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The Agony of the Liberals
June 20, 2010
The New York Times
By ROSS DOUTHAT
They doubted him during the health care debate. They second-guessed his
Afghanistan policy. They’ve fretted over his coziness with Wall Street and his
comfort with executive power.
But now is the summer of their discontent. From MSNBC to “The Daily Show,” from
The Huffington Post to the halls of Congress, movement liberals have had just
about enough of Barack Obama.
The catalyst was last week’s lackluster Oval Office address, but the real
complaints run deeper. Many liberals look at this White House and see a
presidency adrift — unable to respond effectively to the crisis in the gulf,
incapable of rallying the country to great tasks like the quest for clean
energy, and unwilling to do what it takes to jump-start the economy.
American liberalism has always had a reputation for fractiousness and frantic
self-critique. But even by those standards, the current bout of anguish over the
Obama presidency seems bizarrely disproportionate.
This is the same Barack Obama, after all, who shepherded universal health care,
the dream of liberals since the days of Harry Truman (if not Thomas Paine),
through several near-death experiences and finally into law. It’s the same Obama
who staked the fate of the American economy on a $787 billion exercise in
Keynesian pump-priming. It’s the same Obama who has done more to advance liberal
priorities than any president since Lyndon Johnson.
Yet many on the left are talking as if he’s no better for liberalism than Bill
Clinton circa 1996 — another compromiser, another triangulator and another
At work in this liberal panic are two intellectual vices, and one legitimate
fear. The first vice is the worship of presidential power: the belief that any
problem, any crisis, can be swiftly solved by a strong government, and
particularly a strong executive. A gushing oil well, a recalcitrant Congress, a
public that’s grown weary of grand ambitions — all of these challenges could be
mastered, Obama’s leftward critics seem to imagine, if only he were bolder or
angrier, or maybe just more determined.
This vice isn’t confined to liberals: you can see it at work when foreign policy
hawks suggest that mere presidential “toughness” is the key to undoing Iran’s
clerical regime, or disarming North Korea. But it runs deepest among
progressives. When Rachel Maddow fantasized last week about how Obama should
simply dictate energy legislation to a submissive Congress, she was
unconsciously echoing midcentury liberal theoreticians of the presidency like
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who often wrote as if a Franklin Roosevelt or a John F.
Kennedy could run the country by fiat. (They couldn’t.)
The second vice is an overweening faith in theory. It’s now conventional wisdom
among Obama’s liberal critics that the White House has been insufficiently
ambitious about deficit spending. The economy is stuck in neutral, they argue,
because Obama didn’t push last year’s recovery act up over a trillion dollars,
and hasn’t pressed hard enough for a second major stimulus.
Technically, they could be right — but only in the same way that it’s possible
that the Iraq War would have been a ringing success if only we’d invaded with a
million extra soldiers. The theory is unfalsifiable because the policy course is
imaginary. Maybe in some parallel universe there’s a Congress that would be
willing to borrow and spend trillions in stimulus dollars, despite record
deficits, if that’s what liberal economists said the situation required. But not
in this one.
Yet the liberal drumbeat continues. As Tyler Cowen wrote last week: “advocates
of fiscal stimulus make it sound as simple as solving an undergraduate homework
problem and ... sometimes genuinely do not realize how much the rest of the
world, including politicians, views them as simply being very convinced by their
own theory.” Nor do they acknowledge how much risk those same politicians have
already taken on (with the first stimulus, the health care bill, and much else
besides) in the name of theoretical propositions, while reaping little for their
efforts save an ever-grimmer fiscal picture.
But it’s here, with the looming fiscal crisis, that the more legitimate liberal
fear comes in. Liberals had hoped that Obama’s election marked the beginning of
a long progressive era — a new New Deal, a greater Great Society. Instead, from
the West Coast to Western Europe, the welfare state is in crisis everywhere they
look. The future suddenly seems to belong to austerity and retrenchment — and
even, perhaps, to conservatism.
In this environment, the rage against Obama for not doing more, now, faster,
becomes at least somewhat understandable. It’s not that he hasn’t done a great
deal for liberals during his 18 months in office. It’s that liberalism itself
may be running out of time.
The Agony of the
Week in Review
the Last Roar
of the New Deal Liberal
August 30, 2009
The New York Times
By SAM TANENHAUS
“AN important chapter in our history has come to an end,” Barack Obama said
in his first public remarks on the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “Our
country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers
and became the greatest United States senator of our time.”
