With the presidential election two weeks away and momentum seeming to flow in only one direction — toward Barack Obama — the Democratic nominee’s progressive supporters are worried.
Not worried about whether Obama will live up to the hopes that millions of people have placed in him. Instead, they’re worried about the possibility that McCain could make a comeback. And so they’re pulling out all stops to convince anyone who might be wavering to vote for Obama.
What has unfolded is a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, minimize or ignore Obama’s gestures or actions that fly in the face of progressive values. On the other, accentuate the differences between him and McCain, no matter how small they might be on particular issues.
A good example of the former was the reaction of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) to the recent Wall Street bailout bill and Obama’s support for it.
To its credit, PDA opposed the legislation as a “sellout to greedy fat cats,” as PDA National Director Tim Carpenter called it in an October 2 press release. Carpenter pointed out that Senate changes to the bill (what he called “lipstick”) and renaming it a “rescue plan” didn’t change its essence as a “blank check bailout.”
Yet two days later, Congress passed that blank-check bailout. The administration’s efforts to round up support got a boost from Obama, who campaigned for the bill and persuaded leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus to switch from “no” to “yes.”
In many ways, Obama and the congressional Democratic leadership led the way to the bill’s passage. And what did PDA say about that? Nothing. Its next official press release, dated October 10, quoted Carpenter as saying, “We’re stepping up our efforts during these closing weeks to elect Obama and a more progressive Congress. We’ve already started. New-voter registration coordinator Bruce Taub and a team of Massachusetts volunteers just returned from a four-day trip to Pennsylvania.”
Given that PDA and other progressive Democrats are invested in an Obama win and substantial Democratic coattails, it’s unlikely they would have taken the opportunity to denounce Obama or the Democrats.
But then, that’s not their modus operandi anyway. Progressives for Obama initiator Tom Hayden even explained: “I have no problem with Barack Obama supporting the bailout package as long as it keeps him on track to the presidency. He needs to be critical, to offer amendments, and to promise to return to the crisis the day after November 4.”
Groups like PDA and Progressives for Obama pose themselves as a sort of conscience of the Democratic Party. They uphold values like single-payer health care and immediate withdrawal from Iraq that mainstream Democrats won’t support.
And when the mainstream Democrats cross them — to accept Obama’s lousy “individual mandate” health plan or vote to continue the occupation of Iraq — progressives express disappointment, while noting how many votes they received for their liberal alternative proposal. Then they move on to getting out the vote for Democrats, including those who just sold them out.
This is the way “progressive” politics oriented on the Democratic Party is played — because when all is said and done, it is no more than liberal gloss on the politics of the “lesser of two evils.”
A good example of how this works was Hayden’s response to Nation writer Robert Dreyfuss, when Dreyfuss criticized Obama’s hawkish posture on foreign policy. It’s a good representation of the second prong described above: magnify the differences between the Democrats and Republicans.
Reviewing the first McCain-Obama debate, Dreyfuss wrote:
If, God forbid, foreign policy had to be the deciding factor in choosing between Barack Obama and John McCain, then last night’s terrible showing by Obama would make me a Ralph Nader voter in a heartbeat. Obama’s performance was nothing short of pathetic, and only Democratic-leaning analysts and voters with blinders on could suggest that Obama won the debate. More important, he utterly blew a chance to draw a stark contrast with John McCain on America’s approach to the world.
Responding to his “respected friend” on the Progressives for Obama blog, Hayden criticized Dreyfuss for concentrating on all the places where McCain and Obama agreed (at least eight, by my count) rather than the crucial “Iraq difference.”
As Hayden wrote, “Obama’s pledge to withdraw combat troops in 16 months, while not the ‘out now’ demand of the anti-war movement, is generally supported by most Americans and most Iraqis, and leaves Bush-McCain isolated in their opposition to deadlines.”
Thus, a vote for Obama will be, according to Hayden, a “peace mandate.” As Hayden continued:
Belittling the Iraq difference reflects a much greater omission, ignoring the gaping differences between the two candidates with 36 days until the election. On the basis of what he’s written, Dreyfuss ignores this context.
It is as if frustration with Obama is greater than anything some people on the left can feel towards McCain. I feel their pain, but let me offer this formula: no candidate will move further left than their base demands and public opinion allows.
In other words, it all boils down to the central lesser-evil logic. Obama may not be what we want, but McCain would be so much worse. And just to make sure we got the point, Hayden ended his response to Dreyfuss by calling up that old standby: the Supreme Court. “[W]hen the faith-based right has been promised a Supreme Court majority by McCain-Palin, I think the left should be in full battle mode” instead of, presumably, writing articles criticizing Obama’s shortcomings.
In other parts of the response to Dreyfuss, Hayden proposes that Obama’s hawkishness is just a political strategy intended to “close off any possible attacks from the right or the media on his national security policies and credentials.”
Yet anyone who has been paying attention to Obama’s foreign policy statements over the last two years (as Hayden has) can see that what he’s saying today is pretty much consistent with what he was saying then. If that’s the case, then why pretend that Obama’s hawkishness is just a stratagem, with the implication that the “real” dovish Obama will emerge after he’s safely elected?
Setting aside the objective fact that Obama agreed with McCain on foreign policy far more than he disagreed with him during the debate (which was Dreyfuss’ point), would a vote for Obama really be a mandate for peace? Couldn’t a victorious Obama also say, “The American people have endorsed my calls to launch missile strikes in Pakistan without the consent of the Pakistani government, to base withdrawal from Iraq on ‘facts on the ground,’ to kill Osama bin Laden, to stand up to Russia in Georgia, etc.”?
In other words, couldn’t Obama claim that a vote for him is really a “war mandate”?
Time will tell, but progressives for Obama shouldn’t deceive themselves into believing that they will have a secret ally in the White House.