By Bob Cesca: It’s difficult to make it through a day of political reading without stumbling onto another progressive screed in a long syllabus of screeds about how President Obama is worse than George W. Bush. I’m sure you’re familiar with the rogue’s gallery of writers and their grievances. Recently, however, these posts have added an extra layer of questionable judgment involving a plea to progressives to vote against the president in the forthcoming election.
So far, I’m aware of three major posts along these lines.
First, there was John Cusack’s interview/discussion with George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley in which the activists discussed their “Rubicon Line” — actions by the president that went too far, thus forcing Cusack and Turley to vote for a third party candidate this year. Then there was Conor Friedersdorf’s post for The Atlantic in which he made a similar case against the president’s record on civil liberties and national security. Drones, indefinite detention and the like. Friedersdorf wrote a follow-up item here. And on Saturday, vocal anti-Obama progressive Matt Stoller wrote an extended post for Salon.com, which outlines exactly what he and other progressives expect to achieve by voting for a third party candidate.
It’s difficult to know where to begin because there were so many things about Stoller’s post that were nearsighted or downright wrong.
Stoller’s principal gripe with President Obama is the disparity between the stronger corporate recovery from the recession against the slower home equity recovery from the recession. Specifically, the president has “enshrined rights for the elite in our constitutional order and removed rights from everyone else.” This is an important point. Stoller appears to be a vocal champion of the “99 percent” — the plight of middle class homeowners and, presumably, other non-wealthy Americans — and is changing his vote to prove it.
Yes, homeowners have suffered greatly from the recession. Yes, billions of dollars were loaned to financial institutions in order to prevent a deeper slide into a full scale meltdown, while very little has been done to bail out homeowners whose houses are either underwater or facing foreclosure. Regarding this gap, Stoller noted a pivotal moment during the Bush-Obama transition in 2008 when Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson approached Barney Frank about speeding up the disbursement of TARP funds. Frank suggested that they force banks to write down bad mortgages in exchange for the second round of TARP money. The way Frank tells it, they needed then-President-Elect Obama to sign off, but Obama never responded thus missing a golden opportunity to offer relief to homeowners. Taken at face value, and I assume Frank’s account is accurate, sure, the Obama team should’ve authorized the deal. But, in its defense, the administration has repeatedly pursued a write-down option, including a $25 billion write-down deal in February and another plan this past Summer, which was blocked by regulators, “to pay Fannie and Freddie as much as 63 cents for every dollar of mortgage debt they forgive.” The money would’ve been paid out of the TARP fund.
Stoller continues by listing a series of “broken promises” by the president, and while many of the items were beyond the president’s control, the more deceptive aspect of Stoller’s list was that it’s not taken from the 2008 Obama For America campaign, but, instead, from the 2008 Democratic Party platform. Anyone who’s followed this year’s RNC and DNC knows that the parties and their nominees don’t always share the same positions and goals. Yet according to Politifact, the president has kept, or compromised on, 269 promises, with another 106 promises “in the works.” He’s broken 86 promises but, again, they’re not necessarily policy reversals. Many simply haven’t been attempted yet.
The president hasn’t been flawless, that’s for sure. But has there ever been a flawless chief executive? Stoller singles out the achievements of FDR in the wake of the Great Depression but conveniently excludes FDR’s serious flaws — a courtesy Stoller clearly offers to most Democratic presidents except for Barack Obama. But what about FDR? Not only did he prematurely compromise with conservatives to engage in austerity which caused a double-dip recession, but FDR’s record during World War II would be decimated by modern progressives were they around at the time. Indefinite detention of Japanese Americans, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the development of the atomic bomb. I can’t imagine Turley and Cusack ignoring these egregious trespasses without labeling them as “Rubicon Lines.”
The rational, reasonable approach to selecting a president involves deciding which of the two candidates is nearest to our personal values, both in terms of policy and leadership qualities. From there, once elected, we have a civic responsibility to engage in smart accountability. That is, pushing and persuading our leaders to do what we believe is right. Sometimes it works, as with Obama and same-sex marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and sometimes it doesn’t. But at the end of the day, we’ve still helped to elect a leader who’s at least somewhere in the same ballpark as our personal views. We don’t have to agree on everything and we can’t expect perfection or purity. Reasonable people ought to look beyond the narrow field of pet issues and view the presidency in its totality.
