Thursday, July 14, 2011

The PINO in the Cheap Seats

Being a Mets fan, I know what it’s like to be disappointed. In the fifty years of its existence, my team has made the postseason seven times, won four pennants and two World Series titles, while the other New York team has made the postseason a total of twenty-four times, winning fifteen pennants and nine World Series titles. As if that weren’t bad enough, the worst years for the Yankees had nothing on the worst years for the Mets. Looking for the perfect definition for the word loyalty? You won’t find it in the dictionary. Just look at the won-loss records of the Mets from the years 1977 through 1983 and ask who, in their right mind, would suffer through that train wreck? Yours truly, that’s who.

But, though I might have been loyal, I was hardly the good soldier. I knew my team sucked, and I had absolutely no gumption about letting as many people know as possible, including my fellow comrades, who saw my bravado as something akin to traitorous. While they preferred to circle the wagons, I felt obliged to bring to light the negligence of the organization I had rooted for my whole life. I called it as I saw it. When they won, I celebrated their accomplishments; when they were dreadful, I ripped them a new one, and I cared not one bit who it might rub the wrong way.

It’s always been that way with me. I was never able to sit still and keep my mouth shut. Call me a devil’s advocate. I’ve been blessed, or cursed if you will, with being able to look objectively at how things were, not as I wished they were. I could no more excuse mediocrity than I could go without breathing. Whether it was my favorite baseball team, or the political party that I have followed and enjoyed a love/hate relationship with most of my adult life, I couldn’t help but be the wise ass in the room. Give me a few minutes and I could pick the scab off of the deepest wound imaginable. If it was a rubber stamp of approval you were seeking, I clearly wasn’t your guy.

And while I may have been a tad bit more passionate about my beliefs in my younger days, I was far less an ideologue than the contemporaries of the time. During the Reagan years, I remember loathing what was happening to the country, yet curiously admiring how it was happening. In a morbid sort of way, the technique with which Reagan used to connect with the voters appealed to me, and deep down I knew the Left could never walk that walk. In retrospect, I was not at all surprised that Mondale and Dukakis were routed in the ’84 and ’88 general elections. Despite having the better positions on virtually every issue they had about as much charisma as a cold bowl of soup.

Bill Clinton’s success in the ‘90s was owed mainly to two factors. The first is the stuff of legend. The man connected on a visceral level with the public in a way few politicians were capable of. Over the last hundred years, only FDR, Kennedy and Reagan matched and/or surpassed him. But the second reason for his success – and the one that tends to drive progressives up the proverbial wall – was his uncanny political savvy. The man could sense a change in the political headwinds better than any politician I’ve ever observed – better even than Reagan – and adapt accordingly. When he lost both houses of Congress in the ’94 midterms, most pundits wrote him off as another Jimmy Carter. Instead, Clinton turned the tables on his opponents and became the centrist few thought him capable of becoming. Not only did he convincingly win reelection, he went on to become one of the most successful two-term presidents of the twentieth century, balancing two consecutive budgets before leaving office.

To this day, progressives grudgingly give him the credit he deserves, pointing out how he caved on so many issues near and dear to them. What they fail to see is that if Clinton had not steered to the Right, he would’ve been a one-term president and the country, under a Bob Dole administration, would’ve seen far worse cuts to the very social programs so vital to the working poor. Clinton, like most pragmatists, knew there was no such thing as a moral victory. Winning was the only way to achieve at least some of the results Democrats were looking for, and if compromising on some issues meant preserving the bulk of the rest, so be it.

Barack Obama, for all that has been written and said about him so far, has been a quick study in the art of politics. It’s fair to say that he has not been the progressive stalwart many on the Left dreamt he’d be when he was sworn into office. And, as a progressive myself, I must confess, I was somewhat underwhelmed by his willingness to seek common ground and govern through consensus. I wanted a fighter who was hopping mad; instead what I got was Mr. Cool. I wanted the Terminator; instead I got Monty Hall. The country, I felt, needed another FDR; instead we got JFK.

