Blood and Teeth: a review of Bill Press, Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down

Probably many of us are getting urgent e-mails asking us to express our approval of President Obama on the eve of his departure and, not so incidentally, back up sentiment with a generous donation to the sponsoring organization. Generally, I am heartily glad to see the back of a leader who has led a failed administration. On the other hand, considering who will replace him, I would rather he stay in the White House and keep Trump out.

Bill Press, reporter, broadcaster and former Chair of the California Democratic Party, probably also has mixed feelings. It’s safe to say, I think, that he wrote this book with the expectation of a different outcome to the election. Perhaps he would have pulled some punches had he expected that any of his words would have helped Trump. However, the book he
did write is a useful cautionary tale for progressives in the future.

The most important take-away from the book is the overwhelming importance of the person who
occupies the Presidency. He or she sets the priorities and strategy. He/she hires the chief advisors and administrators who will help set policies and supervise their execution.
The choice of assistants, however, is not a value-free process. As Elizabeth Warren has said, personnel is policy. People who are eligible for high government positions typically have histories and agendas. Thus the President knew, or should have known, what he was getting when he chose Larry Summers and Tim Geithner for the chief economic positions in his administration. Summers had bounced around Harvard, government and Wall Street, picking up
animosity and several million dollars along the way. Geithner was head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and it would have been difficult, geographically and ideologically, for him to be closer to Wall Street. As the President wrestled with greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, he chose how he would address that disaster when he chose Summers and Geithner.

Their first concern was to restore “confidence” on Wall Street. This was done by massive bailouts and friendly sympathy, extending even to allowing bailed out companies to pay bonuses to the executives who had presided over the actions that had led to financial collapse. Understandably, as millions of houses went into foreclosure and entire communities cratered, the average American understood that “Socialism for the rich” was alive and well.

Not so healthy was concern for the millions of workers who lost their jobs. Of course, capitalism was trying to solve the problems it had created by throwing its burden on the backs of the working class. There were two broad ways put forward to alleviate the problem of unemployment: government austerity, which meant cutting expenditures for social services,
and the Keynesian method of large, pump-priming government expenditure on public works and social services. Obama more or less chose the second method, whose planning exemplified the process that would characterize many other decisions over the next eight years. First, the
Council of Econmic Advisers estimated the bare minimum of government expenditure necessary
to maintain employment at its previous level (not at full employment, of course; that would have been socialism for the poor). Summers, et al., were aghast at the political naïveté of
the economists. Congress would never approve such an outrageous number, said they, so they cut the proposed appropriation approximately in half (Congress was still in Democratic hands), meaning that it was bound to fail to restore adequate employment. When the already compromised measure got to Congress, it was met with further demands for compromise. The result was a bill that was a mixture of tax cuts and public works projects, one that was totally inadequate to stem the avalanche of unemployment

Press observes that Obama and his appointees did not seem to know the first rule of bargaining: you never present your final offer first. Everyone in government understands that the first offer is just the beginning of negotiations. Repeatedly Obama’s positions had been compromised within his administration before they reached Congress, where they were further whittled down. Look at the Affordable Care Act, the President’s signature achievement, as an example of this model, and it’s apparent why it has been at best a modest success.

A related part of the Obama failures was his apparent unwillingness to follow a basic rule in negotiations with others and especially negotiations with opponents: you have to fight your corner. You have to believe in your own case and,as Elizabeth Warren has said, be prepared to leave blood and teeth on the floor. Certainly compromise is probably necessary in the end, but the other side has to know that it has been in a fight. Otherwise, the President will be in Obama’s position: the Republicans sized him up as a wimp and would not bargain with him; and, after all, they didn’t have to negotiate. After 2010 and 2012 the Republicans took the House and then the Senate. A courageous, progressive President- the kind that Obama told us he would be in 2008- might well have held the Congress.

So I think I will skip signing the sorry-to-see-you-go card.

Bernie Sanders, Our Revolution: a review

In my opinion, all of us owe an enormous debt to Bernie Sanders. He took up the progressive banner when other possible candidates were reluctant to take on the fabled Clinton machine.
While he was not (and is not) my preferred candidate for that role, he had the Brooklyn moxie to go against the Democratic Establishment and its Wall Street contributors. When he declared his candidacy, all of the “wise people” thought it was a kamikaze run, likely to end in embarrassing failure. Instead, he built a small group of friends and supporters into
a movement of millions and financed a campaign without PACs, a campaign based on peoples’ contributions that averaged $27 each. He showed that there were millions of Americans who are social democrats, even if they don’t use that label. That we have a chance today to build a progressive/social democratic movement is in large measure because of Bernie Sanders.

How nice it would be, then, to say that his just-published book, Our Revolution, is a sure bet for the Pulitzer Prize. Alas, it is as a political leader and not as a writer that we must honor Bernie. The book is actually two books: first, there is an account of the campaign for about 180 pages; then, for the balance of the 450 pages, there is a discussion of the policies that inspired his campaign. Both parts are in sad need of an editor who would take a blue pencil to the repetitious prose and to Bernie’s too frequent and too lengthy quoting of himself. An index would also be useful in sorting through the ideas
and people who are in such profusion. Probably the most valuable part of the book is the policy section, which can serve as a quick reference for progressives.

