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Jamelle Bouie | The Nation

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Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

Win or Lose, What Should Progressives Do Next?

Just a few weeks ago, as Romney continued to gain in the polls, The New Republic’s Michael Kazin preemptively indicted liberals for the last four years: if Obama loses this election, he argued, liberals will have themselves to blame. His case centers on the simple fact that there wasn’t a vigorous left to push Obama in a more progressive direction. Here’s how he puts it:

[T]his progressive president could not rely on surging liberal movements to help him advance his key legislative goals and to counter the powerful, and predictable, opposition of conservatives. Labor unions were struggling to stop decades of declining numbers and political clout, and advocates of universal health insurance had never been able to reach much beyond a passionate but small cohort of policy wonks. Obama certainly should have made a better case for his health care bill and for his American Jobs Act. But his task was a lot harder in the absence of vigorous pressure from a growing left.

I think this is a little unfair to the large number of liberals who have tried to pressure the administration on everything from financial reform and healthcare, to Afghanistan policy and drone strikes. With that said, it’s absolutely true that the Obama presidency has revealed the extent to which the left has grown anemic. When it comes to the actual exercise of power, liberals have a hard time standing up to the entrenched interests that dominate American politics.

What’s the solution? To put it in the simplest terms, the first step to greater relevance for progressives is winning.

This sounds obvious, but it’s often missing from conversations around how to out-maneuver conservatives and bring progressive ideas to bear on national problems. Ask liberals how to best move forward in advancing policies, and you’ll get some constellation of familiar answers: “Better education,” “getting money out of politics,” “more grassroots activism,” “better messaging.”

But the history of the conservative movement—and its triumph over moderates in the Republican Party—tells a different story. Yes, conservatives built think tanks, trained messengers and developed new ideas. But they also invested in the hard and dirty work of winning elections. And not just on the presidential level—for decades before the GOP revolution of 1994, or the election of George W. Bush in 2000, conservatives were building political organizations at the local and state level. Conservatives—some organized, others inspired—worked to dominate school boards, city councils, state legislatures and other more granular positions in American political life.

A seat on the school board, or the city council, offers much more influence than you might think. You can push new approaches to education, affect curriculum and push ideas for how to run schools. You can influence zoning decisions, clamor for tax cuts and tilt policy in your town or city to favor business and other interests. Local and state officials have a tremendous influence on the lives of ordinary people, and over time, Republicans have used this to build support for conservative policies.

There’s a second reason to focus on the local and state: today’s city council members, mayors and state legislators are tomorrow’s congresspeople, senators and governors. Conservatives built a deep bench of like-minded candidates by first electing them on the local level, and then grooming them for higher office.

It took decades of work for conservatives to have the strength and organization to control Congress and the presidency. Liberals aren’t as behind as they might think, but they’re not close to where they need to be. Even at the local level, where it’s easier to avoid compromise and elect left-wing officials, politics requires hard work. Liberals will lose many battles, and it will be a while before this investment pays off. What’s more, this will require coordination between all elements of the progressive movement—labor, think tanks and activists—as well as continued efforts to make national politicians more progressive.

Indeed, regardless of who wins the presidential election, the time to start is now. Over the next four years, progressives should work to build their strength at the local level, and at the same time, try to use the party primary system to push the Democratic Party in its favored direction. Some liberals prefer third parties, which is understandable—Democrats have been lackluster, at best, when it comes to advancing progressive ideas. But to borrow a phrase, we fight with the system we have, not the one we want. Odds are low that the United States will move away from a first past the post, winner-takes-all electoral arrangement. As such, odds are even lower that we’ll move away from a two-party system. For now at least, the Democratic Party remains the best vehicle for progressives, and we should take advantage of that. Doing something as straightforward as replacing a moderate Democrat with a liberal one can go a long way toward increasing the currency of our ideas.

The pay off to all of this isn’t just a strong roster of progressive lawmakers—it’s a country where progressives have deep influence in the halls of power, and can exercise power in a serious way. It may take a generation to succeed, but as we’ve seen with the conservative movement, it can and will work.

