Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

So, many of you believe that Barack Obama has been disappointing -- public option, too big to fail, detention, Afghanistan, and several other issues.  Let's go through the options.   The other serious candidates for the nomination, the ones who had any plausible chance of winning, were Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, Dodd, and Biden.  I'll extend it; the candidates from 2004 who put together serious campaigns were Kerry, Dean, Clark, Gephardt, and Edwards again.  In my view, any of those were mainstream enough that they were (on ideological grounds) plausible Democratic nominees for president, and plausible winners had they been nominated..  Hey, you with the Kucinich sign -- no, he really isn't in the mainstream of the party. 

You see the question coming: pick your candidate, and explain to me how things would have been different, and you would have been happier, had he or she been elected president in 2008?  Once again, this is neither sarcastic nor rhetorical.  I'm looking for real suggestions -- but I'm looking for suggestions that are grounded in the real world of Blue Dogs in the House, 58-60 Dems in the Senate including Lieberman and Ben Nelson, and the rest of the context of the last two years.  And, of course, the real primary and general election world of campaign '08, with all of the context involved there. 

(Of course, in reality the actual alternatives were in many cases problematic on other grounds: Edwards on scandal, Richardson and Dodd also on lower-level scandal, Dean on...well, I don't really want to fight that one right now.  I'm not looking for opinions about who was the best nominee; I'm looking for opinions about what would have changed with a plausibly more liberal nominee). 


  1. I was interested in John Edwards and viewed him as the most progressive of the three main options in 2008, but I always doubted his sincerity and in the end I'm obviously quite glad he did not get the nomination.

    The only way I can think to answer your question might be the way that others would as well--I wish the candidate elected in 2008 was the version of Barack Obama I was hoping for (and voted for). The man was obviously intentionally a bit of a cipher during the campaign, and I had no illusions that he was secretly a Paul Wellstone, but like many other knowledgeable observers I though it possible (not guaranteed by any means) that deep down he was somewhat more in what Wellstone famously called the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party." I do not think that anymore, or if he was once then he certainly is not now.

    Had this "more progressive Obama" (MPO) that existed in many of our heads (and I don't think this was naive, despite the tendency of some to rely on 20/20 hindsight) been the winner I can think of at least a few things that would have been different. The February 2009 stimulus might have been bigger and better--basically no Republicans voted for what we ended up with anyway and it was not politically impossible to get what, say, Paul Krugman was asking for, and a bigger stimulus sans tax cuts would be looking pretty good right about now.

    Health care might have been different, though maybe it never would have passed. A decision could have been made by the former fan of single-payer MPO not to make a deal with the health and insurance industries right away, but rather to do battle with them a bit. Single-payer would not have been the outcome, of course, but perhaps some sort of public option could have been, though it's also likely nothing would have passed. As it stands the reform we ended up with might not look that good ten years from now.

    Afghanistan is another issue. Obama campaigned to escalate there, and I had to hold my nose big time when I voted for him as a result. But it was also clearly campaign strategy, and he could have (indeed he did) re-evaluate upon taking office. Rather than the Obama who decided to escalate a war that, I can't help feeling, he probably knows deep down is not going to end well at all, I would wish we could have had the more clear-eyed and frankly brave MPO of 2002-2003 who spoke out against "dumb wars" when opposing the invasion of Iraq.

    The most important change, I would say in tandem with Afghanistan, with a MPO president would relate to executive power, broadly speaking. Candidate Obama railed against Gitmo, invocation of state secrets, and in general the on-steroids national security state constructed by the Bush administration. Now, and this is hardly controversial, to a large degree he has ratified it, possibly for generations (if a "liberal" Democrat cannot object to this stuff, what other president will?). I sincerely believed it possible (if not somewhat likely) that Obama would actually commit to reversing the worst abuses of the Bush era with respect to executive authority, and that issue more than any other makes me wish for the candidate I voted for in 2008, rather than the president we ended up with. Compromise and "pragmatism" are inevitable upon taking office, but Obama sold out on one of the most important issues and he just didn't have to, no matter how much crap he would take from Joe Lieberman as a result.

  2. This is something of a repeat of my answer to your other question about what Obama's lack of experience has meant. There I postulated that he squandered the opportunity provided by having both houses in the control of his party. I think Clinton would have taken greater advantage ofbthat opportunity.
    I also think she would have been quicker to abandon dreams of bipartisanship. Obama held out hope that Republican intransigence would weaken for too long. Since he surrendered that idea during the healthcare debate and saw so much success as a result, I thought he would continue to push, but alas that does not seem to be the case.

