It now appears that Barack Obama has opened up a slight lead over John McCain in the presidential race. But it isn't because Obama has finally articulated any clear vision of how he will lead the country. Indeed what has marked this campaign and how it will surely be remembered in history is the two major party candidate's utter detachment from the events that were swirling around them. They both staked their prestige on the $850 billion bailout which has now been proven completely ineffective, and neither wants to jeopardize their position by hazarding any real plan for restructuring the economy. So they both proceed as if nothing really has changed- Americans respond to tax cuts, so they offer tax cuts; Americans love a strong military, so they offer a strong military.
Rather it is more likely that the sheer weight of years of bad Republican policies is what is pulling McCain down. It's amazing what an 18% loss in stock value can do to focus peoples' minds. Almost everyone knows who Phil Gramm is by now, his role in the collapse and that he is McCain's economics guru.
The Democrats are finally in a position to win with what they have always maintained to be the best strategy even as it has failed again and again. That is to enter the White House in reverse. As long as their opponents have proven themselves to be worse, they can cling to their safe position of not standing for anything in particular.
Although with victory the Democrats will claim to be a revitalized party, the cold cruel world will not allow them much respite in self-satisfaction. Since the rise of the Clintons they have almost self-avowedly been the party of selling out. In what they proudly characterize as their pragmatic ability to change with the times they became in the 80's and 90's a party willing to do business with business and put itself at the service of prevailing interests. But it has left them with an ambiguous legacy. It led them not only to eight years of rubber-stamping Bush policy but prior to that to the nifty banking deregulation that put us on the road to the current catastrophe.
Many hoped that in supporting Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton the Democrats might move beyond this tepid conservatism, but instead he has picked up the torch of acquiescence and taken on board all the fat cat donors and many of the conservative Clintonites. From his own statements we should expect nothing very different from past practices or even from what John McCain would do as president.
But this is a unique moment in history and events are going to allow only a short list of options. The first is to behave as Democrats and Republicans have for the last twenty-some years and dance to the tune of the special interests, in which case we will surely see the situation in America go from bad to worse.
But there is a rich irony revealed if the Democrats choose to actually address the country's problems. Every plan put forward so far by either party contains the implicit belief that public debt is a limitless option and a panacea for any problem. But of course this is as wrong-headed as the bailout was. The day of reckoning is inexorably approaching for the Federal Treasury as surely as it was for Lehman Brothers. The analogy between 2008 and 1932 has one crucial difference. In the Great Depression fiscal policy, or deficit spending had not yet been tapped as a tool for priming a faltering economy. Today that tool has been utterly exhausted before the crisis even began.
So just as an individual standing before a bankruptcy judge must make hard choices about how he will change his habits, we as a nation must finally confront all the profligate ways our government has been spending money. The first sacred cow that must be led to the chopping block is the bloated military budget. We simply can no longer afford $10 billion a month on pointless foreign occupations and the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures must be ended immediately. Useless weapons systems are next to go . The lie of a missile defense shield can no longer be danced around.
Corporate welfare is a luxury we can no longer afford. We can't keep forking over money to the nuclear industry and the coal industry and Archer-Daniels Midland just because they want it. In fact all of our spending from now on needs to be viewed through the lens of whether it helps average people maintain basic solvency and subsistence. Rebuilding our infrastructure is paramount in reviving our economy. Manufacturing jobs have to come back to the United States so that we can start to see a unified economy where Americans make products that are used by Americans.
The healthcare plan that Obama has pushed, which is essentially the Clinton plan, is premised on the idea that there is enough money in the treasury to start doling out huge sums to the insurance industry. For this reason they are major supporters of Obama and his plan. But such a premise is no longer workable. Only a restructuring that actually reduces the amount we spend on healthcare is affordable to us at this time. That plan is single payer and there is no other viable alternative.
Remember all of these changes are going to be dictated by circumstance. The radical reconception of our situation that will accompany them will be unavoidable.
The irony of course is that there is already a candidate in the presidential race who has been advocating all of these positions throughout the campaign. The Democrats make noises about re-regulating the finance industry and they may get around to doing it. But Ralph Nader is a past-master at confronting financial malfeasance and has had a detailed list of prescriptions from the first day of this crisis. In other words, Ralph Nader is no longer just a symbolic candidate, he is the man actually best suited to lead the country.
But Americans, like a former hostage with Stockholm syndrome or freed slaves unwilling to leave the plantation, are unlikely to make the conceptual leap to selecting someone outside of the safe choices of Republicans and Democrats no matter how culpable they are in wrecking the country. But the Democrats, if they do come to power, will find that the game they've been playing is no longer viable. The system of taking campaign contributions from corporations and then allowing them to use the Federal Treasury as their supplemental bank account is crashing down right along with the Dow.
The Democrats by default are going to become the party of Ralph Nader. It would be great if they would admit that before the election. But they will no doubt have to be dragged kicking and screaming to a position of responsibility, both by circumstances and by an angry and energized constituency who will no longer stand for their shenanigans.