Four and a half decades ago, Lyndon Johnson got reforms through Congress that put Barack Obama’s to shame and that, unlike his, didn’t reinforce the power of those who made them necessary. Johnson also inherited an unwinnable war that he escalated and made his own, just as Obama has done with George Bush’s revenge-driven assault on Afghanistan. Johnson was fortunate only to have inherited one unwinnable and counter-productive war; Obama inherited two. With considerable disingenuousness, he did declare “the combat phase” of Bush’s war of choice in Iraq over, but all he did was rebrand it. So much for the peace candidate and Nobel Laureate! He has also initiated or ratcheted up other, so far lesser, wars in such places as Yemen, Somalia, and the tribal regions of Pakistan; and the prospect of war in other oil-rich Islamic areas and with Iran continues. Since we nowadays run our wars with economic conscripts and mercenaries and on borrowed funds, and since many liberals are still determined to cut Obama limitless slack, public condemnation has been muted. It was different forty plus years ago. Then the Vietnam War was enough to do the Great Society in, and to make Lyndon Johnson a hated figure among those who would otherwise have praised his reforms. This is why it was not uncommon, back in the day, to see bumper stickers that read “Lee Harvey Oswald, Where are You Now that We Need You?”
I was reminded of that slogan by the recent prattle about how “extremists” of both the left and the right are culpable for last week’s massacre in Tucson. Not unexpectedly, figures on the right are leading the charge. Also, not unexpectedly, some liberal pundits trumpet a similar line. A conspicuous example is the “objective” Newsweek journalist Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise, a chronicle of Obama’s first year in office. Appearing on the Brian Lehrer Show (on NPR, a slightly more up-market source than Newsweek for conventional wisdom and pro-regime propaganda), he argued for the left’s culpability by citing a remark that appeared several weeks ago on The Daily Kos website. There, the blogger who goes by the name Boy Blue wrote that because of Gabrielle Gifford’s support for Obama’s “compromise” on taxes, “she’s dead to me.” Could anyone familiar with the way people talk take that to be a call for Gifford’s death? Maybe Alter has trouble with idiomatic turns of phrase. More likely, like other pro-regime propagandists and purveyors of conventional wisdom, he was grasping at straws.
Even back in the LBJ days, when rhetoric on the left ? the real left, not The Daily Kos variety ? did get incendiary, and when there were bombings (never shootings), care was always taken to attack property, not people. Some Weather Underground militants blew themselves up making bombs. Otherwise, the white left was responsible for only one death ? a graduate student who happened unexpectedly, late at night, to be in a building on the University of Wisconsin campus that housed the nefarious Army Mathematics Research Center. The record of the black left was comparable, notwithstanding stupefying levels of police repression leveled against the Black Panther Party and other militant organizations. There was some violence, but it was almost always defensive and never terroristic. Contrast that with the violence stirred up by prominent figures on the right and in social movements associated with it, especially the anti-abortion movement. They’ve been at it for years and their incitements periodically bear fruit. Unless the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner, was delusional and a Democratic Congresswoman just happened to be a convenient target, a story that has lately gained currency as Obama and others press for “toning down” the rhetoric and making nice, the events last week were just the latest episode.
The Oswald bumper sticker was plainly not a call to assassinate LBJ; it was an expression of revulsion at the Vietnam War and of Johnson’s role in it. After Bush and now Obama, we have become so inured to perpetual war that it is hard to imagine how much revulsion the Vietnam War generated. Still, the left, even the extreme left, even the “folks” (Obama’s favorite word when he tries to seem folksy) whom Sarah Palin thinks he “paled around with,” were not violent in the way some people on the right are today. And, notwithstanding Obama’s call for everyone to be more “civil” (read: for the right to be a tad less incendiary and for the left to be even more reluctant to stand up for itself), the left, or what is left of it, has long been civil to a fault.
Obama’s pandering to the right and dismissal of the concerns of everyone to his left, which will only get worse as he piles even more old Clinton hands into his administration, is not just disabling; given, the hope candidate Obama, 2008’s self-declared agent of “change,” conjured up, it’s indecent. In a political scene less out of whack than ours, it would lead to his downfall as surely as Vietnam led to LBJ’s. It might still. Lucky for Obama, therefore, that he caught a break with the tragedy in Tucson. His call for “civility” was doubtless heartfelt, and it is understandable that it resonates with his liberal supporters. But it comes just as he is preparing to capitulate again, this time to deficit hawks in the Republican party and his own, even to the point, very likely, of proposing cuts to “entitlements” (Social Security and Medicare) in his up-coming State of the Union address.
So, in the spirit of the days when rank indecency stimulated significant and sustained resistance, and when civility towards those who advance reactionary projects was justifiably despised, now is the time to call out for Lewinsky to come to our aid, just as people decades ago called out for Oswald to come to theirs. “Monica Lewinsky, where are you, now that we need you –again?” After all, it was she or rather her dalliance with Bill Clinton that stopped him from putting social security in his “crosshairs.” She may not have intended it or realized what she was doing. But she saved the signature achievement of the New Deal! If only by inadvertence, she therefore did more good than any other woman in Bill Clinton’s ambit — bar none.
Not from principled conviction, for he has none, but for opportunist reasons, Bill Clinton was, in effect, the best Reaganite president ever — more effective than either of the Bushes or the villainous old Gipper himself. He did more than any of them to put the “Vietnam syndrome” to rest, to disempower the labor movement, to advance “free trade,” to deregulate financial capitalism and to free “the business community” from other annoying constraints, to increase inequality (for the benefit of the paymasters of both mainstream parties), and to dismantle what there was of the American welfare state. He was about to cap his legacy with an attack on Social Security when the “Lewinsky affair” made that impossible.
Now Obama is on the brink of resuming the cause. Perhaps his “civility” and still unrequited attempts at “bipartisanship,” are to blame. Or maybe Obama’s stint at the University of Chicago Law School turned him into a crypto-libertarian. Or it could just be Clinton-style opportunism at work. The reason hardly matters. What does matter is that there is no Lewinsky affair to restrain him. If only Obama was more of a horn dog! If only an intern could stop him in his tracks!
The danger that the last nail is about to be driven into the New Deal’s coffin is real and imminent. Republicans may still be better than Democrats at engineering the tax system to redistribute wealth upwards. But Republicans can’t touch the ‘third rail’ of American politics. Even with the vaunted “political capital” he acquired after the 2004 election, the first that he actually won, George Bush couldn’t privatize (gut) Social Security. Clinton probably could have but for la Monica, and so can Obama, at least so long as the “folks” who routinely vote Democratic, the only people left who can block the Reaganite tide he is riding, continue to stand by their man.
Obama is counting on Tea Partiers and their representatives in Congress to scare those voters into line and to bring “moderates” back into his fold. Perhaps they will. But as he hastens along the path Bill Clinton blazed, he just might miscalculate and overreach. Let’s hope so ? because this time Monica Lewinsky is not there to save us. As in the days when Lee Harvey Oswald was invoked in the effort to ditch (not kill) a president hell bent on unleashing murder and mayhem upon the peoples of Southeast Asia, now is the time to invoke the name of “that woman” (as in “I did not have sex with that woman”) in the effort to keep Democrats from doing what only Democrats can ? turning back the clock to where things stood long ago, when a future actor whose “transformative presidency” candidate Barack Obama famously likened to FDR’s was still just a little urchin back in Dixon, Illinois.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.