What Mr. Obama didn’t say — and perhaps didn’t need to — was that the closed
chapter was the vision of liberalism begun by the New Deal of Franklin D.
Roosevelt, extended during the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson and now
struggling back toward relevance. It holds that the forces of government should
be marshaled to improve conditions for the greatest possible number of
Americans, with particular emphasis on the excluded and disadvantaged. It is not
government’s only obligation, in this view, but it is the paramount one.
No major political figure of the past half-century was so deeply invested in
this idea as Mr. Kennedy was. It underlay the staggering number of bills he
created or sponsored in his long Senate career, whether in medical care or
education, on behalf of immigrants or labor unions. And it underlay Mr.
Kennedy’s crusade for universal health care — “a right, not a privilege,” as he
declared at the Democratic National Convention last August.
The belief in government as the guardian of opportunity and advancement is not a
complicated one, but it is fraught with ambiguities — including the risks
incurred when government grows too large and also too expensive. Indeed, the
peak years of Mr. Kennedy’s Senate career, the 1980s and ’90s, coincided with
the ascendancy of a countervision, captured in Ronald Reagan’s assertion:
“Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
In that period, many Democrats began to rethink the legacy of the New Deal and
the Great Society. Many distanced themselves from “the L word.” And Mr. Kennedy
appeared out of step. As the authors of “Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted
Kennedy,” observe, “Even in his own party, his liberalism had seemed, at times,
outmoded as the ‘third way’ of the Clintons gained ascendance in the Washington
of the 1990s.”
So too in 2008 the party’s top presidential contenders dependably referred to
themselves as “progressives.”
Still, Mr. Kennedy was unwavering. It is hard to imagine any contemporary
Democrat taking the podium as Mr. Kennedy did last summer in Denver to reprise
the celebrated oration he had made at the 1980 convention in New York. But Mr.
Kennedy did — without apology. The passage of time, and the reordered political
landscape, had not obscured his causes or dimmed his rhetoric.
His roots in old-fashioned liberalism went deep. Like his brothers, he was
reared in the towering shadow of President Roosevelt, who was first elected
president in 1932, the year Edward Kennedy was born.
But the older Kennedy brothers drifted away from New Deal politics. John F.
Kennedy stood at the center of a new post-ideological pragmatism. In 1962, the
year Edward Kennedy was first elected to the Senate, President Kennedy asserted
that while “most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political
viewpoint — Republican or Democrat, liberal, conservative or moderate,” in
reality the most pressing government concerns were “technical problems,
administrative problems” that “do not lend themselves to the great sort of
passionate movements which have stirred this country so often in the past.”
Robert F. Kennedy, in contrast, was drawn to passionate movements, but his
devotions could shift with the political winds. An anti-Communist in the 1950s —
when he worked briefly on the staff of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy — Robert later
embraced the “New Politics” of the late 1960s, with its strong flavor of
anti-establishment protest. In the 1968 election he seemed to be simultaneously
courting militant leftists and aggrieved white ethnics stirred by the populist
demagoguery of the segregationist George Wallace.
It was Edward, the youngest brother, whose “true compass” — to borrow the title
of his forthcoming memoir — pointed unerringly toward New Deal liberalism. He
became its champion for the remainder of his life.
This earned him a reputation for being the populist Kennedy, gifted with the
common touch. Certainly he enjoyed politics at the retail level — plunging into
the crowd, shaking hands.
But Mr. Kennedy’s accomplishments in the political arts were mixed. He excelled
at stumping for others, as he did in his brothers’ presidential campaigns. And
he performed impressively for Mr. Obama in 2008. Just before the deluge of
primaries in early February, when the contest between Mr. Obama and Hillary
Rodham Clinton was tight, Mr. Kennedy drew large crowds in California and New
Mexico, where shouts of “Viva Kennedy” greeted his visits to the barrios.
But on other occasions Mr. Kennedy faltered. His intemperate denunciation of
Judge Robert H. Bork in 1987 helped poison the atmosphere of Supreme Court
appointments up to the present day.
