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Getting Beyond Red Herring Politics

Jill Stein and the 99 Percent

by BART GRUZALSKI

Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for President of the United States, promises a Manhattan-project jobs program that would ignite our economy, repair our crumbling infrastructure, and put the US in the lead at the forefront of the world’s newest and hottest technologies.  She will put forward the health care policy most of us wanted in 2009: the public option, effectively Medicare for everyone.  She will withdraw our troops out of Afghanistan and implement the advice George Washington gave in his farewell address: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”  Jill Stein will bring to the table a demand for an equitable tax system, not one in which the wealthy pay too little and we the 99% have to close schools, fire police, and shutter fire stations to make up the difference. Climate change and food security are at the top of her agenda, as is getting the money out of politics. A Jill Stein presidency will herald the liberation of a democracy currently hijacked by wealthy Americans like the Koch brothers and by corporate banksters like Lloyd Blankfein the CEO of Goldman Sachs.  From the perspective of those of us in the 99%, the only plausible reason to fail to vote for Jill Stein is that voting for her will take votes away from Obama who would be better for the 99% than Romney. Let me explain why this fails to show that we should not vote for Jill Stein.

My explanation requires we distinguish the significant issues that affect all of us in the 99% from those issues that divide us. Some of the issues that unite us include the need for jobs, a vibrant economy, accessible health care for all, a fair tax policy, a democracy in which we have a voice, security from foreign threats, and an environment that will allow us to live healthily as well as allow our children and grandchildren to live healthily after us.  The emotionally inflammatory issues that divide us are promulgated by the media, politicians, and even some religious leaders.  These red herring issues draw us away from the basic issues that unite us: our economy and a vibrant democracy

If we the 99% were able to stay focused on these issues basic issues and vote for candidates who would address them when they were in office, we would change our nation in one election by electing candidates who represent us and not the corporations, the lobbyists, or the military-industrial establishment. There are moments when our ability as a mega-majority to change our nation to serve our needs seems so obvious that I marvel that we haven’t already done so.  After all, this is a democracy and we are the overwhelming majority.  So why is our government still bailing out banksters and not creating jobs? Keeping troops in Afghanistan?  Paying subsidies to the grotesquely profitable oil companies?  The answer is straightforward.  The 1% who benefit from these policies are employing the tactic that Julius Caesar and Napoleon knew kept a more powerful force impotent: divide and conquer or, in our case, divide and rule.  That is what the 1% are doing and we fall for it.  Whenever we get close to uniting in a demand for change, the 1% manages to sidetrack us by having someone scream “abortion,” “access to birth control,” or “same sex marriage” and we hustle back into our camps and renew our media-driven civil war against each other.  We fall for “Red Herring Politics” every time.

When we set aside these red herring issues and assess Obama’s record from the perspective of the substantive issues that unite us, we see a president who has benefited the 1% every bit as much as George W Bush did or as much as Romney will.  Jill Stein makes the same point:  “If you go into the voting booth and you vote for either Wall Street-sponsored candidate, you are giving a mandate for four more years of these policies, which are not just taking us in the wrong direction, they are accelerating in the wrong direction.”  Is Obama really this bad?  Jill Stein continues: “Obama embraced the “Drill, baby drill” policies of George Bush. He has built more oil pipelines than any other president, he’s opening offshore oil, the Arctic wilderness, the Gulf, our national parks, more mountaintops for coal – he’s become Dick Cheney basically on the environment.”

Obama also violated his campaign promise and extended the tax cuts for the rich as well as failed to champion a multi-million job stimulus package.

Obama apologists become furious at these observations.  It’s not that they are false.  Rather, they shout out their ubiquitous response: Obama had no choice–he did as well for the 99% as any president could have done under the circumstances.  These apologists remind us that on the night of Obama’s inauguration and during the inaugural balls, fifteen Republicans spent four hours organizing to undermine the president’s legislative platform. Obama apologists assert that it was the obstructionism of these Republicans and their colleagues that prevented Obama from carrying out his campaign promises and forcing him to abandon a presidency of hope and change.  Obama’s hands were tied from his first full day as president.

Were Obama’s Hands Tied by Republicans from the Beginning?

