Obama vs. the Left

Behind the “dump Biden” movement: what does it all mean?

by , October 11, 2010

It’s amazing, really, how much of a pass the left is giving President Obama as he sells out every single major platform plank that got them pumped up to begin with. Aside from his sellout on the domestic policy front, which I’ll leave to others to cavil about, on the civil liberties and foreign policy front he’s certainly taken a hard right turn. The promised reversal of Bush era civil liberties violations has itself been reversed; the pledge to get out of Iraq before 2012 turned out to be a shell game, and with the Justice Department going after antiwar activists in Minneapolis, Chicago, and North Carolina – on charges of providing material aid to terrorists – the sting of the administration’s slap to its former supporters on the left must be smarting something fierce.

Yet none of this has registered anywhere but in the precincts of the far left: “progressives” and their limousine liberal buddies have pretty much remained silent, or at least not made all that much of a fuss while the President rides roughshod over the sweet promise of “change.” Indeed, the only change we’ve seen is in the public persona of the Dear Leader and his minions, who have gone overboard recently in making their rejection of the left quite explicit.

While Robert Gibbs was still White House press secretary, he made a point of denouncing the “professional left,” which supposedly won’t be satisfied until we’ve “eliminated the Pentagon.” Anybody who thinks Obama bears the slightest resemblance to Bush “ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs cranked. The real slap in the face, however, came when the administration publicly floated the idea of replacing Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton.

Biden is the one major figure in the administration with a high public profile who has consistently questioned our course in Afghanistan: he and Rahm Emanuel, that is, at least according to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s War. The Vice President, you’ll recall, came out with his own Afghan war plan: a minimalist approach that would rely almost entirely on drone attacks and guided missile strikes launched from outside the country (in tandem, of course, with the “secret” CIA-run Afghan assassination squad exposed by WikiLeaks).

Biden lost that fight, and now it looks like he’ll be losing his job, swapping the Vice Presidency for a stint as Secretary of State. Tucked away at Foggy Bottom, and left to deal with the low-visibility problem of Iraq, Biden will be cut out of the loop in the real center of power, which will be concentrated more than ever in the White House.

Hillary, who supported the Iraq war and inhabits the ideological space once inhabited by Henry “Scoop” Jackson and the long absent neoconservatives, is supposed to give the 2012 ticket much-needed heft. The idea is to ameliorate the President’s undeserved reputation as some kind of radical leftist, perhaps even one of the dreaded “Kenyan anti-colonialist” variety.

People like Arianna Huffington and Rachel Maddow, who have made quite lucrative careers out of crusading to push the pragmatist-in-chief leftward, have every interest in pooh-poohing this as mere rumor. However, Woodward’s reputation – as channeler of whatever the current administration wants to put out there – indicates it’s more than that. Replacing Biden with Hillary would put the ostensibly antiwar “progressive” left on notice: if you think “change” applies to the foreign policy realm, then you really ought to be drug tested.

Many on the left accept this. A great deal of the progressive left has already made this bargain with the administration: go left on the home front, and rightward overseas. A domestic “war on poverty” carried out by an administration waging an unpopular shooting war overseas – now where have we seen that before?

The title of the Woodward book, Obama’s Wars, illustrates the new political reality on the foreign policy front. Every military conflict in American history is branded with the imprimatur of the commander-in-chief, and Obama, for all his alleged “anti-colonialism,” is no exception. It’s inevitable that a President will be identified with the wars he fights, and this one shows no signs of backing away from Afghanistan or the site of our most recent incursions – Pakistan.

Indeed, this administration can be expected to ramp up the war effort purely on economic grounds: after all, according to Obama’s Keynesian economic advisers, government spending is the mood elevator that will snap the US economy out of its depression. According to orthodox Keynesian dogma, any kind of government spending will do: building pyramids, occupying foreign countries, dropping freshly-printed bills out of airplanes. Just keep those printing presses rolling!

If the Democrats’ mantra is all about spending, the Republican party line is all about not spending – and there’s no reason why military spending ought to be off the table. As Mark Meckler, a national Tea Party coordinator, put it:

“I have yet to hear anyone say, ‘We can’t touch defense spending,’ or any other issue… Any tea partier who says something else lacks integrity.”

