Government by Extortion

It’s hard to see Obama’s capitulation to the Republican agenda as anything but a giant stumble and, perhaps, a deal-killing error in liberal confidence. I’m sure there are those who think it a purposeful betrayal on his part — that big power always sticks together for the continuance of big power and this is about money the plutocracy considers theirs. I’m not one of those.

From ThinkProgress:

    A poll conducted before, during, and after the tax negotiations found that Americans “don’t approve of keeping the breaks for upper-income taxpayers” in Obama’s deal. While two-thirds favor a permanent extension middle-class tax cuts, only a third support keeping the lower rates for highest earners and more than a quarter say all the tax cuts should expire on Dec. 31, as scheduled.

    A new Survey USA poll finds that 74 percent of those who contributed to Obama’s presidential campaign are against his tax cut deal. The poll also finds that 57 percent of contributors are less likely to donate to Democrats who support the deal, and 51 percent are less likely to donate to Obama in 2012 because of the deal.

I consider this proposal abhorrent but allowing these tax cuts to sunset was ALWAYS going to be a hard sell — that’s because the American people are so brain-dead on the topic of taxation that they can’t see straight. As reigning frame-masters, the Pubs have warned against RAISING these taxes over the last years when, in fact, it’s not raising to allow LOWERING to expire. Semantics, I know — but context, as well. We Americans have become a bit insane about the topic, as the Tea Party illustrates, and unable to see how necessary in the long-term a tax hike might be in order to straighten ourselves up.

I see no other alternatives, ultimately, but nobody is brave enough to even talk about that … easier to discuss rolling back Social Security and allowing our schools, police force, libraries and public services to tank. Really? Hell in a hand basket is better than chipping in a little more? [Here is where a good percentage of our nation rises as one, finger on the trigger, and yells, DAMNED TOOTIN'!]

Still, I find it soul-withering to give over this amount of money, during a national economic emergency, to people who don’t need it — money that will neither stimulate the economy nor create jobs, money we have to borrow and finance. I find negotiation with terrorists, as I consider a Republican Party that make no bones about pulling the government down if that will eliminate Obama, completely reprehensible and I will quote my [unpublished] Saturday article and tell you that I couldn’t have done this deal with them. But then, I don’t have 2 million apoplectic citizens yanking on my sleeve asking what will happen to them when the money gives out nor do I face a Republican House that will put forth no future Democratic bill unless they have a piece of the pie … and maybe not even then.

Bottom line, however, neither do I have confidence in the long-term establishment agenda or financial machinery of this nation so — there it is there. If you see yourself as a president with a mandate of reform, you behave one way; if you see yourself as a CEO with obligations to shareholders, you behave in another. Obama has a foot in both those worlds.

We have read that he believes that Congress is more effective and appropriate a law-making body than is the Executive and is reluctant to use his power to override. We also know he’s surrounded himself with Clintonian advisors and appears to be triangulating

… an aside, here. Those who have buyers remorse at this juncture, thinking that perhaps Hillary would have made a more decisive, battle-ready Prez need to look at the paragraph above. Her advisors and supporters would have been the same ones Obama is being carried by and while there might have been differences in style, at this point there seems too little difference in probable substance between the two to matter much [gender aside -- we didn't get the first woman this time, we got the first African-American.] …

… Katrina vanden Heuvel writes this about the left-shifting mandate that eludes the president thus far:

    This daunting project is not a matter of ambition or appetite – or even unconscious Kenyan socialism. It is the necessary function of a progressive president elected in the wake of calamitous conservative misrule. Every entrenched corporate and financial interest stands in the way; it is easier to take a less confrontational path. President Bill Clinton, for example, found it convenient to join in the conservative project of corporately defined trade, financial deregulation and social welfare constriction. From NAFTA to the repeal of welfare and the failure of labor law reform, to deregulating derivatives and repealing Glass-Steagall, he got his agenda wrong. He was seduced far more by Wall Street’s Robert Rubin than by Monica Lewinsky.

    Now Obama faces the same challenge. This isn’t about conventional politics. This is simply about the fate and future of our country. This president has a clear and imperative historic mandate. If he shirks it, he risks more than failing to get reelected. He risks a failed presidency.

