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Who Cares Who Wins the Elections - Part 2

GLN permalink 10-31-2010

The following is an exchange which took place in response to my article, "Who Cares Who Wins the Elections."

Thank you for your very thoughtful response to my piece on the Democrats and the elections. There's a lot in your remarks, and so I will address them one by one.

You wrote: Would a McCain Palin administration have signed the jobs bills? At least a good part of those bills directly benefitted working people, as did the stimulus that added $400 flat value to every taxpayer's refund for 2009.

It's extreme crystal-ball gazing to say that a McCain-Palin administration would definitely have done one or another thing. However, one can make a strong argument that their course on stimulus spending would have looked remarkably similar to what we got with Obama-Biden.

Here's why: One thing that the late Bush and early Obama administrations were firmly united on was the need for a stimulus. As I recall one economist saying at the time (sorry, can't remember his name), "We're all Keynesians now." Almost to a one, mainstream economists today say that the tight-money, balance-the-budget approach of the early Hoover administration greatly exacerbated the early Depression.

Because history is presented with such partisan blinders today, few people recall that the late Hoover administration began launching many of the same WPAish programs (albeit on a much smaller, prototype scale) that Roosevelt later took credit for. Hoover, like Roosevelt after him, stumbled into the same mollifying response to a systemic problem of capitalism - the tendency for the rate of profit to fall over time (disguised by various bubbles, then and today). When profit rates fall too low, the wealthy will sit on their piles of cash because there is nowhere in the productive economy where they can get a decent rate of return. The "solution"? Give some money to the rest of us who, due to relative impoverishment, have no choice but to spend it, thus stimulating demand and getting the multiplier effect they were hoping for.

In good times, Republican-aligned economists will often earn their pay from their wealthy benefactors by pushing "trickle-down economics" - give gifts to the wealthy in the ostensible hope that they will generously tip the rest of us when they're dining in swank restaurants, etc. However, when faced with a near-mortal crisis like the Great Depression or the Great Recession, even Republican-oriented economists "get religion" and become born-again Keynesians, as they all did in the fall of 2008.

Would McCain have followed their advice? I think we can pretty firmly say yes. One of his more outrageous gaffs during the late stage of the campaign was his admission that he knew very little about economics and that he'd basically follow the prescriptions of his advisors. A pretty stunning bit of candor that marked him as not nearly as good a politician as Obama.

To sum up, mainstream economists of virtually all stripes knew that giving money to the wealthy would not have spurred domestic spending because the wealthy had already pulled their money out of productive investment anyway. Tax breaks to them would only have meant adding to these piles without getting it spent in a way that would have a modest effect in stimulating production.

You wrote: Military spending goes up in every Administration, but seems to go up more under Republican ones. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Without looking at the figures, at first I supposed that the first part of your statement was correct, but doubted the latter part of it, considering that military spending had nothing to do with party affiliation of the sitting president, but rather fluctuated according to the imperial consensus shared by both parties.

So I looked up the figures from the Center for Defense Information, then created my own rough overlay of administrations (I say "rough," because presidencies typically end in late January, but on the accompanying chart I've assigned that less than one month period to the following presidency), and it turns out that we were both wrong.

For the post-World War II period, if I wanted to make a partisan cheap shot, I could argue that the Republicans are better on limiting defense spending than the Democrats! But I will resist that, because I think the partisan explanations for the Republicans being "better" are just an accident of history. To break it down:

Truman, after dramatically ramping down military spending immediately following WWII, gradually increased it for several years, but then in the last full year of his presidency, he nearly doubled it!
Partisan score: Democratic warmonger! (oh, but there was that Korean War thingee)

Eisenhower initially kept Truman's high military spending, then gradually decreased it during each year of his two term presidency.
Partisan score: Republican peacenik!

JFK / LBJ escalated military spending a dramatic 31% over the course of their presidencies, from $344 billion to $449.3 billion.
Partisan score: Democratic warmongers! (oh, yeah, there was the Southeast Asian thingee)

Nixon / Ford decreased military spending every year of their presidencies, with Ford bringing military spending to its lowest point since 1952.
Partisan score: Republican peaceniks!

