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Of Gun Fights and Library Books | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Of Gun Fights and Library Books

My "Think Again" column is called “Jews Are Still Liberal” and it’s here.

I’ve got a piece in the Times Arts and Leisure section on Joseph Alsop called “A Newsmaker in Every Sense of the Word” and it’s here.

In other Alterman-related news, The Daily Beast had nice things to say about The Cause, here, and forbes.com published an interesting response to the Springsteen excerpt published in The Nation here.

Bill Moyers also put up a clip from our interview, which will run this weekend, here.

And should you wish to listen to my talk with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate, that’s here.

If you want to say hello and you live near either LA or DC.

Los Angeles 
Los Angeles Times Book Festival, April 21, 4:30 PM
Panel: The Boys on the Bus: Covering Decision 2012.

Washington, DC.
Politics & Prose 5015 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, April 25 at 7:00 
The Center for American Progress, 1333 H Street, lunch served at 11:30, panel with John Halpin and Michael Kazin at noon. 

(I’ll also be at the NOLA Jazz fest this weekend for Bruce’s second appearance there, in case there’s some place you think I absolutely need to go…)

Reed is away this week, so I will entertain you with this excerpt from The Cause, which I originally pulled for Mike Allen, who did so much to make Kabuki Democracy a success, but has apparently become less enamored with my work as he chose not to post any of the below, nor mention the book’s publication, alas. Thanks for reading…

$32.95 but only $19.76 from Amazon right now, 576 pages.

 

The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama
After clinching the Democratic nomination in June 2008, Barack Obama had stood before an excited group of supporters in St. Paul, Minnesota, and declared:

“We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”

But if ever a president was to prove Mario Cuomo’s adage that candidates “campaign in poetry” but “govern in prose,” it was Barack Obama. As Marshall Ganz, a community organizer and academic who helped play a large role in the campaign, explains, “‘Transformational’ leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. ‘Transactional’ leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.” Obama, Gans conceded, “entered office wrapped in a mantle of moral leadership” but ceded it without a struggle. He never recovered from abandoning the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education and embracing the politics of compromise over those of advocacy.

Barack Obama, as Jesse Jackson might have put it, was a deal maker, not a world shaker. His rhetoric, together with his legislative strategy, was always oriented toward inclusiveness, consensus building, and preemptive offers of compromise.

Whatever political calculation may have lain behind it—and countless supporters found it baffling—Obama’s approach failed to take into account some fundamental changes that American politics had undergone during the Bush years, most particularly the radicalization of the Republican Party. Republicans circa 2009 were no longer interested in bipartisan solutions to America’s problems. Then-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told The National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”  Senator Jim DeMint famously promised health care reform could be used to “break” Obama from day one. “We’re the party of ‘Hell, no!’ ” cried Sarah Palin to a crowd of cheering southern Republicans in April 2010.

By the time of Obama’s election, the moderate wing in the Republican Party had been purged virtually out of existence, and in its place was a faction dominated, according to the moderately conservative commentator, Fareed Zakaria, by “Conservatives [who] now espouse ideas drawn from abstract principles with little regard to the realities of America’s present or past.”

The result, as New Republic editor John Judis described it, was a party that had “transformed [itself] from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority. . . . If there is an earlier American precedent for today’s Republican Party, it is the antebellum Southern Democrats of John Calhoun who threatened to nullify, or disregard, federal legislation they objected to, and who later led the fight to secede from the union over slavery.” In the fall of 2011, Mike Lofgren, recently retired after twenty-eight years as a congressional staffer, serving sixteen of these as a professional staff member on the Republican side of both the House and Senate Budget Committees, went so far as to describe the party for which he had labored so long as “becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy than an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of twentieth century Europe.”  Democrats, meanwhile, were divided between what one pundit called their “sitting pretty faction” and “the more fragile ‘scaredy cat’ faction that could be carried off by even the gentlest of anti-incumbent breezes.” The latter voted more often like Republicans than with their president.

Asked what he wished for in 2011 during the 2010 holiday season, Obama reportedly replied, “All I want for Christmas is an opposition I can negotiate with.” He never got one. As a longtime student and frequent defender of Congress—the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein—observed in an article he titled “Worst. Congress. Ever.”:

Republicans, having been thrashed at all levels in 2008, did not respond to the voters’ rebuke by cooperating with the majority or trying to find common ground. Instead, repeating a tactic employed with great political success by Republicans in 1993 and 1994 against a newly elected President Bill Clinton, they immediately united fiercely and unremittingly against all the Obama and Democratic congressional initiatives. In the Senate they used delay tactics—the filibuster and the hold—in an unprecedented fashion, to block a large number of Obama administration nominees for executive branch positions and draw out debate to clog the legislative process and make an already messy business even messier.

Republicans refused to agree to approve appointments to the federal bench, even to crucial government posts, many of which remained vacant for Obama’s entire term. Following the passage of the financial reform bill creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, they intimidated the president into not even nominating the Democrats’ most popular choice, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, and then proceeded to refuse to schedule hearings on Obama’s alternative choice, former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, after Obama caved in.

Republican willingness to threaten to filibuster just about every Democratic initiative successfully frustrated liberal priority after liberal priority. The labor movement’s key issue, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, received only tepid administration or congressional support. Nothing was done to reform America’s broken (and deeply exploitative) immigration policies. (The pace of deportations actually increased during Obama’s presidency by roughly 20 percent above that of an equivalent period during the Bush administration’s tenure.) Reproductive rights for women were actually narrowed. Money grew more powerful both in politics and in society, as campaign finance laws were weakened and the Bush-era tax cuts extended, worsening the previous era’s explosion in inequality, despite the unpopularity with the public of both of these policies. These were all clear breaks from past practices. Journalist Michael Tomasky compared eight key priorities of presidents Bush and Obama in the autumn of 2011 and found, on average, 41.1 percent of Democrats tended to support Bush’s legislation, while the corresponding number for Republicans under Obama was just 5.75 percent.

What Richard Hofstadter had written of the extremely business-friendly Democrat Grover Cleveland turned out to be eerily true of Obama as well:

“With his stern ideas of purity, efficiency, and service, he was a taxpayer’s dream, the ideal bourgeois statesman for his time: out of heartfelt conviction he gave to the interests what many a lesser politician would have sold for a price.”

The president showed little willingness to use the powers of his office to counter the hardball tactics that were strangling his agenda, such as making recess appointments when Congress was out of session or issuing executive orders to ensure that his will was done regardless of Republican filibusters or delaying efforts. Instead he simply curtailed his appointments and left many key positions unfilled. The old joke about the liberal who showed up for a gunfight with a library book was no longer so funny.

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