But over the last few months, I have grown to admire the calm, collected way in which Obama has handled himself and the country. And while I still scratch my head at times over his policy decisions, and wish like hell he had listened to Paul Krugman when he begged for a much larger stimulus package, slowly but surely he is emerging as a very shrewd and effective leader.

The debt ceiling crisis is but the latest test to his presidency, and while the majority of progressives may not know it – or sadly care – Obama is showing his mettle in the debate against John Boehner, Eric Cantor and the Republicans. By going large and putting everything on the table, he ostensibly called the GOP’s bluff, and, predictably, they folded like a four-card monte scheme on a midtown street corner.

But of course all progressives cared about was the fact that Obama was putting entitlements on the table. How dare he do such a thing? How dare he not, I say? When you play a game of poker you can’t call your opponents’ bluff unless you yourself are willing to risk it all. Obama knew full well that Boehner didn’t have the votes for a tax increase. By tempting him with massive spending cuts – cuts that in all likelihood would never have happened, mind you – he forced the Republicans to fold. A “balanced” approach and his steadfast refusal to let his opponents walk all over him has been a refreshing change of pace for me personally. Frankly I was wondering when he was going to show some spine.

But the President also did much more than serve notice on Congressional Republicans that he is still the commander in chief and won’t be bullied into accepting just any deal, he let the whole country know that, if he had to, he would go against even his own party in order to save the country from a cataclysmic event. Do not think for a minute that that isn’t resonating with independent voters. While progressives may be seething at the prospect of being thrown under the bus yet again, they are missing the bigger picture here. Once more, Barack Obama is coming out looking like the adult in the room, while Eric Cantor and John Boehner look like two very small, spoiled brats.

Over the next two weeks, look for Obama to forge an agreement with House Republicans for some cuts to the budget along with closing a few loopholes in the tax code. The deal will enrage both political flanks: the Right because a few millionaires and billionaires will have to come up with some additional petty cash to pay for their corporate jets; the Left because the Bush tax cuts will still be on the books. But the debt limit will be raised and the nation spared a catastrophe.

But more to the point, I am beginning to notice a pattern among my fellow progressives, and it is a pattern I know all too well. Last month I wrote an op-ed piece titled “Ideology Running Amuck,” in which I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes: exposing the Republican Party as little more than an extension of some very twisted and myopic interests hell bent on wiping out anything that stands in their way. In their worldview, compromise is not an option. It’s all or nothing. If the nation goes to hell in a handbasket, so be it. So long as they retain their purity and “integrity,” that’s all that matters.

Well, excuse me for saying this, progressives, these days, are starting to sound an awful lot like their counterparts on the Right: unyielding, unbending, lost in their own narrative, and completely oblivious to the stakes at hand. Last December when progressives recoiled at the agreement Obama reached during the lame-duck to keep the government running, I asked every progressive I knew one simple question: What was your plan B? In lieu of a government shutdown and the specter of a new Congress that was days away from being sworn in, what would you have done differently from Obama that actually would’ve succeeded? The key word here is succeed. The silence was deafening.

Of course they would have allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire, and, of course, they would’ve extended unemployment benefits, and, naturally they would’ve ended “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and passed the 9/11 rescue workers bill. And then of course they would’ve passed a continuing resolution to keep the government running. Of course they would’ve. In their dreams! The simple truth was that Obama, and not them, got most of that through, and for that, he gave in to a two-year extension on the Bush tax cuts. A bitter pill to swallow, sure, but a necessary one in order to achieve the greater good. Once more any sense of pragmatism was missing from the progressive caucus; once more they missed the forest for the trees.

Of late I have been reading David Brooks. Once considered to be one of the more respected conservative voices out there, Brooks is now considered by many to be a moderate among his peers and a CINO (conservative in name only) among Republicans, particularly Tea-Party Republicans. When he dares call out the GOP as being “infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative,” he earns the wrath of that very faction and faces the consequences that come with speaking truth to such intransigence. But that is the price he is willing to pay to maintain what he thinks is his ethical obligation as a journalist. His refusal to drink the tainted Koolaid so many of his contemporaries seem to be drowning in is what sets him apart, and while I may not agree with his views, I nonetheless respect and admire his integrity.

