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The “New Democrats” are Back

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On Labor Day, two days before Obama's joint session speech on health reform, politico.com, offered the following:

"He will not confront or scold the left. 'This is a case for bold action, not a stick in the eye to our supporters,' said an official involved in speech preparation. 'That's not how President Obama thinks. The politics of triangulation don't live in this White House.'"

The remark, "gleaned from conversations with top aides," is on its face fatuous. It ought to be clear to any observer at this point, given the administraton's defense of rendition, its reluctance to hold the previous administration accountable for egregious, and probably illegal activity, its posturing to negotiate in good faith with Republicans it knows very well are obdurate, its unwillingness to support and defend true progressives who happen to have made it, or almost made it into the administration, Van Jones and Dawn Johnsen for example, and its obvious effort to curry the favor of corporate interests who find progressive ideology (and the content of Obama's campaign promises) unacceptable, are sufficient evidence of an administration in which pragmatism trumps principle.

In his April interview with John Harwood, Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, was at some pains to declare that this administration was not a carbon copy of Clinton's:

"[T]his White House is not and has not experienced or had the kind of generational difference we had under President Clinton, who was kind of the young turks, of which I myself was--and Paul Begala and others--vs. what were considered then the adults, not really steeped in politics, etc. We didn't have the kind of new Democrats--we don't, rather, have the kind of new Democrats vs. traditionalist split that existed in that White House."

Rahm's comment may reflect a distinction without a difference. It may be true that internal debate is unnecessary because the Obama folks have simply accepted the belief that political pragmatism should be the engine of their administration. And it may be in fact that the hallmark of the new Democrats, triangulation, will yield short term political advantages, but it would be hard to argue that such a strategy meets the expectations of many who, on the basis of his campaign rhetoric, voted for Barak Obama.

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What has changed, since Emanuel's days as a "young turk" in the Clinton White House, is the transparency of political manipulation. When some unnamed "official involved in speech peparation" asserts that the President will not "scold" or "confront" "our supporters," that person exhibits a measure of paternal arrogance which in our present environment of bloggers and cable news will not go unnoticed by the progressives he is trying to finesse. Acknowledging the political utility of maintaining the status quo for purposes of financial support and party recognition is not the same thing as embracing it; if candidate Obama had run a little to the left of, say, Mitt Romney, progressives, considering the alternative, would have voted for him, unenthusiastically. If President Obama's soaring ideological rhetoric continues to be coupled to the pragmatic politics of the status quo, the effect for progressives will be disappointment, and appropriately diminished support.

Also on Labor Day, President Obama morphed into candidate Obama at a friendly gathering of supporters, the annual AFL-CIO picnic. His candidate rhetoric fully engaged, he railed against the status quo:

"I see reform where Americans and small businesses that are shut out of health insurance today will be able to purchase coverage at a price they can afford. Where they'll be able to shop and compare in a new health insurance exchange-a marketplace where competition and choice will continue to hold down cost and help deliver them a better deal. And I continue to believe that a public option within the basket of insurance choices would help improve quality and bring down costs."

That's the rhetoric, but nobody believes that a public option will emerge from the current machinations. Those who have followed the process know that the success of its inclusion would have required, as a practical matter, an administration educational campaign to confront the absurd, irrational bleatings from the Republicans, plus some back room Chicago style arm twisting. It would have required some risk, and the kind of leadership which would value the reward as worth the effort. But with the Republicans' decision to brand themselves as the defenders of the more lunatic wing of their base, the low hanging fruit presented by the presence of disenfranchised, relatively sane, moderates was too tempting to resist. Instead of a focus on real reform, which would mean doing whatever was necessary to delink the distribution of health care from the profit incentives of capitalism, the Obama administration chose instead triangulation, building its party base at the expense of reform. This is the triumph of new Democrats, and the defeat, as usual of liberal progressives. Or, perhaps more rationally, it is finally the acknowledgment that Obama's support of progressive ideology doesn't extend beyond his rhetoric.

That rhetoric was in full bloom Wednesday in his address to the joint session of Congress. He exceeded the already high expectation that he would give a definitive, even brilliant speech. His concluding remarks, for the first time in this whole debate, finally framed the issue in moral terms, with a declaration of the innate good character of the American people. From a progressive's perspective, he said all the right things, but, he always says the right things. What he says is not the problem.

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I am a retired boatbuilder with a fascination for political thought. Most of my life I cheerfully described myself as an "eastern establishment, knee jerk, liberal Democrat."

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