Monday, June 23, 2014

The Dusk of a New Night: American under the Obama Nation

It is the dusk of a new night, brawled over by a brimming orgy of ugliness, where a generation of would be thinkers signed their own intellectual death warrants, and proved, beyond a doubt that their only complaints with George W. Bush, were his manifest incompetence, and their inability to sell their work to his followers. The liberal case against Obama is right now confined mainly to the quiet corners of discourse, because writing is driven by eyeballs or donations, and donations come from people with money. Just as the Bush Republicans screamed in triumph in 2004, needing to believe that their war in Iraq was an inevitably victorious holy crusade, despite evidence that it was already turn towards defeat, so too do the hoards that need Obama to be a celebrity, want endless assurance. The market for confirmation, is larger than the market for information.

The case against Obama is simple:

Politically, a President that successfully creates a lasting coalition wins everything in sight, his re-election was, like Bush's, a narrow affair. He made almost no progress in the House of Representatives, which, being a parliamentary body, can now block virtually all legislation for another 2 years, and stamp every budget, so long as conservatives can cobble together 51 votes in the Senate under reconciliation.

Policy, he is an empty suit, filled with declarations which do not stand up to scrutiny. This includes supposedly his two major legislative accomplishments: the ACA and Dodd-Frank, and his conduct of foreign policy.

Socially, his coalition is already dying, because it rests on the re-assertion of fundamentally untruths, most pointed "Republican Obstructionism" is the reason for the failure of his economic policies to produce  progress, because the Republicans were in no position to block them for the first two years – Obama controlled congress. FDR had a more hostile supreme court, which could, and did, effectively block many, but not all, of his policies.

Ethically, he has engaged in what may be called "unforced evil," squandering moral and ethical capital on policies of marginal utility, or which the hopes that his election would end. This ethical case will be repeated often, both because it is personally galling to individuals who want no traffic with the Republicans, and because it reduces to zingers. It is easy to mudslide a conversation about how the ACA establishes a racially discriminatory two tier system with pictures of the white children saved, it is more difficult to deny the unforced evil of bombing weddings.

As a movement, Obama relies on celebrity, and three Big Lies, of the classic sort: grading on the curve, the empty suit and revisionist history.

Political Failure

Here, stated in its full masochistic form, is the very essence of 'lesser evilism.' If it were a doctrine, instead of a reflex or a dogma, it would be a doctrine without limits. Try rephrasing it. 'We have already made the decision that they can do this to us and get away with it, We have made this decison known in advance. Ergo the can and will get away with it.'

Christopher Hitchens
"Against Lesser Evilism" Dissent, Fall 1996
Quotable Hitchens, Windsor Mann and Martin Amis

Here is where his supports must open with The First Big Lie of Obama Nation. That lie is that wheezing over the finish line, and having an opponent that is worse, is a proof of greatness. Romney may look as if he is at the short end of a 330-206 electoral vote loss, but he fell less than 300,000 votes short of the Presidency because that would have given him the three states he needed. This is somewhat more than Kerry fell short of unseating Bush in 2004, but not by a great deal. Meanwhile his apologists are saying "It wasn't even close." Not even close, to not even close. This is what not even close looks like. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Instead, Obama, like Bush, asutely assembled a collection of special interests that was slightly larger than the other party's collection of central interests, and with it a magnified electoral vote count. Yes Obama finished ahead of Romney, and deserved to, yes Obama won, and deserved to, but that is only because his competition was Mitt Romney, and does not speak to the magnitude of his victory, which was a mudslide, not a landslide, nor to his ranking against other political actors.

Winning a second term by a slender margin is not a great political accomplishment because most Presidents who have run for a second term, have won by increased margins, and often by real landslides. It must be emphasized that this does not indict policy by itself: Presidents with a slender margin have left behind a permanent legacy, most obviously, Woodrow Wilson, whose 1916 re-election was the weakest of any modern President. Thus policy and politics are, while related, separate issues. A President with a sweeping political victory can pass more of his policies, but policy is not measured just on its ease of passage, but on its effect, and on the difficulty of repeal. Bush did not have a strong mandate, but his tax cuts lasted all the way to their bitter end. His wars lasted. His security state lasted.