For more on the role of the left in this election, check out Ilyse Hogue on “2012: Don’t Forget About the Hood.”

Yes, Race Influences Opposition to Obama

It’s no exaggeration to say that race and racism have been defining issues in the Age of Obama. And with the election on the horizon, the question of race and Obama’s political fortunes has returned to the fore. To wit, at the Associated Press, Jesse Washington wonders whether prejudice has played a part in the concerted conservative opposition to Obama’s presidency:

The question of whether race fuels opposition to President Barack Obama has become one of the most divisive topics of the election. It is sowing anger and frustration among conservatives who are labeled racist simply for opposing Obama’s policies and liberals who see no other explanation for such deep dislike of the president.

It is an accusation almost impossible to prove, yet it remains inseparable from the African-American experience. The idea, which seemed to die in 2008 when Obama became the first black president, is now rearing its head from college campuses to cable TV as the Democratic incumbent faces Mitt Romney, the white Republican challenger.

When people ascribe racial motives to President Obama’s opponents, the thought is that we’re calling them “racists,” in a Bull Connor kind of way. But that’s not the case at all. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, racism often manifests itself as a “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” Despite the fact that he grew up exceptionally privileged in a world that privileged people who fit his description (white and male), no one has ever questioned Mitt Romney’s ability to perform the job of president. No one has ever accused him stupidity, and no one will ever call him an “affirmative action hire.”

By contrast, these are things faced by Obama and other minorities that find themselves in traditionally white domains. During her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was frequently described as “not smart enough” to serve alongside men like Antonin Scalia or John Roberts, despite her clear qualifications—Princeton University and Yale Law School—and long service on the federal bench.

As I’ve said on several occasions in other outlets, the vast majority of conservative anger at Barack Obama is not based in race, but it’s clear that it shapes the nature of their opposition. If Hillary Clinton were president, I would say the same of gender and sexism. Indeed, there’s no need to imagine the response to a Clinton presidency—during her campaign, items like the Hillary Clinton “nutcracker” emerged as ways to ridicule her candidacy (while also making a quick buck).

The real question isn’t whether race affects our political disputes, it’s how. This isn’t an easy question. Yes, there are clear racial implications to things like Mitt Romney’s false charge that Obama is “ending the work requirement” in welfare and simply cutting checks to recipients. But, when it comes to the role race plays in voting—did Obama lose votes because he’s black—it’s a little complicated.

In any case, if you’re trying to answer the question of race and opposition to Obama, here’s something to remember: we’re only forty-seven years removed from the official end of Jim Crow. White supremacy was the governing ideology for the vast majority of this country’s history, and—in the broad scheme of things—we’re still in the first legs of our journey toward racial equality.

Why Our Elites Don't Care About Mass Unemployment

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a recent event where the usual clique of Beltway deficit hawks—Pete Peterson, Alan Simpson, Erksine Bowles—clucked about the danger of the debt. To them, and many others, our debt is the nation’s paramount economic problem—in their telling, it has the power to sink our growth, and impoverish our citizens.

Somehow, this urgency vanishes when it comes to mass unemployment. Relatively little energy is devoted to the 14 million Americans who are out of work, despite the fact that their suffering is far more real than the hypothetical debt crisis of Washington fever dreams. But establishment indifference to large scale immiseration is par for the course; with few exceptions—namely, early 2009—the D.C. establishment has been more concerned with reducing deficits than putting people back to work.

Riffing off of a recent op-ed in the Washington Post—where the editorial board applauds a decision to deny needed relief to homeowners—Jonathan Chait pinpoints the source of this blasé attitude toward widespread hardship:

I live in a Washington neighborhood almost entirely filled with college-educated professionals, and it occurred to me not long ago that, when my children grow up, they’ll have no personal memory of having lived through the greatest economic crisis in eighty years. It is more akin to a famine in Africa. For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy.