As lengthy as the policy section is, however, there is a significant issue missing: gun control. This omission perhaps tells us something about Bernie and something about necessary compromises in political life; if he were more introspective about his motivation and values and willing to share his conclusions about himself, we could learn a great deal about him and about the reality of life as a practicing politician. Unfortunately, most people in political life feel the need to hide some of their innermost convictions, and Bernie’s real views on gun control are probably well-suppressed. Surely a person of his humanistic values cannot fail to be horrified by the epidemic of wholesale murder made possible by easy access to firearms. However, when he does address the issue, in the campaign narrative, it is to complain that Hillary Clinton used it to attack him unfairly.

The attack was not unfair; it was founded on several votes that he had cast on gun control, including an especially egregious vote for exempting gun manufacturers from liability for the misuse of their products. Quoting himself for nearly a page, Bernie sets out his position on gun control, including a ban on assault rifles. If the manufacturers of assault rifles had to face the possibility of lawsuits by the victims of their products, we can be sure that they would cease to make them. They do not face the consequences of their behavior, however, because Bernie and others have given them a free pass.

Bernie admits that he never found a “good” answer to this attack, probably, we might speculate, because there was no “good” answer. There was, of course, an answer, and it had
the merit of being truthful. Bernie could have said,”Look, a lot of folks in Vermont have guns to which they are mightily attached. If I vote with gun control advocates, I will lose my constituents’votes and will lose my seat in the Senate. If I am not in the Senate, I can’t do the good things that you and I want me to do. Voting against gun control measures is my pinch of incense on the altar of political reality.” Had he made this answer, it would have been evident that his idealistic left hand did not always know what his politically cunning right hand was doing and that he, too, was a politician.

However, despite his admiration for Pope Francis, Bernie is not a candidate for canonization
and should not judged on the criteria for sainthood. It is enough that he is a good man who is trying to do good things. It is enough that he stood up.

Whose Revolution is Our Revolution?

The Bernie Sanders campaign was one of the most significant events for the American Left in the last four decades. It mobilized millions of voters to reject the neoliberalism that has dominated the Democratic Party. Equally important, it rallied voters and activists around a program that was essentially social democratic and negotiated with the Clinton wing of the party to produce the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. Whether the candidate in 2020 is Bernie or someone else (hint: Elizabeth Warren), the campaign created a model that the Left can use to build and exercise strength in the Democratic Party. (By the way, we had a discussion of the value of such a campaign at the 2014 SDUSA convention. See video.)

Perhaps as significant as the campaign itself was Senator Sanders’ determination to build a movement beyond the campaign. Many of us saw the welcome possibility that a mass social democratic/progressive movement could be established throughout the country. When Bernie announced the new movement- Our Revolution, he spoke to an estimated 400,000 activists. Probably like others, I listened carefully for a description of the structure of Our Revolution because I have the fundamental conviction that a democratic revolution can
only be made by a democratic organization. Unfortunately, the Senator did not outline a democratic, grass-roots movement; instead, he announced that a staff had been hired and that a governing board was being assembled. I was mildly disappointed but thought that the time constraints of the presidential campaign perhaps made such a structure necessary. Now, after the election, when grass-roots groups are coming together in many parts of the United States, Our Revolution has issued by-laws, and there is serious cause for concern.

Of special interest is Article V of the by-laws, which, in effect, provides for a self-perpetuating Board of Directors. Section 5.03 provides that the directors shall be elected
by a majority of directors then in office (presumably including the power to re-elect themselves in perpetuity). Vacancies are to be filled by the Board of Directors. The Annual Meeting to elect directors and to transact the business of the organization is not a meeting of members or members’ delegates but simply a meeting of- you guessed it!- the Board of Directors (actually there no members, just “supporters,” largely defined in financial terms, with rights to be defined by—the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors has the sole right to amend the by-laws, without input from anyone else. This, I suggest, is not the structure of a democratic organization but of an oligarchy. It begs the question,
“Whose revolution is Our Revolution?”

To be fair, perhaps those in charge of OR fully intend to establish a structure that is responsive and responsible to its membership when grass-roots state organizations have been
created. However, if that is their intention, there is no indication of it on the web site.
Further, as far as I can tell, there is nothing that says that national OR even plans to help or encourage the organization of state OR groups.

My interest here is not to nit-pick a set of by-laws; neither is it to complain of theoretical violations of democratic procedure (although SDUSA and I are passionately committed to democratic principles). Rather, I want to warn of the danger to progressive politics of an oligarchy of even good people with good programs. I very much want to see a broad-based national progressive movement, and we have the best opportunity to create such a movement in many years. The current structure of OR presents at least two practical dangers to that vision, and we who share the vision must struggle for an internally democratic movement.

