Obama smiling in front of US Flag

Obama's Progressive Deficit

| published Monday, January 27, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

By now the famously nasty internal fight within the Republican Party, a civil war that has been waged more-or-less continuously since the GOP’s Election Day debacle in 2012, is settling in to stable battle lines and symmetrical warfare. Eventually this too will pass, and the GOP will find its way back toward the center, and the electoral happiness it once enjoyed.

Either Chris Christie survives his current troubles, or he does not. Either Jeb Bush enters into the fray, or he does not. Others wait closely in the wings: Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan. The Republicans have a relatively short window of opportunity to unify and harmonize their narrative, otherwise, they might experience more unhappiness in the face of the steamroller which will be Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Last week the RNC made official its plans to reduce the number of televised debates, to greatly limit primary confrontations, and move the 2016 convention forward to late June—moves expected to bring harmony to what became in 2008 and again in 2012 a noisy, even irrational process. Make no mistake: the GOP intends to reintroduce discipline to the selection of its nominee, and it aims to make a mantra of Ronald Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment.

Meanwhile, quietly, and behind the scenes, old fault lines within the Democratic Party are rumbling and shifting—again. It’s traditional, reliable plate tectonics, and it dates back generations.

President Barack Obama, for all his previous five years of popularity and high job approval rating, has seen his numbers plummet dramatically in the last month. And in the context of the standard red-blue divide, this does not mean that still more conservatives or more followers of Fox News have changed their already negative opinions of the president. This means that a lot of people somewhere in the center or the left-of-center range on the political spectrum have become deeply dissatisfied. And some of those folks can be accurately described as progressive—a term meant to define a movement slightly to the left of moderate liberalism.

Furthermore, the president seems to have lost the full confidence of a lot of people squarely in the middle. Some blame this on the anemic economy, which, despite its two-steps-forward, one-step-backward progress, still seems to linger in an uncomfortable netherworld of underemployment, unreported joblessness, low wages, shrinking benefits and a new health care marketplace which continues to face skepticism and resistance from millions of Americans.

Some blame the president’s current woes on gridlock—that now familiar paralysis which seems to grip any important question which passes through the body politic of Washington, D.C. But author and journalist Bob Woodward says that it is no longer enough for the president and his minions to continue to blame intransigent Republicans in Congress for the mess. A president, Woodward says, is essentially the CEO of the big corporation. And as such, it falls upon the President to lead. (Woodward, who is hawking his newest book, The Price of Politics, spoke recently at the University of North Florida; Thursday Review will have more on that topic later this week).

But how is it that Barack Obama has lost so much of the confidence of progressives—once the bread-and-butter core of the movement which catapulted him past John Edwards in 2007, into Iowa as front-runner, and squarely into that infamous and bitter fight with Hillary Clinton? That long primary and caucus fight exacerbated old intra-party wounds, largely unhealed, which some say date back to the late 1960s. Barack Obama, after all, shares the political DNA with a long line of progressives and reformers, including Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, John Lindsay, George McGovern, Gary Hart and Bill Bradley. Hillary Clinton’s lineage can also be easily traced, through Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, through Walter Mondale and John Glenn, through Dick Gephardt and Al Gore.

In reality it has been slow-going for long-suffering progressives. They have watched for over 25 years as the Democratic Party, in the name of regaining and occupying the centrist landscape, systematically sheared away much of the agenda closely associated with progressive causes. The nominations of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry represented for many progressives an organized repudiation of the core values of serious liberalism. Centrist mergers, like those of Clinton and Gore in 1992, and the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket of 2000, were seen by many on the left as sellouts. Indeed, the candidacy of Ralph Nader in 2000 was largely a result of a general dissatisfaction by progressives with the tone and tenor of milquetoast moderation found in the vague and uninspiring message of the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

John Kerry’s candidacy did little to assuage their fears in 2004. In fact, Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush that year was seen as a debacle, one easily avoided had Democratic strategists had even half-heartedly embraced the progressive and lyrical left. Instead, the ticket was pushed again into the center, pleasing few voters otherwise disposed toward the Democratic Party.

Then, we experienced that feverish and nasty fight between Clinton and Obama in 2008. Old rifts dating back to the Bad Old Days were exposed, and after the South Carolina primary that year some mature Democrats were envisioning the gruesome specters of 1968 and 1972—history repeating itself with a deeply divided party and a deadlocked convention. Eventually, in an act of pragmatism, Clinton and Obama resolved their differences. It reminded many observers that neither party is truly unified, but those fault lines among Democrats are especially deep, and the airspace remains toxic when the forces of moderation, conciliation and realism are in the same room with the idealists and dedicated leftists.

As president, Obama has had his share of dustups with progressives. Along those on the left, there has been widespread dissatisfaction: slow timetables for withdrawal from Iraq, and later Afghanistan; a sluggish approach to shutting down detainee operations at Guantanamo; an early co-option by Wall Street mavens and CEOs of big business, especially banks; an indecisive approach to long-term energy policy which places little more value in green technology than it places on expanded drilling and unconventional methods of extraction; a seemingly easy embrace of neo-con international views in the war of terror; a dramatic escalation in the use of drones as a lethal tool against jihadists; a willingness to use the Justice Department to arm-twist reporters to reveal sources and engage in covert action against the press; and most especially, Obama’s recent acknowledgement that data harvests and digital surveillance operations by agencies such as the NSA are tools which are here to stay.

Though a few of the aforementioned policies grate upon the nerves of libertarian-inclined conservatives (NSA activity, most especially), almost all of these policy patterns have become inflamed sore points with liberal progressives, once among Obama’s most loyal followers. If these elements of the Democratic base shear away, some fear the party might again find itself ill-prepared for the realities of the Electoral College in two years. On the other hand, party moderates fear just the opposite, and they see in the more radical language of Senator Elizabeth Warren (who sounds very much like George McGovern to some) and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio (who sounds like a lot Frank Church) a possible de-alignment, in which Reagan Democrats and centrist elements of the party’s base veer back into the GOP column.

This growing source of friction speaks to the need for the Democratic Party to define itself in the run-up, already in its early stages, to the presidential election of 2016. Hillary Clinton is seen by many as the de facto front runner (just as she was viewed in 2006 and 2007). Even the smartest visionaries and the best readers of the crystal ball see few, if any, genuine threats to Clinton’s presumed candidacy on the horizon.

The question then becomes: will Clinton steer herself slightly toward the center, as her husband did in 1992 and again in 96; or will she steer slightly to the left? And which tack will be the more effective for the party of Obama in the fall of 2016?

Watch closely over the next few days, for some part of that answer may be found on Tuesday night, when the President addresses Congress and the nation for his State of the Union speech.

Related Thursday Review articles:

No Business Like Show Business (Except Politics); Thursday Review; August 18, 2013.

Anatomy of a GOP Loss: Part Two; Thursday Review, Road Show; December 12, 2012.