Progressive Canaries

Take it from David Axelrod. “Almost the entire Republican margin is based on the enthusiasm gap,” the president’s senior adviser said last week. “And if Democrats come out in the same turnout as Republicans, it’s going to be a much different election.”

But we don’t get to have a different election. After more than 20 months of White House insistence that the only useful role for progressive canaries is to keep singing the president’s tune, the electoral coal mine is filled with the political equivalent of carbon monoxide and methane.

Like canaries in mines — providing early warnings — an increasing number of progressives reacted to politically toxic gases. The base was crumbling.

But the purportedly savvy guys at the top of the administration publicly expressed scorn for that base. Instead of viewing its continual erosion as a harbinger of disaster for the midterm election, the dismissive responses included gratuitous verbal swipes from the White House. But public insults have been the least of the problem. The essence has been the policies of governance.

Blaming the messengers — the canaries in the mines — has occurred in sync with intensifying policy commitments that many progressives find repugnant: whether escalation of war in Afghanistan, promulgation of extensive corporate agendas in the guise of “reform,” promoting dangerous oxymorons like “clean coal” and “safe nuclear power,” or continuing encroachment on precious civil liberties such as habeas corpus.

Now, the midterm Election Day is threatening to bring down a congressional majority that would be replaced by the extreme right-wing entity known as the Republican Party. “The Democrats” may deserve to lose, but the country does not deserve the Republican rule that would take their place on Capitol Hill.

Any progressive who thinks it doesn’t matter much whether the House speaker is Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner is seriously mistaken.

At the same time, fantasy is afflicting those who think that an eleventh-hour dose of Obama campaign oratory can reconstitute a solid Democratic base and get it to the polls in hefty numbers.

Whether on MSNBC or in email blasts from Democratic Party-aligned groups, some have tried to hype Obama’s latest campaign-trail speeches as 2008 reborn. But the Democratic Party’s grim prospects for early November are not about failures in campaigning — they’re about failures in governing. Sadly, attempts to reprise his ’08-style oratory this fall could actually dramatize the dispiriting gap between how Obama can talk as a campaigner and how he has actually governed as president.

Sometimes, an overly linear kind of left-right paradigm encourages progressives to believe that they simply must settle for what they can get while rabid right-wingers are howling at the gates. But the president has empowered, not countered, the right wing by moving in its direction on a wide range of basic policies and governance formulations.

Rather than staking out decent, progressive, populist positions and defending them with moral fervor, the Obama administration — in the midst of catastrophically high unemployment — has enforced and reinforced the identity of the national Democratic Party as defender of an untenable status quo. This approach has aided the far right — helping corporate-funded and often xenophobic “populists” to masquerade as the agents of change.

Giving ground does just that. It gives ground.

And so, from the outset, the administration’s refusal to push for anything near the magnitude of job-creation programs necessary to bring down unemployment has brought sky-high jobless numbers — a colossal gift to GOP candidates this fall.

Today, congressional Democrats would be in a much better pre-election position if the political pros in the White House had heeded rather than scorned the left-leaning base of the party that from the outset has clearly favored much more vigorous job creation.

“When people ask why the Obama stimulus didn’t accomplish more,” Paul Krugman wrote a few days ago, “one good response is to ask, what stimulus? Leaving aside the cost of financial rescues and safety-net programs like unemployment insurance, federal spending has risen only modestly — and this rise has been largely offset by cutbacks at the state and local level.”

Earlier this week, labor activist and author Amy B. Dean neatly summarized a key dynamic. “Every time the Democrats are too timid to promote a policy solution that the party’s base actually wants, they walk into a trap,” she wrote. “They end up passing something that is too insignificant to actually deal with the problem at hand but that nevertheless prompts hysterical denunciations from the right. Despite their efforts at moderation, they are vociferously condemned as ‘tax-and-spend liberals.’ At the same time, they have nothing to show for their efforts that might make them proud to have earned the label.”

The Obama administration has developed a habitual reflex of moving its policies toward the positions of Republican leaders who do not budge. Meanwhile, the administration has continued to fault the progressive canaries when the policy results are making them sick.

NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of Made Love, Got War.

Norman Solomon is the national director of and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His latest book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine, is published by The New Press.