Be the Change You Seek

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Gibbs clashes with the “political left” over criticism of Obama (Yahoo! News)

Robert Gibbs was perhaps the first harbringer of the realization so many on the left feel now.  With Barack Obama freshly installed as President, Gibbs delivered his first press conference from the White House Press, and after all the rhetoric of change in Washington, of hope that things would get better, Gibbs deflected question after question, giving half-answers if he bothered to answer at all.  It was the exact same behaviour we had come to expect from Ari Fliescher and Scott McClellan and Dana Pirino.  If the press secretary was couching everything so reflexively, before the ink had even dried on the first bills the new President had signed, could we really have expected the new President himself to have been that much different?

Now Gibbs has joined the sad and sorry lot of Democrats who are all too willing to sit down and compromise in the face of Republican and conservative criticism, but when faced with criticism to their left immediately arch their backs, bare their fangs, and lunge forward with all their claws out.  It is a favourite sport of the Clinton and post-Clinton Democratic party, and it is yet another example of how Obama’s rhetoric of change has proved to be little more than rhetoric, based on an incorrect and insidious assumption that if you, or I, or anyone else identifies to the left of the Republican party — no matter how much further to the right they go — that the Democratic party is absolutely entitled to your vote, that if you don’t vote Democrats into office, regardless of what positions they take, you are at best helping Republicans, and at worst destroying the very fabric of America.

We saw it in 2000 when the Democrats put forth Al Gore — the pre-election, stick-up-his-butt Gore, not the post-election, passionate Gore — and Joe Liebermanup for the top ticket, and wondered why so many of us on the left flocked to Ralph Nader.  When Gore lost, instead of taking the blame for putting forward flawed candidates, or pulling out of Ohio way too early, or not fighting the Florida recount as strongly as they should, every blue finger in the country pointed to Nader.  He “spoiled” the election.  Democrats can do no wrong; it was all Nader’s fault.  No matter how much work has been done to disprove this assumption, the chant of “Nader spoiled” has not only irreparably and unfairly damaged the reputation of one of the greatest Americans of our time, but it has scared too many liberals into thinking that they can never vote for a non-Democratic candidate ever again.

We saw it again in 2004 when Howard Dean, a balanced budget hawk who had a lifetime “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, had the gall to claim he was in the Paul Wellstone “Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” and few challenged him.  Even Dean wasn’t “safe” enough for Democrats, so they put up a ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards.  Liberals were aching for someone to put an end to neo-conservative warmongering, and in the first sentence of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Kerry saluted and said he was “reporting for duty.”  Democrats spent almost as much time and energy campaigning to keep Nader out of the election as they did fighting Bush, going so far here in Ohio to launch legal challenges to make sure that not only did Nader not appear on the official ballot, but that his write-in votes weren’t even counted.  Given the slim margin of Bush’s victory here, I think it safe to say that if Democrats had spent their anti-Nader energy in Ohio combating the Republicans instead, Ohio may very well have swung Kerry’s way.  If Kerry had won Ohio, Bush would have started his retirement four years earlier than he did.

Two years ago there wasn’t much anti-Nader talk, in part because the Democrats’ previous anti-Nader campaigns had worked so well, in part because it ultimately wasn’t necessary because the bad economy and an off-base McCain campaign pretty much handed the election to Obama.  Still, President Obama has been such a far cry from Candidate Obama that it’s hard to believe they’re the same person.  Time after time Obama and congressional Democrats have deferred and kowtowed to a Republican minority smaller than any Democratic minority George W. Bush ever had to deal with.  It is a great irony that for the perception that we liberals are most identified with hippie beliefs, the whole “be the change you want to see” thing, when in actuality it is Republicans who, when they take power, pass nearly every piece of legislation they wish to pass, no matter how small their majority, no matter how the opposition argues and protests, no matter how they have to twist, turn, or even break the rules.

It’s gotten to the point where, borrowing an idea from the Nostalgia Critic, I think we should start calling President Obama “President Whitmore,” the president from 1996’s Independence Day.  Like the television pundit says of Whitmore before the alien ships are sighted, “[We] elected a warrior and [we] got a wimp.”  Unlike Independence Day, I highly doubt an alien invasion will arrive at just the right time to render Obama’s plunging poll numbers irrelevant, and say what you will about Bush, at least he knew how to fly a plane.  If the aliens start charging up their death rays now, the most we can count on our current President to do is try to negotiate for a slightly less deadly death ray.

It would be bad enough if President Whitmore had merely lost all these skirmishes on issues like cap-and-trade and Wall Street reform, signing watered-down bills if any bills actually got to his desk, but sometimes he surrendered the battle before the first shot was fired.  Candidate Obama proudly declared on several occasions that he was for universal health care, but when President Whitmore assembled people to work out the specifics of health care reform, he wouldn’t even invite anyone who believed in universal health care to the table.  He invited people who thought we should privatize the whole system, get rid of what little government legislation there was that made sure health insurance companies couldn’t completely screw us over, but not the people who believed in what he believed in.  For those of us who identify as actual liberals, whether we belong to the Green Party or the Socialist Party or are independent of any political party, it was a message and a feeling we were all too familiar with; in the eyes of the Democratic establishment, we simply don’t matter, unless they need a scapegoat for their own political failings.

Perhaps Gibbs’ most juicy observation was that those of us on the “Professional Left” — whatever that means — “wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich were president.”  Yes, Mr. Gibbs, you’re right.  If Kucinich had taken the oath of office a year ago last January, and he had failed to deliver on his campaign promises as President Whitmore has, if he had watered down every major piece of legislation that crossed his desk in a futile attempt to please a Republican minority that didn’t even cast one single vote for the legislation in the end, if he had wimped out like our current president has, we would be screaming bloody murder at Kucinich.

This is not about who is president.

This is about a Democratic philosophy embarked upon when I was still too young to vote, this idea that Ronald Reagan had taken one of John Wayne’s old shotguns and shot American liberalism dead once and for all, and the only way for the Democratic party to continue to be relevant in America, let alone win elections, was to govern from the “safe” middle, that no matter how neo-conservatives or the religious right or any other group pulled the right-wing of this country to further and further lunacy, dragging the definition of what was the “centre” along with it, the Democrats had to ride that centre for all it was worth, and that those who still identified as liberals deserved little more than a little lip service before elections, and after elections their votes and their voices didn’t mean squat.

For too long we liberals have been dismissed, ignored, and in cases like Mr. Gibbs’ comments, openly scorned.  Rarely, if ever, are we even given the opportunity to speak on the same platform as everyone else, let alone be heard.  Regardless of whether it’s the anti-Nader pablum of elections past or the brazen contempt of Mr. Gibbs’ remarks, the message is the same: We Democrats are the only ones entitled to your vote if you’re not a Republican, regardless of what policies we espouse or what legislation we enact, and if you say otherwise then you’re a fool and you should just shut up.  We will not stay silent, Mr. Gibbs, and if anything your comments will only make us shout that much louder.  If this is the one battle this administration wants to fight with all its power and force, then so be it.  Just be warned that we liberals will not go down easily or quietly.

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