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A disturbance in the empire

Dave Cunningham on the competing politics of the Clinton-Obama nomination fight

In the four years since George Bush won the White House for the second time (both times via Electoral College fraud), the climate in this country has changed by an immeasurable degree. Back then much of the media fawned over Bush as the harbinger of a new political order, as a 'transformational figure', i.e. a leadership figure whose achievements would last for many years. 

That was then. In fact Bush was never very popular except in the shock-wave period of the 9-11 attacks.

 This autumn the Presidential and Congressional elections  occur as the Bush regime sinks into a swamp of malfeasance and misplaced priorities, corruption, official lying and massive scale bumbling. We continue murderous, costly and unending occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, economic recession, have an unprecedented foreign indebtedness and unsustainable trade deficits, millions of families fearful of losing their homes, with leading banks on the auction block and Gilded Age inequality ruling as the middle class sectors collapse. In the meantime fundamental challenges - global warming, skyrocketing energy costs, a broken health care system - are ignored.

So the oppositional Democrats would expect to win the Presidency and make huge gains in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and they almost certainly will. The Republican Party is a shell as a result of Bush's misleadership and seems to have shrunk into what is basically a regional party, that of the US South.

 Representative Tom Davis, a senior Republican from Virginia, recently wrote an internal memo to fellow party members:  "The political atmosphere facing Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the autumn of 2006. The Republican brand is in the trash can. If we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf." 

John McCain is a very weak candidate, who seems to have won the nomination as the least bizarre of all his competitors. He is widely seen as a loose cannon, a man not much respected within his party, committed to continuing the occupation of Iraq 'until victory'  or 'a hundred years', who  jokes about bombing Iran and promises to continue the same tax-cutting policies  that landed the country in the mess it's in in the first place. Unquestionably, McCain in power would represent a third Bush term.

In a recent issue of The Nation Eric Alterman observed that: 

'One of the oddest aspects of this extremely odd extended primary has been the willingness of the entire press corps to indulge [the Clinton campaign's] fantasies of victory long after they lost any basis in reality. As one unnamed Clinton official admitted recently, "We lost this thing in February." Well, yeah.'

It's clear Clinton was severely wounded in her bid for the nomination in the Iowa primary, in which she came in third. This was to some degree because the outcome demonstrated that lots of white people would vote for a black candidate, but also because Senator Clinton's 2002 vote for Bush's war in Iraq appeared cynical and positioning and did not play well in a state with a large antiwar movement where the caucuses skewed in a more liberal direction.  

It did not help Mrs Clinton's cause that she could not give a convincing argument for her vote, in fact offering various and conflicting rationalizations. Actually it was a matter of overweening ambition, a method of making herself look tough enough for the Commander-in-Chief role.  Just as the Iowa campaign was ramping up, in September 2007, she voted in the Senate to support the so-called Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, another escalator for confrontation with Iran, enabling Bush to start a war with Iran along the same lines as his war in Iraq. Her disappointing finish in Iowa rendered her unable to get traction from the very beginning because of these positions, and in addition to an inefficiently hierarchical and corporate-model top-down campaign, she was never able to recover what momentum she initially had. 

An important issue little noted in the media has been the fierce underlying ideological contest between the Clinton and Obama factions, a contest finally won by Obama. It isn't much discussed because it is an arcane issue and not personality-driven, not welcome terrain for a press driven by questions of scandal, of Hillary's personality (entitled? hubristic?) or Obama's scary black minister. The real dynamic remains largely under the radar. It is a matter not only of the future control of the Democratic Party (and its wealth) but also of two starkly different concepts of politics.

Simply put, Hillary Clinton was the establishment candidate from the Democratic Leadership Council,(DLC), while the Obama candidacy is the continuation of the Howard Dean movement which arose during the 2004 Democratic Party primaries.

Dean made a big splash in the 2004 primaries, attacking Bush's war in Iraq and the abject spinelessness of the congressional Democrats in failing to challenge it.  His combative declaration he 'was from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party' underscored his opposition to the party's capitulation to Bush. Not a particularly radical man he nevertheless found he had evoked a grassroots movement based on progressive politics and the internet as its instrument and fundraiser.  Dean's view of the DLC:  'the Republican wing of the Democratic Party'.

Senator Kerry subsequently won the nomination over Dean  only to have the election stolen from him. In an internal party insurrection after that fiasco Dean won the leadership of the national leadership body (the Democratic National Committee) and he will remain chairman of the party under Obama.  The subsequent development and characteristics of the Obama campaign stem from that shift.

Clinton's DLC faction dates to the aftermath of the 1984 Presidential election in which Reagan trounced Walter Mondale.  The founders of the DLC decided the problem was Mondale's 'populism,' by which they meant the residue of New Deal liberalism still given lip service by the party.  The DLC counter-posed  'the market economy' as the path to prosperity and winning elections.

The main figure in the DLC since the early 1990s has been Bill Clinton, the one and only proof of the viability of the New Democrats of the 'third way'.  Most of President Clinton's major initiatives, including a welfare reform which threw millions of the poor off the rolls and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which played a large role in the subsequent deindustrialization of the US. As Steven Zunes observed, 'the Clintons presided over the most conservative Democratic administration of the twentieth century.' 

And then there was Bush's invasion of Iraq, the action that millions of people worldwide and in the US opposed and which had infuriated Howard Dean. The DLC of course enthusiastically favored  the war.  Of particular interest is the formulation used by the DLC to attack Dean when he made opposition to the war the centerpiece of his nomination campaign: they asserted Dean represented the McGovern-Mondale wing of the Democratic Party, 'defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home.' There was very little difference between the neoconservative and DLC foreign policy and little difference too between the views of the DLC-neocon alliance and the foreign policy views expressed in this campaign by Hillary Clinton.

And it's pretty much how Clinton tagged Obama during their televised debates. One would have thought she was running against McGovern.

Throughout this campaign Mrs Clinton seemed to work from a DLC template, frequently mimicking the exact phrases of their earlier statements.  Her campaign focused on the states with the largest number of electoral votes, leaving most of the smaller states to opponents; this has been DLC strategy for years. Her financing, resting on the party rich, lobbyists, insiders and corporate sponsors, was enormous; her campaign in the early days floated on a cushion of money. She seems never to have realized Bill Clinton may have governed along DLC lines, but he ran for election as a populist.

Obama learned from Dean. He has a policy of campaigning in all 50 states, of self-financing based on millions of small donations from the grassroots; unlike Clinton and McCain he had no corporate lobbyists running his movement.  And he was willing to break with the long-standing Washington foreign policy consensus on Cuba, on Latin America, on rejecting cowboyism and bullying.

Dr.  Zunes of San Francisco State University again:

'Perhaps what has been most hopeful about the 2008 Democratic presidential race is the fact that both Obama and Clinton - as well as all the Democratic candidates who had dropped out earlier - took positions on Iraq, global warming, civil liberties, globalization, and other key issues considerably more progressive than did eventual nominee John Kerry or any of the major Democratic contenders in 2004.'

Obama's victory as nominee does not guarantee the kind of political sea-change or electoral realignment of, say, the early 1930s  New Deal, since it is clear he is not so progressive as many of his supporters. But it is also likely that under him we will see a sharp break from the triangulations of a potential third Clinton administration.