As hateful as is this bill — and I think it may well come to vote and pass — it is still temporary. And so, supposedly, are the proposed cuts to payroll taxes and THAT is a VERY DANGEROUS path, denying money to a fund that has deep roots in each of our lives. In advance of the punitive push to turn Social Security back, such a move seems to telegraph the administrations thoughts on this which is increasingly worrisome. And admit it — we are looking at the difficulty in turning back a tax cut right now — when it comes time to allow a payroll tax to expire, who will willingly allow?

I’m not pleased with much of this, and neither should you be. On the other hand, we’re seeing the kind of extortion the right has planned for us, and the pressures that are pushing Obama — don’t miss the Howard Kurtz piece; it feels like an authentic peek behind the curtain — a little déjà vu of what politics has devolved to in the cosmic soup of 2010. If we REALLY LOOK, we can see what ails us … and everything is set up for that bitch-slap moment when we really REALLY look.

If you’re the visual type, Jon Stewart gave us a nice piece of Obama frustration, here. Think about being the guy everybody blames and/or turns to in this cosmic mess — as my angelic-family sez, “What am I doing on a level of consciousness where this is real?”

I’m giving you a bonus read today, the kind of well-deserved rant I so appreciate. Unable to go home this year, I got stuck in the Pea Patch for hunting season and have had to face the rural zeitgeist of gutted deer carcasses hanging from porch beams everywhere and old boyz strutting around waving guns. This sickens me, literally, and I always try to avoid it.

I’m not airy-fairy on all this, I know that much of this kill becomes dinner options for those living on marginal incomes around here; in that, I acquiesce. But there is a LOVE of the blood sport in parts like these that can’t be denied, thick as congealing blood and as disturbing to me. I think of the Greg Bageant book, Deer Hunting With Jesus, about his redneck roots and the consciousness of his fellows, and have to remember that when you have become powerless in your life, those few places where you still exercise power become an almost giddy narcotic. Killing is one of those places, evidently. Ask Sister Palin — and read what West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin had to say about her killing fields, to my great satisfaction.

Remember to go over to the Planet Waves blog on Saturday for a larger picture of Obama and taxes. Think of it as a preface to the Will Pitt piece, below.

Good weekend, dearhearts. Try not to hurt your holiday-obligated self.

Jude

The Heartbreak of Premature Capitulation
Michael Winship, Smirking Chimp
12/09/10

Inside Obama’s Tax-Cut Gamble
Howard Kurtz, The Daily Beast
12/08/10

Liberals are furious over the White House decision to extend all the Bush tax cuts. But behind the scenes, Obama pushed Democrats for a better way. Howard Kurtz on the president’s frustrations.

As he inched his way toward a compromise that would infuriate his most liberal supporters, President Obama challenged leading Democrats in Congress to find a better alternative.

“What’s your plan?” he asked at one meeting.

In a series of Oval Office and Roosevelt Room gatherings with such key Democrats as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—joined at various times by Vice President Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Budget Director Jack Lew—Obama repeatedly steered the discussion toward economics and the dangers of delay.

Unemployment was close to 10 percent, not 6 percent, Obama would say in his serious and sober style. Are we going to get a better deal from John Boehner’s House? Can we get it done by January or February? How do you know the maneuvering won’t drag on until spring? What is your strategy? “Can I really take the gamble?” he asked.

Whatever the substantive case for the compromise, Obama’s decision—and his exasperated defense of the art of the possible at Tuesday’s news conference—made clear that he is steamed at elements in his own party as well as the press. The move signaled that whatever the level of vitriol, he is not going to change his measured, let-us-reason-together approach to the presidency, not even when a partisan brawl would make his supporters feel immeasurably better.

Knowledgeable sources—who described how Obama became convinced that the Democrats couldn’t deliver something better—obviously want to portray a president motivated by principle. But the financial team was truly concerned about allowing an average tax hike of $3,000 in an anemic economy.

President Barack Obama makes a statement on tax cuts and unemployment insurance at the White House in Washington on Dec. 6, 2010. (Photo: Joshua Roberts / Reuters) “There is no desire to triangulate or distance ourselves from Democrats,” a senior administration official said. “We’d prefer to get 100 percent of their support. The president’s just trying to do the best possible for the economy under divided government.”

“There is no desire to triangulate or distance ourselves from Democrats,” a senior administration official said. “The president’s just trying to do the best possible for the economy under divided government.”

