Al Giordano’s incoherent defense
of Obama’s hard right turn over the last couple of weeks leaves a bad taste even if you don’t swallow it. The height of its inconsistency comes very early when Giordano berates those of us dismayed by Obama’s acceptance of the abominable FISA bill, his promise – which he repeated even more strongly this weekend
– to bring religion into government, his obeisance to the Wall Street Journal, and so on. Calling us “Chicken Littles” as a way to minimize Obama’s betrayal as well as our concerns, he asks politely if we wouldn’t “[p]lease put aside 28 minutes and 22 seconds today to give your full attention to the video of [the May 31st] speech” before we dare open our mouths again.
He then quotes it at length and spends several grafs of his most persuasive prose on how important what BO said was, ending with this:
As a writer, I believe that words should be powerful enough to stand on their own no matter who is writing them.
Which is in its turn followed by several more grafs giving his history and proving what a splendid fellow he is and how he, too, in his day was a dissenter. I can vouch for this, having met Al once or twice back in the 80’s when he was a real troublemaker.
Then there is a short history of dissent (centering around his own of course) which ends with this startling comment – startling, that is, if you took the first part of this diatribe seriously:
[F]or a number of years in my reckless youth I worked inside of political campaign staffs. And there’s one thing that is evident from that experience: What a candidate says while seeking office has little to no bearing on his or her actions upon obtaining that office.
Too many progressive activists suffer from the illusion that if they leverage a candidate during a campaign that getting him or her to say one thing or another will later translate into policy.
Candidates that clipped to the right turned out to govern quite progressively. Candidates that tacked to the left governed more conservatively, sometimes to authoritarian extremes.
In sum, I don’t think that anything that Obama or McCain say during the campaign is going to determine how each of them will govern.
Really? Can you like, name one Lefty who, once elected, governed “to authoritarian extremes”? Just one? Pretty please? Because I’m older than Al and until very recently I have observed no such phenomenon. LBJ? Not even close. Democrats, yes, but they were all Yellow Dogs – conservatives.
But did you note the central contradiction? He wants us to back off based on listening to Obama’s words, assuring us that “words should be powerful enough to stand on their own”, and then he wants us to shut up about Obama because, after all, no politician means what he says during a campaign and anyway his words don’t have anything to do with how he will govern.
So I’m a little confused, Al. Do you want me to listen to Obama’s words or ignore them?
The answer, of course, is that Al wants us to do whichever will shut us up. Because Mr Giordano is now part of the establishment, an Obama apologist who 20 years ago would have been raging about the gutting of the 4th Amendment but for whom these days, in his place at the (coming) center of power, it’s, like NBFD, man, so what’s all the anguish about? etc etc etc.
To prove he is (or wants to be) a DLC player all the way, he spends the next section of the piece regurgitating the very same DLC talking points we’ve been hearing since Clinton, assuring us that he once shared our concerns but has now overcome such childishness.
Among the baggage from the Clinton era of Democratic Party politics is this narrative about a nominee “moving to the center.” I myself have a hard time breaking out of it, even though I know it’s generally bullshit….
Of course, it’s not “bullshit”. It’s precisely and literally exactly what Clinton did and what the DLC/Blue Dog Alliance wants to expand – a move to the Right. Anybody – and Al really ought to know better – who thinks “welfare reform” was a liberal idea ought to check history. Clinton (and Al From) stole it from the Right, who were trying to sell that garbage back when Clinton was dodging the draft. Thus has Al learned from the DLC (who learned it from Lee Atwater and Karl Rove) to ignore reality and history, replacing them with his own little narrative pushing his particular sales pitch.
Then we get all the old DLC TP’s: Nader, Dukakis, the whole bag of tricks.
Let’s debunk this nonsense once and for all.
The Dukakis Myth
DLC propagandists have been throwing this one at us for 20 years and, frankly, that’s long enough. It wasn’t true to begin with and in any case it’s antiquated as hell. Here’s Giordano’s version, which differs very little from Al From’s.
