Lemieux, Stoller, Obama, and me
I’ve gotten much better at this blogging thing as time has gone by, but every once in a while I fall off the wagon and Blog While Angry. This is essentially never a good idea.
On that note, Scott Lemieux has responded to my bout of severe grumpiness yesterday, altogether more cordially than I probably deserve:
Elias Isquith is very agitated about one of the points in this post, which may be due to a lack of clarity on my part. To provide said clarity, I should emphasize that I am not saying that the precise outcome of the 2010 midterms was inevitable. I do think nothing Obama could have done could have prevented huge Democratic losses. But it’s also true that the 2010 midterms turned out even worse than the models would have predicted, and if you want to say this is mostly because of Obama I can’t prove you’re wrong. I am much more skeptical that anything Obama could have done could have gotten support in the Senate for a stimulus large enough to matter. But since the “pivot” to deficit reduction was both 1)indefensible on the merits and 2)predictably provided less than no political benefit there was no reason for him not to try. If you want to say that there’s no reason to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in assessing the counterfactual, I can’t argue with you.
Well, like so many green shoots, my issue with Lemieux’s post is thus more or less evaporated. I wouldn’t disagree with the assertion that no matter what, Dems were going to take a thrashing in 2010—they were overstretched, a Democrat was in the White House, and the economy was poor. I thought Lemieux was arguing, rather, that it was inevitable for the losses to be as historic as they were. It wasn’t; he isn’t.
That back-patting aside, however, Lemieux does ask me to elaborate further on the intimation of displeasure that wrapped-up my previous post, in which I accused Lemieux of engaging in some sophistry—and on this front, I think we still disagree (yay! the blogging will continue!), though having had a nap and a snack I’m not so sure that I’d opt for using the s-word now rather than simply tut-tutting.
Here’s what he asks of me:
He suggests that he also disagrees with the rest of the post, and I’m disappointed that he doesn’t elaborate. I’m not sure which argument he disagrees with — is there secret evidence that primary challenges can bring about progressive change that nobody else can see? Does he agree with Stoller that the crushing loss in the 1896 elections and the 36 years of a constitutional order in which federal regulation of child labor was considered unconstitutional it portended was in fact a huge win for progressives? I want to hear it!
Hear it he shall! My main gripe with his post at the time concerned how much effort Lemieux was making to take down an argument I didn’t feel Stoller was actually making, i.e. that a primary challenge of Obama from his left would potentially succeed, either in causing him not to seek reelection, or in causing him not to seek reelection and maintaining the Democratic party’s hold on the White House. I really didn’t think Stoller was doing anything of the kind, and upon re-reading his piece in Salon, I still don’t. Rather than argue that a primary challenge would work in the immediate term, I think Stoller is arguing that the short-term loss would be the the party and country’s long-term gain. But it’s worth noting that he’s not entirely clear:
Only by shaking up the current political order will solutions emerge. [Intra-party] debates tend to create institutional reforms — the vibrant antiwar blogosphere of 2002-2006, and eventually the Obama campaign itself, emerged out of such a series of debates. Such a debate would also force the Obama campaign to come up with some answers to questions it would prefer to defer until after the election: Where are the jobs, and what is the plan to stop foreclosures? It would allow millions of Americans who have been hurt — and who have benefited — from administration policies, to have their say.
Another piece of the original Lemieux post that caused my pique was the following:
First, there’s no plausible scenario under which [a primary would] produce another candidate. (Favorite son, seriously? Tom Harkin as your opening progressive standard-bearer? Needs more brokered convention.) Second, assuming the point isn’t the inherently futile task of actually winning, the track record of primary challenges to advance progressive change is…not good. Anybody remember the Democratic Party shifting to the left and become more electorally powerful after 1968 and 1980? Me neither.
