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.


I wish I could agree with you, but I am afraid I can't. For example, I am a physician, and I think the ACA is a disaster: apparently the original proposal on which the ACA based was from the Heritage Foundation, which insisted on "individual responsibility" rather than employer responsibility for health care. It was designed to preserve the power and profits of all providers (including not just hospitals, but also, for example, pharmaceutical manufacturers) and insurance companies. The only control on price was supposed to be competition, a weak force in the individual and small group insurance market. The result has been increased coverage, true, but it is much more expensive than it needs to be, and people are understandably resentful. The only way to get costs under control is to reduce prices of medical services by negotiation or government fiat--Medicare-for-all. The whole pathetic scheme was designed to attract Republican votes, yet not a single vote was garnered.

Then there was the ARRA--too small, with a high proportion of what money there was, designated for tax cuts in order to attract Republicans, with the same result.

Finally, there was the half-hearted response to Wall Street chicanery that nearly crashed the economy. Fraud was everywhere. Lloyd Blankfein testified before a Senate committee that he did not "understand" the mortgage-backed securities or derivatives that Goldman Sachs, at his direction, was selling. Well, selling securities you don't understand to ordinary people, cities, etc. is either negligent or reckless--in a word, fraud. Yet not a single high executive was indicted, bonuses continued as before, even increased recently. Meanwhile, little help was provided to homeowners, who were blamed for fraudulently buying homes they should have known they couldn't afford--just what the financial industry and their lobbyists ordered. Even the Reagan administration, which believed that greed was good was more active against the (admittedly less powerful) operators of S&Ls. See Gretchen Morgenstern's column in yesterday's New York Times. Members of the Obama administration, including political appointees, have mostly gone to work for the industries they regulated, for handsome salaries.

Yes, under Republicans things would be much worse, so I contribute money and always vote Democratic. But (civil rights excepted) this is hardly the party of Franklin Roosevelt, who said of big business, "I welcome their hatred." Or even Lyndon Johnson. Most Democratic leaders have sold out.

It's sad.

C. Poplin MD JD

The ACA does not address the issue of the insurance companies trying to be physicians, or other health care providers. Our president wanted a Public Option, but congress would not even let that bill get to the floor. What we need is a single payer system. Other nations have had this type of health care for years. Health care, not just adequate health care, but good comprehensive health care, using prevention as the first course of action, is a necessity.
Will we ever have a single payer system? Yes, some day, but as someone nearly 80, it is doubtful that I will see that day.

MY COMMENT TO CAROLA BINDER — ON HER SITE -- which has some relevance to how the Democratic Party can grow its influence again; as in "how to":
(Re: "Who will Save Us from Inequality?" by Carola Binder -- which was linked to on "Economist's View" this morning -- http://carolabinder.blogspot.com/2014/03/who-will-save-us-from-inequality.html )

There is only one mechanically plausible way to rebalance the US labor market (and, because it means massive re-unionization, also reform the US political forum): a post-WWII, industrialist invented (that’s right; not Marxist) setup called centralized bargaining — legally mandated.

Under centralized bargaining (A.K.A., sector wide labor agreements) all employees working at similar occupations (e.g., retail clerk) in the same geographic locale (where applicable — airlines would presumably take in the whole country) negotiate one common contract with all employers.

Wal-Mart recently closed 88 big-boxes in Germany where it could not undercut based on lower pay and benefits.

Where to start: supermarket and airline employees would kill for centralized bargaining. A few years ago Northwest Airlines squeezed a billion dollars of givebacks out of flight crews — to be followed a year later by a billion dollars of bonuses for 1,000 executives.

Where it stops: not with you — your are a female human. You are able to judge the saleability of a new direction strictly on merits of argument — and not be totally mesmerized by the big world outside that always looks too big, much too big, to seriously change. You are an individual gatherer, instinctively.

Human males — with their (our) pack hunter outlook — always and immediately check with the world outside and almost always assume nothing can be done (maybe this is so only if we have no immediate personal stake — which academics don’t have in reforming the labor market). Have see this issue after issue over and over for decades.
* * * * * *
Realistic way out: just guessing: the $15 an hour minimum wage is sweeping the west coast — and I am spamming the inarguable basics to every journalist and legislature whose address I can track down …
… spammed 14,000 of simpler arguments about same all over country last year (took three months) so when it comes their way they will at least have the basics.

I figure that when the $15 minimum wage comes in to everybody’s benefit in the west, it shouldn’t take long to go in the east — meantime it will be time to start pushing centralized bargaining — once the possibility of real change reaches into the male pea brain (midbrain, limbic system).

I reading Piketty’s magnum opus — when I am finished (month or two) I will be ready to do a real zinger on the labor market overall.

Different versions of centralized bargaining can be found in continental Europe, French Canada, Argentina, Indonesia.

Final thoughts (one example) on the human male problem:
Show a human female that a $15 minimum wage will only raise overall prices 3.5% ($560 billion added to $16 trillion) and common sense takes care of the rest. Males need one more number (before they no longer obsess on the big pack outside): that the 45% of the workforce getting a raise wont be laid off — wont be told: “we don’t need your output anymore” — over a small price increase.