It’s no accident that these are the same people who, for the last three-and-a-half years, have made excuses for—and even defended—intense Republican obstruction of efforts to repair the country. For a large portion of our establishment, the economic crisis is less important the prospect of higher taxes. Indeed, it’s less important than some abstract concern for “civility” or “bipartisanship”; hence the constant calls for a “grand bargain” that would reduce the deficit by depriving ordinary Americans of needed benefits.

It also fits in with the Federal Reserve’s refusal to act. The Fed is tasked with reducing unemployment and keeping inflation from running amok, and we’re in a situation with too much joblessness and too little inflation. In more concrete terms, this means that millions of people are in the worst situation of their lives—they’ve lost their jobs, their homes, and maybe even their families. Generating inflation, and encouraging people and businesses to spend money would seem like the rational response to this situation, especially since the Fed has a policy responsibility to its dual mandate, and a moral responsibility to help alleviate the tragedy of mass unemployment.

But they refuse to take steps to that end. And the simplest explanation—the one that makes the most sense—is that our central bankers, like most of our elites, are simply indifferent to the problem widespread immiseration. Or at least, not concerned enough to sacrifice a little price stability.

It’s disgraceful.

Apparently, the 'Real Racists' Are… Anti-Racists?

In response to Jonathan Chait, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg makes an argument that I’ve seen more and more on the right—that noticing racism, and particularly racialized political attacks, makes you a racist:

What I love about this stuff is that liberals tend to insist how racism is not only repugnant to them, but alien to them. And yet, they continually demonstrate a sensitivity and acuity for spotting it that even real racists seem to lack. They’re like people who claim to be nose deaf (if you prefer, anosmic) who nonetheless insist they can pick up an exotic scent from miles away (“A lactose intolerant armadillo has grown flatulent over by the old Miller farm…”).

There’s a real irony in the fact that this comes from someone whose magazine employed a notorious racist, and then replaced him with another (after firing two other writers with unfortunate views).

Regardless, I’ll attempt a response. It’s possible to both oppose racism and have knowledge of racist tropes and ideas. By definition, in fact, racism can’t be “alien” to an anti-racist—it’s impossible to counteract racism unless you can recognize racist things.

For example, the character “Han Lee” on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls is—to borrow from writer Andrew Ti—“a tiny, greedy, sexless man-child,” who speaks with a broken, generically Asian accent. This is incredibly racist, but in order to come to that conclusion, you have to be familiar with stereotypes about Asian-Americans.

Now, for Goldberg, this means that Ti—and anyone else who noticed—is a racist. This doesn’t make any sense. At all.

I myself have noticed attacks on President Obama that traffic in stereotypes and discredited ideas about African-Americans and black masculinity. Does this make me a racist? I hope not, since I’m also, you know, black. It’s not just anti-racists who notice racially charged—or simply racist—attacks in political life. Social scientists have been documenting the use of race in politics for decades, and have identified important and concrete effects.

Hell, our political lexicon is filled with words and phrases that call back to race and racism—“Willie Horton,” “dog-whistling,” “the Southern strategy.” Jesse Helms’ “Hands” ad—used against a black Democrat in 1990—is distilled prejudice, put to devastating political effect. Check it out for yourself:

This is incredibly racist. But according to Goldberg, I’m a racist for pointing that out.

One last point. If there’s anyone who wouldn’t notice racism, it’s actual racists. Remember, if you believe that nonwhites are inferior, you’re unlikely to notice when someone says something—“Blacks just want handouts”—that confirms your biases. In fact, contra Goldberg, it would actually be very odd for a racist to call “racism.” After all, to them, it’s just common sense.

