The rebellion of House Democrats that blocked the president’s trade deal with Asia is more than political humiliation for Barack Obama. It is the start of something far bigger—the revival of the Democratic Party as a born-again advocate for working people and economic justice.
The congressional defeat shocked Washington, where the cynical rule is “to get along, you go along.” Even though the Obama-Boehner-McConnell forces are attempting to resuscitate the “fast track” gimmick, the TPP fiasco will be remembered as a fundamental turn in the road.
After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful constituency base managed to take down their Democratic president and his sweetheart deal with the big money. The left-liberal policy groups and grassroots activists agitating for change stood their ground against the power elites and, for once, they triumphed.
This may be premature, but I suggest the fast-changing dynamics may be springtime for the New New Democrats on the party’s left. Led by organized labor and AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka, this informal coalition includes environmentalists, social-justice advocates, people of color, defenders of civil liberties, small businesses, and others who are also regularly ignored or injured by the party’s dominant power brokers.
Disregard for the party faithful began with Bill Clinton back in 1992. Labor was edged aside. Wall Street replaced it as the senior managing partner of the Democratic coalition. Clinton ran on “Putting People First,” but he governed according to the needs of big business and finance. His permissive policies on so-called “free-trade” globalization were especially damaging to American workers and middle-class prosperity.
Barack Obama comfortably embraced that relationship with Wall Street and relied on its best thinkers for investor-friendly economic policy. He did nothing much to reverse the damage caused by the sector, but instead has proposed more concessions to the needs of finance capital.
Lots of people in the party warned Obama that he was heading into a buzz saw with his Trans-Pacific Partnership. He ignored them. Even worse, he got a little nasty with those resisting his proposal—leading voices like Senator Elizabeth Warren. Surrounded by advisers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, he scolded labor leaders for fighting the last war.
Whether in ignorance or arrogance, the president didn’t seem to realize that his smooth reassurances were actually inflaming grassroots anger. People knew what happened to them when their factories were closed and the jobs moved to low-wage workers abroad. And people have not forgotten the role of the Democratic party in messing up their lives. TPP looked to some like an opportunity for payback.
When members of Congress tried to explain this to him, Obama responded by personalizing the political question. I am your president. A vote for TPP is a vote for me. Stick to the regular order of things, he told them. The dismissive put-down simply deepened the anger. Forced to choose between him and their angry constituents, they chose not him.
A different sort of political leader might swallow pride and start a serious conversation with his opponents. Is there a deal to be made that would cut out some of the more odious corporate plums in the TPP in order to get something that labor-liberal critics might accept? Labor officials are ready to talk, but rather doubt Obama will pursue the chance.
In that event, the same choice will fall to Hillary Clinton. She is, of course, grounded in the Clinton wing of the party and aligned with the same powerful interests as her husband. But her prospects as Democratic candidate for president are now directly threatened by the party’s growing divide. The monied interests remain in charge of the party, and Clinton has tried not to choose sides. That doesn’t sound like a strategy that can survive until November 2016.
Something even more profound may now be unfolding in politics. As the Democratic rebellion makes clear, both parties are driven by severe intramural divisions. On both left and right, the rank and file are fed up with establishment leaders and eager to challenge them, even bring them down.
On the Democratic left, the spirit of reform is resurgent. Both politicians and freelance advocates are advancing strong new ideas for confronting inequality and repairing the damage done to ordinary Americans—and not only by the Republicans. The media usually portray these ruptures as symptoms of dysfunctional politics. But these intramural fights may actually be leading toward something far more positive for the country.
What we may be witnessing are the initial stages in the gradual breakdown of the imperial presidency. Since World War II, the presidency steadily assumed greater powers in both war and peace, while Congress generally surrendered its prerogatives and powers. The executive branch is no longer held accountable for unconstitutional sins and egregious policy disasters.
For two generations, both parties and both houses of Congress mostly went along with this debasement of the governing order. Letting the White House made the big decisions and take the blame if things go wrong became the standard default.
However, the country has now reached a difficult passage where the imperial decision-making no longer works for common good but pulls the country into deeper quagmires. The nation goes to war on false premises and can’t get out of fighting more wars. Government embraces narrow-minded economic doctrines that make things worse for most people, year after year, and yet deferential politicians seem afraid to challenge the domination of smug elites.
We are in deeper trouble than either political party will acknowledge (it would sound unpatriotic).
If I am right about this, the country is facing a long and difficult struggle as events compel the nation to retreat from some its most arrogant and dangerous illusions. The politics will be chaotic, for sure. Established powers will feel threatened and try to derail these popular rebellions.
Yet I can imagine this turmoil might be positive in the long run—encouraging reforms that liberate the democratic order from backward influences and persuade angry, anxious people to seek political power and act again like citizens.