Privately, Obama has expressed frustration that the liberal side—his side—has spent so much time sniping at him over the past year. The president, who reads several newspapers a day, believes the press has not adequately credited his accomplishments because it is obsessed with the day-to-day spin cycle.

These normally suppressed feelings burst into view when Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman asked the president about his “core values” and what he would “go to the mat on.”

Obama pushed back hard, saying he had passed a health-care measure “that Democrats have been fighting for for a hundred years,” but because it didn’t contain a public option that would have benefited perhaps 2 million people, his liberal detractors considered that “a sign of weakness and compromise.” It was all well and good for Democrats to dig in and feel “sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are,” but without some kind of dealmaking, they “will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.”

Administration officials concede that their deal with the GOP leadership—which some congressional Democrats are loudly assailing—is a hold-your-nose proposition. They especially detest the lower estate-tax rate they had to swallow, which they expect will funnel an additional $12 billion a year to the richest of rich families. But they fervently believe they extracted important concessions beyond another 13 months of jobless benefits: a payroll-tax reduction and a continuation of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides refunds to the working poor and which most Republicans view as thinly disguised welfare.

On balance, Obama told his aides, it would be irresponsible to play chicken with the economy and treat millions of Americans as collateral damage, The problem, of course, is that the tax deal was a “read my lips” moment in reverse for Obama. He campaigned on ending the Bush tax breaks for families earning more than $250,000, and repeated that vow throughout his tenure—only to trade it away this week. He declined to follow the Chuck Schumer approach of refusing to extend the tax breaks for millionaires and taking the fight into the new Congress, daring the Republicans to defend that position and pressuring them to reverse the automatic tax hike that would take effect on New Year’s Day.

The White House view is that congressional Democrats would have ultimately caved, leaving Obama with an embarrassing loss after he had raised the stakes. David Axelrod said Wednesday that the administration decided not to “play Russian roulette with people’s lives” for the sake of—switching metaphors here—staging “a kind of kabuki dance for a while longer in order to exact some political advantage that might risk having people’s taxes go up January 1st.” Left unspoken was the suggestion that while other Democrats preferred political games, Obama was acting as the centrist defender of the middle class.

Economic adviser Larry Summers provided the scary music, telling reporters that failure to reach an agreement “would materially increase the risk that the economy would stall out and we would have a double-dip,” as in a second recession.

But how did things reach this desperate moment? Some administration officials acknowledge they allowed the opposition to box them in by failing to push something through before the election; others say they simply lacked the requisite 60 votes in the Senate. Whatever the cause, they knew they would pay a price with a liberal base that already views Obama as an indifferent leader who refuses to stand up to Republican obstructionists.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, for one, did not disappoint. “Mr. President, for these meager crumbs, you have given up costly, insulting, divisive, destructive tax cuts for the rich, and you have given in to Republican blackmail, which will be followed by more Republican blackmail… It is not disloyalty to the Democratic Party to tell a Democratic president he is wrong,” he declared. “It is not disloyalty to tell him he is goddamned wrong.”

Obama, who has criticized the Beltway media as an “echo chamber” and likened cable news to “WWF wrestling,” sees himself as operating on a higher plane.

“Not everybody agrees with us,” he reminded his side Tuesday. “I know that shocks people. The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page.”

But it seems fair to say they permeate his thinking, and past slights have not been forgotten. When Obama was struggling to negotiate a South Korean free-trade agreement, “I remember a story above the fold.” When he got the deal, “the story was sort of below the fold.” This is a president who worries about front-page placement.

By one measure, Obama’s aides feel vindicated: The major forecasting firms have upped their economic-growth estimates by as much as a full percentage point.

But leadership is more than an assemblage of intellectually correct positions. Abolishing costly tax breaks for the affluent—remember all that high-minded talk about cutting the deficit?—has been a fundamental Obama theme from the day he declared his candidacy. He has a troubling tendency to let debates spin out of control before stepping in at the eleventh hour to offer a reasonable-sounding compromise, angering the liberals who were fighting for what they thought was his bedrock position.

And in this case, Obama folded on an issue where polls show a majority of Americans already agree with him.

The gamble might succeed; if the economy improves, most voters aren’t likely to be terribly ticked off that their taxes didn’t go up. But Obama’s liberal loyalists are left wondering whether their man can truly draw any lines in the sand that aren’t eventually eroded by the dusty swirl of compromise. ++

The President’s Last Stand Is No Stand At All: Why the Tax Deal is an Abomination
Robert Reich
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The deal the President struck with Republican leaders is an abomination.