Carter increased military spending a small bit in the first couple years of his presidency, but then, presaging Reagan (and proving that military outlays are bipartisan), began ramping it up during the last 2 full years of his presidency. He also gets "credit" for reinstituting draft registration.
Partisan score: Democratic warmonger!

Reagan / Bush 1 continued Carter's ramp up of military spending until the middle of their combined terms, when it stagnated, and then began gradually decreasing it in the last few years of their combined presidencies.
Partisan score: Republicans wishy washy on war and peace spending.

Clinton continued the gradual decrease started by Bush 1, until the last full year of his two terms, when he spiked it upwards.
Partisan score: Democrat wishy washy on war and peace.

Bush 2 really spiked the military spending in the third year of his first term, and continued escalating it dramatically (and hiding the true total cost in separate appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan).
Partisan score: Republican warmonger!

The "Partisan scores" above I really don't mean to be taken seriously - the imperial consensus is what drives military spending, not party politics. I include the partisan scores just to show how phony is the myth that Democrats are any better than Republicans on wars and war spending. The truth of the matter is that any of Reagan's warmongering budgets, for example, could have been stopped by Senate Democrats - Republicans don't have a monopoly on the filibuster. The Congressional authorizations for Bush's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq could also have been Democratically filibustered, but weren't, and millions died as a result.

You wrote: I have trouble imagining deportations would be less numerous under McCain. I can't think of a single example where Americans not from the US or Canada have benefitted from GOP control compared to Dem control.

The fact is that deportations are up dramatically in the Obama administration versus the Bush 2 administration (I've read conflicting reports about just how much). It's been done with little of the yahoo grandstanding of the late Bush 2 presidency, but it's made up in efficiency for what it lacks in theater. During the early years of the Bush 2 presidency, the Republicans began recognizing that they face a looming demographic crisis if they don't win over Latinos from the Democrats, which is how we got the McCain immigration reform legislation that died along with everything else relatively progressive after 9/11.

McCain, like Obama, is a political chameleon and now regrets having had his name associated with that legislation, as it earned him the first serious primary fight in many years. Obama's "support" of even modest immigrant rights has turned out in practice to be a big fat zero. Like with LGBT civil rights, he talked big about supporting it (especially to "Latino-only" audiences), but he never was willing to put even modest political capital into it.

By the way, more partisan scoring here: When was the last big amnesty given to undocumented immigrants? 1986, signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan, giving blanket amnesty to some 3 million people. Makes the Dream Act and Obama's "support" for immigrant rights look pretty pathetic by comparison.

Today's heightened deportations have the political cover of a "left" administration, but I think the main thing driving them is The Great Recession. Mimicing the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations during the 1930s, Obama is cynically deporting Latinos now that unemployment is higher. Again, it's a bipartisan program.

You wrote: Would a Republican Congress let the Bush tax cuts expire? Even without a tax break for the poor, the expiration starts to close the ever-widening gap between rich and poor by virtue of the fact that the rich's benefits under those tax cuts climb to the stratosphere compared to just a tiny pile for poor folks.

None of these policies/bills was the best way to proceed, and there are a lot of corporate giveaways inherent in them, but was there such a huge popular movement that we would have gotten what we did manage to get, even if Republicans were in control? I tend to think we would have gotten just the corporate giveaways.

After the initial crisis of the market smash-up of late-2008/early-2009 passed, a lot of the discussion of tax breaks and stimulus packages has returned to a predictable demagoguery on both sides of the aisle, with the Democrats parading as friends of "little people" and Republicans as friends of "Main Street vs. Wall Street." I think that at least 90% of it is pure horse shit on both sides. The Democrats out of self-preservation know that they'd better have a recognizable expansion by 2012 (if not 2010) and the Republicans have been trolling in the political wilderness trying to find issues that counter their growing demographic problems (older and whiter), so they demagogued "taxes" and "spending" ad nauseum.

The Democrats have had their own share of demagoguery: they have focused on the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy, which will have a minimal effect on the overall budget either way, while completely ignoring the 57% of the federal budget spent on the military.