Black America's Mobility Crisis

The latest report from the Pew Mobility Project shows a particularly bleak picture for African-Americans. Not only are blacks more likely to come from the bottom income bracket (65 percent of blacks compared to 11 percent of whites) but blacks have a far harder time than whites when it comes to exceeding the economic success of their parents. Only 77 percent of African-Americans raised in the middle quintile of income earners will out-earn their parents, compared to 88 percent of whites. The picture is worse for blacks in the second quintile from the bottom; only 66 percent out-earn their parents, compared to 89 percent of whites. Things are even worse when it comes to wealth:

Those stars in the fourth and top quintiles represent “insufficient data.” There are so few African-Americans among the top income earners that Pew couldn’t accurately measure their mobility. To a large degree, this illustrates one of the underlying stories of the Pew report—the extent to which African-American wealth has been devastated by the Great Recession. Some of this is born out by the Pew study—black family wealth is dwarfed by white family wealth—but you can get a fuller picture from a Pew Research Center report released last summer.

The median wealth of white households is twenty times that of their black counterparts. Moreover, from 2005 to 2009, black wealth declined by 53 percent—in 2009, the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth. African-American wealth was wiped out by the Great Recession, making it a tremendously destructive event for economic mobility among black families.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign that the picture will improve. The African-American joblessness rate surged to 14.4 percent in June, and shows no signs of going down. Blacks are over-represented among the long-term unemployed, and as a result, a large and growing proportion of African-Americans are losing the skills necessary to compete in the economy. This has almost always been a problem within the black community, if we stay on the current path, it’s almost certain to get worse.

Indeed, there’s a sense in which the future of the American economy is a variation on what happened to black communities throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Economic crises, outsourcing and rapid technological change led to hollowed-out communities in urban and rural America. In many communities, the result was persistently high unemployment—further exacerbated by the recession—and a small underclass of desperately poor people. If the weak recovery falters into recession, we could see the same for the United States writ large.

In which case, through policy inaction, we would vindicate the oft-made observation that minorities—and African-Americans in particular—are the canaries in the coal mine for the country.this looks like a plausible future for the rest of us, if the weak recovery falters into recession.

What the Beltway Gets Wrong About the Economy

At the Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank wants President Obama to deal with the “entitlement crisis”:

And that leads to the falsehood. Despite his claim that “both parties have laid out their policies on the table,” Obama has made no serious proposal to fix the runaway entitlement programs that threaten to swamp the government’s finances. […]

Nothing in Obama’s speech came close to a proposal to fix the debt problem; he dealt with that only at the end of the speech — largely by complaining about Republicans’ refusal to consider higher taxes on the wealthy.

You could write a decent-sized column dealing with the details of what Milbank gets wrong. For starters, there isn’t an “entitlement” problem as much as there is a “healthcare” problem; private and public healthcare spending is growing at an unsustainable rate. The GOP plan, as articulated by Paul Ryan, is to off-load the cost of insurance to consumers. This would save federal money, but do nothing to arrest the overall growth in healthcare costs.

Obamacare, on the other hand, will reduce the overall growth in healthcare costs. Milbank dismisses this—“His cuts in the rate of growth amount to just a few percentage points”—but this is a significant reduction in healthcare spending that is unmatched by anything offered by the GOP. Indeed, pace Milbank, the GOP hasn’t actually offered anything to deal with entitlements or debt; when Obama accused Republicans of running on the failed agenda of the last ten years, he was absolutely right.

With all of that said, Milbank is also wrong on the big picture. If there’s a threat to our long-term prosperity, it isn’t debt; it’s widespread joblessness and immiseration. Unlike the debt crisis—which is mostly theoretical—our cyclical unemployment will become a structural problem if we don’t do something to jumpstart the economy. And on that score, the Republican Party has nothing to offer the country. Mitt Romney doesn’t have a plan to create jobs as much as he has a plan to score political points. His actual agenda—tax cuts, spending cuts, and deregulation—will worsen the short-term picture and cause more economic pain. By contrast, Obama has the helpfully named American Jobs Act, which would create 1.9 million jobs if implemented in full, and lower the unemployment rate by a full percentage point. When you consider that the public is near-universally concerned with job creation, it’s clear that this—and not some chimerical “Grand Bargain”—is what the administration should be focused on.

Of course, I don’t expect Milbank—or most pundits—to understand this. By virtue of its isolation, the Beltway is nothing but myopic when it comes to unemployment. This destructive attitude is what leads them to constantly bleat about the debt, despite the fact that most Americans could care less. If he loses re-election, Obama’s willingness to listen to these people—which defined most of last year—will have been the move that doomed his presidency.

