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Charney asserted that the prosperity Americans enjoyed in the aftermath of the New Deal was based on an economic “paradigm” that is now in crisis because of globalization, trade, corporate influence, and what he called new “social cleavages,” such as immigration.
“What we need is a new, a Next New Deal to rebuild our economy on a different foundation,” Charney said. Among the changes he advocated were more investment in college education, health care for all, “green” jobs, and an end to America’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“This is a transformational moment. They come along once in a generation, once in a lifetime,” he beamed. “When the mass movement is there, that will be the time when the political leadership will be forced to act.”
Along these lines, a number of issue-focused groups and coalitions have formed to push specific progressive causes, such as the Apollo Alliance for alternative energy and Health Care for America Now!
Obama himself has given mixed signals throughout his career—and especially during the presidential campaign—as to whether he’s a principled liberal or a slick politician who would compromise progressive ideals for short-term political gain.
In 2003, when Obama was still an obscure state legislator making a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate, he was a proud progressive. In a lengthy questionnaire filled out that December for the staunch liberal Independent Voters of Illinois—Independent Precinct Organization, Obama vowed that as U.S. senator he would be “a champion for the progressive agenda” and boasted that he had “demonstrated the backbone and passion to really fight for progressive causes, even when the political winds are blowing in the other direction.”
That same year, Obama spoke at an AFL-CIO event and declared himself a “proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan,” which is a technical term for a socialized system in which government is the sole purchaser of health care. But during his presidential campaign he has stated that he would only support such a system “if we were starting from scratch.” On the other hand, Obama has conceded that his health care plan could incrementally lead to a single-payer system. A common complaint among progressives about Obama’s handling of the issue is that he hasn’t spoken about it much since the general election started—a criticism that is sharpest among Hillary Clinton loyalists.
During the Democratic primaries, Obama railed against the North America Free Trade Agreement, but in the general election, he cooled off, and said his prior anti-trade rhetoric was just an example of how political campaigns could get “overheated.” He also softened what was a firm 16-month timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq and backed away from his pledge to meet unconditionally with the leaders of hostile regimes within the first year of his administration (now he tends to talk in vague terms of “tough direct diplomacy”). He also reversed himself by supporting Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation that granted immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government even after vowing to filibuster any bill that included such a provision.
Barack Obama is not a progressive by any means,” said Tim Carpenter, the national director of Progressive Democrats of America. “We have no illusions. This is a guy who missed a key vote when it came to no strike on Iran. He missed the Kyl-Lieberman vote [designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group], he was very slow coming out against the war, and though he spoke out against it, he voted for every appropriation.”
Carpenter said that his group, which was founded in 2004, is mostly focused on organizing at the district-by-district level and electing progressive members of Congress, but would still work to get Obama elected.
“I think it’s safe to say we’re where conservatives were in ’64 with Goldwater,” he said. “Conservatives made a rational decision that they were going to stay within the party and they were not going to be afraid to lose based on the issues that united them as conservatives. We’re doing the same things as Democrats.”
Among the successes they already claim is that, for the first time, the Democratic Party’s platform adopted in Denver calls for guaranteed health care. Also, House Majority leader Steny Hoyer paid a visit to Progressive Central during the convention. “The Democratic leadership is becoming quite aware of what we’re up to,” Carpenter said.
For all their optimism, it’s worth pointing out that there are substantial differences between now and the other periods of transformational change in American political history. Both LBJ and FDR assumed office during times when the climate was far more suited for sweeping changes. Progressives can do all the talking they want about how the economy is in a state of severe crisis, but empirically, our current economic problems pale in comparison to what they were when FDR was elected in 1932. That year, the nation’s economy shrank by more than 13 percent and the unemployment rate was 23.6%; by contrast, the economy grew 3.3 percent in this year’s second quarter, while as of August the unemployment rate was 6.1%. LBJ assumed office in the wake of the tragic assassination of the beloved John F. Kennedy, and the outpouring of sympathy made it a lot easier for his successor to push legislation through Congress—and it didn’t hurt that at one point Democrats had 68 senators.
The biggest mistake progressives are making is to believe that the diminished prospects for the Republican Party this November mean that the conservative movement itself has been vanquished. But regardless of who wins this election, the network of conservative media, policy organizations, and activist groups will still be in a much stronger position to resist radical liberal reforms than their predecessors in the earlier eras of transformational progressive change.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.
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H/T to National Review Online