The Coming Centrist
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/5/08
Given Senator Barack Obama’s victory over Senator John McCain, last night, now is the time to dispel a few myths about what it all means. But first, let me toot my own horn a bit, for way back in early June I predicted here that the man would win with between 300 and 320 electoral votes; months before others came to a similar feeling. Most pundits foresaw another squeaker, ala 2000 or 2004. I did not; and it seems I was even too cautious. As of this morning, Obama holds a 349-163 electoral vote lead, with only North Carolina’s 15 and Missouri’s 11 outstanding. It looks like North Carolina will fall into Obama’s camp later today, with Missouri too close to call. McCain has a slight lead, but thousands of provisional ballots from urban areas could swing it to Obama, in a week or so. The final tally will likely be 364-174 or 375-163 Obama.
Now, to mythbusting. First, the biggest myth going around is that Obama’s victory tolled the end for the ‘Reagan Revolution, nearly three decades ago. Truth be told, the Reagan Revolution was never real, and the much touted ‘Age Of Reagan’ also never was. Instead, last night’s victory signaled the end of several things. The first was the end of the Nixon Era. Yes, that Nixon. For without Richard Nixon and his Southern Strategy, Ronald Reagan’s Presidency would never have come to pass. People forget that throughout his twelve year quest for the presidency, prior to 1980, Governor Ronald Reagan was pretty much considered a joke candidate- and not just across America, but within the Republican Party. That’s because he was an intellectual lightweight, and seen as a pale imitation of Senator Barry Goldwater, the true father of the modern, and now discredited, Conservative movement.
The fact is that Reagan innovated nothing- not ideas nor strategy, and were it not for the mediocre performance of President Jimmy Carter and the Iran Hostage crisis, Reagan would likely never have come within sniffing distance of the White House. That’s because it was Nixon’s own brand of personal viciousness that put flesh and life on the skeletal ideas and vision of Goldwater that Reagan merely refried. The last four decades of Right Wing ascendancy have not been noted for any great innovations in political governance, but the rising tide of personal invective, wedge issues, and the nurturing of celebrity over quality. All of these things are quintessentially Nixonian, not Reaganesque. Yes, there is some truth to the old adage that Johnson started the Great Society, but Nixon funded it. Yet, that was less ideology than placating rabble rousers as Nixon vainly tried to end the Vietnam War. From Watergate to the Enemies List to illegal bombings in Cambodia to attacking opponents on personal levels; all of this has only flowered, especially on the Right. Reagan simply needed a Nixon to flourish, and, so, the last forty years of politics, that came to an end last night, get the imprimatur of the larger historical figure, for good or ill, and that figure is indisputably Nixon.
But, there is likely (and hopefully) an even greater historical page turning that took place; and that was the official end of Twentieth Century politics, almost eight years (or nine, depending on your wont) after history turned that page. That end came not because racism itself died, but because the assumptions of it (such as the main one- a black man could never be President) died. Granted, one election won’t change totally the dynamic, but it can be a tipping point. That said, a good four years (and it cannot be worse than last 8) from Obama will do the trick, for the racist white male vote- and is there any better emblem for that than the wannabe Skinhead poster boy (do you think the McCain campaign even realized the symbolism?), Joe the Plumber (aka Sam the Scammer, aka Sam Worzelbacher; not Wurzelbacher)- will fade to demographic irrelevance.
This is because, despite the dronings on of assorted talking heads, the USA has never been a Center Right country, but a Center Left one. Republicans have never so much won elections than the Democrats have lost them. Don’t believe that Liberalism has always been ascendant, and is indeed inexorable? Just look back at this nation’s own history, and go back in quarter century chunks. One will see that every quarter century that passes sees the opening up of society into a freer way of living. 2008 is freer and better than 1983, which surpassed 1958, which was better than 1933, etc. Going back in times sees shackles being added, not removed- from Jim Crow to Suffragism to child labor to slavery, etc. And this bit of reality also has the benefit of taking into account the cyclical nature of things real and political. Yes, at a given moment, the culture may be a bit less liberal than a few years before, but it’s still significantly more open and progressive than the most conservative nadir of the prior cycle. The same is true that the liberal upswing of society always goes higher with each acme of the cycle. Go ahead, try to argue against reality.
