In trying to understand why the Democrats just crashed and burned, I think the first layer in peeling the onion takes the form of an admission to two crucial mistakes made by Obama before he took office. He campaigned brilliantly on a vague theme of change. In so doing, he unleashed a hornet’s nest of intense expectations that would have been hard to fulfill in the best of circumstances, but Obama’s personnel decisions made during the transition period guaranteed the worst of circumstances.
Two big reasons underpinned the power of his appeal and placed his uplifting narrative into sharp contrast with the visceral disgust felt toward Bush by the mass of Obama’s supporters in the Democratic party and Independents.
A sense of unfair economic hardship embodied in the widespread feelings of insecurity and anger that emanated from the combined effects of stagnating living standards, the continuing loss of jobs due to deindustrialization, and the systematic transfer of wealth from the middle to the upper classes. The anger reached a bi-partisan critical mass with the onset of a massive middle-class bloodletting in the Great Recession, while the wealthy perpetrators of the bloodletting were bailed out by and even profited from the Bush Administration’s so-called counter-recessionary policies.
Growing disgust with Bush’s lawless policy of unilateral militarism and never ending war, reflected in the increasingly costly, unfocused wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere (and perhaps augmented by a vague feeling of fear fatigue, reflecting a sense that it was time to end the politics of fear and return to less abnormal state of affairs).
Both Hillary Clinton in the primaries or John McCain in the general election danced to Obama’s music of change, but neither was able (or wanted?) to smoke out how Candidate Obama’s planned to change directions. In effect, their failure to do so, freed President Obama from having to live within tight policy constraints imposed by specific campaign promises. This opened the door toward a cynical “move to the middle” via a series of timid compromises and accommodations, justified by the shopworn theory that his most committed supporters had nowhere else to go. That tired justification may play well to the self-referencing political class in Versailles on the Potomac, but Obama’s supporters did have places to go: the hard core base could simply stay home, and independents like to switch sides.
Obama’s fatal move to middle began immediately after his election when he chose to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic by picking members of the oligarchical establishment who helped to create and benefitted from the economic and national security messes he inherited — i.e., Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Robert Gates, and Hillary Clinton, plus the plethora of 2nd tier policy wonks and wannabes who came out the Clinton economic and national security apparat in waiting, eg, the “good war mafia” of precision-strike/coercive diplomacy dilettantes in defense, like Michele Flournoy, whose main achievement to date has been to completely gomer up the Quadrennial Defense Review.
These personnel decisions set the stage for a continuation of the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush business-as-usual under a kinder and gentler face, taking the forms of policies that (1) continue the redistributive economic policies to favor the people who caused the meltdown, albeit softened by a highly visible albeit insufficient stimulus policy and (2) continue shoveling money into the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex via (a) an escalation of war policy — e.g., by embracing the idea of the AFPAK theater of operations — under the guise of a phony distinction between expanding a good war against terrorism in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) while ending the bad war in Iraq (which was merely in temporary remission, as the recent escalation of murderous events in Baghdad and Anbar Province show) and (b) increased funding of an outdated cold-war inspired weapons modernization program that does not modernize a shrinking, aging force structure.
Obama’s move to the middle also enabled the Republicans to not only escape responsibility for the disasters they and their Democratic and Republican predecessors created, but handed them the opportunity to exploit the rage attending to the economic insecurity they helped to create. At the same time, continuing business-as-usual alienated the base of Obama supporters whose enthusiasm was crucial to his election and maintenance of the Democratic majorities in Congress. Obama’s other efforts, like the passage of the overly compromised medical insurance reform turned to mush and became easy targets for misrepresentations by the Republicans. Moreover, the political effect of passing an insurance reform bill was not strong enough to overcome the widespread alienation among his committed supporters and independents who felt they had been been tricked on the economic and war issues.
The dual questions of why the obviously intelligent Obama played the governance game so ineptly and why Democrats went along with his duplicity comprise the second and more definitive layer of the onion. These questions beg a long-term dispassionate inquiry by Democrats, if they truly want to build a meaningful self definition of who they are, which is now a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for evolving a realistic recovery strategy. Personally, I am not optimistic — critical self examination is not the Democratic Party’s strong suit; making excuses is.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org