The other part of the equation is working control of Congress. Best, of course, is to have the party of the President in control of both houses, but in many cases, working control or a d'entente as Reagan had with the Democratic house. Obama has neither, he cannot overcome a filibuster, and he is far from control of the House of Representatives. The drubbing he took in 2010 was entirely of his own making: he focused on a tax cuts based stimulus, which was as weak as the other 6 rounds of tax cut based stimulus, and allowing his health care bill to drag out for two long years. Again, he lost ground and did not make it back.

It should be remembered that even winning the White House once requires no mean politician, and twice requires some peculiar insight into the American political spirit. Bush, for all his other failures, was the Paganini of the dog whistle: saying something that meant completely different things to different audiences. The most obvious example, was "a humble" foreign policy, which meant, to bicoastal elites, that he would not take up too much space, the way a voice at a seminar in college is muted and collegial. But to an evangelical, humble means to be an instrument of God. Obama's peculiar insight was a complete contempt for the activists of his own party, knowing precisely how little they would sell out for. He knew that as long as he gave universal unlimited issue to the largely white middle class, they would back him because it was an issue of their life and death. Several prominent liberal writers were moved by their personal stake to at the forefront of Opologism, in the same way that GE used NBC to push a war that would profit the parent company.

The breadth of this sell out can only be seen in the details, however, of the deals that were made, which must come later. The bottom line is that Obama won, at great expense, a slender re-election for himself, and held a difficult Senate class. The second is actually a more impressive, though not impressive, accomplishment.

Incontrovertibly, Obama is a better politician than Willard Mitt Romney, and incontrovertibly, elections are decided by the competition. Politics grades partially on the curve, and the closeness of the election shows, that unlike, for example 1972, the election was there to be won by the challenger, who came up short. Romney let chances slip through his fingers. The irony is that the difference between the Rehnquist court, and the Roberts court, is that Roberts is a conservative, and less a partisan. Many of his changes make it harder for the Republican Party, while favoring conservative politics in general. By issuing Citizens United, it made raising money essential to the bitter end – in all some 6 Billion was spent in line with my prediction that each American election would cost twice as much as the one before – and this was Romney's source of Ryan as VP, and the infamously stupid "47%" remark. Romney blew his chances, because he had to keep blowing his donors and his extreme base.

But only half of politics is graded on the curve, Obama, and his followers have proclaimed his greatness. This means to measure a man by not the failures of his contemporaries, but by the success of history. On this scale, Obama is a failure, he spent mandate, he did not gain it. He did not leave a coalition that could govern, because an for his party to win a third term, requires that he run a third time, and the Mitt Romney, or someone as poor a candidate, run. It is possible that the Republican primary system will do this, but this would not be of Obama's doing.

Thus while Obama outclassed Romney, when compared against the Great Politicians past, separate from policy, he compares to William McKinley, who won slightly more of the vote, the more of the electoral vote, than his first run against the same opponent, and somewhat ahead of George W. Bush. But being mentioned in the same breath, as a politician, with Bush and McKinley, and Wilson – who while he was re-elected narrowly, went from being the beneficiary of a split in the Republican Party, to winning outright a two man race. Wilson won almost a third more votes –  9,126,868 to 6,296,284, and 8% more of the tally – is no great ranking in the scale of electoral masters.

The bottom line is that his party lost ground. 2012 was almost strictly a personal victory for Obama in holding on to a coalition handed to him when the economy walked off the cliff in September of 2008.

Policy Failure

"The argument for a lesser evil, then, has one sure effect. It guarantees that the choice will be between greater evils next time around."

Christopher Hitchens
"Minority Report," Nation, August 22, 1994
Quotable Hitchens, Windsor Mann and Martin Amis

The second big lie of Obamism is to use titles in place of substance: the ACA for example, or the Stimulus Bill. When analyzed these turn out to be check boxes that have far less effect than claimed.

The Republican Party for a generations has been the party of two ideas: run a paper for oil economy by borrowing forward and cutting taxes, and bribing enough middle of the country states by offering a respite from the social progress of the late 20th century. Both of these have broken down, but Republicans of the elite stripe should not fear: they have successfully boarded and taken over the Democratic Party, now as committed to Wall Street as they are. It was Clinton, not Bush, the passed the "financial reforms" that allowed the mortgage meltdown, and one of the most reliable engines of liberalizing banking laws, has been the senior Senator from New York, since he was a member of the House of Representatives. WTO and NAFTA were under Clinton, as was "Welfare Reform," another brick in the reduction of the disproportionately non-white underclass.