And it’s also a popular myth these days in some circles that “moving to the right” is what has hurt previous Democratic nominees. That’s exactly the opposite of what happened to Michael Dukakis in 1988, whose 17-point lead in the polls was blown not because he moved to the right (he didn’t) but because he was unable to frame his more liberal views in a non-ideological or “post-partisan” manner.
This is such bullshit one hardly knows where to begin to debunk it. Just as the Right likes to set up straw men and count on our ignorance to let them stand, DLC propagandists have for two decades run this crap into the ground with little more than shreds of evidence to sustain it. No, Dukakis didn’t run to the right, he moved to the Right in order to run in the Center – the real Center, not the right-wing “center” conservatives insist on, a “center” to which their deepest beliefs are core and liberal beliefs are…unwelcome, a “center” which Giordano now accepts without flinching. The Duke’s loss had NOTHING WHATEVER to do with being “unable to frame his more liberal views in a non-ideological or ‘post-partisan’ manner.” That’s hindsight in all its glorious distortion. Either that or a deliberate misinterpretation – a la Karl Rove – in order to give DLC assumptions some weight. Either way, it’s nonsense.
Dukakis lost because he was a lousy candidate and Susan Estrich (another long-time DLCer) ran a lousy campaign. He lost because Lee Atwater emptied the bag of sleazy dirty tricks (Willie Horton, anyone? Al doesn’t mention him. Irrelevant, I guess) and then invented new ones (which Rove was to copy and go even deeper into the barrel of evil with). But frankly, here’s why he lost, and Al’s got it, but from the wrong end, like all DLCers.
From his disastrous debates where he boasted to be “a card carrying member of the ACLU” and his stammering, impersonal response when a CNN moderator asked him whether he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered, it was clinging to the left side of the divide that brought down that Democratic nominee.
Duke didn’t “boast” about being a member of the ACLU but he had the audacity to mention it without thinking it was something he needed to apologize for. That was enough for Atwater’s hit squad, and while it’s frustrating to find a so-called “liberal” like Giordano repeating Atwater’s attack, it’s perfectly predictable. The DLC was born out of the crucible of Dukakis’ loss, and it is an article of faith with them that Democrats can’t fight Republican propaganda, that their only hope is to do what the GOP wants so they won’t – theoretically – attack (see Harry Reid’s recent statement about why we “had to” pass FISA). Their second article of faith also follows Republican thinking – that you can’t win in America unless you run to the Right. That may have been true 20 years ago. The country was, at the time, enamored with Reagan’s aura and distracted by constant conservative propaganda that told them if they just believed in conservative principles, they’d get rich.
But that was then and this is now. In the meantime we’ve had to suffer through 12 years of GOP control of Congress, one term of a hapless Bush and two terms of a disastrous Bush separated by two terms of an ineffectual Pub-Lite president under constant attack by the Far Right. Economically, Bush had a free hand for 6 years with a Pub-majority Congress. We’ve had all the favored recipes of the Right in full Technicolor, unrestricted by either reality or common sense – deregulation, low tax policies, an unrestrained “free market” in which corporations were allowed to run amok with neither regulations nor oversight, privatized health care – and have had a chance to see and evaluate the results. According to the polls, we don’t like what we see. We’re more frightened of our economic future than we’ve been since they started measuring it, we’ve had 5 straight months of growing unemployment, a stock market that’s falling like a stone off a cliff, and we’re in a Recession without end looking very much as if it won’t be long before it becomes a major Depression rivaling the 30’s. From this angle, right-wing economics looks dangerous at best, disastrous at worst. We ain’t so crazy about it any more.
We dislike conservative social policies (growth of poverty, removal of the safety net, anti-worker edicts, etc), conservative imperialist war policies – enormous deficits, torture – even more. In fact, we don’t like what’s happened to the country under conservatives because it’s finally dawning on us that under the GOP only those already rich get richer. Everybody else gets poorer. Including the nation as a whole.
