By Evert Cilliers
In 2008, after eight years of Bush/Cheney, the horrors and wrongs of this worst-of-all presidencies were plain to see — like Dresden after the fire-bombing, or a maroela tree after an elephant chomped it. The country had been wrecked by the dotty ideology-driven actions of extremist nutters: the false prophets of anti-science, anti-common-sense, anti-democracy, free-market-gone-crazy, conservatism-gone-fundamentalist, male-belligerence-gone-psycho.
Economically we were down the toilet and halfway to the sewer. Internationally we were pariahs. Psychologically we ping-ponged between genuine anxiety and false bravado. Worst of all: morally, we were hollowed out. Wars. Torture. Human rights abuses. Tora Bora. FEMA. Washington corruption. Wall Street fraud. Foreclosures. Unemployment. Deficits. Off-budget accounting. 30% interest charges on credit cards. Debt. Debt. Debt. Had we been ruled by the Kremlin, we couldn't have done worse. It was as if America had become a nation of 300 million suffering Jobs, struck down by the vengeful hand of an old-testament God.
It was the worst of times, and the best of times only for the nicely rich, dah-links.
But this most horrible of horrorshows opened up a great opportunity. The longing for change ached in every sensible American heart. The time for a progressive moment in our history had arrived.
Enter Barack Obama. Fueled by a compelling story, inspiring oratory, obvious decency, a challenging intellect and seemingly progressive liberal beliefs, he stepped into the moment with dazzling ability. He benefited from the progressive moment and took full advantage of it. After all, he was one of a very few voices who had spoken up against the Iraq War when it was political suicide to do so. He was the dewy rose in the scratchy patch of weeds.
1. HOPES UP THEN DOWN
Obama won the presidency thumpingly. The progressive winds were behind his back. The country was overflowing with hope and enthusiasm. His inauguration was like some godsent event — for us and the world. At the Inaugural Balls, Michele appeared all fluffily snow-white-begowned, the magical princess in a happy-ending fairy tale, haloes descending on us all.
The wreck that was America called for bold action FDR-style. The time had come to bring Wall Street to its senses and concentrate on putting Main Street back on its feet. Instead of having government by the rich of the rich and for the rich, it was time for government by and for the people again. Time to clean out the stables. Time for change we wanted to believe in. A magic wand as big as a sequioa tree was about to be waved.
It's twelve months later and unemployment has climbed over 10% with underemployment around 17%. The bastards who caused this unemployment are about to earn fat bonuses because our tax dollars saved their skeevy behinds back in 2008. The Fed is doling out cheap money to these fraudsters so they can continue their gambling in the Great Wall Street Casino — socially useless gambling that makes them rich and has made everybody else poor. They're funneling our money into record bonuses on a par with 2007, yet they're not doing what we were promised the bail-out was for: restoring credit to businesses big and small. In spite of this, Goldman Sachs and other crony banks have been rewarded with thirteen trillion bucks by the Fed.
Obama keeps saying of the banks, “they don't get it.” What are they supposed to get when he keeps enabling them? Until he taxes financial transactions to slow down their gambling and extract something socially useful from it … until he taxes their short-term bonuses like the UK is doing (they will tax firms 50% of every bonus they pay out over $40,000, affecting 20,000 bankers) … until he brings back the Glass-Steagall Act, which kept the US bubble-free for 50 years until Clinton repealed it, and kept banks small enough to fail … until Obama does these things, he's conning us. It's not the banksters who don't get it, it's Obama who doesn't get it.
On December 13, Obama said on 60 Minutes: “Now, let me say more generally I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of you know, fat cat bankers on Wall Street.” But in his administration, Obama has guys who caused the problem and enabled the bastards — Summers, Geithner, and crew. They're helping Obama build a nifty financial IED that'll blow up our economy yet again in five to ten years time. Giving Summers and Geithner the job of fixing our economy was like appointing your rapist as your therapist. The fix is in: the rich will continue to steal from the poor.
It's not even Bush-lite. It's Bush-same. Or Bush-worse.
What's more, our job loss might be permanent. Who says those jobs will come back? The Reagan Revolution created our deficit-ridden bubble economy and turned us into a nation in which regular folks don't earn enough money to make a decent living unless they go into debt. A democrat, Bill Clinton, completed the Reagan Revolution with (a) NAFTA — making the export of our good jobs official; (b) the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act — removing the wall between investment banks and traditional lending banks, and guaranteeing that we'll get banks that are too big to fail; and (c) excepting the unregulated derivatives trade from any oversight — thereby guaranteeing that the “free” market will blow up. A democrat, Barack Obama, keeps enabling Wall Street while short-changing Main Street. Meanwhile, big business is finding out it can squeeze more work out of fewer people.