To measure policy, it is not enough to be better than the opposition, but equal to the circumstances, and here Obama's nature as an empty suit is abundantly obvious.

The first example is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was, mostly, a vehicle for his promised "Middle Class Tax Cut". While by this point there is ample evidence that high end tax cuts do not spur growth, for the obvious reason that asset inflation results, with more dollars chasing fewer investment returns, the data indicates that lower income tax cuts do not work: while both Bush and Obama cut tax rates for lower income payers by a percentage of income, poverty rates remain high, and in fact have grown. This echoed the famous 1989 conclusion from two very conservative economists. This is because people at the low income line do not have pricing power, they cannot raise wages, they cannot bargain for goods. Thus employers, who know exactly how much more employees are getting can simply hold pay raises down.

The concept here is that the poor don't have income, they have through put. The attacks from the right on the ACA were hobbled and inaccurate, to no small extent because the ACA is their plan, proposed by Heritage, and then signed into law by a Republican governor, with a Medicare waiver signed by George W. Bush. But this is the grading on the curve defense again. The question is whether

This is compounded by rising health insurance rates, which leads us to the far more damning ACA, or Affordable Care Act, which creates a two tier system of health care: one based on Medicaid, the other on private insurance. The first is where the poor and disporportionately non-white will be shunted, the second subsidizes white older payers, who get universal issue, that is no exclusions, and unlimited caps, that is no cost caps, by forcing younger people to pay higher rates. Thus, the famous subsidies are another case not of income, but of through put: the younger workers pays higher costs, which are, in turn, used to subsidize older, often more affluent, workers.

The real problem is that the US spend much more of its GDP on health care, and for rather mediocre outcomes. Measuring Obama against a fictive alternative is the grading on the curve lie, instead, the potentially lost output is the question, how much of the money that is overspent is redirected to better purposes? The answer is very little, the ACA's measures for controlling costs are almost all hand waving. There are small, but noticeable, effects from the luxury tax on expensive plans, and from Medicaid expansion, which, with an *, takes people out of wasteful private insurance.

That asterix is, of course, one of the most damning indictments of the movement around Obama, and that is their slavish acceptance of paying the affluent first, and of the Roberts decision in allowing states to cut Medicaid expansion. Obama is only tangentially to blame, since Roberts rawly political move was, on legal grounds, questioned by ... Roberts himself, both in the dissent he wrote, and in his questions. Obama can legitimately claim to have been blind sided by Roberts' willingness to double back, but this only goes back to the mediocre nature of Obama as a politician.

However, Obama's movement is not immunized, because first four so-called liberals were willing to trade the poor, disproportionate non-white, for the affluent, disproportionately white, by the medicaid opt out, second, because liberals and democrats embraced it fully, even calling it a "boon" to minorities. Except to the quarter or so of those that it is not. If a Republican had passed an act that so clearly had discriminatory impact, Democrats would have been the first to attack.

The deeper failure is Obama's running of the executive itself. Again, grading on the curve one can see how Obama has been more adept than Bush in running federal agencies, for example, his ability to be the face of policy in the wake of Sandy, versus the miserable failure moment of Katrina. But George W. Bush was the worst two full term President, and one of the worst. Being better than the worst is not great. One does not get honors for being better than the bottom 10% of the class, even in the softest of gut course.

An example of this failure broke in the last month of the campaign: the meningitis outbreak caused by a company manufacturing doses of a steroid, and shipping them across state lines. It mirrors the Elixir sulfanilamide mass poisoning, where 100 people died from S. E. Massengill Company's mixing of a toxic solvent into the medication. This broke the impasse over the passage of what came to be known as the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act of 1938, still the basis for the FDA, and regulation of the introduction of medical goods into interstate commerce.

In the present, no action has been taken to expand the FDA's powers, even though 400 cases have been identified, and two dozen deaths. Again, measured by greatness, the Obama administration has exposed the public to risk of stroke, illness, and death, and done not much more than clean up the disaster.