It will cost $900 billion over the next two years — larger than the bailout of Wall Street, GM, and Chrysler put together, larger than the stimulus package, larger than anything that’s come out of Washington in years.

It makes a mockery of deficit reduction. Worse, the lion’s share of that $900 billion will go to the very rich. Families with incomes of over $1 million will reap an average of about $70,000, while middle-class families earning $50,000 a year will get an average of around $1,500. In addition, the deal just about eviscerates the estate tax — yanking the exemption up to $5 million per person and a maximum rate of 35 percent.

And for what?

Wealthy families won’t spend nearly as large a share of what they get out of this deal as will middle-class and working-class families, so it doesn’t do much to stimulate the economy.

The deal further concentrates income and wealth in America — when it’s already more concentrated than at any time in the last 80 years.

The bits and pieces the President got in return — extended unemployment benefits, a continuation of certain small tax benefits for the middle class — are peanuts. After last week’s awful jobs report, Senate Republicans would have been forced to extend unemployment insurance anyway.

It’s politically nuts. Polls showed most Americans are against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

It would have been a defining issue for the President to use to show whose side he’s on (the middle and working class) and whose side the Republicans are on (not the middle and working class). And given that the House turns over to Republicans in January, the President probably won’t have another chance like this one.

It loses him even more of his “base” — by which I mean people who think of themselves as Democrats and are committed to the ideal of equal opportunity and don’t want the nation to become even more of a plutocracy.

It makes him look weak — Republicans got everything they wanted. And when a President looks weak, he is weak.

House and Senate Democrats should reject this abomination.

The President should get himself new advisors. ++

Whose side is the White House on anyway?
The president should know that, as Lincoln told Congress in 1862, he “cannot escape history”
James K. Galbraith, Salon
Wednesday, Dec 8, 2010

The text of this speech, which was delivered at the Americans for Democratic Action Education Fund’s Post-election Conference last month, originally appeared at new deal 2.0 and is republished with permission

I want to raise a hard question — a question on which Americans are divided. It seems to me, though, we will get nowhere unless we realize where we are, what has actually happened, and what the future most likely holds.

Recovery begins with realism and there is nothing to be gained by kidding ourselves. On the topics that I know most about, the administration is beyond being a disappointment. It’s beyond inept, unprepared, weak, and ineffective. Four and again two years ago, the people demanded change. As a candidate, the President promised change. In foreign policy and the core economic policies, he delivered continuity instead. That was true on Afghanistan and it was and is true in economic policy, especially in respect to the banks. What we got was George W. Bush’s policies without Bush’s toughness, without his in-your-face refusal to compromise prematurely. Without what he himself calls his understanding that you do not negotiate with yourself.

It’s a measure of where we are, I think, that at a meeting of Americans for Democratic Action, you find me comparing President Obama unfavorably to President George W. Bush.

In economic policy it was said earlier we have a lack of narrative. This afternoon, Gregory King asked why the people didn’t know that the Republican Party is uniformly and massively opposed to job programs, to state and local assistance, and to every legislative measure that might aid and promote economic recovery from the worst crisis and recession in modern times. Why is that that they didn’t know? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the White House didn’t tell them?

And why was that?

The president deprived himself of any chance to develop a narrative from the beginning by surrounding himself with holdover appointments from the Bush and even the Clinton administrations: Secretary Geithner, Chairman Bernanke, and, since we’re here at Harvard, I’ll call him by his highest title, President Summers. These men have no commitment to the base, no commitment to the Democratic Party as a whole, no particular commitment to Barack Obama, and none to the broad objective of national economic recovery that can be detected from their actions.

With this team the president also chose to cover up economic crime. Not only has the greatest wave of financial fraud in our history gone largely uninvestigated and unpunished, the government and this administration with its stress tests (which were fakes), its relaxation of accounting standards, which permitted banks to hold toxic assets on their books at far higher prices than any investor would pay, with its failure to make criminal referrals where these were clearly warranted, with its continuation in office — sometimes in acting capacities — of some of the leading non-regulators of the earlier era, has continued an ongoing active complicity in financial fraud. And the perpetrators, of course, prospered as never before: reporting profits that they would not have been able to report under honest accounting standards and converting taxpayer support into bonuses; while at the same time cutting back savagely on loans to businesses and individuals, and ramping up foreclosures, much of that accomplished with forged documents and perjured affidavits.

