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The Democrats' Defeatism

08/04/2014 11:35 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Defeatism infects the Democratic Party's bloodstream. This affliction is systemic and chronic. It has spread through every limb and organ of the party from the White House to towns across America. The ulterior source is a political lifestyle dating back to the Reagan years of passivity as the Republicans aggressively seized the commanding heights of the nation's political discourse. That well orchestrated, all-out offensive had several fronts: the media, the think tanks, the foundations, high finance, school boards and local organizations. Democrats became observers of their own marginalization or, worse, entered into the gradual but inexorable process of accommodating themselves to the New Thinking. They became an accessory to this silent revolution in the country's political life.

Democrats still win elections -- at great cost. The party has abandoned its historic constituencies, allowed the radically reactionary opposition to set the agenda and to define the issues. Victories are hollow. A Democratic President, Bill Clinton, pronounced "the era of big government is over." He let loose the locusts of financial predation on the land. He and Hillary hobnob with the Wall Street barons. He promotes the Bowles-Simpson assault on Social Security, Medicare and federal social problems of all sorts. Barack Obama, the glamorous champion of renewal, began his second day in the White House putting a depressed economy's fate in the hands of those who had pillaged and crippled it. He gave them all E-Z passes. He set as his administration's centerpiece a bizarre health insurance plan cooked-up by the ultra-Right American Heritage Foundation. Obamacare might rightly be called Heritage Care. He embraced austerity. He appointed Bowles-Simpson after first proposing to Congress even more dire threats to social spending. He promoted the "sequester" that has achieving the perennial Republican objective of downsizing government. He has launched a campaign against public schools and public universities. He has drastically undermined the most basic civil liberties in blatant ways. He has pressed a draconian program for expelling undocumented immigrants that tears apart families all the while pledging humane treatment.

Obama's conservative program began when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. His neutrality on the great issues raised by the financial crisis paved the way for the rise of the Tea Party and losses in the off-year elections of 2010. His naïve philosophy of bi-partisanship neutered his supporters and his party while emboldening his enemies. Most serious, he never has made the case for liberal principles and progressive government. He manifestly does not believe in them.

Enslaved by this mindset, Democrats, and Mr. Obama in particular, no longer even are able to recognize a gift horse when it is presented to them. The news a few months back that Apple pays zero taxes to the United States Treasury should have been latched onto as a golden opportunity to press the issues of inequality and corporate creative accounting. Apple is one of a number of the big businesses that evade their fiscal obligations, GE also being a zero taxpayer. The story was reduced to a 48 hour news flash because the Democrats spurned the chance to exploit it. They looked the gift horse in the mouth and saw campaign funding from Silicon Valley. So they have kept silent and proposed no remedy. What is the point of amassing war chests when you are clueless as to whom to attack using what strategy? Buying airtime to say nothing more than "vote for me" is a surefire recipe for failure - as proven time after time. It will be proven again this November. And what is the point of winning the Presidency, when luck presents you with a hapless opponent, if you have run a campaign that validates Republican principles and premises?

The consequence of these two nominally Democratic presidencies, aided and abetted by timid Congressional leadership, has been to sap the Democratic Party of conviction, of political savvy, and of fighting spirit. It is now dominated by those who have sold themselves to the established interests (the financial, military, intelligence establishments), by careerists whose sole commitment is to the next appointment or next elected office, and by trendy "liberal" intellectuals who derive some odd sense of superiority by attacking those who still feel for the common man, believe in public education and the Bill of Rights; question "globalized" trade deals that cut the ground from under American workers; and see through the deceit that is the Global War On Terror. Barack Obama is the personification of these trendy liberals; and they are his die-hard apologists and protectors.

All of this is a strategy tailored to lose elections. What we see is not political expediency trumping principle and good governance. What we see is a dumb political strategy marching hand-in-hand with irresponsible governance.

Hillary? A HRC presidency would be the 5th term of the White House led Democratic retreat - if she were to win. The bonus would be a renaming of the Lincoln bedroom the Goldman Sachs Suite.

Democratic politicians bemoan their electoral fortunes, yet act as if they were powerless to do anything about it. All we witness is hand-wringing, breast beating and pearl clutching. This is not the conduct of a serious political party - much less a political party that takes seriously its program and its constituents. It bespeaks a party leadership resigned to its fate and unable either to muster much conviction or the passion to fight for it. The appearance is that of a leadership that will be leaving office en masse on January 21, 2017 to write its memoirs.

This across the board retreat is psychological and intellectual as well as political. Democrats have accustomed themselves to being punching bags for the Republicans. They live in a crouch of defensive fearfulness - warding off blows or anticipating the next one. This is not Mohammed Ali's rope-a-dope strategy against George Foreman in the "rumble in the jungle." Democrats somehow find hanging on the ropes absorbing punishment to be natural. They have no evident plans to launch a decisive counter attack. It is all thrust from side and (weak) parry on the other. There are two astounding features of this pathetic state of affairs that provide the most telling evidence of how debilitated the Democrats are by the disease of defeatism.

