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July 21, 2014 10:40 AM The Left Path Not Taken

By Ed Kilgore

I suppose it’s a symptom of a moment when people on the Left are resisting (without a lot of hope) the inevitability of HRC ‘16, or maybe just one of those psychologically necessary cries of conscience before tying on the party yoke. But there seems to be an upsurge of fury at Barack Obama from progressive voices at the moment, most notably by the great Poet of Populist Discontent, Tom Frank, who rages at the 44th president in a piece currently up at Salon.

Underlying Frank’s attacks on Obama is an implicit conspiracy theory nearly as lurid as the Kenyan Muslim Marxist Alinskyite fantasies of the right: that Obama was deployed as a judas goat by the threatened Neoliberal Order to preempt and then prevent the righteous beatdown capitalism had earned for itself by 2008, when “every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed.” Keeping to the appointed script, the phony agent of change then propped up the evil system that was teetering on the edge of catastrophe and subsequently blamed his betrayal of The People on the crazy people of the Right.

Sustaining this rather counterintuitive indictment requires, of course, an alternative scenario that Obama might have followed had he not been a traitor and/or “gutless:”

Why didn’t [Obama] propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?
[T[here were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

Put side, for the moment, the bizarre and ahistorical assertion that it’s possible to “put the right out of business once and for all.” Let’s look at the claim Obama and his defenders had to inflate the power of the opposition to “twice life-size” to excuse the failure to vanquish it and advance a far more progressive agenda than was actually offered.

There is this institution called the U.S. Senate. Even after two big Democratic cycles in 2006 and 2008, Republicans held 40 seats, enough given absolute unity and a single Democratic defection to thwart anything the majority party attempted, under rules ripe for abuse that neither Barack Obama nor Harry Reid invented or imagined. Just a year after Obama took office, Republicans won a special Senate election and obtained the power to block absolutely any Democratic measure.

Had Obama done Frank’s bidding and advanced a more progressive agenda from the get-go, would that have magically produced more Democratic Senate seats? Would a Republican or two have flipped to vote for, say, a single-payer health care proposal or an assault on Wall Street? Would Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson have quaked and surrendered to the aroused masses? And going into the 2010 elections, when Republicans enjoyed an increasingly strong built-in turnout advantage, an overextension of Democratic strength in both Houses, and the strong historical precedent of the party controlling the White House suffering damage from bad economic conditions, would a loud-and-proud lefty message aimed at the ghosts and demons of the Clinton administration have made the Tea Party irrelevant?

This seems to be the underlying logic of Frank’s position, and it’s too far—way too far—from being self-evident to justify his righteous indignation.

Readers of Frank’s classic 1996 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? will recall that it combined a hilariously effective critique of latter-day conservatism with an earlier version of his Stab-in-the-Back theory of perfidious Clintonians preferring Wall Street to Main Street. Now his pursuit of the latter theme seems to be obliterating the former, reducing the Right in his eyes to a paper-tiger excuse for centrist cowardice and treachery.

There exists, and will always exist, an honorable case for greater ideological rigor among progressives, and a long-range strategy for the Democratic Party that relies on “populist” appeals and greater partisan differentiation. But these alternative paths should not rely on revisionist histories of the very recent past that ignore or vaporize very real structural and ideological barriers to progressive governance, and assign magical properties to correct rhetoric. That way lies Naderism circa 2000.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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