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The Confused Political History of the “Left 3.0” Essay

Samuel Goldman makes some good points in his criticism [1] of Tod Linberg’s “Left 3.0” essay [2]. Instead of repeating what he has already stated very well, I wanted to assess Lindberg’s treatment of some recent political history. At one point, Lindberg writes:

On the contrary, in 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination promising to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — an explicit repudiation of Clinton’s “Third Way” centrism and triangulation between the gop-controlled Congress and old-school liberal Democrats. Running for president in 2007–08, Hillary Clinton was certainly not representing herself as “New Democrat” redux. When she lost to Barack Obama anyway, whatever remained of the “New Democrat” sensibility dissolved harmlessly into the mainstream of the party. Obama’s appointment of her as his secretary of state was (among other things) an insurance policy against a “New Democrat” resurgence around the figure of outsider Hillary Clinton.

This is not a total misreading of the last ten years of Democratic politics, but it is mostly wrong. Lindberg first goes awry with his understanding of what Dean’s candidacy represented. Dean’s emphasis on representing “the Democratic wing” was a statement about the need for strong partisan opposition to Bush (as opposed to the overly-accommodating Congressional Democrats of 2001-03). It was not really an ideological claim against DLC-type Democrats. Dean was a DLC-type, “centrist” Democrat, and except for his vocal opposition to the Iraq war one would have been hard-pressed to see his campaign as a leftist one if the term has any meaning at all. His campaign wasn’t an ideological departure from “Third Way” politics, but this was obscured by the fact that many of Dean’s most enthusiastic supporters were progressives. It was Dean who argued for trying to make his party more competitive nationally, which became a priority for Democrats after the disappointment of 2004, and it was originally his “fifty-state strategy” that laid the foundations for national Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. Interpreting Dean as some sort of ideological crusader or anti-Clinton is quite wrong. At the same time that progressives were becoming more influential inside the party, the party was also recruiting more relatively moderate and even somewhat conservative candidates to gain their majorities in Congress. Of course, the public was becoming more receptive to economic populist and anti-Iraq war arguments at the same time, as many of the 2006 and 2008 results around the country showed.

Turning to 2007-08, there was no need for Clinton to emphasize her credentials as a New Democrat. For his part, Obama offered his party an opportunity to break symbolically with Clintonism without actually rejecting the substance of it. Indeed, Obama’s 2008 primary campaign put him slightly to “the right” of Clinton and Edwards. He consistently campaigned and then governed as a mostly conventional center-left Democrat, as Krugman kept reminding everyone then and later [3]. Including Clinton in the Cabinet certainly was a move to keep her inside the tent, but Obama’s first term was in many respects a continuation or endorsement of New Democratic politics. This can be seen in everything from foreign policy to financial regulation to fiscal policy. So I’m not sure that there really is a “Left 3.0” as Lindberg describes it, or if there is one the Obama administration isn’t really representative of it. Goldman is absolutely correct that Lindberg ignores the right’s implosion in the Bush years. The bigger problem with the essay is that Lindberg also doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp on what the Democratic Party (as opposed to “the left”) did in the last ten years to make itself the winner of the last three of four national elections.

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22 Comments To "The Confused Political History of the “Left 3.0” Essay"

#1 Comment By Jack Ross On March 2, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

“One would have been hard-pressed to see his campaign as a leftist one if the term has any meaning at all.”

IF being the operative word. How “left” came to simply mean conventional liberals and Democrats is a whole other mess.

#2 Comment By Gordon Hanson On March 2, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

Thank you for the excellent post, Mr. Larison. I have long been amused by the notion that Howard Dean was some wide-eyed leftist. You lay out the relevant facts about Dean’s political orientation. As the governor of Vermont, Dean butted heads with progressive Democratic legislators on taxes and spending.

#3 Comment By DavidT On March 2, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

It has to be noted, though, that “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” renark was originally made by the late Paul Wellstone, and that by repeating it Dean *was* consciously trying to appeal to the Left, nothwithstanding his DLC roots and record as a centrist governor.

#4 Comment By Cliff On March 2, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

I concur with Mr Ross. As Gore Vidal remarked, we don’t have a two-party system in the United States; we have one party with two right wings. The left would certainly challenge both sides in the current budget-and-tax battles in Washington — would, that is, if it existed.