Could the president and his administration have done something? Yes, they could have. Where was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation? Why did they choose not to implement the law — the Prompt Corrective Action law — which requires the federal government to take into receivership financial institutions when there is a significant risk of large taxpayer losses to the insurance fund? Where were the FBI and the Department of Justice? Did the President do anything? No. Is he doing anything now? No. Why not? The most likely answer is that he did not want to. My understanding, in fact, is that there was one meeting where this issue was raised, and the president stated that his economic team had assured him they had the situation under control.

On the larger economic policy front, the White House gave away the game from the beginning. How? First by guessing at the scale of the disaster. When leading economic advisers (I believe, in fact, it was President Summers) announced that the unemployment rate would peak at 8%, they not only guessed wrong, but gave away the right to assign responsibility to the previous administration when things got worse. This was either elementary bad politics or deliberate self-sabotage. But it gets worse. The optimistic forecast helped to justify a weak program. Useful things were done, but not nearly enough to convey the impression of a forceful policy to the broader public. Then once the banks were taken care of and the stock market took off again, it seems clear that the team at the White House didn’t care anymore.

Again, could they have done differently? Of course. The president could have told the truth, which is that we faced a historic meltdown, a collapse of the core financial institutions of our economy, and that we had really no way of knowing how bad economic conditions might get or how long this would endure and that therefore the situation would require a full mobilization: all resources, all hands on deck, major departures of policy, no holding back, and the responsibility for trouble and failure falling plainly on those who would obstruct the course. None of the people he chose to advise him on economic policy was remotely capable of thinking in those terms.

We’ve learned from Vic Fingerhut and Mike Lux that the administration went down in public esteem when people realized it was working for the banks and not for them. Why did they think this? Why did they go from “blaming Bush and Wall Street to blaming Obama and Wall Street”? Because plainly they could see what was in front of their faces. Except in manner, President Bush never really pretended to be a President for ordinary folks; President Obama did. Bush was who he was; Obama held out, fostered, and promoted vast hopes, mobilizing the American population behind his leadership on that basis. And he disappointed those hopes — to use a very harsh word, one could say he has betrayed those hopes. How can one therefore blame the voters for acting as they have acted?

What happens next? Let’s again not kid ourselves, we have lost a great many seats in the House of Representatives and the House of Representatives isn’t coming back into a Democratic majority in the near future. Simply because of the balance of exposures — the larger numbers of Democratic Senators exposed to reelection in the next cycle, the greatest likelihood is that the Senate will also go Republican in two years time. President Obama has set his course. He has surrounded himself with the advisers of his choice and as he moves to replace President Summers we hear from the press that the priority is to “repair the rift with his investors on Wall Street.” What does that tell you? It tells me that he does not have President Clinton’s fighting and survival instincts. I’ve not heard one good reason all day to believe that we are going to see from this White House the fight that we want, that he could win in two years, or any reason we should be backing him now.

The Democratic Party has become too associated with Wall Street. This is a fact. It is a structural problem. It seems to me that we as progressives need — this is my personal position — we need to draw a line and decide that we would be better off with an under-funded, fighting progressive minority party than a party marked by obvious duplicity and constant losses on every policy front as a result of the reversals in our own leadership.

What is at stake in the long run? Two things, mainly, in my view. First, it seems to me that we as progressives need to make an honorable defense of the great legacies of the New Deal and Great Society — programs and institutions that brought America out of the Great Depression and bought us through the Second World War, brought us to our period of greatest prosperity, and the greatest advances in social justice. Social Security, Medicare, housing finance — the front-line right now is the foreclosure crisis, the crisis, I should say, of foreclosure fraud — the progressive tax code, anti-poverty policy, public investment, public safety, and human and civil rights. We are going to lose these battles– get used to it. But we need to make an honorable fight, to state clearly what our principles are and to lay down a record which is trustworthy for the future.