It is crucial to know for certain whether the Republicans prevented Obama from moving ahead on his promised progressive agenda or whether he betrayed us.  In this investigation I will limit our attention to Obama’s first two years in office when he had a Democratic majority in the House and Senate.

What Americans needed was a president who would deliver jobs and stimulate the economy.  A powerful jobs stimulus package would have done the trick.  The multiplier effect of creating jobs would have revived our depressed national economy.  If fifty jobs are created in a town or county, that’s fifty paychecks circulating in the community and being spent on groceries, clothes, heat, fuel, fixing what needs fixing, as well as paying rent or mortgage.  The circulation of this money creates more jobs—shop keepers, truck drivers, plumbers and carpenters which, in turn, circulates yet more money in a local economy.  In contrast, supporting banksters, who often just reinvested the money in government bonds or paid off other government debts and making roughly 3% in the turnaround,  has absolutely no multiplier effect and, from the perspective of creating jobs or stimulating the economy, is as ineffectual as flushing the money down a toilet.

In the honeymoon of his presidency, Obama could have pushed for a significant job stimulus program.  All Obama had to do was to follow the play-book that FDR had put together to help pull America out of the Great Depression.   Our nation’s infrastructure desperately needed repairing.  Across the nation people have the equipment and personnel to fix our roads and bridges.  An infrastructure job stimulus program only needed an influx of federal dollars and a streamlining of all relevant federal permitting processes.  The result would have been millions of working Americans repairing our infrastructure and, as a result, our sick economy.

Did the Republicans block Obama from instituting a Manhattan-project job stimulus program that would put millions of Americans back to work fixing the infrastructure?  They didn’t need to.  Obama never tried.  The president never put his two great assets behind a job stimulus program of this magnitude: the Office of the presidency and his skill as an orator.  Obama could have talked to the nation on prime time from the Oval Office about our economic recession, the need for jobs, the need to repair our infrastructure, and about how a jobs program putting millions of Americans to work would tackle all of these problems.  That’s all Obama had to do.  If the Congressional votes were not in place before his talk to the nation, they would have been afterwards.  The Republicans would not have been able to withstand the criticism that they’d killed the jobs program of the new president and so prolonged the recession.

But what if?  What if the Republicans had obstructed a significant jobs program?  They would have undercut themselves for the 2010 election as well as the current 2012 election.  If Obama had fought for us and the Republicans obstructed him, at least we would know we had a champion for the working American and the 99% in the White House. But that’s not what happened.  Obama’s failure to fight for a jobs program revealed a president unwilling to go to bat for the working-class American.

Obama’s apologists might point to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,  but they have to acknowledge the number of jobs added to the economy even at the peak implementation of the act was only 700, 000, barely a 100,000 more than the number of jobs the government was shedding. The best defense of Obama is to argue that Obama had a different but equally important agenda to benefit the 99%.  The nation desperately needed healthcare reform.  Instead of spending his political capital on jobs, Obama apologists might argue that Obama chose to fight for the 99% by solving the healthcare crisis.

The “public option”– roughly, an extension of Medicare to all Americans– was the perfect plan for the 99%.  It would be less expansive than any alternative and all citizens would be eligible regardless of pre-existing conditions.  Since all citizens would be covered, there would have been an overall improvement in public health.  Businesses would no longer be burdened with health care plans.  Medical paperwork for billing would be reduced to a minimum.  Car insurance would cost much less since there would no longer be the need for a medical component.  A clear majority of Americans favored the public option.  The only losers would be the insurance corporations.  All Obama had to do was to give a talk to the nation from the Oval Office explaining the option and its benefits and the public would have insisted on its passage.

Obama never put his presidency behind the public option.  Instead, he formulated a plan that protected the profits of insurance companies.  The public option died offstage.   Obamacare requires that citizens must purchase private insurance and that if they don’t they pay a penalty to the IRS.  Millions of Americans feel they cannot afford the insurance and will pay the penalties.  Automobile insurance continues to require medical premiums.   The Corporate Insurance Industry was victorious.