Well to quote Bill Clinton here, I feel Brooks’ pain, if just a bit. For all its high moral sounding words and sensible policies, the Left, sadly, is just as intransigent as the Right when push comes to shove. There, I said it, and I haven’t been struck by lightning.  I guess that makes me a PINO (progressive in name only).

Now before my words get twisted – as though I had any control over that – it’s important to denote here that my criticism of the Left has absolutely nothing to do with its stances or positions, both of which are clearly superior to anything the Right has come up with in over a century. Nor should anyone construe in anyway that I am intimating some sort of phony equivalence between the blatant lies and distortions of one side, and the over the top zealousness of the other. One is permitted to be biased without necessarily being a fraud. Rather my criticism is directly solely on how the Left reacts, and in many ways overreacts, to the political realities that exist in our broken two-party system. These reactions have had profound consequences for its achievements.

Well before the Right became the organized tumor that is currently infecting the Republican Party, the Left was primarily responsible for the demise of two incumbent Democratic presidents: Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War fractured the Party into two camps, with progressives ostensibly fleeing from an Administration that only a few years earlier had been responsible for the most sweeping legislation since the Reconstruction era in the Civil Rights Act. While there were profound and justifiable reasons for opposing the War, progressives’ line in the sand, take the ball home with them stance eventually forced Johnson not to seek reelection in 1968. Bobby Kennedy, the Left’s new darling, was the best hope for Democrats. When he was assassinated, the way was paved for Richard Nixon to win what would turn out to be a rather easy election, even with an “independent” George Wallace running as conservative spoiler.

Progressives’ disenchantment with Jimmy Carter has become a case study in denial. For some unknown reason that only they themselves seem to know, Carter was viewed as not sufficiently liberal enough for their tastes. Like his brother a decade earlier, Ted Kennedy had become the great hope of the Left, this despite the fact that every single challenge to a sitting president by his party has resulted in defeat for that party. Nonetheless, Kennedy so deeply wounded Carter that Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election in a landslide.

Just like in 1968, progressives’ refusal to consider the glass half full and their unwillingness to settle and compromise on their “principles” proved their undoing. They almost had the hat trick in 1996, but Bill Clinton proved too much for them. And while dear old Bill ran toward the middle – hence away from them – the Left bided its time. Al Gore, the unassuming and, yes, terribly boring air apparent to the most successful Democratic Administration since Truman, would be the sacrificial lamb. Lost in all the controversy of the 2000 election results in Florida was the fact that had Ralph Nader not gotten so many votes from so many disgruntled progressives, the whole Bush v. Gore fiasco would’ve been quite unnecessary. Gore would’ve easily won Florida and the general election.

And now progressives are all up in arms over Barack Obama, the man who had the audacity to once more disappoint and betray them by moving toward the Center. Like Johnson, Carter and Clinton before him, Obama sees the role of governing as more than simply pandering to a base. It’s about surviving in a political climate that demands being open to all possibilities, even at the expense of being seen as a turncoat. The Left bristles when it is reminded of the “accomplishments” of Obama. Healthcare with no public option and financial reform with too big to fail still intact; hardly what they had envisioned. That those feats were considerably better than they would’ve gotten had John McCain won the ’08 election is beside the point. It is always beside the point with progressives. Like their counterparts on the Right, there is no give and take with them. All they can see is their own vision of how things should be, not how they are.

And now, with all that is at stake in 2012, progressives are actually contemplating either staying home or running a third-party candidate against the President. Talk about gift-wrapping an election and all for spite. It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Try telling that to a progressive these days.  You might as well spit in the wind.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my first love: watching my dear old Mets break the hearts of their faithful once more. If you wish to track me down and continue this discussion, I'll be in the cheap seats, if there are any.  Seems progressives aren’t the only ones who can’t seem to learn from their mistakes.

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