What makes economists say the jobs will be back sometime in 2010? Who believes economists anymore? Is economics a science or simply ideology plus numbers, and utopian numbers at that? Isn't our economy rotten to the core? Aren't we a nation of consumers, a market for China's crap, instead of a nation of producers? Aren't we a plutocracy dominated by Wall Street predators, in which wealth keeps trickling up from the middle class to the rich? Why is Spain a better creator of green manufacturing jobs than we are? Why are Mexicans in Mexico sending money to Mexican immigrants in the US so they have money for food?
This is the economy that is still paying for a war in Iraq and doubling down on a losing bet in Afghanistan. Obama gave a rationale at Westpoint for sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan that was a half-baked plethora of stale Bushisms and at least one flat-out lie (that the Taliban refused to negotiate over Osama Bin Laden being brought to justice). The people we're fighting for, Hamid Karzai and a bunch of faction-ridden gangster-druglords-warlords, are odious. Karzai's brother is a major drug lord, and his first cousin Hashmat Karzai, who owns the Asia Security Group with contracts of millions of dollars with the U.S. military, is a murderer: he drove with his gang up to the house of another cousin, Wazeed Karzai, corraled passers-by into a mosque, removed the front door of the house, entered the house and, in front of Wazeed's 12-year-old sister, shot the 18-year-old Wazeed three times; Wazeed died two days later, having identified his killer, yet there's been no investigation by the Afghan government. The people we're fighting against, the Taliban, are odious too, but neither they nor the druglords have much interest in exporting terror to America or harboring Al Qaeda, who lurk in Pakistan, Hamburg, London, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere, none of whom we've seen fit to declare war on. We're already drone-bombing the heck out of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, so why are we fighting in Afghanistan? Go figure. Bush was happy to underfund the Afghanistan War; Obama overfunds it. This isn't Bush-lite; it's Bush-heavy.
Then Obama followed up with a well-received Nobel speech, in which he dropped this distortion of recent history: “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.” I guess he conveniently forgot how we spilled the blood of between a million and two million citizens of Vietnam, backed the genocidal Pol Pot, and overthrew many democracies to install thugs and butchers like the Shah in Iran, Pinochet in Chile, Mobutu in the Congo, etcetera. Yes, we did a great and wonderful thing when we helped put a defeated Germany and Japan back on their feet after WW2. But for the next four decades, together with Russia, we helped underwrite global insecurity: countless proxy wars, CIA plots and destabilization all over the globe. I vividly remember the fear-ridden days of the Cold War. It seems the Obama Doctrine is built on some massively weird Jason Bourne-like amnesia.
Currently there's a health reform bill in the offing that looks more and more like it's going to be a big handout to the health insurance companies, who keep 30% of the dollars they get as premiums for themselves and spend only 70% on providing health care. Here's a typical comment on a recent thread from Elizabeth Renant in Santa Fe:
“America is the laughingstock of the developed world. Every last damned affluent democracy therein has managed to find a way to offer its citizens some kind of national health insurance, either via the government or via private nonprofits – except us, and there we sit, ranking 38th in outcomes but #1 in expense! This is medieval, it is positively medieval!
“Certainly the health care bill now before us is ludicrous, but it's ludicrous because our government, and that includes ruthless dinosaurs like Lieberman, who as a member of Congress enjoys the best health plan in the nation, paid for by the taxpayers, have done everything they could to prevent the country from going where it is very clear it has to go if this is to work: where France, Switzerland, Japan, the UK, Canada, Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc., have all gone, all with better outcomes at less expense.”
It's becoming obvious that all along Obama and Rahm Emanuel regarded the public option as a bargaining chip to be traded away to get a bill done. With the individual mandate and no public option, you're forced to hand over thousands of your hard-earned dollars to some predatory health insurance company. It's unconscionable. There's a reason health insurance stocks hit a 52-year high this past Friday. Howard Dean is right: the Senate bill is worth killing, because the insurance companies have won (Medicare spends only 4% on non-healthcare expenditures, while the Senate bill lets insurance companies spend 25% or 20%; plus it lets them charge older folks three times more than younger people). But of course Congress shouldn't kill it, because even a shitty bill is better than nothing. We've got to take what we can get, as Ted Kennedy would've told us. Even if what we get falls short of what we need; even if it's a teaspoon of water for a man dying of thirst in the desert.
Another bill — some kind of regulatory financial reform — is also wending its way through Congress, and being loopholed, gutted and filleted like a catch of Atlantic cod by bank lobbyists, who got $334 million from Wall Street in the first three quarters of 2009.
The elephantine UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen has birthed a gnat of a deal — a sort-of-a-deal that is not actually a deal, with fewer teeth than an amoeba, and a promise as binding as “I promise not to splooge in your mouth.” This was supposed to be at the very top of candidate Obama's agenda — the environment, green energy, oil independence and all — yet he checked in at the last moment in Copenhagen, when it was too late to get anything meaningful accomplished.