  3. Your question is not a good question, honestly. It's not a question that is truly looking for why people like me are disappointed in Obama. It's comparing his governing to what other candidates said they would do. And guess what, Obama was different. He campaigned differently and stood up for more liberal policies than the others did.

    But I ended up with a President that didn't go down that road. He ended up being just like the other candidates.

    The real question is this: Why was Candidate Obama so different from President Obama? Because that's where the disappointment is found. Not because Hillary or the others would have governed as centrist/conservative Democrats. We knew that. But that's not what we were sold when Obama campaigned.

    And it's a damn shame.

  4. I may not be qualified to answer -- I'm not all that disappointed in the Obama Administration thus far. Given the deathgrip that the GOP and the neoconservatives have on the mainstream media and our national discourse, I think the Dem side has gotten about all we could get, which is a lot.

    I do think though that a Biden Administration probably would have been more aggressive in extracting us out of the Afghanistan quagmire, and I think he would have been able to garner much better relations with the whiney, self-obsessed White House Press Corpse. In fact, he chose a good one in Jay Carney, who is one of them and thus has a much better understanding of media messaging than the clowns running the Obama communications shop.

    The only others that had a chance at actually winning election, IMHO of course, would be Kerry and Clinton. Clinton would have fared much, much worse -- she would have never had any kind of honeymoon, given the loathing of the Clintons by the NYT and WaPo, much less the cables. She might have been worse on Afghanistan, too, but probably wouldn't have made the rookie mistakes in media messaging early on that Obama's team made. (Such as, assuming the WHPC et al will act like professionals instead of prissy prima donnas and gossipy fishwives.)

    Kerry, hard to say what would actually be different. I doubt he would have pushed half as hard to pass health care reform, assuming the same conditions wrt the economy and the two wars. And he is certainly no better at messaging than Obama. Would his approach to Afghanistan have been different? Who knows?

    But those three are not really "more liberal" than Obama, nor are they "less liberal." In fact, none of them are really liberal. They are mainstream centrists, but in the distorted rightwing-dominated bubble of the beltway, it looks like Marxism.

  5. I would still pick Obama over the other candidates. I'm not unhappy with the overall results, however, I've learned some things and I'm hoping that Obama has too. Mainly, the right will treat ANYTHING any Democrat does as if it's the most liberal policy imaginable. So to have the results end up even slightly liberal, you might as well shoot for the truly liberal policy so your compromise ends up closer to what you thought you could get.

    In other words, in hindsight, he should have gone for a $1.5 trillion stimulus and let them scale it back to 1 trillion. And I would have liked to see him make overtures towards single payer which could be scaled back to a strong public option. That mainly goes for the Blue Dogs - my theory is that they just wanted to score some points by moving policy to the right by a given amount and it didn't matter to them how far right the final result was.

    For the actual GOP, I don't know of a strategy that would work but letting them water down policy in committee that they were never going to vote for doesn't seem like the smartest tactic. How about making them promise publicly to vote for cloture as the price to be allowed to even enter the room during committee.

    Then again, had he done that I'd probably be complaining about the compromises just as much. I'm sure a lot of us are guilty of sometimes caring more about winning the current battle than making progress. And in Obama's defense, I'd take an ugly, narrow victory over going for broke and losing completely.

  6. Let me add one other thing. Your question is based on comparing Obama to the other candidates...and insinuating that all of us who are disappointed would have got the same leadership with any other Democratic president.

    First of all, how do you know that? For all you know, Hillary could have been elected and turned into the most liberal President this country has ever had. The fact is, you just don't know how any of them would have actually governed.

    The disappointment with Obama is very simple (and has nothing to do with what the other candidates would have done as President): In many ways, he has become the generic Democratic politician he was running against in 2008.

    Ask yourself this: do you think any base Democrat voted for Obama because they thought he'd be a centrist Democratic politician? Of course not. They (and I) thought he was going to be different. And we're disappointed because the way he has governed is not different. It's the same BS we've seen our entire lives with all sorts of other Democratic politicians.

    And that's where the disappointment lays.

