Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More on Liberal Pragmatists and Progressive Saviors

In my last post, I doubted that Obama’s complaints about “sanctimonious liberals” at yesterday’s press conference mean that he’s given up on being what David Kurtz calls a “progressive savior.” I pointed to the differences between him and Bill Clinton in this connection to corroborate my doubts. Here, via Ezra Klein, is a passage from The Clinton Tapes that underscores my point by projecting the voice of a real liberal pragmatist without illusions about saving liberal souls (my emphasis):
"[Clinton] said Rolling Stone's founder, Jan Wenner, had come to the White House with author William Greider, a former Washington Post editor whose books included a populist critique of the Federal Reserve banking system. They had agreed not to discuss NAFTA because of Greider's implacable opposition, and the president said all went fine until Greidier brandished a photograph of a destitute-looking American to mount a sudden, dramatic attack.... Greider confronted him saying here is one of the countless poor people who looked to you for leadership -- you were their last hope. Now they feel utterly disillusioned and abandoned. Can you look into this face and name one thing you have done to help? Or one principle you won't compromise? One cause you will uphold? One belief you would die for?

"The president said he had replied in kind. 'I kind of went off on him,' the president recalled. He told Greider that he had done things already that no other president would do. He had raised taxes on the rich and lowered them for the poor. He had introduced the AmeriCorps service program, which Rolling Stone had campaigned for, and established it into law. He was taking on the gun lobby and the tobacco lobby. He had proposed fair treatment for gay soldiers. He was fighting for national health care, and more, but liberals paid very little attention to these things because they were bitchy and cynical about politics. They resented Clinton for respecting the votes of conservatives or the opinions of moderates. They wanted him to behave like a dictator because they didn't really care about results in the world.... He said he had pointed at Greider to tell him the problem is you, Bill Greider. You are a faulty citizen. You don't mobilize or persuade, because you only worry about being doctrinaire and proud. You are betraying your own principles with self-righteousness.

"Clinton took a breath. 'I did everything but fart in his face,' he concluded."
Clinton resented not getting the credit he thought he deserved from liberals then every bit as much as Obama resents it now. But I doubt it would ever occur to Obama to associate liberal intransigence with a failure of democratic citizenship. Clinton’s point was that, being citizens too, Republicans and conservatives have every right to bring their own values to bear on public decision-making process. That makes occasionally having to compromise with illiberal political aspirations a fact of political life that any liberal who purports to be a democrat should acknowledge as such. That doesn’t mean that a liberal president's signing onto a bipartisan compromise can’t be a mistake.  It just means that mistakes made in that connection shouldn’t be confused with ideological betrayals.

Try to imagine Obama saying anything like that to his liberal critics.


JohnnyZ said...

Oh how I miss Clinton these days.

Anonymous said...

What's undemocratic about standing up for liberal principles and then submitting yourself to the electorate?

Lone Wolf said...

"What's undemocratic about standing up for liberal principles and then submitting yourself to the electorate?"

Nothing at all. But if Democrats wanted to do that they would have voted on extending the tax cuts before the election.