The New Republic's John Judis today has an excellent analysis of the politics behind the stimulus package -- one which applies equally to most other political controversies. Judis argues that the stimulus package ended up being far inferior to what it could have been and points to this reason why that happened:
But I think the main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket. . . .
A member of one liberal group, Campaign for America's Future, pronounced the stimulus bill "a darn good first step." MoveOn -- as far as I can tell -- has attacked conservative Republicans for opposing the bill, while lamely urging Democrats to back it. Of course, all these groups may have thought the stimulus bill and the bailout were ideal, but I doubt it. I bet they had the same criticisms of these measures that Krugman or The American Prospect's Ezra Klein or my own colleagues had, but they made the mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician.
During the 2008 election, Obama co-opted huge portions of the Left and its infrastructure so that their allegiance became devoted to him and not to any ideas. Many online political and "news" outlets -- including some liberal political blogs -- discovered that the most reliable way to massively increase traffic was to capitalize on the pro-Obama fervor by turning themselves into pro-Obama cheerleading squads. Grass-roots activist groups watched their dues-paying membership rolls explode the more they tapped into that same sentiment and turned themselves into Obama-supporting appendages. Even labor unions and long-standing Beltway advocacy groups reaped substantial benefits by identifying themselves as loyal foot soldiers in the Obama movement.
The major problem now is that these entities -- the ones that ought to be applying pressure on Obama from the Left and opposing him when he moves too far Right -- are now completely boxed in. They've lost -- or, more accurately, voluntarily relinquished -- their independence. They know that criticizing -- let alone opposing -- Obama will mean that all those new readers they won last year will leave; that all those new dues-paying members will go join some other, more Obama-supportive organization; that they will prompt intense backlash and anger among the very people -- their members, supporters and readers -- on whom they have come to rely as the source of their support, strength, and numbers.
Okay, I'm not as politically savvy or focused as either Glenn Greenwald or John Judis, but I have several problems with this. Here's Judis again: "Of course, all these groups may have thought the stimulus bill and the bailout were ideal, but I doubt it." Let's examine that. First of all, why does it have to be ideal to be supportable? Any halfway politically savvy group will realize that getting an "ideal" bill past Senate Republicans was impossible. What's wrong with it being good enough for now? Second, I think it is highly presumptuous and insupportable to assume that liberal advocacy groups know what an ideal bill would look like. Even leaving out economists of the right (who I assume, perhaps wrongly but I don't think so, aren't being widely read by people on the left) reading the various op-eds and blog posts by economists of the center and the left doesn't really give you a clue about what size the stimulus package should be (trust me on this.) Reading them, you could arrive at a range of anywhere from $800 billion to $1.5 trillion, and most economists-understandably-can't be pinned down on an exact number because they can't in good faith provide one. So what's so wrong about being in favor of the size of this bill?
And what's so wrong about mobilizing public opinion in support of this particular bill? If you think this bill is the best that you think your side can get, why wouldn't you go on the offensive against Republicans for opposing it? Or target fiscally conservative Democrats who are waffling on it? How is that selling out to the Obama administration?
Greenwald takes it even further. Apparently acquiescence on the political realities that surround the stimulus package are evidence that liberal groups have "voluntarily relinquished -- their independence." And yet nowhere-and I mean literally nowhere-have I seen anything like support for the Obama administration's decision to maintain the Bush administration's position on the state secrets privilege. Not on blogs, and not by liberal advocacy groups. Greenwald is not exactly afraid to take people on so I'm not sure why he goes with the much reviled "some say/some do this" approach. I read a lot of blogs, and I just don't see that much evidence for the point he's trying to make. Maybe I'm reading just the non-sellouts, but I don't think so.
People like (presumably) Judis and (certainly) Greenwald, have routinely and harsly criticized Republicans for their willingness to toe the line for whatever the Bush administration wanted, demonstrating aptly the right's lack of principle at times. But Greenwald himself has focused on completely untenable positions that the right-wing has taken that failed to have any impact on the Bush administration, and the lesson we're supposed to take from that is that left-wing groups should do the same? So far no left-wing group has approached the hero-worship of the right, nor have they been willing to participate in frustrating and fruitless demands for action the Obama administration won't take. And this is a bad thing?
I simply don't understand. Or I should say, I don't think these arguments make much sense. Judis' argument is a turnaround of the usual attacks on the "hysterical left"; only this time, they were apparently not hysterical enough. Greenwald has gotten up in arms about liberals giving Obama too much credit and leeway before, so he's just expanding on an already-running thesis. But I just don't see it here. Liberal advocacy groups and bloggers, faced with a difficult-to-understand issue and a stonewalling Republican party, decided to get behind the best package they thought they could get. This is wrong, how?