Obama and the Tax Cuts for the Wealthy 

As bad as Obama’s failing to serve the 99% both on jobs and on healthcare, the most glaring violation of his economic campaign promises was when he broke his campaign promise to let the tax cuts for the 1% expire. This is such a flagrant violation of a campaign promise that it should have already undermined him with most of his 2008 supporters.  Political spin is truly creative, though, and Obama apologists, the Obama administration, along with a complicit media have constructed a narrative that lets Obama off the hook.  The narrative in brief: Obama did his best but the Republicans forced him to break the promise.  This narrative is fiction but we need to examine it in detail to see why.

The public wanted the tax cuts to expire.  Buffett, the billionaire investor, wanted the government to raise taxes on the rich. Dozens of America’s wealthiest taxpayers — including hedge fund legend Michael Steinhardt, super trial lawyer Guy Saperstein, and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame —appealed to President Obama not to extend the Bush tax cuts for anyone earning more than $1 million a year. The opportunity for Obama to fulfill his campaign promise on taxes arose just before the elections of 2010.

Republican Senators dug in for a battle.  They told  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that they would shut down the Senate for all business until Obama agreed to the tax cuts.  Part of the business on the table was an extension of unemployment benefits to two million unemployed Americans whose unemployment insurance was set to expire at Christmas time.  The Republicans refused to extend these unemployment benefits unless Obama extended the tax cuts for the rich.

A serious showdown seemed imminent, though it was no more serious than a similar threat Bill Clinton had faced during his first term. In 1995, Republicans wanted Clinton to sign a budget that included a lot of cuts for the 99%.  Clinton refused.  Republican House leader Dick Armey threatened to shut down the government unless Clinton agreed to the cuts.  Clinton refused, saying that he would never allow the Republican budget to become law even if his popularity dropped to 5% in the polls. Clinton won the face off. The Republicans came out looking like ideological zealots.  Clinton’s poll numbers soared to the levels he enjoyed early in his presidency.

Obama’s situation was analogous to Clinton’s but he was in a stronger position.  Americans supported extending the unemployment benefits and opposed extending the tax cut for the wealthy. Like Clinton, Obama was being portrayed as weak and spineless.  This was Obama’s opportunity to turn the tables on the Republicans. Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic House had also dug in for the fight.  The House was prepared to stand firm on the unemployment insurance extension and end the tax cuts for the rich.  Clinton had created the game plan, executed it successfully, and now it was Obama’s turn.

The Republicans held hostage the extension of unemployment benefits in order to force Obama to continue the tax cuts. The extension of unemployment insurance took stage center.  Obama could have appealed to the nation to support the extension of unemployment insurance for the unemployed.  He had the oratorical skill and the facts to support him.  A Labor Department committee, appointed during the Bush Administration, concluded that unemployment insurance had already been an economic stabilizer during ongoing recession.  Unemployment insurance payments had kept the GDP $315 higher than it would have been; prevented 1.8 million jobs being lost; and had provided an effective multipler effect on the economy: “for every dollar spent on unemployment insurance, the report finds an increase in economic activity of two dollars.”

Obama had an airtight economic case to make to the nation for an extension of unemployment insurance.  If he were committed to keeping his campaign promise not to extend the tax cuts, if he wanted to support the 99% , all he had to do was to use his oratorical skill to explain the purely economic advantages of unemployment insurance and the financial foolhardiness of extending tax cuts for the wealthy.   It would have been a win-win public address for Obama and for the 99%.

The battle lines were drawn, the stage was set, and Obama had the opportunity to turn the tables on the Republicans.  The arrayed forces were asymmetrically weighted in favor of the Democrats on both unemployment and taxes: this was a battle Obama could win.

There was no battle.   In a closed meeting with Republicans, Obama capitulated.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic caucus were “particularly outraged that the President caved to GOP demands to raise the estate-tax threshold from $1 million (taxed at 55%) to $5 million (taxed at 35%) — a giveaway to the rich, they called it, at a time when the country can ill afford it.” Obama even threw a lump of Christmas coal at mortgage-holders who did not itemize their federal tax returns: they would lose the tax write-off of local and state taxes. Obama’s campaign promise on taxes lay in tatters.

