Obama and Liberals: A Counter-Productive Relationship
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Published on Friday, February 13, 2009 by Salon.com
The New Republic 's John Judis today has an excellent analysis of the politics behind the stimulus package -- one which applies equally to most other political controversies. Judis argues that the stimulus package ended up being far inferior to what it could have been and points to this reason why that happened:
But I think the main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket. . . .
A member of one liberal group, Campaign for America's Future, pronounced the stimulus bill "a darn good first step." MoveOn -- as far as I can tell -- has attacked conservative Republicans for opposing the bill, while lamely urging Democrats to back it. Of course, all these groups may have thought the stimulus bill and the bailout were ideal, but I doubt it. I bet they had the same criticisms of these measures that Krugman or The American Prospect's Ezra Klein or my own colleagues had, but they made the mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician.
By extremely stark contrast, Paul Krugman today explains why Republicans are so unified in their opposition to this bill and their willingness to uphold the principles of their supporters:
One might have expected Republicans to act at least slightly chastened in these early days of the Obama administration, given both their drubbing in the last two elections and the economic debacle of the past eight years. But it's now clear that the party's commitment to deep voodoo - enforced, in part, by pressure groups that stand ready to run primary challengers against heretics - is as strong as ever.
[Though I agree with Krugman's principal point here, I dislike his use of the word "heretics" here. It invokes one of the worst myths in our political discourse: the idea that there's something wrong, intolerant or "Stalinist" about pressuring or even campaigning against incumbents "from one's own party" who advocate positions that you think are bad and wrong. That activity happens to be the essence of democracy, and we need more, not less, of it. If anything is Stalinist, it's the sky-high incumbent re-election rates and the sense of entitlement in our political class that incumbents should not ever face primary challenges even if they support policies which the base of the party reviles. Why shouldn't GOP voters who love tax cuts and hate government domestic spending, regardless of whether they're right or wrong, demand that their elected representatives support those views (in exactly the same way that Democratic incumbents who supported the Iraq war and/or Bush's lawless surveillance state should have been targeted for defeat)?]
But Krugman's larger point is correct: Republican groups demand from politicians support for their beliefs. By contrast, as Judis describes, Democratic groups -- including (perhaps especially) liberal activist groups -- now (with some exceptions) lend their allegiance to the party and its leader regardless of how faithful the party leadership is to their beliefs. That disparity means that there is often great popular agitation and political pressure exerted from the Right, but almost none from the Left (I'm using the terms "Left" and "Right" here in their conventional sense: "Right" being the core of the GOP and "Left" being those who most consistently and vigorously opposed Bush's foreign and domestic policies).