Wayne O'Leary

What We Have (and Haven’t) Learned

In the wake of the 2012 elections, with their endless TV ads, obscene campaign spending, and avoidance of real issues, it appears we’re right back where we started. Nothing fundamental has changed in Washington. Democrats continue to hold the White House and the Senate; Republicans continue to cling to the House of Representatives. Gridlock here we come.

It could have been far worse from a progressive perspective. With Barack Obama reelected, there’s a chance the Supreme Court can be nudged slightly to the left. At a minimum, we have avoided what Mitt Romney’s election would have guaranteed: a generation of right-wing judicial decisions likely to transform the country into Coolidge’s America of the 1920s revisited.

Politically, there will be no sudden realization of a conservative paradise; the tea-party wave has receded, and some of its most outlandish congressional figures have been defeated (Allen West, Joe Walsh) or severely chastened (Michele Bachmann). On the other hand, the great progressive revival anticipated after 2008 remains unfulfilled and, despite some encouraging additions to the US Senate and gains in the states, may be some time in regenerating.

Oddly enough, the core issues that were expected to dominate the presidential election received short shrift. Except for Romney’s inane mantra about being a job creator (at Bain?) and his airy promise of 12 million new jobs, along with Obama’s repeated assertion to have turned the corner on unemployment despite an 8% jobless rate, the jobs question barely came up. There was little talk of economic stimulus, apparently a forbidden topic, and no job solutions offered except training and education (Obama) or tax cuts and deregulation (Romney). Both candidates pledged allegiance to faith-based economic development. Interestingly, public-sector downsizing, the great unmentionable and a key element in the employment crisis, was never discussed.

Another area glossed over during the campaign was the matter of entitlements, Medicare in particular. Conventional wisdom suggested Democrats would go all out against the Ryan budget and the Republican ticket’s intention to privatize and voucherize Medicare; it never happened. The Romney-Ryan plan to kill the healthcare program for seniors “as we know it,” a political gift if there ever was one, was given a pass by Obama strategists. Why? you might ask. The most cynical explanation, which may also be the correct one, is that the administration plans its own post-election “reform” of Medicare to help deal with the so-called fiscal cliff. In that event, having castigated the Republicans beforehand could prove embarrassing.

One more potential source of conflict that never really materialized was free trade and its relationship to manufacturing. Next to the saving of Detroit, which did become an issue, this was the overriding concern of the industrial Midwest; it was debated, but only tangentially. Obama’s brief references to trade revolved around his opposition to corporate tax subsidies for outsourcing jobs, a real enough problem worth correcting, but by no means a comprehensive solution to America’s deindustrialization. Romney, meanwhile, avoided the issue entirely until, in the last desperate stages of his campaign, he launched his half-truth about Chrysler-Fiat’s supposed plans to move Jeep jobs offshore.

The Jeep episode showed both campaigns at their worst. Chrysler is indeed planning investments in China, but it is not sending existing jobs there as Romney claimed, only future jobs; existing employment will stay put. Yet Romney was right in the sense that eventually expanding Jeep manufacturing inside China for Chinese consumers means additional jobs that could increase US domestic manufacturing and improve our trade balance will go instead to the Far East.

Obama, for his part, attacked the Romney lie about current Jeep operations being shifted abroad, but he failed to criticize Chrysler’s long-range overseas expansion plans; that would have been a rebuke to corporate globalization, which the president, who has signed several free-trade pacts, accepts as a given. Both candidates, in short, talked all around the outsourcing/offshoring issue without addressing its substance; each indignantly opposed unfair trade practices by China and patriotically endorsed more American exports, but left the public to fill in the blanks.

Numerous other issues of consequence (for example, housing and climate change) were neglected by the respective campaigns, but the 800-pound gorilla among them was the matter of the debt, the deficit, and the aforementioned fiscal cliff. Romney ranted about it, but offered no specific answers except his mysterious tax-deduction eliminations; Obama, who will now address it in concrete form, pretty much avoided the subject altogether. With “taxmageddon” looming in 2013, we’ll soon find out what he really thinks about budgetary details.

The president apparently sees himself as a post-partisan leader beholden to no political party, whose primary task is to forge bipartisan governing coalitions by putting “everything,” in a negotiating sense, on the table. He’ll be sorely tempted to triangulate, Clinton-style, with the Republicans and sacrifice his party’s crown jewels, the entitlements, for a budget-balancing revenue enhancement. Fortunately, the same electoral process that kept Obama in power also brought in outspoken new progressives, including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), as well as irrepressible Congressman Alan Grayson (D- Fla.), who will be in a position, should discussions carry over into next year, to defend the liberal legacy and demand a fair, 50-50 approach to spending cuts and tax increases aimed at deficit reduction.

Issues aside, one thing has become painfully clear as a result of this year’s elections: the US is now two nations, divided more than at any time since the Civil War — brown and black against white, secular against non-secular, modern against traditionalist, urban against rural, business against labor, democratic against antidemocratic. To a large extent, the 2012 contests were tribal affairs, in which voters expressed their group identities.

The Civil War analogy carries over into red-blue geographic voting patterns, with Obama’s Democratic Land and Romney’s Republican Land uncannily divided north-south along the Mason-Dixon Line (and east-west along the Mississippi River except for the West Coast outliers). The South, together with the Great Plains and portions of the Mountain West, has become in every sense a country apart.

Still, the president holds to his belief in a united America, fundamentally devoid of red and blue coloration. I hope he’s proven right in the end, but the just-completed national elections suggest it’s wishful thinking.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2012



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