I’m not buying it. This is an extraordinarily weak argument, and in fact all too typical of liberal efforts to defend the Democrats. The contention that Reed and others on the left claim that there are no differences between the Republicans and the Democrats is a straw man. The vast majority of people who advance that claim are liberals who are determined to put those words in the mouths of the left. More importantly, it evinces a failure to view politics historically and systemically. There is indeed a difference between Democrats and Republicans, but it is not a static difference: the two parties have been moving to the right TOGETHER for decades. While the Republicans may be to the right of the Democrats at any particular moment in time, on most issues, both Democrats and Republicans are to the right of their respective positions at earlier points in time. This is why Obama was correct when he publicly admitted that in the context of the 1980s, he would have been a moderate Republican. He could have added that in the context of the 1970s, he would have been a conservative Republican. Since at least Carter’s initiation of Reaganomics in the late 1970s, the Democrats in office have represented one-step-forward-three-steps-backward, while the Republicans have represented three-steps-backward, and it is the former that has made the latter possible. In other words, the Democrats play an absolutely pivotal role in perpetuating this dynamic by enabling the Republicans to move further and further to the right. And with every rightward move they make, liberals argue that we must do whatever it takes to keep them out of office, including following in their footsteps, because the alternative would be so much worse. The Republicans are thus free to continue pushing the envelope, with wild initiatives like Paul Ryan’s budget proposal or Scott Walker's scorched earth agenda in Wisconsin, because they know that the Democrats can't or won't offer a meaningful opposition to it. And that is because the Democrats are just as beholden to big money as they are and the social movements that might hold them accountable have been destroyed (by both Republicans and Democrats).

Now let’s consider the list of Obama administration accomplishments that Lemieux offers. The first thing that is striking is what he leaves out. Nowhere does he mention the record deportation and punitive treatment of immigrants, the record prosecution of whistleblowers, the ongoing evisceration of civil liberties, the relentless drive to privatize education, and of course an imperialist/militaristic foreign policy that fully embraces the War on Terror. In fact, the Obama administration has gone a long way in consolidating many of the “accomplishments” of the Bush administration, in some cases taking them further and in others departing from them only in an effort to make them more palatable and effective. And what about the Democrats’ accomplishments that Lemieux does choose to highlight – for example, the denial of fast track authority for the Trans Pacific Partnership? Does he really believe that Democrats in Congress will oppose the treaty in the end; that this is anything but a slight deceleration of the inevitable? And is it not problematic that negotiations over the treaty have been conducted in secret, negotiations in which corporate capital has played a central role? In fact, isn’t that privileged corporate role indicative of a broader pattern with this administration, just as it was with the Clinton administration? Does he really want to tout the Dodd-Frank act as a new day in the regulation of Wall St.?

And what about the ACA, which he appears to regard as the Obama administration’s greatest accomplishment, judging by the number of words he devotes to it? Striking by its absence is any reference to the fact that this was a scheme cooked up by the right (specifically the Heritage Foundation) and implemented by Obama’s very opponent in the 2012 election. Yes, indeed, the right now opposes it, but that simply provides further evidence of the dynamic described above – as the Democrats move to the right by embracing Republican initiatives, the Republicans are given greater room to move further to the right themselves, shifting the entire agenda in that direction. And why did the Obama administration champion this particular health care “reform”? Could it have anything to do with the fact that it was met with the enthusiastic approval of the private health insurance industry? It is undeniable that it contains certain advances, particularly the expansion of Medicaid and the elimination of restrictions on people with pre-existing conditions. But those advances came at enormous cost, most importantly the transfer of billions of dollars of public money to the very industry that constitutes the largest obstacle to the adoption of a genuinely universal health care system. It also does nothing to alter the fact that most people who experienced medical bankruptcy already had health insurance. Viewed from the health insurance industry’s perspective, the progressive elements that the ACA contains were a small price to pay for the vastly greater riches and enhanced power that it represents for them. The ACA thus further entrenched a profoundly dysfunctional health care system, epitomizing the one-step-forward-three-steps-backward dynamic that has become the hallmark of Democratic politics.

Most important of all, what this piece illustrates is the chronic inability of liberals to understand how politics works. Unlike liberals, the right (and let’s be clear, we’re really talking about corporate capital) understands that politics is fundamentally about the balance of social forces and the strategic institutional terrains on which they contend for power. They understand that if one expects to prevail politically, it’s necessary to amass greater social power than one’s opponents and to deploy it both to attack those opponents and to transform the institutional terrain so that it serve one’s interests more effectively. In its current incarnation, the right has been at this for over four decades. Since at least Louis Powell's famous 1971 memo, they have had a long-term vision and they've been relentless in carrying it out, destroying the labor movement, concentrating ever-greater wealth in their hands, gobbling up media, privatizing public education, and imposing increasingly severe limits on what was already an extremely limited and undemocratic political/electoral system. And they have been aided in that grand strategy by the very political forces that liberals like Lemieux insist that we support, i.e., the Democrats, who instead of correcting the balance of social forces and democratizing institutions so that they serve the interests of the vast majority, have done the opposite. The end result is that with every turn of the cycle, we’re in a weaker position. And to suggest that the Clinton administration is some kind of historical aberration that isn’t the product of long-term structural and institutional forces that are also shaping the Obama administration is naïve at best. The Obama administration fits perfectly in the mold of Clintonism, both in its policies and its very personnel. The prospect of Hillary Clinton winning in two years will only further consolidate this historical trend.

"I'm baffled," Mr Lemieux professes, "that anyone could argue that (the ACA, which) expanded Medicaid...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'."

Realizing I'm a bit late to this party, I still have to wonder whether he's asked any residents of the 25 states yet exempt from this very condition if they happen to share his puzzlement.

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