“The Professional Left” and the Use of Power

All it took for Mitch McConnell to see eye-to-eye with Barack Obama was victory. After reelection in Kentucky, the presumptive Senate Majority Lead told reporters that, “We ought to see what areas of agreement there are and see if we can make some progress for the country.” This is the same can-do note of cheery bipartisanship that the president has struck every day since taking office. He struck it again after his Democrats lost control of the Senate as well as numerous seats in the House of Representatives. “The American people sent a message, one they have sent for several elections now,” Obama said, with cheer. “They expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. … They want us to get the job done. … We can surely find ways to work together on issues where there’s broad agreement.”

Indeed, Obama has expressed the preference for (and empirical necessity of) bipartisan governance for a long time. But there is a difference between 2009 and now: He probably no longer believes it. This is a good thing. Obama’s first term was hobbled by an effective strategy of massive resistance devised by McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and a handful of Ayn Rand-John Birch Society billionaires who financed and built what later became the Tea Party. His first term was also mired in Obama’s deeply felt conviction that the promise of American democracy is maximized when the maximum number of stakeholders participates in the democratic process. This is an admirable worldview but one that’s vulnerable to partisan power plays of the sort exercised by an opposition party with no interest, and no tactical reason, to participate in a process whose terms and conditions it did not control.

In keeping with his communitarian belief in “participatory democracy,” Obama allowed the Congress in his first term to debate the merits of the Affordable Care Act. That bill was already a concession. Its main feature—providing universal health care through private health insurance companies rather than through a federal government program like Medicare—was crafted in the late 1980s by the conservative Heritage Foundation. (Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would later enact a similar plan as the governor of Massachusetts.) Instead of ramming the measure through a Congress controlled by his party, Obama lived up to his beliefs by allowing Senator Max Baucus, a conservative western Democrat who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley to hash out terms acceptable to conservatives. Instead, Grassley had no intention of participating. He and his allies fomented through that long summer all manner of hysteria over death panels, socialized medicine, and “pulling the plug on Grandma.” As Lou Dubose, editor of The Washington Spectator noted, Grassley “created the space for the extreme right to take control of the narrative and define the president’s signature piece of legislation.” That’s true, but it’s worth remembering the well-intended president gave that space away. In Washington, no good deed goes unpunished.

Washington lives by another paradox. When Republicans are in power, Democrats must compromise on Republican terms. When Democrats are in power, Democrats must compromise on Republican terms. This mindset predates Obama. Forty years ago, conservative billionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife and Joseph Coors created their own think tanks and beltway media organization to counteract, in the 1960s, what was actual liberal bias in the news. Eric Alterman describes the effort as having had a “gravitational pull” on the political spectrum—the center is generally pulled farther and father to the right. “They created another pole,” Alterman noted in a speech at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University in 2003. “The part that used to be on the left is completely remote and vacant. It’s like you picked up the football field and you move it a hundred yards down the line, so that part of the football field where you used to play is no longer there and the part that used to be conservative is now where the liberals are.”

So Democrats, even when in charge and even when they possess the moral high ground, are expected to play ball. In 2009, Obama refrained from using the power mandated to him by the people to pass a health care law that would benefit the people. His opponents exercised no such restraint two weeks after winning this year’s midterms. Within hours of reconvening, House Republicans authorized the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. If built, the Keystone would import some 800,000 barrels of tar-sands crude every day, a kind of oil particularly rich in carbon and therefore particularly devastating to the environment. Senate Democrats successfully filibustered the bill, but this is evidently a preamble to the next Congress, which convenes in January. The Republicans aren’t inviting Democrats to join them. They are daring them to stop ram-through legislation that could for generations jeopardize the health and safety of the people. In 2012, NASA scientist James Hansen warned that if the Keystone XL Pipeline is built, it would be “game over for the climate.”

After Mitt Romney’s defeat, there was much talk of “civil war” within the ranks of the Republican Party. Much of that narrative came from within the party itself, as it was imperative the GOP mainstream not be seen as in thrall to the impolitic impulses of the extremist Tea Party. Given the origins of that narrative, it should be no surprise the “civil war” was almost entirely rhetorical. Even so, the Republicans had little reason to be chastened. With rare exception, two-term presidents lose the Congress in their sixth year. Moreover, the Republicans enjoy an advantage—in midterms, white voters head to the polls in greater numbers than non-white voters. Combined with the Democratic Party’s 40-year effort to distance itself from working-class whites, the GOP this year was poised to win, as long as the leadership tamped down the rank-and-file’s more nativist and racist urges in competitive states like North Carolina and Iowa. Hence, McConnell and the GOP have been rewarded for their six-year campaign of obstruction. The idea that McConnell, in victory, has been suddenly gripped by the desire to comprise is more than optimistic; it’s delusional. Why “see what areas of agreement there are” when you can win by always—I mean, always—saying no.

