Friday, May 31, 2013

Malaise On The Left

They say in politics, “if you’re explaining you’re losing,” and this week’s loser appears to be “the left,” specifically, MSNBC, who saw its ratings plummet in the first few months of 2013.[1] Some are connecting MSNBC’s decline to a more general (to borrow from President Carter, who never actually uttered the word) malaise of progressives in the wake of President Obama’s victory last November.[2] Others suggest the impact of the manufactured “scandals” supposedly embroiling the President have something to do with the lack of engagement by people who, less than 7 months ago, handed an electoral landslide to the President.

I cannot speak for others, but my own reasons for stepping away from the political fight have everything to do with the “been there, done that” vibe that seems to have encapsulated what happens in Washington. To take a few examples:

Continued GOP Obstruction: Remember when the President said he thought his re-election would cause the GOP’s “fever” to break, resulting in their return to some semblance of rationality?[3] How did that work out? Well … Senate Republicans engaged in the first modern day filibuster of a Cabinet appointment,[4] followed swiftly by the filibustering of a second Cabinet appointment.[5] GOP threats to do the same to a third (Labor Secretary-Designate Tom Perez) and fourth (EPA-Administrator Designate Gina McCarthy) nominee have led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make a threat of his own – the so-called “nuclear option” of filibuster reform.[6] Of course, Reid had the chance to make these changes at the beginning of the session and demurred, instead opting for a “handshake” deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of what Republicans have done since the President was inaugurated in January 2009 knew was a total waste of time. Indeed, no sooner were the two men’s hands dry that the GOP again blocked a well-qualified nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals[7] and noted user of prostitutes David Vitter asked Ms. McCarthy to answer nearly 1,100 questions as part of the “vetting” of her appointment as EPA Administrator.[8]

On budget matters, the GOP stamped its feet that the Democratic-led Senate had not passed a budget during “regular order” for 4 years and then, when the Senate passed a budget, turned around and refused to name conferees to the joint House-Senate Committee that is organized to reconcile the differences between the two houses of Congress.[9] Meanwhile, sequester cuts were allowed to take effect, resulting in tens of billions being cut from critical programs that, among other things, aid the poor, impact food inspection, and, until members of Congress were going to be affected by it, result in longer lines at the airport.[10] In short, a disciplined minority in the Senate and a House majority that is deemed to have “caved” when once rudimentary re-authorizations like VAWA take place, have controlled the agenda just as powerfully as they did during Obama’s first term.

Bush Lite: I’ve argued in prior pieces[11] that the President Obama most reminds me of is not FDR or LBJ (as some on the right would have you believe) but rather, George H.W. Bush. Now, I fear he is starting to resemble not “Poppy” Bush, but his dimwitted son, George W. The early part of the President’s second term agenda has been disheartening precisely because he seems unwilling to leverage the political capital he was handed last November for aims we all hoped he would. The permanent extension of tax rates at George W. Bush-era levels was bad enough, but insult was added to injury when those in the $250,000-$450,000 range were spared an increase, estate taxes were set at levels BELOW what they were under GW Bush and the payroll tax “holiday” was allowed to expire, resulting in what is considered a “tax hike” by some, to middle class wage earners.[12]

Meanwhile, the President appointed a Republican to run the Defense Department, meaning that, but for Leon Panetta’s two years in that job, no Democrat has led the Pentagon since 1996, is about to nominate George W. Bush’s Deputy Attorney General James Comey to lead the FBI and the one judge the Senate did confirm for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was an associate counsel in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under, yup, George W. Bush.[13] As if this extension of his hand across the aisle were not enough, the President has aggressively moved to tamp down criticism of him by the media, holding dinners and golf outings with Republicans in an effort to lock in that shiniest of DC objects, the “grand bargain” that will result in the elderly receiving less in Social Security, the Medicare eligibility age (possibly) raised (if not having benefits cut) in exchange for some loophole closing in the tax code that will re-open before the ink on the President’s signature is dry.

Scandal Witch Hunt:  The three-in-one “scandal burrito” of Benghazi, the IRS and DOJ subpoenas of media outlets has been, in their way, the most disheartening episodes to watch from outside the Beltway. Perhaps it is because the media has an almost Pavlovian response to even the vaguest whiff of “scandal” that the reporting on these topics has been so poor, but the conflation of these three things, which are (1) unrelated; (2) not scandals; and (3) require some level of investigation/explication to understand belies reason.  Benghazi has become the Vince-Foster-Did-Not-Commit-Suicide meme of the right even as it turns out there is no smoke, much less fire. Of course, this did not stop the GOP from falsely ginning up hysteria by editing, and then leaking to a reporter (Jon Karl), a supposed “smoking gun” that turned out to be complete bullshit.[14] That Karl unquestioningly reported something he did not personally read is an egregious violation of journalistic ethics, but the fact that Republican operatives shamelessly fed him this story speaks to the desperation in their ranks to make something out of nothing.

