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Fowler: The Left Awakens

October 14, 2011

To liberals, Barack Obama was going to be their Reagan. A fiercely partisan warrior who would pin the blame for the country’s ills on the other party and, in doing so, make liberalism the dominant ideology of American politics for the next generation. Nevermind the fact that Obama ran his campaign specifically against this model; that, while advocating center-left positions, the strength of his appeal came from his civility and refusal to demonize his opponents. Liberals had decided what he was supposed to be and when his presidency reflected his campaign rhetoric instead of their hopes, disappointment grew. It didn’t matter that he passed the most progressive and ambitious legislative agenda in half a century, including the century old Democratic goal of universal health care. His record, instead of energizing his base, provoked revulsion amongst conservatives, with the right-wing Tea Party taking hold of the narrative in Washington and making George Bush’s presidency look relatively progressive. For a while it seemed as though the Great Recession, thought to be the starting point of a new liberal order the way the Great Depression enabled the New Deal era, had instead re-invigorated right-wing extremism. Obama’s constant appeasement of Republicans, despite continuous rejection, frustrated Democrats as they saw their champion bruised and broken after offering to meet Republicans more than half way on a debt deal, only to be turned down. However, if current trends stand, House Republicans’ rejection of Obama’s “Grand Bargain” may have proved the turning point in his presidency and in American politics. Not only Obama, but Democrats across the country have suddenly woken up from disillusionment and begun making their case for liberalism in the 21st century.

Some point to the Arab Spring as the catalyst for this awakening. The inspiration from seeing mass public protests against corrupt, totalitarian governments calling for freedom and economic justice gave way to the defiant stand against Wall Street that the Occupy protests have embodied. The OWS protesters are not simply energized liberals the way that the Tea Party was with conservatives; Ron Paul supporters have been on full view at the protests, showing disgust across the political spectrum at the excesses of Wall Street and its corrupting influence on Washington. Democrats seem to have caught on to the energy in the protest; Obama recently voiced empathy, if not solidarity, with the protesters, and Democratic lawmakers and labour unions have begun trickling into them. Some have wondered why it took three years for protestors to bring the fight to Wall Street. The simple answer is, for many liberals, Obama’s election was supposed to be the cure-all remedy for what had gone on. Despite the passage of Dodd-Frank, the most sweeping set of regulations on Wall Street passed since the Great Depression, financial executives continued to take exorbitant bonuses from tax-payer funded bailouts even as they continued to withhold lending capital, their supposed purpose to begin with. As motivated Republicans and their Wall Street funders gained power and began calling for the repeal of Dodd-Frank, arguing that its onerous regulations were stifling Wall Street investment, the hypocrisy and sheer gall of financial executives refusing to admit blame for the financial collapse angered liberals to the point where only open protest would suffice. Almost a month into the protests and with no end in sight, it seems that liberals finally have their rallying call.

Even before the protests began, liberal politicians had seen an opening in the near-universal disgust with Wall Street and the war being waged on the middle class. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s proposal to strip public sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights, supposedly to balance the budget, set off mass protests in the state’s capital by union members. Already having agreed to pay and benefit cuts in order to balance the budget, Wisconsin public sector unions saw Walker’s move as an attack on the basic rights and powers of a union rather than a cost cutting measure. While Walker eventually passed his proposal through the Republican legislature, recall elections were called against several Republican state senators and soon Walker will be facing one himself. Next, Democratic state attorneys general, led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman, have filed lawsuits against a deal between several big banks and the federal government that they find far too lenient considering the crimes perpetrated by Wall Street. And now, with the entry of Elizabeth Warren into the Massachusetts Senate race to take on Tea Party darling Scott Brown, another outspoken liberal has been vaulted into the national spotlight. A lifetime consumer advocate, creator of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau which is the heart of Dodd-Frank, and generally accepted scourge of Wall Street, Warren has already made waves with her eloquent defense of liberalism at a campaign stop:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

As OWS protestors carry these words on signs and banners, Warren has forcefully taken the fight over the financial industry onto their own turf. Scott Brown, who was elected by Tea Party forces but has served as a relative moderate (including being one of the few Republicans to vote for Dodd-Frank) will not go down easily. But Warren has already set herself up as perhaps the country’s premier Wall Street fighter, a profile which may turn out to be as potent as spending-cutters were for Republicans last year.

Obama’s recent pivot away from moderate reconciliation and towards center-left populism has been decried as blatant political pandering to his base in the face of sagging poll numbers. While political considerations were of course a factor in the president’s recent switch in tone (though those complaining conservatives didn’t seem to find fault when George Bush used gay marriage as a partisan bludgeon to defeat John Kerry, despite the fact that both men supported civil unions), there is also a reasonable answer for it. Obama entered the debt ceiling debate with the mindset of being the adult in the room who would meet the Republicans half way, get a “Grand Bargain”, and come away looking strong, moderate, and sensible. Instead, he was rejected by Tea Party congressmen and left with a rump bill that barely begins to scratch the deficit problem. In the end he seemed weak and ineffectual, a poisonous profile to liberals and independents alike. When he returned to Congress after the summer break, he had decided that no amount of bipartisanship would satisfy this new breed of Republicans. Instead of offering centrist proposals in the hopes of getting Republican support that had not materialized since he’d entered office (G.O.P. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has let it be known that the number one job of congressional Republicans is to prevent Obama from getting any “wins”), he chose to stake out his position and drive it home.

It’s not that his jobs proposal is especially left leaning – infrastructure investments, tax breaks for small businesses and workers, and trade deals are all policies that have had huge bipartisan support in the past – but the tone he’s taken and the way he means to pay for it have caused consternation on the right. He’s taken on the mantle of a warrior for the middle class, chastising Republicans for defending the tax brackets for the wealthy over the jobs of teachers, cops, and construction workers. The various tax increases on wealthy households he proposed to pay for the bill are extremely popular among the public (for anything to garner 70% support in these polarized days is remarkable), and Obama hopes to put Republicans on the defensive over this. He has a good shot at it too, considering that at a recent Republican presidential debate, the would be Commanders-in-Chief all stated that they would refuse a budget deal that included $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Obama, and liberals from tents on Wall Street to the Massachusetts Senate race, feel their winning message is that the definition of extremism could be when 90% purity isn’t good enough. He’s betting his presidency on Americans agreeing.

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