If Elected, Will Romney Actually Fix Anything?

Writing for the Huffington Post, Sam Stein reports that Mitt Romney’s replacement for the Affordable Care Act—a series of small measures to protect health insurance for those who have it—will not provide insurance for those with pre-existing conditions:

[U]nder a Romney presidency, there would be no federal prohibition barring health insurers from discriminating against pre-existing conditions. Instead, his administration would push reforms that help eat away at the problem. It would allow “reinsurance,” in which insurance companies pool resources for a joint plan to cover high-risk patients (essentially an insurance policy for health insurers); provide block grants of Medicaid dollars to the states while giving them flexibility to cover their uninsured population; and encourage the creation of high-risk pools.

The Romney campaign insists that it has a state-by-state alternative for the measure, but skepticism is warranted; there’s no way to both preserve the health care market and guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions without implementing a version of the individual mandate. Given the policy difficulties—and the degree to which Republican leaders have consistently demurred on an alternative to ObamaCare—it’s likely that there is no alternative. If Romney is elected and the ACA repealed, millions will lose health coverage without anything to make up for it.

This is a massive abdication of responsibility; the healthcare system is in desperate need of change, and the Affordable Care Act—for all of its faults—was a step in the direction of reform. To repeal it, and do nothing about the underlying problems, is to drive the United States closer to crisis.

At the risk of hyperbole, you could say the same for most of Romney’s policies. While the former governor sells himself as a competent fix-it man, the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing in his agenda that shows an awareness of our key problems. On the most immediate challenge—high unemployment and widespread immiseration—Romney has…. tax cuts. His plan calls for an across-the-board cut of 20 percent, a sharp reduction in the corporate income tax rate, an end to the estate tax and a deep cut to the capital gains tax. At best, barring big spending cuts, this will act as a large—if inefficient—burst of Keynesian stimulus. The most likely outcome is that it will accelerate the upwards distribution of wealth from the bulk of Americans.

What’s more, there’s nothing in Romney’s plan that suggests awareness of the problems faced by the long-term unemployed, nor is there any plan for aid to states and localities (which he recently rejected), or greater benefits for those who need assistance. Indeed, his budget would make sharp cuts to programs for the least advantaged.

You can play this game with nearly any problem. Climate change is arguably the most important issue facing the globe, but Romney doesn’t have a plan for dealing with emissions. Instead, like most of the Republican Party, he denies that human activity has anything to do with rising global temperatures. On immigration, he supports the most draconian policies imaginable—which do anything but provide a solution—and on financial reform, he seeks to remove any regulations on Wall Street’s behavior.

Centrist types might see Romney as someone who will get a handle on the country’s debt, but his budget plan promises to explode the deficit with tax cuts. On Medicaid, he seeks to reduce costs by cutting the program wholesale with block grants, and on Medicare, he supports the Paul Ryan’s model of “premium support,” which would result in higher costs for seniors, and would do nothing about the long-term growth rate of healthcare costs. Instead, it would substitute private spending for government spending.

The fact of the matter is that Mitt Romney only pretends to be a “fix-it” man; his policies don’t address the country’s problems as much as they fulfill right-wing wishes. The public doesn’t want a wide swing to the right, it just wants the economy to improve. But a swing to the right is all it will get if it elects Mitt Romney.

Romney Attempts to Walk Back on Public Sector Workers

Last Friday, in response to President Obama’s foolish declaration that the “private sector is doing fine,” Mitt Romney made a gaffe of his own:

Romney said of Obama, “he wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

This plays directly into the administration’s preferred frame for the issue; Obama wants the public to associate “government jobs” with teachers, police officers and other first respondents. It plays on the high status those professions enjoy in most communities, and allows the Obama team to portray Romney as an extremist who will harm your schools and make your children less safe.