It gets worse. Most of the Left didn't make even a whimper when Obama announced a freeze on domestic spending while escalating military spending to record levels. Where were the protests against this? It was very reminiscent of the whimper we saw out of the NGOs when President Clinton gave us "ending welfare as we know it." Now that we have a deep recession on our hands, who is pointing out the fact that the Dem's taking the floor out of the social safety net several years ago is probably now causing a massive increase in homelessness?

There's so much partisan horse shit from both parties and their hangers-on regarding taxes and the budget that it makes me want to vomit.

You wrote: Would they [the Republicans] have signed a bill that phases out preexisting conditions, or that sets a sliding scale cap on health care premiums (2% of a person's income if they make less than 133% of the poverty level sliding to 9 1/2 % of a person's income if they make just under 400% of the poverty level), or that mandates 80% of a premium must pay the cost of providing care, not into looking for ways to get out of paying it?

One of the stunning things about the great Private Health Insurance Industry Preservation Act of 2010 was how unanimously the industry came out in favor of it. It was/is a big corporate giveaway. Obama successfully built a coalition of the entire industry by promising them an enormously larger market, in exchange for some modest concessions.

In some ways it increased the privatization of a largely privatized healthcare market (how's that for a Republican market solution!). Here's how: in places like Chicago where publicly funded hospitals exist (Stroger Hospital), many of us who lacked private health insurance, myself included, have historically gotten state-sponsored healthcare by waiting in the Emergency Room for a day or more until we got treatment. The County picked up the tab. In the coming years most of those people who joined me in the Emergency Room waiting area, aside from undocumented immigrants, will be legally required to purchase private health insurance policies, and will be increasingly punished if they choose not to, not unlike automobile owners being forced to purchase car insurance. Of course one of the main reasons why many working people have shed their cars over the past few years is because we couldn't afford the insurance.

Of course it is good that people with pre-existing conditions won't be forced to file bankruptcy after they show up at private hospital emergency rooms and get the care they can't afford to get. Though by forcing virtually all working class people to take out policies, with probably crappy coverage, the health insurance bill is largely spreading out the cost among working class people in general rather than the unhealthy minority getting stuck with the entire burden, so it's not like this is a redistribution from the wealthy to working class, especially when you factor in the huge market increase for the insurance industry.

One side note on the national health insurance bill: There is a basic reason why the late Edward Kennedy's senate seat went to a Republican in the special election, despite Massachusetts being the bluest state in the union. Aside from the inept campaign of the Democratic nominee (though her Republican opponent had his own share of gaffs), the election became a referendum on Massachusetts' statewide health insurance plan which had been rolled out a few years earlier, and which is as beloved by many working class people in that state as their private auto insurance premiums.

As for the mandate that 80% of a premium pay for actual care, I'll bet you a million bucks that this "mandate" has about as effective enforcement provisions as the offshore oil drilling industry. There are a million ways to fiddle the books on stuff like this, and of course it will undoubtedly be dependent on the same sort of "self-reporting" that we see in just about every other industry.

Finally, a recent Trib article noted that "Overall health care costs historically have risen each year by 6 percent to 8 percent.... Next year the combined annual premium and out-of-pocket costs for health care coverage for workers at large companies are expected to rise 12 percent."

And Republicans as opponents of "big govment" social spending vs. the Democrats? "Rather than scale back government-run health care - as they now promise - [the last time they were in power] Republicans enacted one of the biggest expansions of Medicare since its creation in 1965."

You wrote: I don't think the BP spill would have been handled better under the GOP and didn't they filibuster the removing the cap on BP liability? And then I would wonder did they do it just to derail the Dems taking credit or because they really didn't want it to pass?

BP was a bipartisan disaster. The ridiculously lax "oversight" of self-reporting by industry and almost nonexistent government inspections in everything from food safety to industrial waste is something both parties have supported. One could reasonably make the argument that in the case of BP, a Republican administration would not want to be seen as burning Louisiana twice, and thus potentially flipping that state into the Democratic column, so perhaps the clean up response might have been somewhat better due to reasons of political self-preservation. There was one GOP senator in the back pocket of the industry who briefly threatened to filibuster over getting a BP liability cap, but then his GOP brethren told him in no uncertain terms shut up.