Beyond this, bold proposals are what we should be advancing now; even when they lose, they have their value. We can talk about job programs; we can talk about an infrastructure bank; we can talk about Juliet Schor’s idea of a four-day work week; we can talk about my idea of expanding Social Security and creating an early retirement option so that people who are older and unemployed or anxious to get out of the labor force can leave on comfortable terms, and so create job openings for younger people who, as we’ve heard today, are facing very long periods of extremely aggravating and frustrating unemployment; we can talk about establishing a systematic program of general revenue sharing to support state and local governments, we can talk about the financial restructuring we so desperately need and that we’ll have to have if we are going to have a country which has a viable private credit system and in which large financial power is not constantly dictating the terms of every political maneuver.

We are not going to get these things, but we should have a clearly defined program so that people know what they are. And then, frankly, as was said earlier today, said most elegantly by Jeff Madrick, in the long run we need to recognize that the fate of the entire country is at stake. Its governance can’t be entrusted indefinitely to incompetents, hacks, and lobbyists. Large countries can and do fail, they have done so in our own time. And the consequences are very grave: drastic declines in services, in living standards, in life expectancies, huge increases in social tension, in repression, and in violence. These are the consequences of following through with crackpot ideas such as those embodied in the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, as Jeff Madrick again outlined, such notions as putting arbitrary limits on the scale of government, or arbitrary limits on the top tax rate affecting the wealthiest Americans.

This isn’t a parlor game. The outcome isn’t destined to be alright. It will not necessarily end in progress whatever happens. What we do, how we proceed, and how we effectively resist what is plainly about to happen, matters very greatly for the future of our country, of our children, and of another generation to come. We need to lose our fear, our hesitation, and our unwillingness to face the facts. If we thereby lose some of our hopes, let’s remember the dictum of William of Orange that “it is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.”

The president should know that, as Lincoln said to the Congress in the dark winter of 1862, he “cannot escape history.” And we are heading now into a very dark time, so let’s face it with eyes open. And if we must, let’s seek leadership that shares our values, fights for our principles, and deserves our trust. ++

Thinking About Bobby
William Rivers Pitt, t r u t h o u t
Tuesday 07 December 2010

Last week, I kicked President Obama squarely in the teeth for his decision to abdicate the economic argument to the GOP by wasting everyone’s time with a freeze of Federal wages, his absurd apology for causing the noxious tenor that has defined the political conversation in America of late, his pathetic willingness to wave the white flag on the issue of Bush’s rich-people tax cuts, and worst of all, the revelation that he and his people actively thwarted a genuine search for justice that is most sorely needed: the investigation into war crimes perpetrated by the Bush administration, initiated by the Spanish government before being derailed by the Obama administration.

In retrospect, I think I actually went soft on him and the people currently polluting the White House with their abject inability to get out of their own way. I make no apologies, and am now of a mind to spend the next two years in full attack mode – no quarter given, none expected – if they continue to behave the way they did last week….last month…and, yeah, this whole last year. Sure, the president and his crew can claim some moments of success here and there, but the overall picture being painted thus far is that of an administration hopelessly in over its head, bereft of direction and integrity, drowning like a bunch of toddlers who wandered into the deep end of the pool without their water wings.

Mr. Obama, for all his myriad faults and failures, does not deserve to shoulder the entire budget of blame, however. The entire Democratic Party, with a few notable exceptions (of late: Grayson, Franken, Feingold, the lost Mr. Wellstone, and Dean, to name a few), has been in the weeds since time almost out of mind.

Why?

I can think of a few reasons. The pervasive corruption caused by the damfool idea that “Money = Speech,” validated by Supreme Court decisions like Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and the larger caustic concept that corporations are people – with the same rights and privileges of people – created a scenario where everyone involved in national power politics is bought, and so nobody is guilty. They have to be, if they want to get anywhere…but once they get somewhere, they’re already gone. The so-called “liberal” Democratic Party has been as much at that filthy trough as any of the worst Republicans who could be named. The difference is only a matter of inches; they are all bought and paid for to one degree or another, and that unavoidable fact defines our current political reality as solidly as slavery defined the American political realm 150 years ago…except this time, we are the slaves – white, black, brown, men, women, gay, straight…everyone who lacks a seven-figure bankroll – all of us wreathed in chains we cannot see, even as those chains restrain us fully and rob us of our freedom completely.

I also have an idea to explain why an entire generation of Democrats haven’t been worth a pot of piss, compared to those who came before. It has to do with five bullets, and the aftermath of that violence.