As Americans we’re also (finally) having trouble with the conservatives’ “screw the other guy” philosophy as we see poverty and hunger grow before our eyes, jobs disappearing over the horizon, sick kids with no health insurance, old people with no place to live, homelessness growing like a cancer, etc. The usual conservative mantra about how the poor are only poor because they’re lazy breaks down when the middle class becomes poor through no fault of their own but because of govt policies that favor the rich at everybody else’s expense. They have been 7 hard years and hard lessons were learned. Conservatism no longer sounds like the clarion call to wealth so much as what it really is – a promise to strip you of everything good in life so your rich neighbors can buy a new yacht.
It isn’t setting well. We want CHANGE. Al and the DLC mavens apparently think “change” means a new name and face attached to the same old policies. It doesn’t. This is NOT 1988. The pendulum is swinging the other way, Al. Our way . But you’re too scared of 1988 to take advantage of it? Get over it.
As for Duke’s supposedly “stammering, impersonal response” to a torpedo of a question planted by Lee Atwater, Giordano is basically accepting the wisdom and use of infotainment-style “How long have you been beating your wife?” questions, questions designed to elicit confusion and get a meaningless but punchy sound bite that embarrasses a celebrity. It was – and still is – sabotage “journalism” and ought to be condemned, not accepted mildly with the blame put on the perp instead of the victim. Remember, we expect these kind of questions now but we only expect them because that one was fired at Duke, out of the blue. In those days no one expected shoddy, vindictive, National Inquirer-type questions at the level of a presidential debate. No one at the time (except me) thought the GOP would sink that low. We learned just how low they would sink (and how tightly they were tied to our corporate media) from that very question, and from the media’s absurdly childish response to it. Al, are you going to be as unforgiving when Obama does a bunk – as he will – when faced with an unprecedentedly dirty dirty-trick gets aimed at him and he can’t respond fast enough or personally enough or whatever flaw appears the Right will grab and keep throwing at him?
The fact of the matter is that Dukakis really lost not because he moved to the Center or looked silly wearing a helmet in a tank (Estrich’s monumentally stupid idea to make him more palatable to the military-minded Right) or stuttered when asked an abominably evil question or mentioned the ACLU without spitting at them. He lost because he didn’t look comfortable defending his liberalism. He waffled, made center-right noises, and seemed to be forever apologizing for being one. He came across – as many Democrats since have come across and for the same reasons – as a man who didn’t really believe what he was saying, or if he did, wasn’t willing to defend it much less fight for it. He didn’t need to “frame” his views in a “post-partisan” (whatever that means) manner, he needed to present them with passion and certainty. He did neither. He looked weak, sounded apologetic and unsure of himself and what he supposedly stood for. When Bush I refused even to use the word “liberal” because it was so horrible he couldn’t bring himself to say it (he called it “The L word” – another Atwater PR invention), Duke – no doubt on Estrich’s advice – stopped using it, too. He concentrated on “policy issues”, which made him seem remote and academic. Atwater convinced CNN to ask that loaded question on the basis of a meme he developed that Dukakis wasn’t exactly human but some sort of policy machine who had no feelings. He came across like that because he was running from the Left instead of embracing his liberalism and defending it.
And it has been that way with DLC-run candidates ever since. It is the reason – the core reason – why Kerry won by such a slim margin. It is the reason Gore was down in the polls until he dumped his DLC advisors late in the campaign and started running to the Left instead of away from it, at which point he began to pull ahead. It’s the reason Democrats have been perceived as opportunistic, grasping, weak, and evasive. What was needed was a national Democrat running unapologetically, with passion and fervor in his/her liberal beliefs. Had Dukakis done that instead of buckling under to Estrich’s cowardice, he could have, probably would have, won. Passion and commitment was what people were waiting to see. They never saw it.
