After Obama’s Democratic Party losses in the 2010 midterm elections, the chorus of advice from the corporate media was remarkably consistent. If Obama wants “to win re-election” then he needs to rein back his supposed big government liberalism and move to the right. Right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer told Fox News last month that Obama’s “only hope is to move to the center, as Bill Clinton did.” On a January 25 program, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said: “A lot of people say the best advice he got was to move back to the center and start compromising with Republicans.”
They told Bill Clinton the same thing in 1994. When Democrats lost big in the 1994 midterm elections, ABC’s Cokie Roberts remarked that Bill Clinton had to “move to the right” (Extra!, Jan/Feb 1995). The reality is that while Clinton made some promises of progressive policy during his campaign, he never followed through during his first two years in office. In the 1992 election he promised the end of the “12 years of trickle down economics” of the Reagan-Bush years, to end the permanent replacement of workers on strike, and to enact a universal health care system.
Only a year later he failed to fight for these policies, and instead vigorously campaigned for and passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This freed up more markets for U.S. corporations but provided little protections for workers’ rights or the environment in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. NAFTA and many other “free trade” policies Clinton pushed accelerated the flight of jobs to cheaper labor markets. Clinton also obeyed the conservative religion of deficit reduction, paving the way for a historic budget surplus at the expense of social programs for poor and working people.
The Democrats lost both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections because large numbers of regular workers and young people, disillusioned by the broken promises, stayed home. Then, between 1994 and 1996 Bill Clinton enacted even more Republican platform policies, gutting welfare programs for the poor, massively expanding funding for prisons and police and signing the Defense of Marriage Act barring states from recognizing same-sex marriages.
Republicans used the results of the 1994 midterm elections to push a “Republican Revolution” from above. Their overzealous attitude was captured by a December 1994 Time magazine cover which showed incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich dressed as a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and Uncle Sam with the headlines “Uncle Scrooge” and “‘Tis the season to bash the poor.” Republicans overreached by attempting to shut down government, inviting mass revulsion at their policies which favored corporate profits over security for the poor and the working class.
Americans are Not “Conservative”
The “move to the center” narrative is also in line with another such common refrain in the mainstream media: “America is a right-of-center nation.” That may be true for the political elite but not for most ordinary people. If you ask people how they label themselves, it is true more would call themselves “conservative” as opposed to “liberal” or “left-wing,” terms which have been subject to a massive propaganda assault in the corporate media.
When you get more concrete and ask people where they stand on issues, you can clearly see Americans treading further to the left than many mainstream politicians. A 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll conducted in January of this year found the two most popular ways to balance the federal budget were to tax the rich (61%) and to cut military spending (20%). Support for single-payer health care runs from 50-60% in numerous polls over many years.
Despite the mainstream consensus otherwise, Clinton didn’t win the 1996 elections because of his right-wing policies. He won them because the economy sprang back to life, with unemployment coming down and wages creeping back up. The recession ended mainly because the Federal Reserve sharply lowered interest rates, having raised them earlier to fight off inflation. Ben Bernanke couldn’t do that for Obama today. The Fed has kept interest rates near zero and has even been doling out money to the financial markets, with very little effect except to stave off an even worse downturn.
The difference today is that we have a deep structural crisis of capitalism with little wiggle room for politicians to offer reforms unless they challenge the profit system.
Rejecting Lesser Evilism
The mechanics of the two-party, pro-corporate system functions like branding for the capitalist ruling class. When one corporate party builds anger among voters, the safety of the system requires a change in the branding. This is done to absorb and diffuse mass anger away from seeking an independent political vehicle – whether in the streets through mass protest action, in the workplaces through strikes and sit-ins, or in the elections.
The political scene is littered with Democrats’ broken promises, and the depth of the crisis we are facing today shows the bankruptcy of the so-called lesser-evil approach to elections. That’s why it’s necessary to start building an independent political alternative to challenge the profit system.