Social Failure

Faced with the fact of a narrow victory, the pundits whose task it is have already begun a middle course, praising ideals, and blaming the office. However the measure of a first rate politician, is not what opportunistic hangers on say, hoping to gain a piece of the action, but what larger forces say, some men, are too big to judge by ones own interest. While Obama's defenders extravagantly assert a new Progressive era. If by a new Progressive era you mean Progressives as lap dogs for war, privatization, cutting Social Security and Medicare, then yes, that is a new era. The reality continues to be that the Democratic Party refuses to live up to its ideals, while the Republican Party will live down to theirs.

The Second Big Lie of Obamaism, is revisionist history. To explain how Obama did so little or fell so far short, it is necessary to invent a Republican victory in the Congressional elections of 2008:

Barack Obama can no longer preach the bright 2008 certitudes of "Hope and Change." He has a record to defend this time around. And, considering the lousy hand he was dealt by George W. Bush and an obstructionist Congress, his record of achievement, from universal health care to equal pay for women, is astonishingly solid.
This is the careful parsing lie version which is elided away. There was no obstructionist Congress in 2008, the Democrats won a second consecutive victory in Congressional elections. Like Bush's careful placement of Iraq and 9/11, having the loiter under the same broken street lamp, but not explicitly connecting them – it does not exactly say that the obstructionist Congress came from Bush, but it allows the confusion to sit. Lying by excision. The reality is that the obstructionist Congress was not the result of "Citizens United" which came later, but of Obama's own failures in policy and politics. He burned through two years on the ACA to get what he had already agreed to with power players behind the scenes, and then was forced to use reconciliation to patch it, after saying he would not, and lying to the public about a "Public Option" when he had already bargained it away – which is why Professor Hacker went from being a star to a footnote, since he had pushed it – rather than passing a bill and getting on with a program to fix the structural problems of the economy.

Instead, this same article comes out and tells the truth:

Viewed through the lens of history, Obama represents a new type of 21st-century politician: the Progressive Firewall. Obama, simply put, is the curator-in-chief of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society.
Or in otherwords, a conservative. This is the root of the failure of progressives under Obama, they are not liberal, or progressive liberals, but, at best, progressive conservatives: comfort the comfortable and inflict discipline on the afflicted. That Obama and his followers are conservatives, and his enemies to his right are reactionaries is the fundamental intellectual fallacy of discourse.

More over, by 2008, it came as news to no one that the Republican Party was one of obstructionism. After a "Government Shutdown," a long "Hunting of the President" culminating with an impeachment over an affair, and their own often quoted promise to make Obama a "one term President." George McGovern and Alan Simpson had both lamented the turn in events. For Obama to ignore what was, by the time he took office, a 12 year long pattern, means that Republican Obstructionism, even to the extent it existed in the Congress, and which Democrats had to participate in once all the members had been seated, is a failure, again, of Obama the politician. Since the Republicans and obstructed the seating of Senator Al Franken, the hand was tipped in advance.

By offering endless excuses for failures that were both foreseeable, and to some extent avoidable, Obama shows his lack of greatness, and his movement their lack of principle. Without irony they attack dissenter for wanting power without responsibility, but they take no responsibility themselves.

The social failure of Obama's movement also is found in how it rests on the same mean spirited ugliness that Bush, Rove, and their cadre, used to wrap America in failure. The ugliness includes attacks against Mitt Romney's religion, and overblow trash talking of the sort that fans of a second rate American football franchise engage in after narrowly defeating a doormat team. It indicates that Obamacracy will be run by intellectual third raters whose job it is to concoct excuses, and say "Fuck You." Over and over again. Would these same people accept being damned for the Christianity, or Atheism, or the totems of Buddhism? Of course not, one might as well criticize a candidate for his baseball cap. By return attacks on creed to the front of their attack on Romney – and I write this as a bitter opponent of a church which lies about history, lies about itself, and interferes with basic social rights – is to fail in that most fundamental of American assertions, that people are accountable for acts, not religion opinion. As the famous Danbury letter of Thomas Jefferson says:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Thus attacking the totems of Romney's faith is to descend into religious intolerance, and shows that Obamacrats abhor a primordial belief of humanism and liberalism: religious freedom. Romney may well hold beliefs from Mormonism that he would express as policy that would disqualify him, such as as being an apologist for the Church's racist stance until less than a generation ago, or its even more recent interventionism against equal marriage. It is entirely appropriate to ask Romney whether he approve of the Church engaging in politics to back Proposition 8 in California, and to conclude that it is not safe to trust to the chief magistrate of American pursuit of happiness, someone who believes in theocratic denial of it. In fact, Romney has at times condemned theocracy when convenient, but his  ability to be on all sides of every issue makes these denials, likewise, a legitimate subject for question. But underwear? No.

