Depending on their political slant, many talking heads in the news seemed either shocked or gleeful in light of the recent news that the presidential race is heating up. According to the latest polls, President Obama and Governor Romney are tied. It is obviously too early to say that the performance of one debate played a decisive role in this election. Indeed, Kerry in 2004 got a first-debate bounce about the size of Romney’s that didn’t quite pan out in the long run, so I’ll still stick to my guns that debates are less decisive than talking heads would suggest. In any event, all signs point to this being a very tight race. Many of Obama’s supporters are understandably worried that Mitt’s momentum will continue.
Yet, if Obama loses to his Republican rival, the defeat will be filled with irony and should give each of his supporters a cause for somber reflection on the possibilities and pitfalls of mainstream party politics. If, according to American writer George Saunders, “irony is just honesty with the volume cranked up,” the irony of an Obama defeat would be deafening.
Four years ago, candidate Obama campaigned on a platform of hope and change. This message spoke directly to voters weary of the Bush years. It motivated voters – even many disillusioned Republicans – to jump on board. In fact, the campaign apparatus of the Obama campaign, Organizing for America (OFA), had many mainstream Republicans and centrist Democrats trembling at the possibility that Obama would use this army of volunteers and small-time donors to challenge the cynical status quo in Washington. According to Republican strategist Ed Rollins, "this would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works. No one's ever had these kinds of resources." Although I had very mixed emotions towards Obama at the time of his election and didn’t believe he was the messiah that many in my peer group had prophesied, I was tremendously optimistic that this campaign organization could radically upend the corrupt system of institutionalized bribery that we have in this country. I was wrong.
The irony becomes apparent when we examine how vastly underutilized OFA was over the past four years. It was vastly underutilized in crucial Senate campaigns (like Scott Brown’s upset win in Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts), it was vastly underutilized in key policy debates (especially healthcare), and it was effectively disarmed and disbanded in policy discussions when it was placed under the aegis of the centrist and more corporatist DNC. Some of the best political journalism in the past four years is Tim Dickinson’s Rolling Stone article on the demobilization of one of the most promising structural developments in politics since some of the good-government reforms in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Indeed, hope had a very short half-life, as Obama left the grassroots on the bench. Never has a president done so little with so much raw grassroots potential.
But the irony of ironies of an Obama loss in 2012 would be that his unique style of politics came home to roost. Obama attempted to float above the divided political landscape like some sort of post-partisan dirigible, almost with the professorial detachment of a modern-day George Washington who lamented his compatriots getting split into Federalist and Anti-federalist factions. In practice, Obama’s naïve overtures to the Republicans revealed a curiously meek negotiating style where one offers concessions to the opponent prior to even sitting down at the negotiating table. It should surprise no one that the Republicans in the House and Senate – many of whom cut their teeth in the Gingrich Congress – would act like those who learned the ropes in the shrill style of the 1990’s. Despite the fact that Obama made a deal in 2010 to extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, the Republicans still called him a socialist, despite all evidence to the contrary. But what did he expect? It is like story of the man who carries the scorpion across the river and is surprised when he is stung midstream.
Due to the “prior commitment bias” of many of his supporters, it is easy to cast Obama as a victim in this whole escapade. Rather than look at Obama’s weaknesses and deficiencies, it is much easier – psychologically – to focus on the intransigent stubbornness of the Republicans. But that is a cop out. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are a testament to what happens when the presidential “bully pulpit” isn’t effectively used, when a vacuum of silence existed regarding the pro-Wall Street agenda of both the Republican and Democratic parties over the past few decades. Obama had a mandate for change, but brought in some of the very same Clinton people who were key figures behind the revolutionary wave of bank deregulations that occurred in the last years of the Clinton presidency, deregulations which certainly had a great deal to do with how we got to “too-big-to-fail.” Despite the fact that most Americans agreed that a new direction was needed, compromises with the failed policies of the past continued.
The most ironic aspect of an Obama loss would be that his signature policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was based on right-wing ideology. The centripetal force that keeps Obamacare together is the individual mandate, a sordid compromise with private insurers and a dangerous precedent where the federal government forces private citizens to purchase a very flawed and inefficient private good. In return for insurance companies being prohibited from dropping coverage for preexisting conditions, there will be a requirement – backed by the force of the federal government – that non-insured private citizens purchase private insurance plans. Not only was this right-wing brainchild birthed in the arch conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank, this idea was wholeheartedly adopted by Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. Why didn’t we just vote for Romney in 2008 and save ourselves the disenchantment?
Despite a respectable electoral mandate that repudiated the prior decade of dismal policy choices, despite the Democratic party then having control of both the House and Senate, and despite the popularity of a single-payer system that would remove inefficient private insurers from the provision of healthcare (as is done in most other OECD countries), Obama forged ahead behind closed doors with a healthcare reform bill that is hardly “socialist” as his critics incorrectly claim. If anything, the private insurance lobby today has an even greater stake in the electoral results at both the Presidential and Congressional levels. Instead of being reformed it is possible that private insurers are even more entrenched than before.