One is their inability to initiate an attack, or land a stunning counterpunch, even when public opinion is overwhelmingly on their side. This is true on gun control, environmental regulation, spying/electronic surveillance, Social Security and Medicare, abortion rights, reining in financial predators, raising the minimum wage, even trading for the release of Bergdahl. The list covers the vast majority of public issues. A detached observer recently arrived from Mars would be amazed to discover this reality after observing the comparative behavior of Democrats and Republicans. After a bit of library work, he will be further amazed that the White House's policy locus is somewhere to the Right of Richard Nixon's.

The other, related phenomenon is the now instinctive defensiveness of progressive Democratic commentators. The topics they choose, their point of departure, and their tone reflects what has been initiated by the Republicans - even crackpot Tea Party Republicans. Almost all of the aforementioned commentators follow this pattern - however unwittingly. The result is to give automatic credit to the position taken by the so-called "conservatives." For it is their charges and statements that are at the head of the column. They thereby get primacy and free publicity - whatever critical comments follow. Consider something as fundamental as the Republicans shameless abuse of the filibuster in the Senate. It defies all political logic not to campaign unrelentingly against a practice unprecedented in American history that subverts the democratic principle. Democrats should be hammering away at it rather than taking a grin-and-bear-it attitude. They so completely come to accept it as the new norm that a large slice of the citizenry probably thinks that the Constitution requires a 60 vote majority to pass legislation.

Even in regard to predatory financial institutions and their contribution to growing inequality, the Democrats will not challenge vested interests unless an establishment figure has provided them protective cover. It was Newt Gingrich, of all people, who made the rapacious actions of hedge funds and private equity an issue in his 2012 debates with Mitt Romney. Their resonance with the public produced a brief flurry of commentary that the Democrats dropped during the presidential campaign and have never returned to. It is no secret that the hedge fund pirates are the very people Obama was cultivating on his recent trip to the West Coast fund raising for his presidential library.

Aggressiveness by liberals is all the more imperative because the mainstream media have lapsed into the role of spokesmen for the status quo. That is a status quo with a very strong conservative or "conservative" flavor. In some cases this is intentional; in other cases, it is the outcome of the pervasive ethic of going with the flow. One expression of this reality is that whoever makes the most noise gets headline attention - no matter how outrageous, inaccurate or just silly the action or statement is. The "liberal leaning media," always a fiction, has become an oxymoron.

So comprehensive has this transformation been that outlets long touted as vaguely liberal have shifted gears to accommodate the powers that be. The most striking, and embarrassing, instance is provided by the Public Broadcasting Corporation. Its descent into conservative territory began when the Bush administration got away with appointing as its Chair the co-head of the Republican National Committee. The slashing of the organization's budget, targeted and by virtue of Obama's sequester, has pushed it into the arms of corporate and foundation sponsors. One of the biggest is the Koch brothers. Koch actually sits on NPR's board. Small surprise that a contracted documentary on the Koch Brothers phenomenon recently was axed by PBS. This story didn't even break into the MSM; after all, such carrying-on has become commonplace.

This accommodating mindset afflicts many of even the most earnest liberals. Consider Paul Krugman. In the past few months, he has rediscovered virtues in Barack Obama 's performance otherwise invisible to the naked eye or attentive follower of the news. The discredited champion is undergoing a rehabilitation based on little more than an unquenchable yearning for something better than what we actually have -- or will have. This assessment of Obama, moreover, is a prelude to a favorable forecast for a Hillary Clinton presidency that will continue the slow but steady regression in the name of pragmatism.

In this frame of mind, Krugman is even able to discern positive signs in the stellar Tea Party performance in Virginia, Texas and Mississippi. A reinvigorated but over confident Far Right supposedly will fatally undermine the Republican establishment. The main conclusion that should be drawn from these events is that the Tea Party's return to its populist roots in directing ire at Wall Street instead of concentrating on government alone exposes the Democrats' fateful error in abandoning that terrain while themselves cozying up to the moneybags. The cause of liberalism is hurt by the grasping for illusory signs of a change in the temper of American politics. There is no progressive wind sweeping over the country. The self stylized intellectual vanguard of liberal sentiment is too parochial in its vision and too willing to inflate accomplishments. Are Obama's feeble, flawed 'financial reforms,' largely crippled in the 5-year rule setting process dominated by Wall Street interests, truly an historic achievement that glows as the jewel in the crown of the Obama presidency as Krugman now inexplicably asserts?

By contrast, liberal assertiveness can work. To take one example, it is the activism of Elizabeth Warren on the student loan crisis that forced Obama to offer his support for legislation that could reduce the interest rates on a significant fraction of loans sourced from private lenders. Until he had been sharply prodded, Obama gave a string of excuses why the reform couldn't be done. Bending to pressure, and then pronouncing himself an earnest devotee of its good cause, is what Obama is all about. All the pressure, though, over the past five years has come from the Right - on budget balancing, cutting so-called 'entitlements," refloating zombie banks. True, that orientation conforms to his natural leanings. Still, if liberals had screamed and howled every time he betrayed them, his response would have been to accommodate them - especially before November 2012. Instead, the Milquetoast liberals were given the back of Obama's hand and routinely insulted by Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel.

We can be certain of one thing: if the Democrats continue down this path, nostalgic sympathizers of what used to be America's progressive party will be placing coins in its mouth. "Two bits for Charon" would be a fitting epitaph.

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