To hear Phillip Dennis, founder of the Dallas Tea Party and a member of the Board of Directors of the Leadership Tea Party, tell it, Pentagon spending must be “constrained and reduced.” Rand Paul vows to go after “waste” in the defense budget, and wants to ban all lobbying by firms, including defense firms, that have over $1 million in government contracts. However, Chuck DeVore, a member of the California Assembly, and the tea party favorite in the California’s GOP senatorial primary, says going after fraud and waste isn’t enough, making the trenchant point that it’s just a rhetorical device to avoid specifics. For the hard stuff, we have to go to a recent piece in Politico linking the tea party’s fiscal conservatism to support for proposed defense cuts. The article cites Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican and “tea party favorite,” going beyond opposition to alleged waste and fraud, and criticizing the underlying foreign policy that calls for massive “defense” spending:

“’Most of these people want to look at all federal spending and put it all on the table. They want to spend on strong defense, they want to support our troops, but they want to get rid of all the fluff, the fraud, the abuse, the waste in the federal government. They want to see the federal government shrink in size.’

“Broun, a bitter critic of Obama — and no fan of Gates or the history of U.S. military intervention since World War II, including NATO — said the country ‘cannot be a protector of the whole world. We cannot do that any longer. We don’t have the money to do it anyway.’”

Who isn’t against waste, fraud, and cronyism? Even the cronies themselves say they’re against it. But running a more tightly-budgeted, efficient empire isn’t going to solve the problem, which is that imperialism is a luxury we just can’t afford anymore.

As the tea partiers move toward anti-interventionism, by the sheer logic of their position on spending, and the Obama cult moves rightward on foreign policy issues, making Obama’s wars the signature events of his presidency, what we are witnessing is the beginning of a fundamental realignment in American politics. A very liberal Democrat sits in the White House, directing two wars and ushering in a third, while conservatives are rediscovering their historical roots as skeptics of American power to shape events overseas.

As true believers in the doctrine that government power can solve almost all social problems, the logic of the “progressive” position leads its adherents ineluctably down the road to war. The progressive economic vision is naturally empowered by the “national unity” imposed in wartime. The conscription of economic and human resources by government is rationalized by the wartime “emergency,” and rarely if ever rescinded: this, combined with the lure of Keynesian militarism – military spending as “stimulus” – progressives can’t help but find fatally attractive. This is the true history of how government power expanded in America: the federal government has systematically expanded the size and scope of its activities in great bursts of wartime expansion, like a bellows heating up a forge. The Obama-ites are following a well-tread path.

This switching of political polarities occurs once every generation or so. Back in the 1930s, being a conservative opposed to the New Deal also meant being one of the dreaded “isolationists.” In those days, the progressives were all plumbing for war, and the further left you went the more belligerent the pro-war rhetoric became, with the Communist party the most vitriolic of all. During the cold war, the two sides switched roles, with the conservatives going interventionist and the left allying with the antiwar movement. After the cold war, the natural inclination of conservatives was to revert to their historical role as penny-pinching opponents of foreign entanglements, and we did see some of that during Clinton’s rampage through the Balkans. This natural development was unfortunately interrupted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which gave the War Party a new lease on life.

That lease, however, is just about to expire, what with the Afghan war going into its tenth year – and national bankruptcy staring us in the face.

As economic doctrines, both conservatism and progressivism or liberalism have their own internal logic. The large and powerful governmental apparatus envisioned by the latter is the perfect engine of the war machine, the only sort of vehicle that could possibly carry conquering armies onto the battlefield and give them the sustenance to stay there. On the other hand, the small and not-very-powerful federal government preferred by today’s conservatives cannot possibly carry the heavy burden of empire: it would have neither the resources (i.e. tax dollars) to finance it nor the social and political weight to compel its acceptance by a skeptical populace.

But of course history is not always logical, and rarely moves in a straight-line progression, and yet ideas do have consequences – and we are seeing these ideas play out as “right” becomes left, “left” becomes right, and the game of musical chairs we call politics continues to develop in ways that are interesting and quite unexpected.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I’ll be speaking at California Lutheran University’s Lundring Events Center with Reason magazine senior editor Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism, a delightfully comprehensive history of the modern libertarian movement on October 26 from 5:30p.m.-7:30p.m. The forum, with the topic “Anti-Interventionism: The Left and Right Wing Traditions,” is being hosted by the Steven and Susan Woskow Trust and co-sponsored by Students for Liberty, the World Can’t Wait, Ventura County Libertarian Party, Center for Equality & Justice, and Antiwar.com. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited so please RSVP to secure your seat: Steven Woskow at 805-306-1860.

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