And that, as Glenn Greewald makes clear, is what is currently threatening Obama’s candidacy as well.
[I]sn’t the perception that Obama is abandoning his own core beliefs — or, worse, that he has none — a much greater political danger than a failure to move to the so-called “Center” by suddenly adopting Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies? As a result of Obama’s reversal on FISA, his very noticeable change in approach regarding Israel, his conspicuous embrace of the Scalia/Thomas view in recent Supreme Court cases, and a general shift in tone, a very strong media narrative is arising that Obama is abandoning his core beliefs for political gain. That narrative — that he’s afraid to stand by his own beliefs — appears far more likely to result in a perception that Obama is “Weak” than a refusal to embrace Bush/Cheney national security positions.
What’s most amazing about the unexamined premise that Democrats must “move to the Center” (i.e., adopt GOP views) is that this is the same advice Democrats have been following over and over and which keeps leading to their abject failure. It’s the advice Kerry followed in 2004. It’s why Democrats rejected Howard Dean and chose John Kerry instead.
And in 2002, huge numbers of Congressional Democrats voted to authorize the attack on Iraq based on this same premise that doing so would enable them to avoid looking Weak on National Security. The GOP then based its whole 2002 campaign on attacking Democrats as Weak on National Security and the Democrats were crushed — because, having accepted rather than debated the GOP premises, there was no way to challenge GOP National Security arguments.
What Giordano and the other DLCers are arguing for is precisely the strategy that killed Dukakis and Kerry and Gore, and they’re talking and acting like it’s the only possible intelligent strategy and anybody who doesn’t go along is brain-dead.
I don’t think so.
The Nader Myth
This is one of the most pernicious of the DLC TP’s because if you buy into it, it freezes all political action contrary to DLC policy. It leaves no viable options to DLC control of the Democratic party and conservative Blue Dog control of leadership in Congress. Which is, of course, why they spend so much time propping it up. Here’s Mr Giordano’s take, only a slight variation on the usual DLC canard:
Too many progressive activists suffer from the illusion that if they leverage a candidate during a campaign that getting him or her to say one thing or another will later translate into policy. Ironically, it was Ralph Nader that pioneered that view of activism and we can all see to where it has naturally led him and some others after the frustration of decades of believing, despite the bad results, in a tactic that did not work.
Honesty is “a tactic that did not work”? A non-running campaign by a candidate who never expected to win and didn’t really want to is your template? Of course the more usual spike against Nader, of which this is a junior cousin, is that Gore lost the election because Nader split the Democratic vote just enough to make it close enouigh for Bush to steal.
Balderdash. Utter nincompoopery.
Let’s stick with the guilty parties, shall we? BUSH OPERATIVES STOLE THE 2000 ELECTION AND A FAR RIGHT SCOTUS AFFIRMED THE THEFT. Nader’s candidacy made NO DIFFERENCE to the outcome. It couldn’t have. The Bush operatives were going to steal enough votes to ensure his win NO MATTER WHAT. Anybody who doesn’t get that doesn’t get what the last 8 years have all been about, or understand the true nature of modern conservatism. Nader is innocent.
But by presenting Nader as an incalculable problem, a menace, and the reason Bush won, the DLC can fend off what they must know is the rebellion that will come from the Left. After all, they hijacked the party and turned it into a haven for moderate and not-so-far Right Republicans who run as Dems, then vote with the Pubs. It’s a way for the conservative DLC/BD Alliance to maintain power in the face of a challenge from the party base, who are mostly FDR Democrats and civil libertarians. If they maintain control of the national party, the New Democrats, the base’s only option is the formation of a Third Party built along Old Democrat populist lines. If the DLC is to prevent that, they need to make – and keep – the base scared about Democratic losses leading to future George W Bushes, a frightening propect indeed.