Make no mistake: Mitt Romney was the worst non-sacrificial lamb candidate in the media age. However, the mistakes were all out there, waiting to be made, and Romney time and again proved himself unfit for the Presidency on every level: he could neither muster ceremony, nor sense of policy. He was duplicitous, and disingenuous, he pandered to the myths of his base, even those which are transparently false, such as his "apology tour" attack. His plans were murky, if not non-existent, and his choice of Ryan, while arguably necessary to mollify his base, indicated that he represented a wallow in the tea party's worst impulses.

Each party represents and elite core which funds the party, and two bases: their populist base which sees movement toward some larger goal, and the moderate base which expects protection of a current way of life, and particularly the benefits of it. Romney represents his party's elite core. However he has a problem, where as Reagan and Bush used America's image of church goers as the people that Americans would like to be: thrifty, pious, moral, wholesome, the Tea Party shows them to be violent gun toting old coots. The populist base of the Republican Party is kept in line because they are right wing socialists: without farm bills, road subsidies, retirees, and the military budget, their way of life would be hobbled. Without the ability to externalize the cost of carbon, it would be over.

It is also a social reality that theocracy is part and parcel of the Republican coalition, and part of the social bribes it pays its adherents. The Republican coalition can barely hide its desire for theocratic laws, and to reward those who attack others on the basis of race, creed, sexuality, or gender. The Republican coalition is driven by "God, guns, and gays," which is "theocratic patriarchy" for those of a monosyllabic vocabulary. The reaction against it is understandable, but shows the feet of clay of the so-called left, a rootless anger waiting for a leader.

The fall from liberal humanism that Obama Nation represents is seen as well by their intolerance of dissent. A case in point is an essay written by a friend of mine, Matt Stoller, namely his short essay on why Obama had failed by the measure of Progressivism. It raised nearly unhinged personal attacks, precisely because it was so moderate. Obama claims to protect the middle class, but in fact protects the financial system first: he noted that home prices have been flat, while bonds and stocks have out-performed.

The same party that elevated dissent out of power, condemns it in power.

But this is all grading on the curve, this essay carries no brief for Romney, nor his movement, if one could be located, nor his party. The question is not whether American made the better choice in the general election, but whether the triumphalism which attends a weak President with a weak victory is accorded by the facts, or whether Americans should find a means to hold the movement that backed him to account.

If Obama's movement were content with claiming that he was a good man who did the best he could, or the best that could have been chosen in these times, they would have a strong case that a nation whose politics and socio-economic inequality are as they are, might not have been able to elect a President any farther to the left than Obama.  However, they claim greatness. Measured against Social Security, the ACA is closer the the Americans With Disabilities Act, a privilege mostly for the privileged, a good conservative brick propping up those who are otherwise members in good standing of the establishment, measured against the FDIC, Dodd-Frank is an almost non-existent filing of a few loose ends, the sort of act that FDR's administration would tuck into regulations.

In summary, Obama is what his re-election says he is: a divisive President with a weak mandate, who let chances slip through his fingers because of his poor judgment and ideological rigidity, whose great claim is that he is better than the worst two term President in American history, and better than a candidate whose contempt for the truth will be near legendary. As the Republicans pointed to the Taliban, the Democrats point to the Tea Party.

Technocratic, Obamacaratic, and Boomercratic, Not Democratic, Liberal, or Progressive

One of the essential problems of American political discourse is that "liberal" and "conservative" have become essentially meaningless conventional descriptions of clusters of political opinion. Just as the terms "left" and "right" do not really describe American political Parties until what political scientists call the "fifth party system," the present division does not fall into progressive, liberal, or conservative camps.