In some ways it was easy being a Democrat back when George W. Bush was in the White House and Republicans ruled supreme in Congress — infuriating, disheartening, even frightening — but easy.
In this one small sense, Bush and the GOP were “kind” to Democrats: by being so dependably awful, so predictably incompetent and so habitually corrupt, they allowed us the illusion of a nuance-free political life. We were the anti-Bush, and damn proud of it. True, this made us a frequent target to our wise overlords in the major media: to them, we were the angry left, the Bush haters — a scattering of misfits whose diatribes fell well outside the conventions of “serious” political debate.
The only problem, of course, was that it turned out that we had been right all along: Bush and the GOP really did screw the pooch on almost everything they touched, something the American people realized much earlier than these illustrious leaders of the conventional media (assuming they’ve even figured it out as of today). So they started electing more Democrats — sweeping Democratic majorities into both houses of Congress in 2006.
And just like that, being a Democrat wasn’t quite so easy. Blaming Bush and Bush alone for all things bad in America was no longer defensible. Our party had some real power — even if the party’s leaders usually seemed too afraid to use it. As a result, many of us in the Democratic Party’s base found ourselves even more infuriated by the state of American politics than we had been before. And the nature of liberal Democratic discourse changed accordingly. Bush bashing continued, of course (it isn’t like he got any better), but it was joined by a healthy dose of intraparty bashing of congressional Democrats for their unwillingness to fight.
Some of this was probably unfair, born of a naïveté over what’s possible within the arcane machinery of the federal government. This is especially true, of course, with the Senate — an institution that seems to have been constituted with one and only one goal in mind: being certain that absolutely nothing can ever get done.
But if the Democratic base has at times been unfair to its elected leaders, those leaders themselves have often seemed inclined to do everything humanly possible to fan the flames. From refusing, again and again, to seriously fight Bush even on issues on which the public was lined up against him, to all too often adopting Republican talking points, to even openly parroting the media’s dismissal of “the angry left,” these politicians at times seemed to deliberately invite the scorn of the very people who do the most to get them elected.
The reason for this dismal treatment of the party’s base by many of its elected leaders is actually not all that mysterious. The fact is that many Democratic officeholders just don’t like us. We’re annoying; constantly making demands on them they don’t want to hear. The fact we’re indispensible at election time doesn’t mean, after all, they have to find us palatable the rest of the time. And here’s a little secret: the Republicans in Congress hate their base too; they just do a better job of hiding it.
Still, most members of the Democratic base swallowed their hurt feelings and fought for the party in a big way in 2008, helping to usher in a Democratic landslide. By the time the dust had settled (a little dust is still hanging in Minnesota, of course) Barack Obama was president and the Democrats enjoyed huge margins in both houses of Congress.
Well, maybe not so much. As the giddy days following Obama’s inauguration turned into weeks and then months, something strange started to happen: reality began to creep in. The first discordant sign came in the appointments President Obama was making — an extraordinarily “unchangish” bunch of Clinton-era pro-finance moderates, for the most part. But it didn’t stop there.
On a whole range of issues, from openness in government, to ending military commissions, to an economic incentive program that seemed much more geared toward pampering corporate America than protecting working people, to his pledge to end the don’t ask don’t tell policy, Obama has backpedaled, at least a little, from his campaign promises. Meanwhile, on issues where he continues to stand by those promises, as in his commitment to close the gulag at Guantanamo Bay, too often congressional Democrats have proven to be a problem.
It’s as though they’ve forgotten who won the election.
But it would be easy to take the point too far. Obama’s election has, in fact, brought positive progressive change in countless ways. The bombastic tone of American foreign policy of the Bush years is largely gone, replaced by a much more hopeful diplomatic approach. Science is back. Obama’s budget proposals have been extremely progressive, as even frequent critic Paul Krugman has agreed. Protecting the environment is once again a priority of the government, even if there have been disappointments along the way. Judge Sonia Sotomayor may not be the liberal’s dream candidate for the Supreme Court, but compared to the sort of person Bush or John McCain would have nominated she’s a godsend.
All of which, of course, leaves the Democratic Party’s base in what can perhaps best be described as the agony of nuance. Gone are the unambiguous days of the anti-Bush. It is now very clear that there are going to be times — too many, in fact — when liberals will have to oppose Obama. Fine. But those who would simply write the man off as “Bush lite” are missing the broader point. There is still much good that can happen and that is happening in the Obama presidency.
Universal health insurance (with a good public option), for example, would by itself constitute a progressive revolution.
Even as liberals lick their wounds over what we regard as Obama’s failings, the right wing attack machine is going into full gear. Most of their shots so far have been clunkers: but they won’t all be. The recent European election, with right wing and fringe parties blowing out the center-left parties, serves as a warning. These are dangerous times politically.
I said some time back that like it or not liberals have bet the farm on Barack Obama, and we have. If his presidency fails, he won’t be replaced in 2012 by a reincarnation of Paul Wellstone. More likely it will be by a Republican who will make Bush look like a moderate.
We picked Obama: and buyer’s remorse just isn’t an option.
Sure, liberals need to fight him when he’s wrong. But we also need to have his back when he’s right. Too much is on the line to do anything less.