Obama's Democrat Problem

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The Nation

Obama's Democrat Problem

The must-read in this week's news magazines is Jonathan Chait's lacerating piece on Congressional Democrats in The New Republic, in particular the centrists and moderates who are doing their best to distance themselves from Barack Obama because he is too progressive. If you've watched any political talk shows lately, you've probably seen a pundit or two fawn over these moderates, who invariably present themselves as "pragmatists, not ideologues," as Evan Bayh of Indiana put it when announcing his new working group of centrist Democrats a few weeks ago.

Chait takes a close look at what this actually means, quoting Kent Conrad, who appeared on CNBC to complain that Obama's budget would (1) not reduce the budget deficit enough, (2) limit tax deductions on high-income earners, and (3) cap subsidies for farmers who make more than $500,000 a year. Did everyone get the pragmatism in that? A ‘deficit hawk' who just happens to be from a farm state opposes two sensible deficit-reducing measures that just happen to displease two of his deep-pocketed donors (wealthy farmers and high-income earners). As Chait notes, the performance should have turned Conrad into the punch line of a joke, but instead "launched him as a symbol of fiscal rectitude and encouraged fellow Democrats to follow in his hypocritical wake."

The centrists who practice this hypocrisy do not lack an ideology, which most dictionaries define as a doctrine that guides the beliefs of a group or individual. Their ideology is simply "we're between the parties" - regardless of what's good for the country, regardless of whether it will help solve the problems we face. The one extremely useful purpose this ideology serves is to protect them from future attacks for being too liberal.

Thanks to the centrists and moderates, an array of progressive measures in Obama's budget, from international priorities like combating hunger and disease to domestic ones like college financial assistance, will likely be watered down or scrapped (conference negotiations in the weeks to come will determine much of this). Also at stake, potentially, is healthcare reform, which will almost surely not garner the 60-vote supermajority required to overcome a Senate filibuster. There is a solution to this problem, a procedure called "reconciliation" that enables passage with just 51 votes. Republicans insist such a move would be outrageous - the same Republicans who used the procedure to pass some of Bush's tax cuts for the rich in 2003, in a 51-50 vote tipped in their balance by Dick Cheney. But they're not alone. The "pragmatic" centrists also have qualms about reconciliation. With friends like these, Obama must surely be thinking, who needs Republicans?

Eyal Press

Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America (Picador).

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