The GOP, for the last fifty years, has enjoyed the privilege of a brain-trust comprised of some seriously heavy hitters. Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Henry Kissinger, along with any number of what Hunter S. Thompson once called “awesome political mechanics,” have been on speed-dial to GOP headquarters since before the time of Reagan. Love them or hate them (and I’m no fan, believe me), but those men represented a vast ocean of political experience that was available to be tapped at any time of day or night. They are all mostly gone now, but that core of Wise-Old-Man leadership paid incredible dividends for the Republicans over the last five decades.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have been bereft of similar white-haired wisdom, thanks to five kill-shots that stole away individuals who, had they not been murdered, would have been an invaluable source of strategic thinking and backbone for the party. John Kennedy died in Dallas. His brother Robert died on a dirty kitchen floor in Los Angeles. Medgar Evers died in his driveway. Malcolm X – who, just before his murder, was moving away from open confrontation on the subject of race but still retained a level of intimidation and justified fury that demanded respect – was shot down after his Hajj compelled him to find a way past hatred and division. And, of course, Martin Luther King, who died in Memphis while standing up for garbage men, and the rest of us as well.

Jack. Bobby. Medgar. Malcolm. Martin.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Imagine what the Democratic Party would be like today if this generation of leadership had been able to enjoy the privilege of that generation’s wisdom. At a minimum, having a man like Dr. King, who preached about economic inequalities as eloquently as he preached about racial inequalities (because, in the end, those inequalities amount to the same thing), being available on the phone to talk something over, might have saved the current Democratic Party from selling itself to corporations. Having a man like Robert Kennedy, who went from being a right-bent Red-chaser and architect of the war in Vietnam to being an advocate for the poor and for peace, might have saved today’s Democrats from drowning all too deeply in the blood and death of Iraq and Afghanistan. Alas, we lost them, and here we are. It’s enough to make one believe in conspiracies…but I digress.

It’s a degraded age we live in, a time that many have been describing as the collapse of all that ever was America. It’s a hell of a time to be alive, a time that reminds one of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” It is a curse, indeed, and those of us who cleave to liberal and progressive ideals feel entirely abandoned, betrayed, demoralized…pick the word, and it will fit. Take the long view, however, and it becomes clear that this is not something that came about because of Mr. Obama or the current crop of “liberal” leaders.

They are merely avatars of a long-festering cancer. We have been without effective leadership for the length of this generation, and in a republic, that lack of leadership is the equivalent of having our throats cut. We have no voice within the leadership caste, and we are dying in a pool of our own American blood.

And yet, even now, I do believe the wisdom of those lost leaders can save us, restore our leadership, and bring us out of this darkness. Even now, I think about Bobby Kennedy, who was himself a walking contradiction, an example of the way leaders can function in a disreputable vein, change course, and finally emerge as true progressive leaders.

Had Bobby Kennedy died in that car with his brother in Dallas in 1963, modern liberals would not have a favorable opinion of him, I suspect. He allied himself with Joseph McCarthy during the Red-baiting era. He gutted the power of unions with his vendetta against Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. He owned a much-deserved reputation as a ruthless assassin during his time as John F. Kennedy’s campaign manager, and in his time as Attorney General during his brother’s truncated administration. He was one of the principal architects of the assassination of Diem and the Vietnam War that followed. His wife and children loved him, but in the first half of his time in politics, very few others did. Robert Kennedy enjoyed a reputation for being a brass-bottomed bastard for many, many years.

For sure, the modern Left would have little love for him had his career come to an end in 1963. But then his brother died, and something happened.

Bobby retreated into himself to nurse the unimaginable agony of yet another traumatic family loss. When he emerged, he journeyed to the poverty-raped places in America we only hear about in Woody Guthrie songs. He explored the abscess of poverty and racial inequality. He took a long look at the Vietnam War he helped create. He came to know the true nature of pain by way of his own sense of unspeakable loss.

And he came out the other side a different man, a genuine progressive.

A leader.

A book from 2008 by Thurston Clarke titled “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America,” describes a scene from the earliest moments of Bobby’s 1968 presidential campaign. Kennedy was to speak at Kansas State University. His advisors were understandably concerned about the content of his speech – KSU was, and remains, a reliably conservative university – but Bobby went out and laid it on the line.