So, with two myths shot, let’s look at the claims that Obama is a radical, or a Socialist, or the ‘Most Liberal’ (shiver) Senator in the U.S. Senate. If so, why did he have a sizable following amongst Republicans (Obamacans); as well as endorsements from many prominent Republicans? Because, while Republicans preach the bottom up approach to problem solving, neither the Bush Administration, nor John McCain, have shown that they approach problems that way. Instead, both hired high priced advisers to design solutions. In fact, this was probably the reason Obama defeated the similarly-minded Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. They all approached problem solving from the top down. But, Obama, the old grassroots organizer, does the opposite. He lives the creed Republicans preach, even if with different ideas. Thus, his opinions on matters have a ring of sincerity that his opponents lacked. Think of how much John McCain’s lack of economic innovation was likely due to his hiring of high priced experts and advisers, rather than genuine study and cogitation.
And, if one really looks at Obama’s ideas on school choice, taxation, gun control, Supreme Court philosophy, abortion, the economy, and on and on, one finds a rather pragmatic, not dogmatic, approach. The reason so many claim him so far left is that the last quarter century has been so far right, with the brief Clinton interregnum of center right rule. And, yes, Clinton was hardly a leftist. Check out Clinton’s record on NAFTA, the environment, public pieties, and a whole assortment of other issues. After all, it was Clinton who prematurely declared the era of big government to be over. Obama, by contrast, is firmly in the center of American thought, with his few deviations heading leftward. But, he’s hardly a radical New Dealer- not that that was truly radical, either. But, even if he were, there’s no way that he will be able to institute a fraction of the policies he’d like, because, unlike President Franklin Roosevelt, Obama is dealing from an enormous disadvantage in budget deficits and trade debt; all that’s left from nearly three decades of failed supply side economics. And, if one doubts the failure, consider the astounding admissions by former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan that the economy is in the worst shape since the Great Depression because the ‘free’ market is really not a self-correcting process.
The old trickle down supply side folly of Republican economic schemes to funnel wealth upward from the poor to the rich have finally played out. Consider the vaunted ideology related to tax cuts, that, even this year, both candidates gave lip service to. The fact is that there is simply no correlation between rates of taxation and rates of revenue- revenue growth is directly related to the health of an economy and factors other than taxation. After all, tax rates were at their highest under Eisenhower, and the economy boomed. The Laffer Curve, in all realistic taxation scenarios, is as mythic as Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Don’t think so? Here are the facts: Under Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush 2, taxes were cut and revenue grew. Aha, say you, see- the Supply Siders were right! Not so fast. Consider that under Presidents Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton the rates of tax revenues reached successive records- and all that was after they raised taxes! And all three of those times saw the economy recovering from financial downturns. Even further; the national deficit and debt grew under Reagan and Bush 2, while it shrank under Clinton. Why? Because of factors other than taxation rates. In short, the whole argument is simply a sideshow designed by the far right to pay off their ‘investors,’ not because it has anything to do with national fiscal health. So, yes; although mocked, Senator Joe Biden was correct in calling the payment of taxes, for the good of the public, a patriotic thing. Taxes are not ‘stealing,’ but a de facto dues a citizen pays to share in the benefits the country’s system brings- from defense to roads to Social Security- all what is known as ‘the public commons.’ No company or corporation (that fictive monster)- not Microsoft, Google, nor Walmart, has the fiscal capacity to pay for all of the infrastructure needed to bring goods and services to the public. They all should pay taxes because they all benefit from its bounty.
And because Obama recognizes this, while McCain (at least publicly) does not, he got my vote, after three straight elections of voting for Ralph Nader. I do believe that, as the right claimed, Obama is a Manchurian Candidate- but for the middle and working classes, not for terrorists, Moslems, socialists, Communists, nor the like. He had to pay lip service to alot of bullshit (like being against gay marriage) just to get elected; so that he could stand against the Republican values of wholesale deregulation of industries and the concomitant redistribution of wealth, upward, is over. But, this makes him not a raging radical leftist, but a smart, principled, pragmatic centrist. Only those out in the right see him as a leftist. And this brings me to yet another shattered myth: that this race was Obama’s to lose. Nonsense. It was never Obama’s race to lose for one reason- he’s black, and any assessments by talking heads and columnists that lack this component of the race is not worth a cent; as proven by McCain’s racist campaign tactics. The reason McCain sank so low was because- unlike Kerry, Dole, Dukakis, Mondale, McGovern, and Goldwater, he will not be a footnote to history. He will always, now and forever, be the first white male to lose the American Presidency to a non-white and/or non-male person. He will likely be the most remembered loser in American Presidential history. And that stings to a guy like McCain. And don’t give me any of that garbage about the media being in the tank for Obama- their lowest common denominator minions pounced all over l’affaires Wright, Rezko, and Ayers. But, the fact was that Obama’s explanations were truthful, and nothing stuck because they were just bogus smears.