“Bush on Steroids”

In addition to his letting down the 99% on jobs, health care, and tax policy, Obama failed to prosecute the banksters who caused the recession—in stark contrast with the over 1,000 criminal prosecutions of individuals involved in “major” S&L fraud which resulted in 839 convictions.  Obama also followed George W Bush in militarizing foreign policy.  Obama turned the Afghan war into “Obama’s War,” as Bob Woodward chronicled, when he escalated what continues to be a hopeless and cruel war for our troops, their families, and for the Afghans. Obama now presides over a more than doubling of the U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan.  He has escalated the use of drones for bombing and killing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing so many people that he has strengthened the groups in those countries who oppose the US.  Although Obama tried to take credit for withdrawing US troops from Iraq, the withdrawal deadline was fixed by George Bush before Obama became president.  Obama wanted to keep 5000 US Marines in Iraq as “advisers,” but the Iraqis insisted the Marines would be subject to Iraqi law and that resulted in a total withdrawal.

Obama has gone further than George Bush and Dick Cheney to put into place policies that erode our Constitutional rights as US citizens.  Obama approved the use of drones anywhere in the USA   as if we were an ”enemy” people; Obama is appealing a decision by a judge who declared unconstitutional a law that would permit the administration to threaten any activist or dissident with indefinite incarceration in military prisons; Obama approved and his administration defended in court his right as president to decide in secret whether an American citizen should be killed and why.  Even Dick Cheney, an advocate of the unitary executive, did not have the chutzpah to put policies about drone surveillance or secret execution decisions on the table.

Although Obama promised a more transparent administration than that of George Bush, Obama has also been much worse than George Bush in terms of transparency.  The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act more often in three years than all previous presidents combined since the anti-spy law was instituted during the First World War. Aaron David Miller, a long-term Middle East policy adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations, delivered a blunt and damning verdict in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine: “Barack Obama has become George W Bush on steroids.” It’s hard not to agree.  From the perspective of the economy, militarization, and our diminishing Constitutional rights as citizens, Obama has continued the policies of George W Bush.

The 1% will prosper with an Obama or a Romney in the White House. “Mitt Romney is a wolf in a wolf’s clothing. Barack Obama is a wolf in a sheep’s clothing, but they both essentially have the same agenda.,” Jill Stein tells us.  With either as president, the military-industrial complex will continue profiting from the militarization of our foreign policy and the power and reach of the presidency will grow greater than it has ever been in the history of our nation.   While there are differences between the two candidates that will engage some voters—the divisive red herrings– when it comes to the main issues of who benefits in our economy and the militarization of our foreign policy, there is no reason to think that Obama would be any better than Romney. Obama or Romney, the 1% wins.

A Palpable Disgust with Obama and Romney 

A number of commentators detect a palpable disgust across the land with both Obama and Romney.  Disillusioned progressives, veterans of the Occupy movement, students charmed by “hope and change,” current Occupy movement workers, Ron Paul followers, environmentalists, peace activists, Good Samaritan Christians—there are millions upon millions of us who want to see the kind of change which Jill Stein represents.  We want change at the level of presidential politics and debate.  We want to see discussion of why we are still in Afghanistan; gun control; a serious job stimulus; prosecution of the fraud that created the economic recession; protection from fraud in computerized voting and vote counting; the US policy toward Israel and Palestine; subsidies for the profit- bulging oil companies—none of all these topics currently are even mentioned in the presidential candidates’ “debates.”  We are ready for proposals on how to deal with climate change.  Yet from the Afghan war to voting fraud to climate change, the two parties that constitute the Duopoly want these issues out of the limelight.

It does not matter which talking-head for the Duopoly wins.  Tweedle-dee or Tweedle-dum, they serve the 1% as they pretend to represent the broad political landscape of all Americans.  That’s why there is no substance in the objection that voting for the Greens will take votes away from Obama and so put Romney in the White House: neither Obama nor Romney represent the 99%.   We need a candidate who will—and Jill Stein, already referred to as the unofficial presidential candidate of the Occupy movement, is just such a candidate.  From the perspective of the major economic, military, and Constitutional values, we and our children and grandchildren are screwed if either Tweedle-dee or Tweedle-dum wins.  There is no plausible argument for not voting our values and the interests by voting for Jill Stein. The only people who need to fear our voting our values and interests are Obama and Romney and the 1% whom they serve.

Bart Gruzalski a professor emeritus of philosophy from Northeastern University.  He co-edited Value Conflicts in Health Care Delivery and published On The Buddha, as well as On Gandhi.