Many of us on the Left have had the bitter experience of participating in progressive organizations that were controlled by a “benevolent” self-perpetuating elite. We reasoned that internal democracy was not important because the leadership advocated progressive policies. Inevitably a time came when an issue of overwhelming importance arose, an issue that divided the leadership elite from many of the members (for me it was the Vietnam War, but I am an old guy). The leadership used its strategic position to impose its views on the dissidents, and we learned that, in a movement for which we had worked for years, we were
guests, not owners. The hard lesson I learned 40 years ago: internal democracy is not just a nice thing to have, it is essential.

A further danger is that oligarchical decision-making will not motivate the thousands and thousands of people that must come together to bring the democratic revolution. Democracy may or not be a cumbersome, messy way to make decisions but one thing is certain: it makes people feel that they are fully-empowered owners. A responsible adult understands that ownership implies responsibilties to participate in and work for the movement. We will need
that understanding if we are to have a successful movement.

In many states grass-roots OR groups are coming together. It is essential for the future of progressive politics that they be democratic: controlled by the members and responsive to the members. An opportunity like this comes along once in 5 decades; let’s not blow it.

Was it Comey or the Middle Finger?

Hillary Clinton has given us her analysis of the Democratic catastrophe to which she led us: it did not happen because of her sense of privilege regarding the use of e-mails; it had nothing to do with her cozy, secret and lucrative speeches to Goldman Sachs; the failure of the Obama administration to build a full employment economy was not relevant; in brief, her personal greed and secretiveness and the self-satisfied greed of the elite that has run the Democratic Party for almost fifty years were beside the point. The problem was the last minute announcement by FBI Director Comey of the re-opening of the investigation into her e-mails as a result of examining the computer of Anthony Weiner (as Marx said, history always repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce). This announcement blunted her momentum, says she, and cost the election.

Certainly none of us would approve Director Comey’s timing, and he has raised the specter of Illegal FBI interference in the electoral process. However, it is altogether too much for Ms. Clinton to focus on a more or less technical glitch to explain her defeat. This is a convenient explanation for her and her friends because it implies that there were no political reasons for losing a race that, given the incredible Trump, was hers to lose. If there were no political reasons, then the Democratic Party can go back to the policies and practices that have enriched its elite and alienated them from the American working class.

The overwhelming political fact is that millions of people in this country are hurting. They have not had a real increase in wages in decades. Millions do not have jobs, and those who do are worrying about the future. They cannot afford to help educate their children and give them chances to survive in an economy that has no use for high school graduates. Hillary Clinton missed this pain, and remarkably, Donald Trump, in his skyscraper pleasure dome, did not. To be sure, Ms. Clinton, as a result of pressure from the Left, had a progressive platform to run on, a platform that addressed many of the problems of the middle and working classes. She largely ignored this platform and failed to convince the middle and working classes that she understood their hurt on a personal, human level. An understanding that FDR, the Hudson Valley aristocrat, managed was beyond her.

Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern sees this election as a middle finger salute from the working class to a Democratic Party that has abused its loyalty for so long. I think he is right. The working class has been slipping away from the Democratic Party since the Reagan
years because working people have ceased to believe the party understands or supports their needs. The task of social democrats and other progressives is to take back the party and regain the trust of its traditional base. We made a good trial run with the Sanders campaign, and we have four years to build on that beginning. We have lost an election but the democratic revolution is not yet lost!

Fascism’s new day in America

Good morning,

To my fellow veterans: On this Veterans Day I thank you, brothers and sisters, for your devotion to our country. To my fellow Marines: happy birthday! To my fellow social democrats: our failure this week is an opportunity for us to gather our strength and resolve, and set a course for the next two years. Do not let your remorse paralyze you; we have much to do.

It is a beautiful sunny day here in Pittsburgh. The fall colors are brilliant, even as they portend the coming cold winter. As the leaves fall, so did Leonard Cohen, and one could imagine that he scripted it that way. Despite the disaster of the election, we must remember that every day is new opportunity to do good. It is also important to remember that as leftists, we believe in the inherent goodness of people. We recognize that most Americans are not evil. Most Americans are good hearted people who love their family, neighbors, and country. Despite that, we have have been reminded once again that “Fear Trumps Love”. This week some bullies took over our country by tapping into fears and frustrations of Americans who see the two major parties doing absolutely nothing to stem the growing economic inequality in America. They did that the way fascists always do— by identifying scapegoats and then inciting violence against them. It’s an old formula and it works. We need to respond rather than wallow.

We know that protest is important, but by itself is ineffective. On Nov 19 we have an event planned in Buffalo which will bring together activists from labor and the broader left. See the story here. This could be a model for future events in your community. But even that type of activity does not necessarily translate into electoral action. Our members are split on our relationship with the Democratic Party; one that we have held since 1960. That may be the biggest issue that we have to address as a result of this election. I know our stance has become controversial with leftists, but election law in many states restricts the success of third parties. See this story on WFP. The goal of electoral action is to win elections. Protests are protests, elections are elections. Will Labor and the Left walk away from the Democratic Party after this stunning defeat? We will talk about that more in the weeks ahead.