This morning, Romney tried to walk back his remarks, and in the process, bolstered the administration’s case:

Romney said his criticism is of Obama’s proposal for additional federal spending to help financially struggling state and municipal governments. “He’s got a new idea, though, and that is to have another stimulus, and to have the federal government send money to try and bail out cities and states,” Romney told Fox. “It didn’t work the first time; it certainly wouldn’t the second time.”

Like his broader criticism of the stimulus, there’s no angle from which this makes sense. Because they are constrained by the need to balance a budget, states and localities are often forced to cut jobs for public employees in order to make ends meet. By delivering aid to states, the stimulus ensured that thousands would remain employed, and provide a buffer to further economic deterioration.

The truth of the matter, as Obama pointed out last week, is that the decline in public sector employment has been a tremendous drag on the economy. At present, the economy has lost more than 600,000 public sector jobs since 2010. If those jobs had been preserved—with more aid to states—the unemployment rate would be closer to 7 percent, and Barack Obama would be cruising to re-election.

Obviously, it’s too late to save those jobs. But a renewed burst of help for states and localities would be an excellent way to keep the economy from falling into a second recession. Hence, the American Jobs Act, which provides for billions in aid to states, so that municipalities can preserve existing jobs, and hire new teachers, firefighters and police officers.

Romney’s pledge to reject aid to states would be a disaster; further lay-offs would harm the economy, in addition to have a deleterious effect on localities across the country. Indeed, as Ari Berman points out, this gets to the broader problem with Romney’s stance on the economy; he doesn’t have a job creation plan. What he has is a Republican Party wish list of policies that would be passed regardless of the economic situation: new tax cuts, deep spending cuts and a dramatic increase in military spending.

If carried out, this agenda would plunge the United States into a second recession, and cause further misery for millions of vulnerable people. Like Scott Walker did in Wisconsin, Romney is planning a bait-and-switch for the American people, and his constant misleading attacks on Obama’s economic record are an attempt to conceal that fact.

Today in Bogus Complaints of Media Bias

In an obvious attempt to curry favor with the Romney campaign, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHai complain about the media’s supposedly “biased” coverage of the Republican nominee:

Republicans cry “bias” so often it feels like a campaign theme. It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true, even to people who don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh – or Haley Barbour.

The larger complaint is that the media is evaluating Romney with an intensity that wasn’t applied to Barack Obama in the 2008 election. But that’s not true at all! Obama was the subject of profiles from virtually every newspaper and political magazine with a national audience. The New York Times raised the issue of Jeremiah Wright in 2007, and—as Slate’s Dave Weigel points out—also delved into Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers the following year. What’s more, by the time he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination, Obama had written two books—including a memoir—and offered extensive information about about himself. I’d go as far as to say that we knew more about Barack Obama at this stage of the 2008 election than we currently know of Mitt Romney.

Oh, and one other thing. There’s this crazy thing humans have devised called statistical tracking! And with its magical tools, we can actually see whether or not the media has had a bias in its coverage toward Mitt Romney. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Romney has had net positive coverage since last summer, when the Republican nomination contest began in earnest. By contrast, coverage of Obama has been mostly negative. This is not to say that there’s a press bias against Obama—this data aggregates everything said, even if it comes from opposing partisans—but to say that Politico is making a silly complaint.

One last point. If the press does have a bias, it's in favor of the easy story. The Romney team relies on false and misleading claims for its case against Obama and has yet to receive pushback from reporters following the campaign. It would be nice for Allen and VandeHai to provide a critical take on Republican claims, rather than parrot their complaints to the public under the guise of “journalism.”

The Beltway Continues to Ignore GOP Radicalism

You can almost read Politico’s Charles Mahtesian and Jim VandeHei as writing in dialogue with political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. But whereas Mann and Ornstein blame the Republican Party for the extreme polarization and institutional dysfunction of the last several years, Mahtesian and VandeHei repeat the common Beltway lament—by allowing voters on the “far left” and “far right” to oust Blue Dog Democrats and centrist Republicans, both parties are responsible for Congressional polarization.