The problem for the DLC, of course, is the question of just how far they can go to the Right before the base doesn’t care any more and abandons them anyway, understanding at last that the New Dems are just going to continue to vote with the Old Pubs. That realization is going to happen sometime – is probably beginning to happen right now – and the tactics the DLC has picked to keep it at bay are the unsurprising right-wing tacks of minimizing the importance of the Democratic party’s betrayal of its roots and its base, and ridiculing anyone who doesn’t think the way they do as “Chicken Little’s” or worse. We’ve seen all this before, but it’s usually coming from the GOP. They have to keep us scared to keep us from bolting their corporate-friendly Republican-model party, and they know if we thought there was a snowball’s chance of fielding a significant third party challenge, we’d do it. So Giordano, playing the GOP/DLC game, warns us that if we disagree with his and his masters’ assessment, we’re stupid dissenters.
[T]he highest calling of patriotism is not dissent. It is smart dissent, that based not on self-indulgence or the blurting of one’s frustration’s out in ways that seek to share the panic or the misery, but based on – even sometimes against great odds – building the objective conditions by which we will win the important battles worth fighting.
Got that? If you disagree with his definition of “smart dissent”, you are self-indulgent, “blurting” (a word usually applied to very young children) out your “frustrations” because you don’t understand how they endanger the “important battles”, of which, naturally, the FISA isn’t one, you Chicken Little.
I spent so much time and space, even knowing it’s unlikely to be read, not because Giordano’s screed is insulting, elitist, condescending, and arrogant – which it is – but because it’s a clever and comprehensive picture of the major themes in DLC thinking and what we can expect for the future from him and the other conservative Dem propagandists.
I need to be clear about one point: THIS ISN’T ABOUT OBAMA. It’s about the control conservatives have taken of the Democratic party and the way they’re taking that party away from the Left and even the Center and planting it firmly on the Right. Obama is just the poster boy, the latest vessel of DLC conservative mastery of what was once our national party. He’s a figurehead the same way George W Bush is a figurehead – he represents the real power, is the public face of it, but he isn’t himself the power.
That’s the reason Giordano is ultimately right about one thing: it doesn’t matter what any candidate says during the campaign. No matter what they say, they’ll do what the power tells them to do. Obama is proving that even as we speak.
UPDATE: (7.8.08) I’m as surprised as Avedon Carol to find myself agreeing with Peter Beinart but he’s right.
In “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam chronicles Lyndon Johnson‘s absolute terror of appearing soft on communism. Having seen fellow Democrats destroyed in the early 1950s because they tolerated a Communist victory in China, Johnson swore that he would not let the story replay itself in Vietnam, and thus pushed America into war. The awful irony, Halberstam argues, is that Johnson’s fears were unfounded. The mid-1960s were not the early 1950s. The Red Scare was over. But because it lived on in Johnson’s mind, he could not grasp the realities of a new day.
In this way, 2008 is a lot like 1964. On foreign policy, many Democrats live in terror of being called soft, of provoking the kind of conservative assault that has damaged so many of their presidential nominees since Vietnam. But that fear reflects memories of the past, not the realities of today. When Democrats worry about the backlash that awaits Barack Obama if he defends civil liberties, or endorses withdrawal from Iraq, or proposes unconditional negotiations with Iran, they are seeing ghosts. Fundamentally, the politics of foreign policy have changed.
Because Americans are less afraid and because Republicans have abandoned the foreign policy center, Democrats need not worry that Obama will suffer the fate of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale or John Kerry. He won’t lose because he looks weak. The greater danger is that he will change positions in a bid to look strong — as he recently did on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — and come across as inauthentic and insincere. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin have noted, the Democrats’ biggest political liability is not that Americans believe they are too liberal but rather that they believe that Democrats don’t stand for anything at all. On foreign policy, Obama has a chance to change that: to articulate a vision based on the principles of global cooperation and human dignity that animated Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. He shouldn’t be deterred by fears of being called soft. Those fears are the echoes of a bygone age.