In 2004, I said that stuff in this nation would have to get worse before the dumb and lazy American electorate would get off their asses and do the right thing. And they did, and do you think that we are now better prepared for the future under President Obama than President Kerry? I do. Recall that Ralph Nader, in 2000, correctly noted that there was little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democrats were (and, still are sans Obama, Howard Dean, and a few others) basically Republicans Lite. They were a party of ciphers- seemingly determined to prove Nader correct, on issues like tax cuts, the Supreme Court appointees, the Iraq war, and many others, even if one grants the Republicans as the party of evil. The fact was that for a decade or more, after Newt Gingrich’s rise and fall, the Republicans, at least, had ideas. Mostly bad, granted, but given a choice between a bad thing and nothing at all, the vast majority of people will always choose the bad something over the cipher. It’s a hallmark of the lazy, indifferent, and plain old stupid way most people approach their votes. After all, one cannot argue for the general intelligence of the American public when the vast majority cannot balance their bank accounts every month, much less be wary enough in regards to more complex creatures like variable rate mortgages.
And that fact- the human tendency to choose something over nothing, is the principle reason Obama is President-Elect today; because he stands for things, not just against Republicans. He and his posse are brimming with ideas; most of them sound; a few specious- such as tax cuts for most, when the nation is in an economic spiral. But, if I’m proven wrong, as I was in 1992, when I gave a chance to an untested governor named Bill Clinton, I’ll have no compunction over turning my back on Obama, as I did Clinton, four years later; because, in fact, it will have ultimately been Obama who turned his back on me, and the electorate. But, I’m hoping that will not happen, for, there have only been a few pivotal Presidential elections in American history. The first was Democrat Andrew Jackson’s 1824 loss to proto-Whig John Quincy Adams, after he won both the Popular and Electoral College votes, but was robbed of the Presidency in the House Of Representatives. This thwarting of the will of the people (far more blatant than even the now, inconsequential Supreme Court selection of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000- for that changed nothing four years later) by oligarchs (Adams was the son of a Founding Father and former President, John Adams) eventually led to Jackson’s victory over Adams in 1828, and instituted the first reform of democracy to include poorer white males, and a thirty year dominance by Democrats. It also led, eventually, to the disaster of States’ Rights, but so be it. 1860 was the next turning point, and Republican Abraham Lincoln’s win over Democrats John C. Breckinridge and Stephen A. Douglas (for reasons so manifest as not to need mentioning) led to seven decades of Republican rule, until Herbert Hoover’s and the Republican ‘s disastrous handling of the 1929 Stock Market Crash led to the Great Depression, and the ascendancy of Democrats. This third great electoral turning point lasted almost forty years, until the Age of Nixon, caused by the well documented self-immolation of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, precipitated by President Johnson’s disastrous Vietnam War policies. Nixon’s win was not so much about his bona fides as the Democrats’ lack of them, but he was so skilled a politician that he paved the way for Reagan and the Bushes to push the country, yet again, to another brink of disaster.
So, now, for the fifth time in our nation’s 232 year history, a new era is potentially upon us. The first was born out of the bitterness of dishonest defeat, and the disenfranchisement of millions; the second out of the victory over hatred surrounding the noxious legacy and future of slavery; the third out of the victory due to the depths of the worst economic crisis in world history; the fourth due to the electoral defeat of liberalism by its then-chief proponent; and now this one, due to the victory of hope and positivity in the face of a Presidency that plunged the nation into two wars (one falsely inaugurated), the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and soldiers, an economic disaster second only to the Great Depression, and a host of smaller social ills.
Obama won not because he is black, but because he was the best candidate. Period. He ran a clean and positive campaign in an era of sleaze, xenophobia, and racism. Here’s hoping that President Obama lives up to the rhetoric he preached on the stump. If he does, then he may crash the canonical triumvirate of inarguably great American Presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If not, and despite all the historic implications of his election, his Presidency will be recalled only for that- his election. All Americans should pull for the former. I will.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Points Memo website.]
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