#5 Comment By Ray On March 2, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

I’d be hesitant to call Obama a “New Democrat” in the same vein as Bill Clinton. Clinton occasionally made substantive compromises with congressional Republicans that involved Clinton giving up on some things as well as Republicans, instead of the current situation where Obama presents a list of demands and the GOP progressively caves on them until Obama deems it successful. In fact, he even supported some conservative policy proposals (balanced budgets, if not a BBA, some deregulation, welfare reform) on their own. Clinton was often willing to take positions that his party activists actively wanted him to work against, whereas while Obama usually doesn’t take the left-most position on any given controversy, he never, even in part, takes the Republican position, or the moderate Republican position for that matter.*

*Please spare us the nonsense about how Obamacare was a “Republican idea” because more than 20 years ago someone at the Heritage foundation suggested an individual mandate.

#6 Comment By Mightypeon On March 2, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

It appears that obama has issues taking moderate republican positions because either there arent a lot of moderate republicans left, or that Obama has no issues not taking any republican position because he portrays Republicans as stark raving mad lunatics, which is something the republicans make really easy for him.

Mind you, I am from Europe (Germany to be precise), Obama is quite “far right” as far as I and the vast majority of Europeans are concerned.
Placebo only banking regulation that is completely doomed to fail? Check.
Blows up people without much of a legal basis? Check.
More unpleasant than Bush to Whistleblowers and lawyers that defend people accused terrorists? Check.
War on drugs continuation? Check.
Absolutely no federal criminal code reform? Check.
A healthcare reform that will not actually fix things? Check.

#7 Comment By krogerfoot On March 2, 2013 @ 11:36 pm

“Please spare us the nonsense about how Obamacare was a “Republican idea” because more than 20 years ago someone at the Heritage foundation suggested an individual mandate.”

I have to admire the tactic of identifying the biggest piece of evidence that one’s thesis is incorrect and preemptively declaring it out of bounds to discuss. The point is, Obamacare looks like it does because it was chosen in large part from a menu of policy ideas that Republicans had already claimed to support. Leftish supporters of universal healthcare were and continue to be infuriated that they were shut out of the process. Indeed, one of the rationales for dumping Obama in 2012, presumably in favor of someone who would lose, was that he was constantly getting rolled in negotiations with the GOP.

#8 Comment By Clint On March 3, 2013 @ 8:00 am

Obama had Media Agendists ,The Analyst Institute’s EIP, active ground game and a summer advertising “Defining” of Romney.

On the other hand, The GOP controls The House and has more Governors and more seats in State Legislatures.

#9 Comment By Chris Naden On March 3, 2013 @ 8:36 am

The bigger problem with the essay is that Lindberg also doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp on what the Democratic Party (as opposed to “the left”) did in the last ten years to make itself the winner of the last three of four national elections.

Yeah; what the Democrats did to start winning elections was move their definition of ‘mainstream’ steadily to the right. They started doing that with Clinton in the 90s, and have simply, steadily, carried on doing it. One reason the GOP have become ever more extreme is that the Democrats have conclusively occupied the centre-right ground which used to be held by liberal and moderate Republicans; better known today as RINOs.

Those two processes acted as a self-reinforcing feedback loop; the Gingrich Revolution pushed the GOP rightwards, Clinton was a centrist at best and so he happily occupied the new territory that was made available to him. That project then continued as described above, moving the mainstream of the party further and further towards the centre-right, to the point that an actual liberal who is part of the Democratic party is very likely to be an irrelevance in Washington politics, if they can even make it through the primaries.

The kind of thing that gets people called ‘liberal’ today really worries me, given that from any where else in the world (I’m British, which isn’t exactly a strongly liberal political environment) those policies look suspiciously conservative.

If you keep moving the centre-line to the point that is in between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat, then sure, the Democrats look like the ‘left’. But if you look at it as an ideological thing, that the liberal ‘left’ want certain things and the religious ‘right’ want different things, then the Democrats are a party of the centre right. And now that the Occupy movement has been teargassed into submission, there is no-one in American politics advocating for the principles of actual liberals. Except possibly John Stewart.