And so far, Obama has blithely continued many of Bush's worst policies: indefinite detention, military commissions, Blackwater assassination squads, extreme secrecy to shield executive lawbreaking from judicial review, renditions, and denials of habeas corpus. He has replaced his top White House lawyer, Greg Craig, the one guy with a conscience about these matters in his administration. More Bush-same. Why did Obama reverse his own position on releasing more photos of Guantanamo freakiness (they show US soldiers pointing guns at a detainee's head, and a broomstick at another detainee's backside) and other Bush horrors? Because Cheney and a bunch of ex-CIA directors complained and polls showed Obama losing support among independents. So much for Obama's “principles.” What's more, he lets the Bush regime and its Geneva Convention-subverting lawyers get away with torture; no one has been held accountable. Seems like Obama decided to learn from the mistakes of the post-war German government: all those poor Nazis they prosecuted. What a shame that was.
Obama's latest Bush move: he has refused to sign the international ban on landmines, along with Bahrain, Burma, Iran, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and others. A collection of the worst nations on earth, and Obama has put us in their company. Jeez, if Obama is a true-blue liberal, then I'm a pre-Raphaelite maiden wafting through a garden of rose-petaled delights gaily chanting “hey nonny-nonny, yon nightinggale be oh-so-bonny.”
3. A PROGRESSIVE ALTERNATIVE TO BUSH-LITE OBAMA
Listen, I still prefer Obama to any GOP president. Imagine the megacrap we'd be in now under McCain. And hey, all of a sudden the world loves us again. No mean feat. Plus, Obama did more in his first 40 days than Bill Clinton did in eight years. What's more, it ain't easy being president: you're up against American institutions like Wall Street, the Pentagon and the healthcare industry, who are geniuses at resisting change. Obama is doing what he can. He may be the perfect president for many Americans.
But if you're a progressive, you have to face facts: Obama has BETRAYED the progressive moment his campaign promised us. The man's ugly actions don't match his pretty talk. Turns out he's a Trojan horse for Wall Street, the Pentagon, the healthcare industry and Big Pharma. Whatever he says, his actions put him actively on their side. This is a stark fact that Progressives have to confront head-on. A fact as evident as a tattoo on Angelina Jolie's butt.
Candidate Obama promised hope: president Obama delivers heartache and despair. Not as bad as McCain or any other GOP president would, but real bad compared to what he promised. He has betrayed his own potential. He's no FDR. He's not even Nixon, whose legacy includes the Environmental Protection Agency and the opening to China. He's to the right of paranoid Nixon, forchrissake.
Obama believes he can use corporations — the health insurance companies, the Wall Street banks, GM, Blackwater — to achieve socially useful ends. That's why he might think he's sort of progressive, and why a lot of progressives, me included, were taken in by his inspiring 2008 campaign. But his “progressivism” is just another extension of Bill Clinton's triangulating ways. No wonder Obama's administration is full of ex-Clintonites, from Larry Summers to Rahm to Hillary herself. Like Bill Clinton, Obama is an ass-backwards progressive. He thinks he has no other option, because he needs the money of big business to finance winning campaigns. That's the devil's deal these Third Way Democrats have made with themselves — aligning their principles with the predatory teleology of corporations. Obama himself said that if he had to do health reform from scratch, he'd go the single-payer route, but he took it off the table because it just wouldn't go through. Of course: still, taking it off the table may placate the health insurance companies, but it also forces one to start from a weak bargaining position. Being a conciliator instead of a fighter, Obama shoots low to get an achievable minimum, instead of aiming high to get an achievable maximum. He also believes the way to help Main Street is to flood Wall Street with our tax dollars. That's where being a corporate progressive takes you.
I'm a different progressive: I don't like to give away my money in either premium form to predator health insurance companies, or in bail-out form to predatory Wall Street banksters, because I know what I'll get in return: something between kind-of-OK and crap. One way or another, I'm going to get ripped off, because of this absolute fact of the basic nature of capitalism: it is the sacred duty of corporations to make a profit off me, and the bigger the profit, the better for them. This attitude makes great things like iPods and Prius and Guinness and remote-controlled toy trucks happen, but it sure doesn't work for healthcare. That's why I believe our government should use our tax dollars to provide us with the important social goods — healthcare, social security, cops, firefighters, the military, the post office, schools — and let private industry compete if they want to with private security firms, military contractors, Fedex, private schools and private health plans for the rich who can afford it. That's what they do in Europe, where folks pay more taxes but live longer than us and have longer vacations and out-compete us in manufacturing. I'm a social democrat, not a corporate democrat. I don't think you can even call yourself a progressive if you're in the Obama-Clinton-Summers camp. I remember a conversation I had this past summer with a well-to-do couple from LA who had voted for Obama. We were talking about his coddling of Wall Street. The wife said something that really struck home: “This is not what we voted for.”