But it’s difficult to expect rational, reasonable arguments from progressive activists who simply don’t understand how the system works. Stoller wrote: “There are only five or six states that matter in this election; in the other 44 or 45, your vote on the presidential level doesn’t matter. It is as decorative as a vote for an ‘American Idol contestant.'”
Nonsense. Stoller either doesn’t understand the implications of the popular vote or he’s being deliberately ignorant about it. There’s a very real chance that the president could win the electoral vote and lose the popular vote: an eventuality that would cripple his second term agenda. Without a mandate — a popular vote majority — he risks losing the support of moderate Democrats. Worse, considering the conspiracy-driven paranoia of the Republican Party with it’s “Benghazi Gate,” its Unskewed Polls and rigged unemployment numbers, it’s not a stretch to expect that an electoral/popular vote split would trigger a major congressional investigation and, perhaps, a constitutional crisis with Congress refusing to certify the electoral votes. The Republicans have proved they’ll do anything to thwart the president. Additionally, which states, according to Stoller, constitute swing states? He doesn’t say, but we can assume Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Colorado and New Hampshire. But what about Wisconsin? Arizona? Iowa? Is Minnesota a swing state now? Michigan? Pennsylvania? Swing state status changes by the day, so who knows for sure.
So yes, if you live in a solidly red or blue state, your vote absolutely matters. Perhaps this year more than ever.
Stoller’s argument has only just begun to lose credibility.
When I wrote about the Turley/Cusack discussion, I compared it with the South Park “Underpants Gnome” episode in which a race of gnomes devised a three-pronged business model: 1) Collect Underpants, 2) ????, 3) Profit. Likewise, Turley and Cusack seemed to suggest the following: 1) Vote against Obama, 2) ????, 3) Progressivism! Of course the “????” is the biggest concern here. There is simply no plan for what comes between voting against Obama and winning a more progressive America. No plan.
But in Stoller’s post, the following line jumped off the page: “If there had been an actual full-scale financial meltdown in 2008 without a bailout, while it would have been bad, it probably would have given us a fighting chance of warding off planetary catastrophe and reorganizing our politics.”
In other words, unless I’m mistaken, Stoller seemed to be fantasizing about a full-scale meltdown in 2008-2009 so that his faction of progressives could exploit the chaos to reshape the political landscape. Is this a fair interpretation?
If I’m right on this, it sounds like Tyler Durden style nihilism — not progressivism. To further prove my analysis, Stoller wrote: “The case against Obama is that the people themselves will be better citizens under a Romney administration, distrusting him and placing constraints on his behavior the way they won’t on Obama.” Stoller appears to be suggesting that letting Romney win will trigger such a disaster that citizens will work harder to achieve progressive goals. Even if his intention isn’t another meltdown, it’s astonishing that any progressive with a brain in his or her head would suggest a Romney presidency simply as a means of getting other progressives to stop supporting the president, whoever it might be.
Either way, his plan for political realignment requires a Romney victory and, along with it, the loss of healthcare for millions, the loss of the Supreme Court to right-wing ideologues for a generation and an almost certain invasion of Iran, which could potentially entangle China or possibly Russia — just so Stoller and his friends can somehow achieve progressive goals. Somehow. The heretofore unspoken “????” prong of the plan is for Romney to dismantle Obama’s achievements, be they center-left or not. But there’s no precedent for the success of a plan like this: a group of activists voting for an opposition party in order to precipitate a confluence of devastation that forces a total reshaping of the system. Somehow. And there’s no indication or strategy for getting from rock bottom to progressive leadership and a decimation of, presumably, the two party system.
There’s no plan in the Stoller/Turley/Cusack plan. There’s no (A) leading to (B) which leads to (C) which creates (D), etc. There’s no way, therefore, to assure supporters that their vote-against-Obama path will lead to more progressive politics in America. Precipitating a disaster in the hopes that it will create a positive realignment favoring progressivism is wishful thinking at best. It could just as easily precipitate a more conservative authoritarian realignment or worse.