#10 Comment By Ray On March 3, 2013 @ 8:57 am

@Krogerfoot

If that’s the “biggest piece of evidence that [my] thesis is incorrect,” I’d say we can be pretty secure in the correctness of my thesis. Yes, you could find some old papers in conservative think tanks that supported some of the policy prescriptions in Obamacare (though never all at the same time). I could also troll the archives of the Brookings Institution and discover that the Ryan medicare plan, Social Security partial privatization, highway privatization, and the flat tax are all “Democratic ideas.” Believe it or not, political parties are not Borg-like entities where all members automatically agree with whatever papers are being put out by think tanks associated with them. For that matter, it’s rare to see agreement within a single think tank. With regards to “dumping Obama,” I’m reasonably certain Obama wasn’t actually “dumped,” or that any attempt was made to “dump” him approaching the seriousness and organization of the Lyndon LaRouche campaign of ’96.

#11 Comment By krogerfoot On March 3, 2013 @ 9:59 am

@Ray,

Well, I’m afraid we’re already beginning to talk past one another. If Obamacare won’t do as an example of a moderately right-of-center policy idea embraced by Obama, then I guess nothing will.

#12 Comment By CharleyCarp On March 3, 2013 @ 10:03 am

It’s not just that Heritage advanced the idea as the conservative alternative, or that Gov. Romney got it passed. It’s decidedly the most non-left of the options for getting to near universal coverage. It enriches large businesses, and is less efficient than a public single payer, or even public option, would have been.

And the notion that it was steamrolled is, I think, revisionist. Any Republican willing to sign on could have dictated terms. (As indeed Sen. Nelson of NE was able to do — Rep. Stupak as well — from the right edge of the Dem coalition.) The months long gang of six process was designed to get exactly to that point — they were trying to find a formula *Sen. Grassley* would sign up to — but foundered when the leadership dictated to him that there could be no defections. Which meant there wasn’t a Senate bill, or a conference, and, at the end, the President was faced with either taking the Pelosi-passed bill as is, or get nothing for months of high profile effort.

Certainly on security policy, the President is decidedly not liberal. Maybe he’s not going the full Cheney, but I think one would have to put him to the right of GHWB.

The President’s emphasis on the debt — he’s not arguing that austerity is a bad thing, which is what actual liberals would tell you today — but that it should be imposed with contributions from both upper and lower income tranches — isn’t left or liberal. It’s classic DLC. The extent to which the original stimulus bill included tax cuts is another example of this.

#13 Comment By seneca falls On March 3, 2013 @ 10:37 am

“For his part, Obama offered his party an opportunity to break symbolically with Clintonism without actually rejecting the substance of it. “

For some back in 2008, a vote for Obama represented a vote against Clinton corruption, against the Clinton “gang”, if you will, rather than a vote against specific policies. So far, even with a large number of Clintonistas in his administration Obama seems to have been far less corrupt than the Clintons.

I have difficulty with the word “substance” as applied to Clintonism. I can’t think of what such substance might be; in fact, I don’t believe there has never been an identifiably Clintonist policy or principle. The Clintons provided a way for people to buy things from government, making the Clintons themselves wealthy and powerful in government service. “Substance” doesn’t enter into it.

#14 Comment By WorkingClass On March 3, 2013 @ 11:31 am

Dean was destroyed by the corporate media. They only do that to candidates who are not owned by the Oligarchy. Dean must have been doing something right.

What was new about the New Democrats was that they abandoned Labor for the big corporate money. There is nothing new about it any more.

The Democratic Party is where the “Progressive Agenda” goes to die. It’s the job of the Party to absorb and neutralize the energies of the Left. The D’s keep the left off the playing field while the R’s do the same to the right.

Ralph Nader and Ron Paul are legitimate politicians representing the left and right respectively. They cannot be nominated because they cannot be bought. Obama, Romney, McCain, Dubya, Kerry, Gore, are all whores for the Oligarchy. None of them are interested in governing on behalf of the people.

Anyone blaming the D’s or the R’s for the dismal and depressing state of the Republic has been duped. The blame should be assigned to the D’s AND the R’s.

#15 Comment By Mightypeon On March 3, 2013 @ 11:32 am

I guess the best prescription to people that think that the US democrats are “left” (well there are some leftists in it, but these are only there because they lack an alternative) is to look outside of the USA.

Apart from nations with an directly nationalist/fascist party like Hungary and Greece, the electoral platform of the democrats would propably be the most or the second most right wing in about every European nation I can think off.