His one signal talent was for legislation, the painstaking, glacial business of
shaping bills and laws. He learned at the feet of Senate giants like Richard
Russell, who had also been a mentor to another superb legislator, Lyndon
The friction between Mr. Kennedy’s uncertain feel for politics and his
instinctive command of governance led to his gravest miscalculation, his
ill-executed attempt to unseat his party’s incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, in
the 1980 primaries.
“No real difference of politics separated Kennedy from Carter,” Theodore H.
White noted when he revisited the episode in 1982.
Mr. White, curious to grasp the motives behind this quixotic mission, pressed
Mr. Kennedy about it. At first Mr. Kennedy haltingly mentioned Mr. Carter’s
failed leadership and squandered opportunities. But when prodded further, he
delivered “a stunning discussion of just how laws are passed, of how Carter’s
amateur lobbyists had messed up program after program by odd legislative
couplings of unsorted programs,” Mr. White wrote. “Then, details cascading from
him more and more rapidly, he concluded in an outburst of frustration” that Mr.
Carter was incompetent. “Even on issues we agree on, he doesn’t know how to do
it,” Mr. Kennedy told Mr. White, who likened his attitude to “the contempt of a
master machinist for a plumber’s assistant.”
The paradox was that by challenging Mr. Carter, Mr. Kennedy weakened him in the
general election, and thus assisted in the victory of Mr. Reagan, who promptly
ushered in the conservative counterrevolution, founded on distrust of
government, that Mr. Kennedy spent the next three decades battling, losing as
often as he won.
The literary critic Lionel Trilling once wondered why so many liberal
intellectuals he knew seemed unnerved by any mention of death. Might it be, he
speculated, because death was, “in practical outcome, a negation of the future
and of the hope it holds out for a society of reason and virtue?”
Mr. Trilling had in mind the “progressives” of the 1930s and ’40s, who were lit
with utopian dreams and intoxicated, in many instances, by the Soviet
Mr. Kennedy’s liberalism had its basis in something different — New Deal
meliorism, with its hopeful spirit of reform.
And he brought to it in its later stages a quality of chastened knowledge, the
hardiness of the survivor. Mr. Kennedy was, of course, uniquely versed in the
concrete facts of death. All three of his brothers died young, two slain by
assassins’ bullets. And for 40 years he bore the guilt of the death he caused in
Chappaquiddick in 1969.
Becoming “the greatest senator of our time” could not atone for this. Nor could
it redress Mr. Kennedy’s many other trespasses — the boozing and womanizing and
the suffering it brought.
But if the art of governance did not redeem Mr. Kennedy, it irradiated him, and
the liberalism he personified. At a time when government itself had fallen into
disrepute Mr. Kennedy applied himself diligently to its exacting discipline, and
wrested whatever small victories he could from the machinery he had learned to
operate so well. Whether or not his compass was finally true, he endured as the
battered, leaky vessel through which the legislative arts recovered some of
their lost glory.
In Kennedy, the Last
Roar of the New Deal Liberal,
Democrats Vie for Delegates
March 5, 2008
Filed at 2:20 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton split
delegates in four states Tuesday while Republican John McCain claimed his
party's nomination for president.
Clinton picked up at least 115 delegates in Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and
Texas, while Obama picked up at least 88. Nearly 170 delegates were still to be
awarded, including 154 in Texas.
Obama had a total of 1,477 delegates, including separately chosen party and
elected officials known as superdelegates, according to the Associated Press
count. He picked up three superdelegate endorsements Tuesday,
Clinton had 1,391 delegates. It will take 2,025 delegates to secure the
McCain surpassed the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the nomination by winning
delegates in the four states. He also picked up new endorsements from about 30
party officials who will automatically attend the convention and can support
whomever they choose.
McCain had 1,224 delegates, according to the AP count. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike
Huckabee, who had 261 delegates, dropped out of the race Tuesday night.
The AP tracks the delegate races by calculating the number of national
convention delegates won by candidates in each presidential primary or caucus,
based on state and national party rules, and by interviewing unpledged delegates
to obtain their preferences.
Most primaries and some caucuses are binding, meaning delegates won by the
candidates are pledged to support that candidate at the national conventions
Political parties in some states, however, use multistep procedures to award
national delegates. Typically, such states use local caucuses to elect delegates
to state or congressional district conventions, where national delegates are
selected. In these states, the AP uses the results from local caucuses to
calculate the number of national delegates each candidate will win, if the
candidate's level of support at the caucus doesn't change.
Democrats Vie for
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