A straightforward strategy for reversing the rightward trend of both parties
By John R. MacArthur, Harper’s Magazine , March 13, 2014
As a presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in 2016 appears ever more likely, it’s a good moment to ask what alternative exists to lying down and letting such a campaign drown the body politic.
Time is short. The queen of cynics, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, already has pronounced her gorgon’s judgment on the inevitability of Hillary versus Jeb. “The looming prospect of another Clinton–Bush race makes us feel fatigued,” yawns the perpetually bored Dowd, who, on the contrary, relishes a future of easy columns mocking America’s two leading political dynasties.
What about the rest of us? Is it inevitable that we swallow the nomination of the neo-liberal Clinton, whose support of Bush’s Iraq madness (not to mention Obama’s Afghan and Libyan stupidity) and her husband’s recklessly pro-“free trade,” pro-banker, pro-deregulation politics ought to send reasonable liberals fleeing? Is it predestined that principled conservatives accept the anointment of the thoroughly fraudulent Jeb, whose support of his brother’s interventionist folly, along with his own outrageous meddling as governor of Florida to “rescue” brain-dead Terri Schiavo, should give pause to even the greediest oil baron seeking patronage from a Republican administration?
Like Adolph Reed Jr., I’m tempted to opt out of it all on the theory that we conserve energy by reducing “the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races.” To echo Maureen Dowd, it is, indeed, fatiguing to urge on reluctant horses such as Senators Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) when the only office they seem to seek these days is vice president or committee chairman.
Nevertheless, a straightforward, nationwide electoral strategy is required if the left wants to reverse the rightward trend of both parties over the past three decades. The Tea Party has had much success moving the Republican Party to the right through primary challenges that should be the envy of frustrated Democrats, even though liberals of the Nation magazine–Rachel Maddow persuasion appear blind to the lessons of Tea Party tactics. One wouldn’t want to weaken Democratic incumbents with insurgencies lest “we” lose “our” Senate majority.
Yet political logic cries out for just such a strategy. Ask a mainstream “progressive” to list the most calamitous events in recent times. At or near the top would be the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which opened wide the floodgates to plutocratic and corporate influence in election campaigns — in effect, an overthrow of the democratic ideal of one man/woman, one vote.
Citizens United was stage-managed by Chief Justice John Roberts, who leapfrogged to the top of the court without pausing to serve as an associate justice. Well, to a large extent you can blame Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) for Roberts’s ascension. As ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005, Leahy broke with fellow liberals to support Roberts’s nomination, calling him a “man of integrity.” We might wonder at Leahy’s definition of integrity, but worse was his declaration that “I take [Roberts] at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda.”
We’ll be paying for Roberts’s “integrity” — and Leahy’s foolishness — for a long time. True, the Republican majority on the committee, including the chairman at the time, Arlen Specter, voted unanimously for Roberts’s confirmation. But a determined, unified front led by Leahy could have blocked Roberts from becoming chief justice. Five years later, in the wake of Citizens United, Specter, by now a Democrat, denounced the decision, saying it “affects the legitimacy of elections everywhere,” and suggested that Congress consider a constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court ruling. Had Leahy put up a fight in 2005, the moderate Specter might well have thought better of his vote for Roberts.
Why did Leahy get off scot-free? Because, as he said at the time, he voted his “conscience”? Why didn’t Vermonters smarter than Leahy run a candidate against him in the 2010 primary? He certainly deserved punishment from liberals.
Leahy is just one example of a Democrat who should have been overthrown, or at least chastened, by electoral retribution. Politicians pay attention to these things, especially in places like Chicago, where President Obama received his political training. When a politician dared to cross the elder Mayor Richard J. Daley, or his son, Mayor Richard M., they were subjected either to a primary or to redistricting to a less hospitable environment. Even if the incumbent survived, he or she got the Daleys’ point: Think twice before you follow “your conscience.”
In fact, Obama launched his national career in 2000 by challenging the unbeatable Rep. Bobby Rush in a primary, reportedly at the behest of Richard M. Daley. The mayor was angry with Rush for running against him in the 1999 mayoral primary, so he sent him a message. No fool, the future president cashed in on liberal disenchantment over Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq invasion. Obama may lack audacity in the White House, but he did have the gumption to run primary campaigns against popular, powerful figures in his own party.
Can’t the left learn this lesson? Despite Citizens United, it still doesn’t cost much to get on the ballot.