  7. I don't see how any of those candidates would have handled things much differently. Seems to me they would have two options; go more liberal than Obama and get nothing done or go even more centrist than Obama and still not get any Republican support.

    I would assume Republicans weren't going to support any legislation from day 1 no matter who was president. Perhaps we don't see as many racist outbursts at tea party events. But people would still be angry at the state of the economy.

    The only way I see things being even slightly different is if Obama was a perfect storm that helped caused all of the tea party hoopla and conservative pundit outrage which might have scared the Blue Dogs. Maybe if they weren't so loud in their opposition a different president could have pushed through some more liberal legislation. Or if Obama had taken a more aggressive approach to fight back against their opposition it might not have been such a tough fight.

    But I doubt any of that would have made much a difference. The Blue Dogs would still be pretty concerned about keeping their seats and under even the best circumstances probably wouldn't have moved much to the left.

    I say that because I assume their policy preferences are pretty set in place. I haven't read much literature on media effects when it comes to policy preferences and voting. One of my professors, Heather Larsen-Price, is currently working on media effects. From what I've seen in her research it seems like the media can affect what legislators pay attention to. But I'm not sure it can actually change their vote.

  8. Limiting myself to HRC, who came closest:

    1. Gitmo, Justice Department court positions, detainee policy: Obama has done as poorly as I would have expected from HRC. Tie, but it shouldn't have been .

    2. Afghanistan. Obama, to whatever degree he means it when he says we will start the drawdown next July, still maintains a lead on HRC, who would be more of a poodle to the generals.

    3. ACA? Impossible to tell. Obama did both well and poorly at different times. It passed, but the passage seems more attributable to Reid & Pelosi than the White House.

    4. Stimulus. The smart play was to say $1.8 trillion is needed, and not too heavy on the tax cuts. Warn ominously that a lesser stimulus would help but not enough. Buttress with high-end unemployment forecasts. The stimulus that actually passed would likely be about the same, but now the Democrats would be in a good "I told you so" attack position, instead of defending overly rosy unemployment forecasts and blubbering that it would have been even worse.

    It seems like basic politics that when a mess is clearly the other side's fault (undisputed back then) you play up just how bad it is to keep it the other guy's fault and to pre-position good explanations when things stay bad (I told you $800B would not be enough, etc.). If you are wrong and the economy rebounds nicely you still get credit and you win. If you are right and things go badly you lose, but you lose with your credibility intact, and that is something.

    I suspect Clinton had the experience and the cynicism to play this right. She was post-bipartisan out of the gate, while Obama either harbored illusions or had promised too much comity, or both. Politically Obama flubbed it badly, and both Democrats and the country will pay.

    In hindsight HRC remains competitive with BHO. I was on the fence then, and for the most part BHO has performed about as expected. Smart, cautious, establishment oriented, happier with incremental change. Good political instincts but still green. The only surprise has been detainee policy.

    Knowing then what I know now, would I flip my vote? I think I would have flipped a coin.

  9. TWP,

    No, really, I'm not insinuating anything; I'm asking questions. And I'm finding the comments (yours included) interesting. Follow-up:

    What was it about Obama in 07-08 that you thought made him different than a "generic Democratic politician"? You say he "stood up for more liberal policies than the others did"...I'm really not convinced that's the case, but which policies are you thinking about?

  10. I think Obama has done significantly better than any of the other contenders would have. I once thought that Edwards would have done better, but I was clearly wrong. That said, I am still extremely disappointed in Obama. I think Obama has done more poorly than Obama could have done and that is the only real basis for comparision. He could have stopped torture, indefinite detention, and illegal rendition and he didn't. In many ways, that really is the start and end of it for me. Instead of stopping the moral decay eating at our society, he compromised with and was compromised by the seductive call of evil.

    He, with absolutely no political cost, could have changed the trajectory of executive power and he didn't. He could have appointed Dawn Johnsen as head of the OLC, but he didn't. He could have rejected the false assertions of "state secrets" of the Bush administration, but he didn't. These are actions he could have taken without Congressional approval.

    I don't think people really understand how corrupting to our society these failures have been and will be. All the tools of tyranny are now in place and endorsed by both major parties. Nearly everyone in the political class has been and continue to be complicit in this horrible travesty.

    I can deal with his compromises on health care. I think he could have done better, but I don't knopw that. On the issues of tyranny, I know he could have done better.