You wrote: Attacks on Welfare Rights is another concern. It is not clear to me whether this is more of a general problem under Dems or the GOP.

Well, Clinton "ended welfare as we know it," with barely a whimper of protest. It was the sort of thing that Ronald Reagan had wet dreams about, but could never contemplate implementing. Generally speaking, explicitly right wing administrations have a much harder time carrying out frontal assaults on working class living standards than do allegedly left wing administrations. Witness the problems that the Sarkozy government is experiencing in France.

If, after the 2010 bi-elections, the Democrats also undertake Social Security "reform" (fewer benefits, increased age requirements), then the going will be much more difficult for our side than in France, and not just because our unions are much weaker here. They also have a craven relationship with the Democrats that the unions in France do not have with Sarkozy's party (in France there are actually two major union federations, one associated with the Socialist Party, the other with the Communist Party).

You wrote: Of course I have been trying to consider ways in which Dems might have been worse than the GOP on weapons spending, spying, deportations, environment. Your article goes into the crimes very well, just not the relative crimes.

As with the examples I just pointed out above, an administration with a "left" coloration generally has an easier time getting away with right wing attacks, which is why during an economic and/or political crisis, the big money crowd typically goes to the Democrats because they can better sell the wealthy's attacks on working class living standards. Better salesmanship to have a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing than a straight-out wolf.

This is why, historically, arguably a majority of the most severe attacks on civil liberties have come from Democratic administrations rather than Republican ones. Think the Wilson administration and the wholesale jailings and deportations during World War I, the Palmer Raids immediately following it, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the Truman administration "loyalty oaths" that paved the way for Joseph McCarthy, on up to Clinton's Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Bill of 1996, under which the post-9/11 repressions took place (as opposed to the USA PATRIOT Act, which played a much lesser role in that). And, of course, most recently, the FBI raids on anti-war/intn'l solidarity activists in Chicago and the Twin Cities, which are opportunistically using the June Supreme Court decision to punish thought crimes and freedom of association.

These civil liberties atrocities are bipartisan policies, but it's the Democrats who have had far better success in getting away with them than the Republicans, which is why we must ruthlessly expose the Dems' support for these policies rather than aiding their sheep-in-wolves'-clothing marketing by calling them a "lesser evil." This is the real danger of your argument. It's wrong factually, and it perpetuates the non-Democratic Party left's dysfunctional relationship to the party. We need a firm and final divorce from the Democratic Party as much as from the Republicans.

Since the middle of the 1930s, the key to the historic weakness of the U.S. left compared to that of other countries has been its fraternal relationship with the Democratic Party. It was only the partial break from the Democrats in the middle 1960s through the early 1970s that made that era's gains possible.

A few years ago the United States saw its largest demonstrations in the entire history of the country as immigrant communities and their allies poured into the streets in a partial one day general strike. Yet tragically, aside from defeating the Sensenbrenner bill, these demonstrations came to naught.

This is by no means the first time since the early 1970s that large demonstrations have failed to do anything other than make dents on public lawns. Their Achilles' Heel I believe was their failure to take on and confront both the Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats played the immigrant rights movement for partisan gain, making many promises, and when it was safely out of the streets, ignored those promises.

Today, until the LGBT movement and every other movement makes a decisive break with the Democrats, I believe that the gains we will be able to make will be anemic at best, particularly when Democratic administrations are in power.

There is also a more frightening prospect. As the economic crisis (probably) continues, the danger of a Left tethered to the Democratic Party is that opposition to the business attacks on the rest of us will be funneled into the far right, and from there, misdirected into scapegoating against immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people and others.

A Left which fails to forcefully confront the Democrats over their pro-business policies will rightly be seen as a flunky auxiliary of that party, and no alternative for those who want to counter-attack against the inevitable gov't/business austerity measures and repressions needed to implement them. This is why I count the October 2nd Washington, DC demonstration as being a miserable failure in the sense of providing any counter to the Tea Party racists.

Unless the already-organized Left cuts its tethers to the Democratic Party, those who begin to organize against the inevitable austerity programs and other attacks will be left to fend for themselves. This is why a decisive break with the Democrats is a political imperative for all of our movements.


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