass. Senate Democrats can contain the damage, but they can't eliminate it—especially when it comes to executive branch actions and judicial appointments.
Third-Party daydream believing.
Another way of avoiding the fact that Obama is far superior to Romney for progressives is to evade the question by comparing Obama to a candidate with no chance of becoming president. In a particularly revealing argument, Robert Prasch uses the trite language of consumer capitalism to urge progressives to throw the election to Romney: "[a]nyone who has ever gone shopping knows that their bargaining power depends ultimately upon his/her willingness to walk away." Voters, based on this line of reasoning, should see voting not as part of a collective project to choose the best available majority coalition for the country, but as an act of self-absorbed individual expression, like choosing a favorite brand of designer jeans.
These arguments are self-refuting. In actual politics, walking away "empowers" the left about as much as being able to choose between Coke and Pepsi "empowers" a worker negotiating with Wal-Mart. Conservatives didn't take over the Republican Party by running third-party vanity campaigns. The legislative victories of the Great Society happened because civil rights and labor groups stayed in the Democratic coalition after decades of frustration (it was the segregationists who were repeatedly threatening to take their ball and go home by running third-party candidates.) And not only does third-party voting at the national level carry no benefits, there's a serious downside risk. Ralph Nader throwing the 2000 election to George W. Bush didn't radicalize the Democratic Party, but it did lead to the horrors of Iraq as well as a great deal of awful domestic policy. Indulging in fantasies that the Democratic Party could win as a European-style social democratic party if only Republicans make things bad enough is both bad strategy and grossly immoral.
There is, in other words, nothing complicated about the progressive choice in the 2012 election, which is Barack Obama. There are merely attempts by people unwilling to accept that major-party candidates are unlikely to represent their beliefs in every detail to make the choice appear more complicated than it is. Progressives should be critical about the inevitable failures of a second Obama term—but they should also be clear-eyed about the fact that this would be infinitely preferable to Romney and Ryan occupying the White House.