By virtue of its even-handedness, the Politico argument sounds more plausible, but—unfortunately—it also runs counter to all available evidence. Indeed, this is where Mann and Ornstein succeed; they gather evidence from the last thirty years of political history to show two things. First, that the Republican Party has veered sharply to the right, in a way that wasn’t mirrored by Demorats; and second, that the Republican Party has abandoned any commitment to existing rules or institutional norms. From the filibuster to the confirmation process, the GOP has abused the rules of Congress to stop or nullify laws passed by Democrats.

None of this factors into the Politico analysis. Instead, we get hoary old clichés about the nobility of centrist lawmakers, complaints about outside groups and an attempt to draw equivalence between ideological extremes on both sides, as if the “far left” has any kind of influence in the contemporary Democratic Party, much less liberal politics writ large. Here are a few of the most egregious parts of Politico’s analysis.

On the disappearance of Senate moderates:

The Senate, once the chamber of deliberation and reason, is getting its own extreme makeover. Moderates such as Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and Democrat Ben Nelson are bolting an institution that barely resembles the one they entered as idealistic deal-makers.

The tell here is the phrase “idealistic deal-makers,” which is a contradiction in terms. The defining feature of Senate centrists has been their categorical commitment to the “deal” and complete blindness to any broader principle. Ben Nelson agreed to allow an up-or-down vote on healthcare reform only in return for preferential Medicaid funding for his home state. Olympia Snowe voted for healthcare reform when it was in committee but quickly withdrew her vote after pressue from Republican leaders. Other centrist senators, like Joe Lieberman or Evan Byah, were equal in their political posturing, attacking the administration for attempting to pass an ambitious piece of legislation.

On the apparent power of the “far left”:

Centrist Democrats got that memo in 2010—they saw how labor almost took down Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who ended up getting crushed in November anyway. That’s just the Senate.

In the House, where the conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs saw their numbers cut in half in 2010, the climate isn’t much different. Five of the remaining Blue Dogs have already announced their intention to retire; two more lost re-election bids last Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

Among their sins: Departing from the party line to vote against the president’s healthcare plan.

It says something about the success of Republican messaging that a healthcare bill nearly identical to the one crafted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts can become intolerably liberal once Democrats decide to support it. That said, the Blue Dog massacre of 2010 had more to do with Republican wins then it did with any Democratic purge. Blue Dogs suffered in the midterms because they represented Republican districts in a year where the Republican wave was huge. To blame this on the “left” is insane. Likewise, Blanche Lincoln was actively working against her constituents in Arkansas; is it somehow unacceptable for voters to oppose a senator if he or she is a “centrist”? Mahtesian and VandeHei are clearly filled with contempt voters, and it shows throughout the piece.

Both points get to the biggest problems with Mahtesian and VandeHei’s take on the sources of polarization in Congress. Leftists have little influence in the United States, and liberals are a junior partner in the Democratic coalition. Their interests are often overlooked, and their political strategies are often ignored or disparaged by Democratic politicians (see: the Obama administration). By contrast, movement conservatives have a firm grip on every level of the Republican Party—there’s literally no room for success in the GOP if you do not pledge fealty to right-wing orthodoxy. The equivalent simply isn’t true among Democrats.

There is a dramatic asymmetry in American politics; at the same time that Democrats are working to preserve the basics of the status quo, Republicans are pushing to transform our traditional commitments to public investment, research and the least-well-off. The contrast isn’t hard to grok; Barack Obama’s plan for the next decade of domestic policy is to implement the Affordable Care Act—a reorganization of the private health insurance market based on bipartisan ideas—and return tax rates on the wealthy to where they were under the Clinton administration.

The GOP’s plan, on the other hand, calls for the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, further cuts on high earners, a cap on the federal budget and dramatic cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. To call this “conservative” is to ignore the plain meaning of the word; this is a radical change to the federal government.

Mahtesian, VandeHei and many others notwithstanding, there is no ideological balance in American politics. To pretend otherwise is to willfully mislead readers in the service of a flawed “objectivity.”

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