Those liberals who are still defending Obama are not defending his policies: they're simply defending their attraction to his intelligence, decency and charm. They're like people who love Bush or Palin or McCain or Huckabee: they trust them to do the right thing simply because they've fallen in love with their aura.
It's time to turn elsewhere if we want our brief shot at a real progressive moment in this country to actually yield progressive results we can see with untinted eyes.
Someone else will have to fight the progressive fight, because Obama won't or can't.
Such a person exists. There is a man with the progressive credentials and the progressive views — against Wall Street, against the war in Afghanistan, for the American family — who is now making a name for himself in politics.
If he were to run against Obama in the 2012 Democratic primary, he could give Obama a real run for his money. If he ran on a populist anti-Wall Street platform, Obama could be toast. Because what would Obama say if he were accused of being a sellout to Wall Street? There's nothing he can say. He'd have to hem and haw like a deadbeat dad looking up at Judge Judy.
Who is this perfect anti-Obama progressive?
4. THE ROOKIE FROM FLORIDA
His name is Alan Grayson, a rookie congressman from Florida. He's against the war in Afghanistan, he's against Wall Street, he speaks his mind, and he loves to take the fight to the enemy.
He called Rush Limbaugh a “has-been hypocrite loser” who “was more lucid when he was a drug addict.” Nice taste of Limbaugh's own medicine, isn't it?
Grayson's the guy who said the health plan of the Republicans is “don't get sick.” And their backup plan is, “If you do get sick, die quickly.” The collective knickers of the GOP went into a double-sheet-bend knot over that one. They squawked like evangelicals sodomized by a gang of Act Up gay activists.
Grayson is working with Ron Paul on an “audit the Fed” bill, which will make the shadowy workings of the Fed transparent.
He has the chutzpah to drive Republicans into a greater frenzy than their standard operational apoplexy. National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain got so spooked, he said of Grayson: “This is an individual who has established a pathological pattern of unstable behavior.” I saw Grayson on CNN, surrounded by journalists who were chiding him that his derogatory remarks weren't helping anyone, and instead of backing down, he said that when it came to health reform, the Republicans were “foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.” Suddenly the journalists looked like monks dropped into a porn movie set: the expressions on their faces were beyond priceless.
He's my man.
The man to hit Obama not only from the left, but to hit Obama from the bottom.
Because unlike Obama and his professorial air, Grayson comes off like a blue-collar guy. He looks working-class union. Big and lumbering. Meat-and-potatoes face. And he talks like a man from the people. Down-to-earth, blunt. Not like a guy from Harvard. He's as regular-folks as Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, without the psycho wackiness or world-class stupidity. He would eat any Republican for breakfast, because he would make them all look like elite clubhouse wimps.
Despite Grayson's blue-collar mien, he's more educated than Obama, with three degrees: a regular degree and a law degree from Harvard, and a masters from the Kennedy School of Government.
Basically, he's a progressive populist dream come true.
Plus, he's stinking rich. $30 million rich, money he made himself, running a telecommunications company.
He grew up in the Bronx tenements. He's been a lawyer, businessman and officer of a non-profit organization. He pursued whistleblower cases against contractor fraud in Iraq. His car had this bumper sticker: “Bush lied, people died.” He has five children.
5. NOW IS THE TIME TO START ORGANIZING
Listen up, folks. Get behind this man.
IT BEHOOVES ALL PROGRESSIVES TO RUN GRAYSON AGAINST OBAMA IN THE 2012 DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY.
Start the drumbeat now. NOW. NOW. NOW. Let's fire up the Democratic base.
I know, most likely Obama will beat Grayson. Even Ted Kennedy couldn't dislodge incumbent President Carter for the democratic nomination in 1980. But look at it this way: in a race against Grayson, Obama is going to have to give an account of his first-term actions, and explain why he enabled Wall Street to continue screwing Main Street. And Grayson ain't gonna give Obama any wriggle room on this, because he's easily as smart as Obama, and he has real-world private-sector business experience. He could scare Obama a few steps to the left, which might result in a few progressive moves in Obama's second term.
But, but, but: what if — a gigantic if — what if the democratic base is really angry at Obama, and Grayson beats Obama, and then goes on to cream the GOP idiot (Romney? Palin? where do they get these fakes and flakes?)?
Then, oh then, fellow progressives, we may have a revolution we can dance to. We may peel grapes for our beloveds and praise elegant larks for their mellifluous warblings. We may finally get to enjoy the progressive moment that our country so desperately needs — and work on becoming the more perfect union that Obama keeps talking about but won't do much to achieve.