Again, this isn’t a plan. If you’ve been persuaded by Stoller/Turley/Cusack et al, you’ve been suckered by a white, privileged, intellectual, role-playing exercise. A theoretical activist war game. There’s very little substance beyond their list of grievances (some of which have validity while others do not), and zero strategy beyond voting against Obama in the hopes Romney wins and then something, something, something. Progressivism!
Writers like Glenn Greenwald have attempted to soften the meaning of the following truism by making it appear quaint, but it’s absolutely the truth: A vote against President Obama is a vote for Mitt Romney.
In this month’s Rolling Stone, renowned historian Douglas Brinkley called President Obama “the Progressive Firewall,” standing as a guardian against the radical Republican assault upon the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. A vote against Obama is vote to dismantle that firewall. Whether you vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, it’s a tacit endorsement of at least four years of terrible policies authorized by a soulless corporate CEO puppeteered by the far-right — literally a member of the one-percent-of-the-one-percent who’s made a fortune with Mafia-style bust-outs and all of the malfeasance that caused the recession in the first place and real people will be irreparably harmed in the process. Millions will either lose their healthcare or they’ll be turned away from receiving it. Millions of women will become further subjugated by increasingly domineering and invasive laws dictating their human right to retain purview over their reproductive organs. The Republicans will carve away gigantic chunks of the social safety net. The economy will surely backslide into a double-dip recession for which only tax cuts for the wealthy will be prescribed by the Romney administration.
And we’re supposed to take Stoller seriously when he wrote that the middle class and income inequality are his primary reasons for voting against Obama? Unbelievable.
As I noted earlier, we’ll surely end up in another war in the Middle East, be it in Syria or Iran, and there’s a chance Romney will ignore the 2014 deadline for ending the war in Afghanistan. Drone strikes will be increased. Indefinite detention will continue. Guantanamo will remain open. Torture will be resumed. And you, if you’re a progressive who votes against the president, will have cast your vote in favor of all of it, even if that wasn’t your intention.
Liberals who vote against Obama are not unlike conservatives who cite Ayn Rand’s political acumen. Self-righteous and unserious. Claiming to be an activist without a deep understanding of how the political system functions, say nothing of the real-world human ramifications of elections, is just verbal masturbation — a protest without a realistic course of action. It’s a flailing, selfish act of high-minded personal absolution without any actual comprehension of the wide-reaching damage it risks. Take, for example, Stoller’s prior “aggressive” stance against voting for third party candidates like Ralph Nader. The 2000 election came down to 537 votes in Florida. If 97,488 Florida Democrats hadn’t voted for Nader with a similarly misappropriated enthusiasm as the anti-Obama progressives of today, enough of their votes would’ve gone to Al Gore to securely win the electoral votes there, and the history of the last 12 years would’ve been remarkably different.
The lesson of 2000 and, indeed, all democratic elections is this: your vote isn’t just about your personal whim or guilty conscience, it’s about millions of other citizens. Real-life people. If you can’t abide drones or the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, then use your vote to endorse providing Medicaid for millions upon millions of your fellow citizens who would otherwise lose it under a Romney presidency. Endorse the reversal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Endorse the passage of the Matthew Shepard hate crimes law or the expansion of SCHIP or the advancement of income parity for women. Endorse the ending of the war in Iraq. Endorse the ending of torture. Endorse the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (it’s currently cracking down on debt collectors and credit rating agencies). Endorse the Keynesian policies that stopped the economy from collapsing into a Second Great Depression that Matt Stoller appears to have wanted. Vote to re-elect the president, and then, when and if he’s re-elected, and if you’re equally as inclined to become an activist as when you considered casting a protest vote, do the legwork to push the president on drones, civil liberties and all the rest of it. Form a PAC or a nonprofit and petition your president. As evidenced by his evolution on same-sex marriage, Barack Obama is eminently persuadable. Use smart accountability and push him.
One of the character traits which most liberals possess and too many modern conservatives lack is a sense of compromise and reason. I fear reason is being abandoned in pursuit of a destructive, misguided agenda marketed by fringe leftists with questionable motives and sketchy, incomplete plans. Millions upon millions of our fellow American citizens require that Mitt Romney not be allowed to ascend to the presidency. It’s as simple as that. The only reasonable solution is to prevent it from happening. It’s up to you.