  11. To answer Jonathan's question, for many of us on "the left" (either liberal Dems or people like me well to the left of the Dems) what made Obama stand out was his early opposition to the Iraq War. It was a risky position to take for someone with national aspirations, even if it was somewhat tepid. He then became a harsh critic of the Bush national security state, and of many aspects of the more hawkish, screw diplomacy approach advocated at times by Hillary Clinton (recall her heavily chastising Obama for saying he would meet with the likes of Hugo Chavez).

    On health care, this is a guy who has been on record within the last decade as being pro-single payer, and who specifically said it's what we should do if we were starting from scratch. Simply having that understanding of our health care system differentiated him from a lot of others (Edwards talked an even better talk there) and made it seem possible that he would try to push us somewhat in that direction (in the end he did the opposite, further entrenching the power of the for-profit health care model).

    I think part of the issue is that what we now see as Obama's obvious pragmatism is coloring how we remember the primary campaign. Obama ran to Hillary's left on most issues and as the more "pure" candidate on the issue that had most angered progressives over recent years--the Iraq War. No one even gives a damn about Iraq anymore (unfortunately) but in 2007 this was still an ENORMOUS issue and from a left perspective Obama looked a heckuva lot better on issues of war and peace than most of the other Dems (Biden is another example of a hawk, and even Edwards supported the war initially).

    Finally, the man's biography is important to what seemed to make him different from the normal Dem. I remember thinking, "Regardless of what he thinks now, this is a guy who read Marxian and anticolonialist stuff when he was in college" (there were stories about his days at Colombia that suggested this was the case). Maybe I'm wrong about that, but my impression was always that Obama was probably far more informed by a truly "left" worldview than most Democrats, and even if it had become diluted it still might help push policy in a more progressive direction.

    Frankly anyone who says Obama was always "obviously centrist" (and you hear that a lot) is probably not remembering how much he played to both a progressive base and a more mainstream electorate in 2007-2008, which is basically when we all started really learning about him.

  12. I supported Hillary in the primaries, but if she had won I doubt the outcome would be very different, even in the best case scenario - and there is no way to know whether she'd have been as successful as Obama has been.

    From my perspective Obama has hit two astonishing home runs, the stimulus and health care, that exceed any Dem achievement in my adult lifetime. Both passed with nearly zero margin of error. I see no reason to believe that Hillary would have done better.

    The stimulus 'should' have been bigger, and the health plan 'should' have had a public option, but where were the votes going to come from? It is sheerest speculation to say that Obama should have started at $1.5 trillion and been bid down to $1 trillion. He might equally well have been bid down to 59 votes and gotten nothing through at all.

    I'll add that from my perspective as a Hillary supporter Obama did not run as a progressive, but rather as a goo-goo. His policy positions in the primaries were a (microscopic!) shade to the right of Hillary's, for example on health care. His big selling point was changing politics, something I never believed for a moment. It aggravated me during the primaries, so it is a relief rather than a disappointment that in practice he seems to have been a pretty shrewd vote counter.

    We're having this discussion mainly because the economy still sux. If Hillary had been elected, I think she'd have done, or tried to do, mostly the same things he has, but the economy would still suck.

  13. I'd have to agree with everyone who says that the choice isn't the Obama we got vs the other choices; it's the Obama we got vs the Obama we expected.
    I'd also have to agree that the issues that have been most disappointing to me have been issues on which Obama has the most control. The Repugs will be the Repugs, the Tea Party was going to be the Tea Party, and Ben Nelson was going to be the spineless weasel he's always been. No, where I'm disappointed with Obama is appointments, Gitmo, and the suite of issues around torture/rendition. These are squarely in his control. He could have done stuff, but he hasn't. Maybe he's been trying to tack to the "middle" on them. If it's been an attempt to make nice, I think he's fundamentally misread the Repugs. As we all know, if he's doing some things they like (Afghanistan, for example), that just means they won't talk about that and will push on the things they don't like. So, in a sense, not doing Gitmo could, possibly, have led to MORE objections on the domestic stuff, instead of the fight on Gitmo. Perhaps Obama thought that they could win the domestic argument better than the terror one. But that seems both dubious and a weak argument to me.

    I don't blame Obama for having to compromise with Congress, although I think he might have done it a little better. I blame Obama for not doing the things he could do by himself.

