Greenwald’s frustration with the prevailing wisdom that “the left” has been dominating the Democratic agenda is understandable. The opposition always seems eager to attack every administration by saying that it is in hock to its most ideological supporters, and it is usually nonsense. A party’s most ideological supporters almost always want to claim that an administration’s policy failures are tied to its compromises and betrayals of principle, and sometimes this is correct. Certainly as a matter of garnering enthusiastic support, generating turnout and mobilizing activists, an administration can hurt itself and its party by making too many concessions to the “center” or to the other side. What can often save an administration that violates principles or breaks with many of its loyal constituencies is the other party’s supporters and their accusations that the President is “too liberal” or “too conservative.” Progressives and conservatives tend to respond to these violations and accusations very differently.
Since at least 1981, conservatives have usually made the mistake of responding to this kind of attack on Republican administrations by identifying themselves very closely with Presidents who do not actually govern as conservatives would govern. For whatever reason, most conservatives have a strange need to be validated by Republican occupants of the White House, and so they engage in every sort of contortion to defend and justify whatever Republican administrations do. They have been keen to claim Republican presidential victories as vindications of their ideas, and they do this regardless of how the candidate campaigned and regardless of administration policies.
Except for very early on in 1999, when Bush was seen correctly as a moderate or, more accurately, as a “centrist,” conservatives flocked to Bush despite the latter’s lack of connections to the conservative movement, his record as governor and his “compassionate conservative” campaign theme. The fight with McCain in the primaries was a crucial moment when most conservatives decided that Bush was somehow “one of them” because he was under attack from McCain, who was running a campaign based on open hostility to the movement and an assiduous courting of the mainstream media. It was an instinctive, tribal response that made their much later complaints about Bush’s insufficient conservatism appear to have no credibility. This made Democratic charges that Bush was the “most conservative” or an “extremely conservative” President stick more easily, and it is unlikely that mainstream conservatism will ever recover from its corrupt bargain with a Bush administration that governed as corporatist, militarist “centrists.”
From the start, Republicans had been labeling Clinton a radical leftist, when he was on the whole the most “centrist” Democrat in the White House since Grover Cleveland. The 1994 result itself was the product of a number of factors, including a huge number of retirements in the House, but these included the demoralization of union members and party activists in the wake of NAFTA and the failure of health care legislation. I very much doubt that the midterm elections are going to be anything like ’94, but one similarity that exists is the disillusionment and loss of enthusiasm among party activists and rank-and-file voters. On the whole, aside from a few badly-handled, largely symbolic culture war controversies, Clinton governed as a “centrist” more or less from the beginning, and he moved even farther away from liberals after 1994, which did not stop the charges that he was a huge leftist.
Many progressives always remained cool to Obama throughout the primaries and the general election, and many netroots and other activists on the left never really embraced him as one of their own. They discerned correctly that Obama was running a primary campaign that put him to the right of his other two main rivals, and the best observers on the left realized that Obama did not have a record of challenging entrenched interests. As Election Day approached, Obama pursued the safe course of becoming ever more conventional and comfortable with the ideas of the Washington establishment, and his most prominent economic advisors and Cabinet members were mostly drawn from the friends and disciples of Rubin. As the health care debate continued, progressives kept losing ground, and the rank corporatism of the Senate version finally precipitated serious protests and discontent on the left. This was not a case of ideological activists and voters making even greater demands on an administration that was already doing what they wanted. It was instead a sign that some progressives were losing patience with the substance of the bill and the nature of the reform being proposed. Whatever else the last year has shown us, it has not shown us that the administration and the Democratic Party is currently in thrall to the left.
The impulse to label an opponent as an extremist is a common and tempting one. It is a very easy thing to do, provided that you are not concerned with accuracy or persuading undecided and unaffiliated people that you are right. These labels are not descriptive. They are a way to express the extent of one’s discontent and disaffection with the other side in a debate. When some Republican says that Obama and his party have been governing from “the left,” he might even believe it inasmuch as Obama and his party are to his left politically, but what he really means is that he strongly disapproves of how Obama and his party have been governing. He may or may not have a coherent reason for this disapproval, but declaring it to be leftist or radical leftist conveys the depth of his displeasure. That is, it is not analysis of political reality. It is therapy for the person making the statement.
The same thing goes for progressives who were trying to find words to express how outraged they were by Bush. Inevitably, many resorted to using labels such as theocrat, extreme right, radical right and the like. These did not correctly describe the content of Bush’s politics, but they did express the critics’ feelings of disgust and loathing for Bush’s politics. That doesn’t mean they weren’t right to be disgusted and outraged, but the words they used to express these sentiments typically had no relationship to the substance of what Bush was actually doing. Likewise, there could be merit in objecting to Obama’s agenda, but if critics begin by using the wrong definitions and descriptions they will not be critiquing an agenda that really exists, but it will instead be a fantastical one that they have imagined. Where this creates problems in understanding political reality is when partisans begin believing their own inaccurate descriptions of their opponents and then when they draw conclusions about the political landscape based on their misinterpretations of their opponents’ beliefs.