Today, America’s healthcare system is a balkanized hodgepodge of private and public coverage where the currently socialized components (Medicare, Medicaid, veterans, federal employees, teachers, etc) hobble along while private citizens are forced to buy a flawed private good, the regulation of which is severely influenced by donations from the very industry being regulated. (If you are curious how much the insurance industry cares, take a look at FEC data at opensecrets.org.) In sum, we now have a system where private insurers still make their profit for playing their central role as an administrative “middleman” (with questionable value-added in the actual provision of healthcare), and the public coffers will still pick up the loose ends anyways. Key parts of healthcare will continue to be socialized as they have been since the 1960’s, but the aggregated purchasing power of these programs will continue to be unrealized. This is not a leaping-off-point for further reforms, but instead a dead-end street and missed opportunity.
The irony is that Obama’s timid above-the-fray approach backfired from both a policy and political standpoint. From a policy standpoint it backfired because it included some of the worst Republican ideas and completely ignored the various types of healthcare systems in other OECD countries, whether they are systems that force private insurers into a non-profit model or systems that cut out the middleman of private insurance all together. In fact, the vast OFA army of volunteers, supporters, and small time donors was not mobilized to push even for a meager “public option.” Obama only used OFA in the 11th hour of the healthcare “reform” effort after many ideological concessions to the Republicans and the insurance industry had already been made.
Further, from a political standpoint it backfired because Republicans didn’t meet these policies and ideological compromises with reciprocal overtures of good will. Instead of extending the olive branch in kind, they acted like any self-respecting opposition party would do: ignore the concessions and keep fighting. Obama’s window of a popular mandate began closing. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements captured any residual grassroots momentum or rhetorical high-ground that had once been channeled by Organizing for America. Blame the Republicans? Perhaps that is giving Republicans more credit than they deserve and giving Obama less criticism than he deserves.
If Obama loses to this politically-ambidextrous and opportunistic moderate Republican from Massachusetts, Obama certainly did his part to bring about this defeat. The past four years have been a triumph of cynicism over hope and ineptitude over change. Many of the worst Republican ideas were continued or brought to fruition. It is time for some serious reflection – especially if Obama wins. Whether Obama receives the defeat he’s worked so hard towards or if he squeezes off a narrow victory, it is a perfect time for his most enthusiastic supporters to wake up and rethink the American political process.
In particular, rather than invest hope and energy into one messianic candidate every four years, it is time to explore the structural issues in American politics where the constant need for campaign cash at all levels of government creates a system where the best Democrats pursue the same policies as the worst Republicans. (Exhibit A: Clinton’s second term; Exhibit B: the widespread Democratic support of the Iraq War; Exhibit C: a healthcare “reform” plan created in a Heritage Foundation luncheon.) Sadly, rather than learn valuable lessons in civics and the dark wholesale realities of politics, many former Obama supporters will blame the Republicans or give into justified apolitical cynicism. I believe the only hope is to channel any remaining energy and enthusiasm towards non-partisan efforts to get money out of politics and remove the trough from the pigs of both mainstream parties. I am fond of http://movetoamend.org, but there are a number of groups worth supporting.
Until we get money out of elections, Democrats will continue to ape the Republicans and their failed ideas. Until we get money out of elections, Democrats will continue to attempt to outcompete the other side in the desperate dash for corporate cash. Until we get money out of elections, Republicans will continue to be fiscally profligate when in power, like “conservative” Dick Cheney who said “Reagan showed us deficits don’t matter.” Until we get money out of elections, crony casino capitalism will be the policy priority of either major party. It is critically important for Obama supporters to realize it is not enough to blame Republican intransigence; rather, Obama supporters must honestly ask themselves two questions. First, why is it so profitable to resist change, regardless of which party is in the majority in either branch of Congress? Second, why did the Obama Administration go out of its way to compromise principles with failed right-wing ideas of the past few decades? Unless you can answer those two questions, all hope is hot air.
If Obama loses, it will be ironic that he lost to the type of moderate Republican he was trying to emulate. Perhaps Mike Duncan, the outgoing chairman of the Republican National Committee, presciently captured the irony best in 2008: "put simply, Barack Obama just ran the most successful moderate Republican presidential campaign since Dwight Eisenhower." Perhaps the silver lining consists in acknowledging that, if Obama loses, at least he lost to the most moderate (or least rabid) candidate in the GOP primary. It most certainly could be worse.
I’ll end by quoting a figure who knew how to get things done in the face of reactionary intransigence. Gandhi wisely noted that “all compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is surrender. For it is all give and no take." Would an Obama victory in 2012 be an opportunity to renew (or rather, restart) the fight for the fundamentals of social justice and economic fairness, or will it be another four years of unnecessary compromise and surrendering to the failed ideas of the past?