#16 Comment By CharleyCarp On March 3, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

WC, I know what you mean about Dean and the corporate media, but I think the reality is more nuanced. Gov. Dean lost the Iowa caucus because of a mismatch between his base and the caucus electorate, and subsequent races because a whole lot of Dems — especially those over 35 — thought we’d have better luck against a reasonably popular sitting president during a war with a ideologically middle of the road veteran. It didn’t work out, in the end, but I (along with a whole lot of other people, I think) don’t think we’d have done any better in November 2004 with Dean.

#17 Comment By Rojo On March 3, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

The “left” as I understand it is not represented in Washington. This is one of the problems with the term. Lots of people look at Washington, look at the more liberal representatives of that establishment and call that the “left.” Whereas many people like myself who consider themselves “leftists” (and who have much foreign policy concordance with anti-interventionist conservatives–hence my presence here), are livid about having their views locked out of Washington and, yes, view Obamacare, with its unworkable giveaway to the insurance industry, which does nothing to control costs, as a “conservative” idea, with “conservative” in this instance defined as being beholden to the big money interests (“conservative” also being almost as difficult to define in our current political landscape as “left”).

#18 Comment By WorkingClass On March 3, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

@Charley:

Thanks. Dean was not my candidate but I was watching him with interest (from Iowa as it happens). The “Dean scream” was fabricated by the media and made it obvious (to me anyway) that the powers that be wanted him out of the race. It was probably overkill. I doubt he would have been nominated even if allowed to compete.

@Rojo:

“The “left” as I understand it is not represented in Washington. This is one of the problems with the term.”

Ding! You are correct sir. All over the world except for America and certain tribes at the mouth of the Amazon, it is understood that the “left” is the working class and the working class is the left. And yes, the working class is not represented in Washington since the Democrats under Clinton sold out to the Oligarchy.

The Cold War lasted a long time. I know. I was born in 1944 and served in the cold war under Johnson and Nixon. We were led to believe that ours was a classless society. No class? No class struggle! But of course we are NOT a classless society and this is finally becoming obvious now that the post war boom is over. Most of what Americans think of as “middle class” is really that rarest of phenomena, a prosperous working class. The woes of the middle class are precisely attributable to the fact that the “left” is not represented in Washington.

An American Labor Party, if there was one, could make common cause I think with Conservatives and Libertarians against the Democrats and Republicans. We could let the liberals tag along. They have useful skills and real Liberals just want fairness. They just want Capital to be nice to workers.

OK. I’m running on and on.
Peace be with you.

#19 Comment By Mia On March 3, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

I’m just thinking right now that if a Supreme Court position opened up and Obama were to nominate Hillary Clinton, she would likely sail through confirmation. Not only would Republicans love to have her out of the running for 2016, it would also provide a vacuum for the Democrats to fill. I can’t think of a second Democratic candidate right now that could honestly say would beat a Republican. Honestly, if Clinton was gone, the race would be a true toss-up.

#20 Comment By sglover On March 3, 2013 @ 8:49 pm

“If that’s the “biggest piece of evidence that [my] thesis is incorrect,” I’d say we can be pretty secure in the correctness of my thesis. Yes, you could find some old papers in conservative think tanks that supported some of the policy prescriptions in Obamacare (though never all at the same time).”

Yeah, that’s nice Ray.

Is it also out of bounds to mention that Obamacare is modeled on a state-level program built under the aegis of a certain Gov. Romney?

I’m gonna guess that you’re going to call that unfair, too. I mean, this Romney fellow is just some obscure provincial, right?

#21 Comment By sglover On March 3, 2013 @ 9:32 pm

seneca falls said:

“For some back in 2008, a vote for Obama represented a vote against Clinton corruption, against the Clinton “gang”, if you will, rather than a vote against specific policies. So far, even with a large number of Clintonistas in his administration Obama seems to have been far less corrupt than the Clintons.”

Corruption, or Clinton’s vote for our glorious Iraq adventure? I think the latter cost her the left wing vote. It cost her mine, anyway….

Otherwise, when Obama appointed so many Clinton-era wheezers, he signaled pretty clearly what dreary status quo administration he had in mind. But I’m not so sure how much less corrupt his gang is: The Rubin gang’s about as entrenched now as it was then, and the Wall Street revolving door is spinning just as fast — this after the 2008 meltdown

#22 Comment By Rob in CT On March 4, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

The main reason I supported Obama in the primary in 2008 was because Clinton was unapologetic about Iraq, The Sequel. I doubt I was alone. The primary was relatively close. If Hillary hadn’t had that negative on her resume, I think she would have won handily.