So not much has changed. The Republicans will obstruct what remains of Obama’s agenda. The only change will be Obama’s taking a turn in this new era of obstructionism. The House again voted in November to repeal the Affordable Care Act (the total number of attempts is nearing 60). The Senate may vote in favor next year, but the president will veto (Obama’s total number of vetoes is 2; Ronald Reagan’s was 78 and Bill Clinton’s was 37). And Obama has continued to abandon all hope of bipartisanship. The final straw came when he last took seriously Republican concerns over the budget deficit. He agreed to brutal across-the-board cuts. Those cuts in addition to the Affordable Care Act’s power to contain soaring health care costs has led to a budget deficit lower than any time since the Ford administration. Yet Republicans remain unmoved. And now Obama has moved on. Among his 191 executive orders (cf. Reagan’s 381 and Clinton’s 364), Obama has given legal status to the children of illegal immigrants; raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees of companies with federal contracts; allowed to expire contracts for companies with histories of workplace violations; permitted college graduates to repay a minimum of students loans per year; and increased the fuel-mileage requirements of American-made vehicles. Furthermore, he is reported to be considering closing the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he is said, in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, to have instructed federal law enforcement to stop racial profiling.

Obama’s dream of being a “transformative” president may have been snuffed out in 2010. but he’s not wasting his last two years. Among the Big Three on his 2009 to-do list was health care, climate and immigration. He’s already got his health care law. It’s here to stay despite the continued threats of a Republican Congress and Republican-control Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Obama administration announced after the midterms a deal in which the U.S. and China—the world’s top two air polluters—agreed to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent over the coming years. Naomi Klein said the China deal will impact domestic energy policy by undermining “the most effective argument in defense of climate negligence … Why should we stop polluting if China won’t?” Also, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to impose strict limits on the 600-some coal-fire plants generating electricity around the country (the new rules are now being finalized). Dubose called this step “the most sweeping environmental policy since LBJ signed the Clean Air Act” in 1963. By the time Obama leaves office, he will have reduced the use of coal and thanks to public investments embedded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he will have created at the same time a viable commercial market for solar power. He will have done more for the environment than any president since Jimmy Carter’s highly prescient yet highly pilloried plea for energy conservation in 1979.

As for immigration, the president, as noted, has made legal room for children brought to the U.S. by their parents. He is also expected to announce a series of executive orders that protect from deportation as many as 5 million more people. For Democrats, this is, for two reasons, very good news. One, Hispanics are a growing part of the Obama-Democratic coalition. Two, they threatened to bolt if Obama didn’t stop deporting more illegal immigrants than previous presidents have. All of them. Republicans, meanwhile, say Obama should work with the Congress, but that argument requires a degree of memory loss. House Republicans killed the Senate’s bipartisan reform bill in 2013. The real reason Republicans hope to prevent Obama from using his authority is two-fold. One, the GOP’s Know-Nothing faction doesn’t want anything that smells of “amnesty.” That means no reform. Ever. Two, the GOP’s leadership needs Hispanics, despite the Know-Nothing faction, and it wants to take credit for immigration reform. From both points of view, the goal is greater obstruction. That could mean another government shutdown. It could also mean a self-destructive bid for impeachment.

Washington politicos say we are seeing the emergence of two electorates. One votes during presidential elections. The other votes during midterms. One is diverse in age, race, economics and geography. The other is old, white, affluent, and suburban. The theory is worrisome to progressives. Their values are the majority’s value, they believe, but they can’t act if the majority doesn’t vote. More importantly, progressives believe their agenda can’t be achieved without the mandate of the majority, because anything less would be illegitimate. That’s fine as far as it goes. But perhaps “the professional left,” as former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs once quipped, can grow more comfortable with the use of power. Certainly the president has, and that’s for the betterment of us all. If the “two electorate” theory is correct, Republicans are unlikely to take the White House in two years. That means more of the same from Republicans. That means Obama’s executive orders will outlive his administration. A state of affairs such as this may not satisfy the egalitarian ideal of “participatory democracy,” but sometimes the ends do justify the means when seen in their proper context. In that, perhaps, progressives can find agreement and, as Mitch McConnell once noted, for different reasons, “make some progress for the country.”

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.