  14. I have a question for someone more informed than I.

    I appreciate the general idea of negotiation and bidding your ideal down in order to give a 'victory' even if premeditated to the opposition. But at what point does your starting point make you appear not to be acting in good faith, and then the bill comes crashing down and nothing gets passed at all?

    I want to make the comparison to Clinton's Health Care starting big, though I wonder if the White House led process also played some role in its defeat? And if you leave congress to start mapping out a piece of legislation can/will they open the bidding so highly?

  15. A great thread. I have any, many friends who have been intensely disappointed by Obama. I have been less so, but I agree that his positions on the WOT issues have been very, very wrong-headed. In the other Sunday thread, I commented that Obama's character is a very important piece of the puzzle. Obama just thinks that achieving consensus is always the best outcome and is willing to lose quite a bit in the attempt to achieve it. In terms of the WOT issues, I think Obama genuinely believed he could avoid criticisms from the right, and charges of weakness, if he did not deviate too far from Bush's policies. Now, why he would think that, is because he assumes good faith.

    This strikes many as naive. But as someone who works with policymakers and relatively elite levels of government, you would be surprised how elites view other elites.

    Many elites really think that, when the doors are closed, when the mikes are turned off, and when the cameras are not on, they can deal with other elites in good faith. I think that this may have even been the case once, although I don't know.

    So if you want to be disappointed in Obama, I would say that your bet case is that you didn't think he would act just like another Beltway elite. Not that he has ben 'centrist.' It's not really idological, it's character.

  16. I might be the wrong person to answer, too, as I'm fairly happy with Obama. But I think there's some value here to thinking about what the others might've done.

    I could go through each one, but let's just run down the list quickly- Clinton would be about the same, but probably no health care (she gave herself the biggest "out" in the primaries, and her top political advisor ditched it after August). Biden would have us out of Afghanistan, but, by his own admission, probably no health care. Edwards and Dodd are so mired in scandal it's really not worth asking, though I guess they both would've asked for (And Dodd might've gotten) more progressive policies. Richardon would have pretty good relations with everyone and probably would focus on the economy, but I don't know that he could've moved it; Kerry might- might!- take us out of Afghanistan, but would've focused on Climate instead of HCR, and given his political skills, might not have gotten it; Dean would've had a better HCR bill and be winding down Afghanistan, but his Congressional relations would be too poor to pass much (and his stimulus might be smaller, even; he was a deficit hawk as governor); I guess with Gephardt we would've had EFCA, and I can't even remember what Clark ran on.

    So I think there's strong arguments that Biden, Dodd (if you ignore the scandal), and Dean (if you assume he could get Congress on board) would be better. What strikes me, though, is how thoroughly the voters rejected those three.

  17. Excellent thread. I wanted to address Anonymous' interesting question about starting positions in negotiations. A few commenters above suggest that Obama should have started with a bigger number on the stimulus, a more progressive position on health reform, etc., since he'd need to compromise anyway.

    This may be true, but starting from a more aggressive negotiating position is not a costless exercise. As Anonymous points out, it can engender a reputation for negotiating in bad faith, which hurts you down the road. It also has the effect of demoralizing your supporters. If Obama had started from the position that we needed a $1.8T stimulus and single-payer health insurance, and then compromised those down to pretty much what he got anyway, liberals would be even more demoralized than they are now. And it wouldn't have done much for Obama's reputation, either. Right now, with important victories on the stimulus, health reform, student loans, and financial regulation, Obama is considered an effective pragmatist. That sounds a lot better than ineffectual liberal.

    Oh, and for what it's worth, my recollection was that Obama and HRC were virtually indistinguishable policy-wise, with her maybe slightly to his right on foreign policy and slightly to his left on the individual mandate on health care, a position he ended up adopting anyway. Edwards was notably to the left of both of them.

  18. I agree with Seth's comments.

    Liberals tend to believe that the moderates -- Nelson, Snowe, Collins, Specter back during the stimulus days, Lincoln -- have no policy preferences at all, and only care about being perceived as moderate, which in all cases translates into whatever the liberals (or conservatives) want, only a bit less. I don't think that's a totally nuts possibility, but I think liberals don't factor in the possibility that moderates could just walk away once the entire policy gets defined as liberal.

    I'd also say, and I've read some but not all of the reporting on the stimulus, that it's very possible that the initial public WH position already took into account informal negotiations with the moderates.


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