Sunday, June 29, 2008

Barack Obama, the Netroots, and the "Vital Center" of American Politics

One of the hallmarks of netroots politics is for radical partisans to announce their movement represents the mainstream of the mass electorate.

By continually arguing that "
progressives" control the "political center," hardline leftists can disguise their extremist agenda as reflecting the political preferences of a majority of Americans.

I've noted regularly the left's tendency to claim the mainstream, but there's some recent radical outrage over the media's declaration that Barack Obama - after wrapping up his nomination -
has moved to the political middle. There are differences, naturally, among lefty bloggers as to Obama's correct location on the spectrum, but what's not at issue is that for many Obama has violated the progressive creed, which the leftists see as the majoritarian core of the American political universe.

The least compelling argument of this sort comes from Matt Stoller, who simply denounces Barack Obama's move to the center as a corrupt bargain - a political sellout to the corporate power elite of the Washington establishment. After highlighting the media coverage of Obama's moderation, Stoller attacks the lobbying practices of Tom Daschle, the former Senate minority leader, who's mentioned in the Washington Post's article, "In Campaign, One Man's Pragmatism Is Another's Flip-Flopping":

In this article, it's Tom Daschle who puts out the moderate credentialing argument.

"Those who accomplish the most are those who don't make the perfect the enemy of the good," said former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, a key Obama supporter. "Barack is a pragmatist. In that sense, he has a larger vision but oftentimes knows that we can't get there with one legislative effort. When these occasions arise, he is willing to accept progress, even marginal gain, as a step toward that vision."

Tom Daschle, a former Senate Majority leader, is widely liked in DC. He's considered a lovely man, wise and with a wide network of supporters and loyalists that were fighting the Clinton wing of the party in the 1990s through Congress. Of course, Daschle is also known as a key supporter of the Iraq war, co-sponsoring and jamming through the Iraq War resolution, undercutting Joe Biden's attempt to push a different resolution requiring UN authorization before the President was authorized to use force. It's possible to see this as just a bad political decision, but there's more behind the scenes.

His wife, Linda Daschle is a lobbyist for pharmaceutical industries, aerospace, and defense contractors. During her husband's time as a key political leader within the Democratic Party, she pledged to remain independent of her husband's work, but that kind of conflict of interest, with a Senate Majority leader married to a defense contracting lobbyist is pretty severe.

The problem for Stoller is that Daschle's work for a Washington law firm reflects a routine career move for a former congressional insider - it's the way of power in Washington, and if leftists think money and progressivism are mutually exclusive, they're in the wrong profession. Some of the Democratic Party's most vociferous surrender hawks in Congress are also the most instituationally corrupt, as measured by Stoller's notions of "excessive moderation" (see, for example, "MURTHA INC.: How Lawmaker RebuiltHometown on Earmarks").

But note, further,
Taylor Marsh, who also decries the Obama-as-centrist meme:

In other news, from yesterday, the winner of the most hilarious headline is "Obama shifting to the center". Shifting to the center? He never left. It's just flat out stunning that the media now trumpets a story like this, which is meant to signify some regression by Senator Obama. It's a lie. Why? Because Obama never pretended to be a progressive politician. His fans presented him this way, but it was a myth....

Anyone suckered into thinking that Barack Obama is a "progressive" wasn't paying attention. John Edwards was the guy who fit that bill, but
it sure wasn't Barack Obama. Hillary is also more progressive than Senator Obama, though I realize many won't ever give her credit for it.
Now, Marsh is one of the leftosphere's most vociferous Clinton-backers, but it's clear that her thinking's a far cry from any supposed left-wing "reality-based community." For example, the National Journal reported in January that Barack Obama was the U.S. Senate's most liberal member in 2007, with a record of voting that's further to the ideological left than Senator Hillary Clinton's:

National Journal

Obama's voting placed him even further to the left than Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-identified "independent democratic socialist" who caucuses with the Democrats in the upper chamber.

While Marsh or others might quibble with National Journal's methodology, it's very telling that congressional actors in the political arena - like Senator Sanders - are genuine in placing their politics at the appropiate position along the left-right ideological continuum.

Now, I've saved
Glenn Greenwald for last. As always, Greenwald's raging mad and not going to take it anymore, for example, in his post, "The Baseless, and Failed, 'Move to the Center' Cliche."

It's a long, windy post, but it's a classic piece of loony-left postmodern political sculpturing and ideological legerdemain. To summarize, Greenwald not only attacks Obama as a faux progressive, but in the process he molds and redefines the meaning of survey findings as though they indicate the majority of Americans are proto-Marxists:

So what ... is the basis for the almost-unanimously held Beltway conventional view that Democrats generally, and Barack Obama particularly, will be politically endangered unless they adopt the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and National Security, which - for some reason - is called "moving to the Center"? There doesn't appear to be any basis for that view. It's just an unexamined relic from past times, the immovable, uncritical assumption of Beltway strategists and pundits who can't accept that it isn't 1972 anymore - or even 2002.

Beyond its obsolescence, this "move-to-the-center" cliché ignores the extraordinary political climate prevailing in this country, in which
more than 8 out of 10 Americans believe the Government is fundamentally on the wrong track and the current President is one of the most unpopular in American history, if not the most unpopular. The very idea that Bush/Cheney policies are the "center," or that one must move towards their approach in order to succeed, ignores the extreme shifts in public opinion generally regarding how our country has been governed over the last seven years.
One of Greenwald's main problems is that he's got no sensibility of moderation or nuance.

His propensity, for example, for capitalizing terms like "Beltway," "Terrorism," and "National Security" reflects some odd need to inflate regular words of political terminology to a kind of leprous category of extreme political opprobrium - indeed, in this style of writing we see that for a Democrat to even be identified as concerned about traditional foreign policy is essentially to be branded a likely war criminal.

But note further: Greenwald evinces a disastrous under-appreciation of actual question wording in public opinion survey data. For example,
if polls indicate by an 8 out 10 ratio that the country's "on the wrong track," it doesn't automatically follow that Americans are ready for the proletarian revolution. Data like these genuinely tap things such as public impatience with policy gridlock or worries over economic uncertainty, like that seen currently with high gasoline prices.

It is simply dishonest - or unhinged, actually, in Greenwald's case - to present statistics like these as representing some overwhelming public demand for a radical ideological shift in the electorate.

Studying these issues is complicated, and different policy-areas might see different degrees of public support for a more leftward public policy response. Note significantly, however, that just this last Friday Gallup reported that the public overwhelming rejects quasi-socialist policies to correct current market dislocations: "
Americans Oppose Income Redistribution to Fix Economy."

Indeed, as Greenwald has taken his arguments to increasingly extreme levels,
some have sugggested that he "ranges into the kind of frenzied conspiracy-theorizing that I generally associate with Ron Paul's more wild-eyed supporters."

In closing, Barack Obama's doing what any major-party presidential nominee does after securing the nomination: bolstering his centrist credentials in order to appeal to the mass middle of American voters who are not deeply attached to extreme ideological principles. Over the last week or so, on gun rights, campaign finance, and the death penalty for child rapists,
Obama's moderated some of his statements to hue closer to what's long been considered the "vital center" of the American political system.


UPDATE: This entry is cross-posted at NeoConstant: Journal of Politics and Global Affairs.