Page 45:

    He opened his attack on President Johnson’s Vietnam policy with a confession and an apology. “Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public,” he said. “I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path.”

    He acknowledged that “the effort may have been doomed from the start” and admitted that the South Vietnamese governments that his brother had supported had been “riddled with corruption, inefficiency and greed,” adding, “If that is the case, as it well may be, then I am willing to bear my share of responsibility, before history and before my fellow-citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom…Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in the Antigone of Sophocles: ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride.’”

    His apology elicited the loudest cheers of the morning, perhaps because these students appreciated hearing an adult admit to a mistake, or because they, too, had been wrong.

    “I am willing to bear my share of responsibility, before history and before my fellow-citizens.”

    “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom.”

    “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil.”

    “The only sin is pride.”

Imagine that.

Imagine a leader able to stand before God and the people to proclaim the depth and breadth of their own personal failures. Imagine them able to say they were wrong, and they have changed, and here now is how it should be instead. Imagine the cheers from a modern American audience that has, all too often, shared in those bad choices, both in opinion and at the ballot box, and can find within themselves the ability to admit those errors and move in a better direction because they have a leader before them willing to do the same.

Imagine a leader.

The Democrats once enjoyed the presence of Bobby Kennedy. They would do well to remember him today. The same lessons are available to Republicans, if they have ears to hear.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is not too late. ++

bonus

West Wing creator calls Sarah Palin’s reality show a ‘snuff film’John Byrne, Raw Story
Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Aaron Sorkin, a creator of the hit television series The West Wing and the screenwriter of the recent film The Social Network, tore into Sarah Palin in a scathing Huffington Post blog Wednesday, labeling Palin’s new Learning Channel reality show a “snuff film.”

The hit writer also tore into Palin personally, dubbing her a “phony pioneer girl” and calling her “deranged.” He also said, “The Learning Channel should be ashamed of itself.”

Palin shot a caribou to death in an episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” this week, after missing it five times with a telescopic rifle, and is shown skinning the animal and freezing it. After shooting the animal, Palin appears “proudly smiling for the camera, crouching beside her kill,” according to an entertainment website.

Sorkin’s remarks came in response to a Palin Facebook posting, in which she said, “Unless you’ve never worn leather shoes, sat upon a leather chair or eaten meat, save your condemnation.” The posting appeared to pre-empt expected criticism of the show, as it was posted before the show aired.

Sorkin’s response? “You’re right, Sarah, we’ll all just go fuck ourselves now.”

“Like 95% of the people I know, I don’t have a visceral (look it up) problem eating meat or wearing a belt,” Sorkin wrote. “But like absolutely everybody I know, I don’t relish the idea of torturing animals. I don’t enjoy the fact that they’re dead and I certainly don’t want to volunteer to be the one to kill them and if I were picked to be the one to kill them in some kind of Lottery-from-Hell, I wouldn’t do a little dance of joy while I was slicing the animal apart.”

“I’m able to make a distinction between you and me without feeling the least bit hypocritical,” Sorkin added. “I don’t watch snuff films and you make them. You weren’t killing that animal for food or shelter or even fashion, you were killing it for fun. You enjoy killing animals. I can make the distinction between the two of us but I’ve tried and tried and for the life of me, I can’t make a distinction between what you get paid to do and what Michael Vick went to prison for doing. I’m able to make the distinction with no pangs of hypocrisy even though I get happy every time one of you faux-macho shitheads accidentally shoots another one of you in the face.”

His posting then continued apace, accusing Palin of killing the animal for “political gain.”

“You didn’t just do it for fun and you didn’t just do it for money,” Sorkin wrote. “That was the first moose ever murdered for political gain. You knew there’d be a protest from PETA and you knew that would be an opportunity to hate on some people, you witless bully. What a uniter you’d be — bringing the right together with the far right.”

Sorkin even acknowledged a previous cocaine addition in anticipation of his own character assassination by Palin supporters.

“Let me be the first to say that I abused cocaine and was arrested for it in April 2001,” he wrote. “I want to be the first to say it so that when Palin’s Army of Arrogant Assholes, bereft of any reasonable rebuttal, write it all over the internet tomorrow they will at best be the second.”

He concluded: “I eat meat, there are leather chairs in my office, Sarah Palin is deranged and The Learning Channel should be ashamed of itself.” ++

“I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.”
~ Barack Obama

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