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jpgray's Journal - Archives
Posted by jpgray in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Sun Nov 07th 2010, 11:10 AM


Not by themselves. Banners are inert, they have no ideals--the ideals they come to represent are determined only by those who wave them. It makes no sense to tie one's loyalty to a symbol, since that symbol can come over time to stand for everything it once opposed. The GOP is a long way from Lincoln, and the Democratic Party is on a trajectory well away from Jefferson and FDR. If we only defend the name and trappings of a party, regardless of who wields them, its ideals will be as vaporous and inconstant as ambitious opportunists see fit to make them; the party will shift under our feet until we find ourselves far from where we thought we'd dug in.

This is why I value criticism and public pressuring, even of Democrats. Ambitious opportunism is a required trait in any political leader. It is our insistence on and support of certain ideals that must provide the best opportunities for ambition. If we don't provide them, they will be sought elsewhere.

If I were looking to defend anything done by Democrats, no matter what the party plans for the next two years, I would simply point to the evils of the opposition and the necessity of keeping them out of office. This sort of tough-talking pragmatism convinces a great many people (it convinces me!). Well, apply it to the politicians. If you want them to stick to a set of ideals, the alternative must seem an evil one to them. If you define yourself as an enthusiastic supporter of the trappings alone, they'll graciously look elsewhere for someone to please.
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Posted by jpgray in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Wed Sep 29th 2010, 06:29 PM
So first the love part. As a person, this is the best president we've had in a long time. The guy has the right instincts and inclinations at almost all points. He has "big ideas" that he is willing to push for. A few are simply vague ephemera (like "bipartisanship" or "changing the tone"), which politicians love since a victory can be claimed no matter what happens, but there are also genuine -policy- ideas that must take tangible form to be claimed as promises kept. Let's take some examples from the campaign:

He strongly advocated for open-ended Medicare negotiations on drug prices (just like the VA has, remember) and argued the importation of the same FDA-drugs from Canada or the like (at half the price) should be legal for everyone. He further condemned the insider game of Washington, pledging to refuse positions of power to lobbyists when such positions would affect the industries for which they lobbied.

These are all great ideas, and he has made not insignificant progress on the larger issues of health care reform and transparency in the insider game of Washington. But his best ideals and inclinations are killed or nibbled bare by the technocrats. From the political consultant side, Bill Bradley (via Robert Kaiser) described it some years back in a way that is now particularly relevant:

A good candidate decides to go in politics in hopes of promoting a national health care system, for example. To run, he or she has to rely on the new technicians, especially a pollster, a consultant, and a chief fund-raiser. "The candidate says, 'I'm in politics to get national health insurance.' And the consultant says 'You can't do that.' And the candidate says, 'I don't care--what good is it to be in politics if you can't make big changes?' So the consultant then talks to the fund-raiser. He says, 'You know Joe, he's crazy, he wants to reform health care, he won't win. Believe me, I know, I'm in the business of winning, and that'll be the death knell if he insists.' So the fund-raiser goes to Joe and says, 'Joe, you can't do that.' And Joe says, 'What do you mean, that's why I'm in politics, we talked about it before I got in.' 'Yeah, but the consultant, who knows how to win, says you can't win with that proposal. And Joe, what good are your big ideas if you lose?' So Joe makes the compromise. That's the first thing that happens."


If there's an epitaph for serious policy ideas on the part of political leaders, it has to be "Believe me, I know, I'm in the business of winning." Obama's idealistic statements and pledges above were meant honestly, I have no doubt. He had every intention of following through on every one of them, and as the quote above shows, one of them he followed through on (however imperfectly) was widely seen as institutionally impossible. The reason (in my view): a consultant can easily get a focus group to hate the idea, and a well-funded negative campaign constructed on that basis terrifies every single legislator, regardless of party affiliation. We've witnessed this reality--the signs were there to see. Political consultants to my mind undoubtedly were the driving force behind making health care reform deficit neutral, and undoubtedly pushed for deals with moneyed interests that had the influence and money to vilify every aspect of the proposal in every medium, using leaders of both parties, for months on end--these were ways to inoculate the proposal against the worst political attacks, but they also served to hobble the reform. So did another factor:

Technocrats of political consultancy are not the only dangerous technocrats when it comes to serious policy. Experts on the legislative process, advising moneyed interests, are masters of inserting innocuous, byzantine language in any major government effort. They serve both to protect the interests of powerful industry -and- to funnel millions of federal dollars to the states and districts of influential legislators. The bill that enacted Social Security was something on the order of thirty pages, yet the health care reform bill was thousands of pages. "Believe me, I know" embraces not only horse-race expertise, but the insertion of pages and pages of seemingly immaterial exceptions that make the toughest reforms meaningless. Experts in this field have great ability in identifying clients in the districts/states of influential legislators that would be harmed by this or that rule, and can readily convince a congressperson that, absent an exception to such a rule, jobs will be lost, economies will be irrevocably harmed, opponents will have ready-made TV ads, pamphlets, etc. Some of the exceptions protect genuinely good groups from coming to harm, but most are there to maintain a status quo for the people who make the most money, whose money is at risk via the proposed rule.

So it's not precisely Obama's fault that he provided a waiver for Patterson, the chief lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be chief of staff for Treasury. Same goes for lobbyists from Raytheon and Sempra as no. 2 guys in Defense and Interior, respectively. It's not precisely Obama's fault that a secret deal with the pharmaceutical industry was made, coercing the White House to ban the House from any proposal of open-ended drug price negotiation or drug importation. It's not precisely Obama's fault that Max Baucus was hurtled to the forefront of the health care reform bill's construction, accompanied by the uncomfortable fact that five of his former staffers lobbied for PhRMA and like groups representing the health industry.

Obama and all his ostensible allies in Congress were essentially told, I have no doubt about it, "Do this, or you'll never get anything done at all, and the Democrats will be out of the majority for a generation--believe me, I know." His resistance to this behavior seems far sharper than that of most if not all leaders in the party, but the pressure is always there and it is -inevitable- that he will succumb to it more or less, and on every issue. To get the big things done, on which he still must compromise, he will be advised to throw things like equal rights on the back-burner--it is to his credit that he has not done so as cravenly or completely as might be expected. But it's a hollow and hideous sort of credit if you are GLBT or a supporter of equal rights yourself.

The problem is not with Obama so much; it is that the consultancy of technocrats is stifling and antithetical to any leadership. Focus groups and polling cannot generate any truly novel ideas. They are meant to exploit the current political debate, not form one from scratch. They will not reflect the capacity for a teachable moment if it cannot be accomplished in a few months, in increments of thirty seconds or less. Legislators that protect and enrich the already protected and enriched can pride themselves on bringing home the bacon, but in such a system there is never a debate on whether the protected and enriched deserve continued protection and enrichment.

Whew. So anyway, that's why I'm everlastingly disappointed with Obama's policies, yet remain impressed by him as a person. It is also why I will continue to vote Democratic for the foreseeable future--it is our party that best produces leaders that can work against this seemingly unstoppable force. That's important work, and recognizing the mediocre fiddlings produced by the system does not remove our responsibility to elect those most likely to change it.
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