On the IRS beat, it took weeks before reporters drilled down[15] into the subject matter to find out that the IRS was beset with hundreds of requests from new groups seeking tax-exempt status at a time immediately following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and that the supposed “targeting” of right-wing groups resulted in precisely zero groups who submitted proper applications being denied this lofty federal benefit.[16] No matter. In the shoot-first-ask-questions-later D.C. mentality, high level IRS officials (including the Commissioner, ironically, a Bush appointee) were tossed overboard as the President raced to throw people under the bus.[17]

Finally, while people of good faith may quibble with the Department of Justice’s issuance of subpoenas in two cases involving the media, both of which, it is worth noting, had to do with high level national security issues, no one, not even the media types whose hands flew up in collective outrage over this episode, claim that what the DOJ did was illegal. What the media complained about was the heavy handed attitude and potential chilling effect such actions would have – all of which is an entirely fair point to make, but hardly a “scandal.” Naturally, when the Attorney General offered to meet with the media to discuss their concerns, many balked, unless Mr. Holder held the meeting “on the record.”[18]

That none of these incidents is even a scandal, much less ones that the White House had any direct role in, is of no moment to the media. They merely toss it all in a blender, mix it up and talk about “second-term” curses.[19]  The real affront is the fact that while all of this attention is lavished on faux scandals and trumped up allegations, the President’s agenda is quietly withering on the vine. Months after 20 innocent children were killed in an elementary school in Connecticut, no gun safety laws have been passed. An economic recovery that is steady, but could be much stronger, is impacted by Congress’s unwillingness to pass a jobs bill (and the media’s silence about it). Obama’s basic Constitutional prerogatives, like appointing members of his Cabinet and judges to the federal bench are stymied with little media attention and a months-long fixation on debt and deficit has receded as our budget and long-term financial picture improves but no one pays it much mind as the media gets led around by the nose by an emboldened GOP and a knee-jerk desire for equivalency and political analysis that corrodes the public’s faith in the Fourth Estate.

Obama himself is not blameless. In the wake of a no-doubt-about-it electoral landslide and a Democratic party that won seats in the Senate and a million more votes in House races, he has, as is his wont, been more than willing to make compromises from a position of strength that were unnecessary. Be it tax rates or the fiscal cliff, Cabinet appointments or the elusive “grand bargain,” the President earnestly wants to make deals no matter how many times Republicans insult and demean him. That Senator Reid refused to change the rules of the Senate to limit the obstructionist tactics of the GOP has only served to further slow what was already an agenda that moved at glacial speed.

So if you’re wondering why people, or at least THIS person “on the left” is tuning out MSNBC or not posting as frequently on his blog, that is why. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to post this, link to it from Twitter and then scream at my television all weekend.  
Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy





[16]  As Joan Walsh noted, the one group the IRS did deny was liberal:
[17]  Obama’s reaction was eerily reminiscent of his attitude in the wake of another faux scandal that resulted in a civil servant losing her job – Shirley Sherrod.


  1. With respect, let me suggest you give up too easily. The America you want is worth having. The America you want is worth fighting for. The America you want, and advocate for so inspirationally, MUST be fought for, because the plutocrats and their dupes are absolutely fighting to impose their vision. Take the next 2 weeks off; it's the NHL playoffs anyway. Then, get your ass back in the fight. I'll be right there with you.

    1. Excellent comment :)

    2. I don't disagree, James, the problem is that, when an allegedly "Progressive" President has been handed such a progressive win and has massive progressive support and he WON'T run with it, won't stand up to the Republican thuggishness, and in fact, spends an inordinate amount of time catering to them and cock punching progressives, hope is hard to come by.

      We got sold a pig in a poke with Obama. And I have little real hope that we'll EVER get another FDR or Ike(which we really need), or even an LBJ. In this environment, I honestly don't know what progressive fighters we could get to get elected. Warren, maybe. Grayson too. Saunders is too old.

      The sad thing is, if Obama had actually been on our side, and he'd thrown the book at the Bush/Cheney admin for war crimes, the GOP would be scared to death of him, too scared to engage in their bullying tactics. And the country would now be a lot better for it.

      Obama seems content to do nothing for the rest of his term. Or worse, content to give it all away to the Rethugs.

    3. I'm with Cthulhu - Obama's laudable attempts at bipartisanship were long ago swatted away. Reid's failure to change the rules in the Senate after (literally) hundreds of filibusters should be a firing offense. The most disheartening vignette I've read about is recounted in Suskind's must read "Confidence Men" about how Obama brought all the bigwigs from Wall Street to the White House in early 2009, didn't serve them anything (i.e., no pastry, coffee, etc.), lectured them about how he was standing between them and the "pitchforks" and then let them off the hook without requiring any change in the way they did business. Per Suskind, for a bunch of guys used to hard negotiations, they walked out thinking Obama was a paper tiger.

      I don't think Obama has been bad, but because his politics were so ill-defined, people poured into him their own hopes/expectations of what he would be. As it turned out, he's been what, a generation ago, would have been termed a moderate Republican on most issues and the places where he can claim some legitimate credit (health care, credit card reform, student loan reform, consumer protection) he refuses to trumpet and has also allowed the GOP to stymie through a combination of defunding, slow walking and refusal to approve nominees. Say what you will about Bush, but when Democrats in the Senate tried blocking one too many of his judges, the mere *threat* of the so-called "nuclear option" got Ds to the table and a bunch of judges were approved lickety split.

  2. Democrats really pissed away a golden opportunity in 2009.
    They had the mandate to govern in a progressive manner and fucked it off.

    DamnItToHell...I'm going back to my game...
    Grepolis is more fun than discussing politics anyway.

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