To the question as to whether or not Tom Harkin could be the “progressive standard-bearer,” I think Stoller’s answer would be an emphatic no. Because, after all, that’s not what he was proposing. Let’s roll the tape:
Some organized constituency groups — say some components of the AFL-CIO — would need to announce that their support is up for grabs, based on a clear set of criteria. Given the Obama administration’s rampant anti-labor policies, this wouldn’t be an unreasonable posture. And then a senior politician, like, say, a Tom Harkin, would need to decide that he would want to encourage robust intra-party debate about the party’s future.
Harkin could run as a “favorite son” of Iowa, and encourage people in the caucuses to send a message to the party and to Obama by choosing him. Other candidates could then emerge in early primary and caucus states, as a way of repudiating Obama’s leadership. Candidates wouldn’t have to pretend to be running for president or be presidential quality; they could simply stand in as favorite sons or daughters of their own geographic area. This would immediately fire up a highly aggressive and needed debate about the direction of the Democratic Party and the country at large. It would build a new set of leaders, and elevate others who would like to distance themselves from the Obama policy agenda.
I think it’s pretty clear in the above that Stoller is under no illusions as to Harkin’s chances of logging 270 electoral votes. Indeed, he doesn’t even recommend Harkin try. What Harkin represents in this scenario—and no more—is “a senior politician,” an insider, who throws his weight behind the anti-Obama movement. His standing for election, then, would be entirely symbolic. Stoller is not imagining people will vote for Harkin because they like Tom Harkin (though they might; he seems friendly enough) but that they’d vote for Harkin because he’s Not Obama. And the process would unfold from there. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not this is realistic or would work—the point is it’s not what Lemieux spends his time refuting.
Similarly, I found Lemieux’s description of Stoller’s article, here, to be inaccurate:
I’m particularly amazed at Stoller’s suggestion that “African-American church networks” could be on board against a primary challenge to the first African-American president despite the fact that his record has been more progressive than that of his two Democratic successors (let alone the Republican a primary challenge would if anything make more likely.) Sure. In reality, a primary challenge to Obama would be a similar coalition to Nader ’00 — i.e. running the gamut from disaffected white academics.
There is indeed a problematic aspect of Obama’s left-wing critics that a lot of Democrats aren’t comfortable talking about, and that is their overwhelming whiteness (and, often, wealth). If Stoller were indeed imagining that the black churches of America were ready to ditch the first African American President in US history, I think it’d be fair game to ridicule him as out of touch, and out of touch in a way that’s indicative of broader Naderite tone-deafness and condescension. But the thing is, the only time Stoller talks about “African-American church networks” is when simply describing the financial and political network that makes up the Democratic party:
The groups that fund and organize the party — an uneasy alliance of financiers, conservative technology interests, the telecommunications industry, healthcare industries, labor unions, feminists, elite foundations, African-American church networks, academic elites, liberals at groups like MoveOn, the ACLU and the blogosphere — are frustrated, but not one of them has broken from the pack.
That’s it. When Stoller goes on to pick a member of this flock that might break from the pack, he doesn’t choose the churches but the labor movement. I wish Lemieux had decided to criticize him on this point since, while far from outstanding, Obama’s record on labor issues is actually not terrible (especially when one factors in his Administration’s behavior in those less-prominent realms wherein the Executive is decisive).
But to turn back to the two questions that Lemieux seems to prioritize—”is there secret evidence that primary challenges can bring about progressive change that nobody else can see? Does he agree with Stoller that the crushing loss in the 1896 elections and the 36 years of a constitutional order in which federal regulation of child labor was considered unconstitutional it portended was in fact a huge win for progressives?”—I would quibble with the framing of the first, while declining to agree with Stoller on the second.
If we’re judging primary challenges in recent history by whether they worked and whether they led to liberal electoral triumphs, then there’s no way Lemieux can be wrong. This might be because primary challenges in ’68 and ’80 simply poisoned liberalism for decades; but I think the general right-ward shift of American politics after the mid-1960s likely had more to do with it. But if the question is whether or not these primary challenges worked in their fundamental goal, replacing the incumbent and presumptive nominee with another, the record is much more mixed. 50/50, in fact.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)