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Sunday, October 18, 2009

One Brief Shining Moment

For one brief shining moment in November of 2008 Americans seemed unified. For the first time in at least a generation, an election produced a meaningful consensus for change.

But it is one of the many curses of long life that I must remember that these shining moments are all too brief and that the shine is easily and quickly tarnished.

The reality is that the default position for the American electorate is stasis; i.e., resistance to real change. The nature of our politics is that elections are decided by a small percentage of voters - so-called swing voters because they have no ideological or party loyalty. Rather, they sway from left to right to middle, easily manipulated by events, rhetoric, rumor, always motivated by fear.

Obama’s brief shining moment, his Golden Age, may be one of the shortest ever. FDR’s lasted about four years (1933 through 1936); LBJ’s two years (1965 and 1966).
If the health care law turns out to be a disappointment, meaning that (1) it fails to provide universal coverage, (2) seems to be a boondoggle to the insurance companies, and (3) is perceived to be too costly for most people, and if unemployment continues to rise or seems to be stagnant, the midterm election of 2010 may bring an end to any possible alteration of the status quo.

I well remember the 1960's, an era which - to this current generation - stands mostly for excessive optimism and bad hair. The notion that spiritual enlightenment was achievable through individual or collective shortcuts such as drugs, meditation, rock and roll, or free love is rightly viewed as a ridiculous illusion.

But that is not the 60's that I best remember. Another side of the optimistic urge for change manifested in more rational but no less hopeful attempts at leaps of progress. The United States Supreme Court, an institution which for most of our history has been a powerful force against even incremental change, for the blink of an eye under Chief Justice Earl Warren, carried the struggle for societal progress, with revolutionary decisions that enforced racial equality, ensured the separation of church and state, and gave new meaning to the Bill of Rights, especially the often neglected minority protections, the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments. It has taken the powers of reaction 40 years to unravel the framework the Warren Court constructed.

In the middle of the decade, political winds gathered to create a perfect storm of progress that had not been equaled since 1933. After the death of JFK, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, the most ideological and polarizing candidate possible. LBJ won a strong mandate and used his unique position as a Southerner with a congressional expertise to pass the Civil Rights Act, the most important racial equality law passed since Reconstruction.

In 1965, LBJ pushed through the Congress the experiment in socialized medicine called Medicare. He followed this with the most optimistic set of programs since the New Deal: his War on Poverty, a constellation of programs designed to directly aid the poor. It included Head Start, the Job Corps, food stamps, and was credited with reducing the percent of families below the poverty line to the lowest it had ever been.

Of course, LBJ soon trashed all the possibilities for progress with his tragic Vietnam policy. Most of his programs were quickly dismantled with the rise of Milton Friedman, resulting in deregulation, reliance on so-called “free markets”, the decline of trade unionism, and “trickle down economics.”

Beginning in the disastrous year of 1968, the Democratic Party began a rapid decline. Progressivism (poisonously labeled “Liberal”) became a dirty word, rejected by the two successful presidential candidates, both right of center Southern governors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Both tried to meld a few social policies that were mildly progressive with economic policies that co-opted moderate Republican positions. Both abetted the erosion of Constitutional freedoms, supporting laws that expanded the police power of the government. Carter began the rush to deregulation; Clinton raised campaign fundraising to an art, surpassed Republicans in pandering to corporate lobbyists with the resulting policies that declared “the era of big government was over” and abetting a free market boom that laid the groundwork for Bush’s subsequent rape of the middle class and the crash of our entire economy.

The election of 2008 at first presented a mirror image of the 1968 election. This time, it was the Republican candidate who was saddled with the legacy of disaster by his party’s president. The difference was that this Democrat presented a literal face of change in the most obvious sense. Yet, in a sense, this was an illusion. Oddly, Barack Obama resembles JFK in this way. His personal image wreaks of change, but his politics is actually less radical than his image.

Obama’s overwhelming victory, which dragged in Democratic majorities in both houses of congress, was another illusion. The apparent “mandate for change” neglected to consider the realities, particularly of Democratic party politics. Clinton democrats really control the Senate, with “Blue Dogs”, or heirs of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose politics are barely distinguishable from Republicans.

The lack of difference between the parties has been decried by many observers, cited as responsible for cynicism or apathy among the electorate. Contrary to the wishes of many, Obama is not the massiah of liberalism. He is a Centrist, who learned the lessons taught by Clinton in the 1990's regarding radical social issues. He will be satisfied with a health care bill that passes, whether or not it contains a “public option,” and whether or not it provides universal coverage. He will claim victory and make the best argument he can for the practical need for compromise in order to achieve “progress,” no matter how imperfect.

And he will be right.

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