Money, Power, Triangulation
Greg Sargent has a good piece up about Obama redefining the center on his own terms. I understand what he's saying, and I would guess that Obama even believes he's doing this. But I don't think they are liberal terms even if Obama thinks they are.
Robert Kuttner explains this better than I can in this post on the topic that I think gets it right:
If you liked Bill Clinton as Triangulator, you will love the era of Triangulation II. The danger, of course, is that the man at the apex of the triangle fares better than his party.
He is now Mr. Reasonable Centrist -- except that in substance there is no reasonable center to be had.
A well funded and tightly organized right wing has been pulling American politics to the right for three decades now. And with a few instructive exceptions, Democrats who respond by calling for a new centrism are just acting as the right's enablers.
What exactly is the beneficial substance of this centrism? Just how far right do we have to go for Republicans to cut any kind of deal? Isn't the mirage of a Third Way a series of moving targets -- where every compromise begets a further compromise?
Democrats once played this game well, in reverse. In the period when Democrats dominated and set the national agenda, it was Republicans who moved to the center.
In Sunday's New York Times, there is a full page, characteristically fatuous ad by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, with the coy headline, "There is no 'D' or 'R' in 'Solutions.'" Get it? Partisanship just stands in the way of technical solutions that should be obvious to all people of good will. It just happens that the Peterson Foundation's "apolitical" solutions are deeply conservative, whether on cutting Social Security and Medicare, or tying government's hands when it comes to recovery spending.
In case you missed it, there is a fierce debate going on. One side, which now controls the House and effectively can block legislation in the Senate, disparages science, wants America to be close to a theocracy, craves a return to Wild West gun-slinging, would gut social insurance, and repeal most of the affirmative gains of social investment and public-interest regulation since the New Deal.
The other side recognizes the value of public spending in a deep recession and beyond, wants a progressive tax code, defends Social Security, Medicare and the new health reform, wants the financial economy to be servant of the real economy, supports regulation that benefits workers and consumers, and accepts evidence-based science when it comes to climate change and other issues.
Unfortunately, this other side describes only about half the Democratic Party
Give the Republicans this: they know what they stand for. A good chunk of the Democratic Party today doesn't quite.
But where exactly is the middle ground, except in pundit-pleasing gestures like lions sitting together with lambs? How do you compromise with True Believers?
Based on early reports, the President's State of the Union Address will be better than some progressives feared. They can take some credit for warning him off Social Security cuts. And good for Obama for calling for more public investment and letting Republicans jeer, revealing the emptiness of the Republican recovery program.
When he finishes, Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, will give the Republican response. Let's hope we don't feel that someone should get equal time to give a Democratic response.
Read the whole piece. It's great.
Now, Greg doesn't accept this definition of "triangulation", instead seeing it as a design to specifically anger the left in order to appear to be more moderate. (The "hippie punching" thesis.) I agree with him that Obama is probably not interested in doing that as a full blown strategy (although it might be useful at certain times -- getting Lieberman's vote, for instance.) But I think he is triangulating in the more common definition of the term, which is (according to Wikipedia):
Triangulation is the name given to the act of a political candidate presenting his or her ideology as being above and between the left and right sides (or "wings") of a traditional (e.g. UK or US) democratic political spectrum. It involves adopting for oneself some of the ideas of one's political opponent (or apparent opponent). The logic behind it is that it both takes credit for the opponent's ideas, and insulates the triangulator from attacks on that particular issue.
Obama's version of this is to take the ideas of the opposition but couch it in the language of pragmatism. But it really doesn't matter because whether he's just sounding like he's adopting the right's ideas or actually doing it, the truth is as Kuttner says; the political playing field is all on the right at this point. It's just a matter of degree. And by playing to the "center" of that right field it moves the play that much further.
However, it's not some shocking betrayal on Obama's part. It's the thoroughly predictable move for any president who's been accused of being a socialist for two years and suffered a bad mid-term. They always "run to the center" in the second half in order to get re-elected. And if the economy cooperates, it might just work. But it is at the expense of liberalism and the Party whether or not it's a conscious strategic decision to distance themselves from the left or not. At the end of the cycle, Obama will have run on a set of issues and solutions marginally to the right of those which he ran on in 2008. And those were marginally to the right of those which Kerry ran on in 2004 or Gore ran on in 2000. This is how we find ourselves looking back at Richard Nixon's agenda and thinking that even Dennis Kucinich wouldn't be so bold as to propose much of it.
Much of this is about money and power, of course. The vast sums required to run for office require politicians, particularly presidential candidates who have to run billion dollar campaigns now, to be subservient to those who have it. And as policies become more and more tilted to the wealthy, the more power they have to shape them and bend politicians to their will.
Kevin Drum has a great post up today on that subject:
The problem is that a system that generates enormous income inequality also generates enormous power inequality — and if corporations and the rich are allowed to amass huge amounts of economic power, they'll always use that power to keep their own tax rates low. It's nearly impossible to create a high-tax/high-service state if your starting point is a near oligarchy where the rich control the levers of political power.
I am, fundamentally, old fashioned about this stuff: I think of the world as largely a set of competing power centers. Economics matters, but power matters at least as much, and I think that students of political economy these days spend way too much time on the economy and way too little time on the political.
Yes and yes.
In these circumstances, the political incentives in a democratic society becomes how to package the policies in a way that appeals to the people but benefits the wealthy. The Republicans know how to do that. The Democrats not so much, although on the presidential level, they may have found a formula. But again, it's at the expense of liberalism in general which, if the president decides to engage on "entitlements", may also end any serious rationale for the Democratic party at all.
Kuttner is right that there is a huge debate to be had. But I'm not sure it's between the two political parties. I guess the question is, if an American political argument happens outside the two party system, does it happen at all?