President Obama and the DLC – A Retrospective

Column No. 232

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

Many of us on the Left, whether that’s the Democratic Party Left or the Real Left, are becoming increasingly disturbed, upset, concerned, what-have-you, with the behavior of President in office. We are surely concerned with his Afghanistan policy which is distinguishable from that of Bush-Cheney only in that he is sending more troops. We are concerned with his lack of leadership on the central elements of health policy reform, such as providing for a true public option with teeth, protecting the freedom of religious belief (otherwise known protecting belief as to when life begins and thus abortion rights),  and real regulation of the private, for-profit insurance companies. We are concerned with his giving way to the respective Right-wings on Israel-Palestine and Honduras. We are concerned with the virtual inaction on the sanctifiers of torture. And so on and so forth.

Obama came into office promising to be a different kind of President. Many of us (including myself, I must admit) thought that he would be a different kind of Democratic President, in comparison with Carter and Clinton, although certain of our compatriots were not so easily taken in. To them I must give credit. But there were straws in the wind. I even noted some of them myself. But like so many others, I got caught up in the rhetoric. In this column I am going to undertake a brief review of some of my earlier indeed cautionary thoughts (to which I should have paid more attention myself, as it has turned out). Which brings us to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC is the right-wing organization that has dominated Democratic Party politics and policies since it was founded in the 1980s by the likes of Bill Clinton and Richard Gephardt, joined in the 1990s by the likes of Joe Lieberman. One of its prominent political positions was that in order to win elections Democrats had to look as much like Republicans as possible. This reversed the long-held mantra of Harry Truman that if someone wants to vote for a Republican they will vote for him (or her) not for a Democrat trying to look like one. 

The DLC was the engine behind the “free trade” push of the Clinton Administration, which did nothing but accelerate the export of capital and the jobs that go with it that began under Reagan. The DLC strongly supported Clinton’s “welfare deform” act as well as his repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagal Act that kept separate investment and commercial banking. The latter drive was spearheaded by Obama’s principal economic policy-person, Larry Summers. There were many factors which lead to the Crash of 2008, otherwise known as the Failure of Finance Capitalism. But if one wanted to pick one among many as the most important cause, it was that repeal. Currently, the DLC still clings to the Right. On its website you can find its policy paper on health care reform which says in essence forget about the public option, what we really need is health insurance regulation and “exchanges.” You can find a 2005 paper by Will Marshall calling for “victory” in Iraq. And you can even find a continued devotion to “free trade,” as if enough US manufacturing jobs had not already been sent abroad in search of higher profits.

Back in December of 2007 (in my TPJ column 172) I had this to say in part about Obama and the DLC:

“As they have done in the past, the center-right Democratic Leadership Council is this time around running what in Standard-Breed (trotters and pacers) horse racing terminology is known as an ‘entry.’ In these races, one owner can enter two horses and bettors can bet on the ‘entry,’ so that if either one wins, places, or shows, the bettor collects. In 2004 their entry was John Edwards and Richard Gephardt. . . . This time the DLC has an entry as well, but Edwards ain’t part of it. . . . The DLC entry is ---- yes, indeed, Clinton and Obama. They don’t like each other much, and each does indeed want to be President. But their central philosophy is much the same and many of their policies are rather similar too. The philosophy is better articulated by Obama. But functionally, even though her rhetoric may be a bit harsher, Clinton is woven from the same fabric.  And so, Obama talks about the ‘politics of hope,’ about ‘bringing the country together,’ about ‘crossing the partisan divide,’ as if Ronald Brownstein, author of the mis-named ‘The Second Civil War’ were correct and that the problems facing our nation today are the result of a ‘partisanship’ that both parties are responsible for.” 

(On the last point, as I have said many times, both parties are NOT responsible for partisanship in Washington. For it is ultra-partisanship, as in “we don’t care what you propose, even if it is our policy (as in the current tax-rebate-centered so-called 2nd stimulus package) we are going to be against it” that is at the center GOP electoral politics and has been ever since Gingrich took over the House. After all, the GOP can hardly run on their polices, the ones that created the mess we are presently in and cannot presently see the end of. Actually many of us would be oh-so-happy if the Democratic leadership could become even a bit more partisan in promoting what is best for our nation overall.) 

In the Summer of 2008 I ran two Commentaries over at (July 2 and 8) entitled “No Obamallusions, I and II.” I noted that after he won the nomination, Obama seemed to be veering toward the Hillary Clinton positions on a number of issues and that he was drawing a number of Clintonistas into his campaign, like Madeleine Albright, protégés of Robert Rubin, and even the old right-wing Democratic warhorse Zbigniew Brzezinski.   But then last April on (April 9, in fact) I revealed that I had been sucked in by Obama. In that column I wrote: “It is overwhelmingly obvious that I was totally wrong about Barack Obama. He is the most traditionally ‘Democratic’ President since the pre-Vietnam War Lyndon Johnson.”   Ooops!

There were several comments on that Commentary that took me apart on the above statement. Well, I have come to the conclusion that they were right then and I, agreeing with them back then, was right the first time around. At the beginning of his Administration Obama seemed to be or at least seemed to be becoming a “different kind of Democrat,” different that is from the Clinton-DLC type. But there are now too many DLC-type policies in place. He is not entirely consistent, of course. EPA has taken a major position on carbon dioxide as a green-house gas. Some good (and not-so-good) things are going on over at Interior. But there are the major foreign policies outlined above. And does it not seem that on Afghanistan the major presenters of Administration policy are Hillary Clinton, a prime DLCer and Bob Gates, who would be a DLCer were he not a Republican. Obama spoke about a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. But either he is speaking with a forked tongue or he is not in charge.

Then there is the back-down on going after our homegrown torturers and their enablers. In fact, the Administration has entered an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Prince of the Torture-enablers, John Yoo. Yes, Administrations don’t like to be subject to civil law suits over decisions they have made. But Yoo’s policies enabled crimes against the US Constitution which, in Article VI classifies treaties, like the Geneva Conventions, as the Supreme Law of the Land. One of the monstrous ironies in this case is that during the Bush-Cheney years Attorney General Holder was a Board Member of the American Constitution Society. It is an organization primarily of attorneys (full disclosure: I am a non-attorney long-time member) that strongly opposed the torture policies, the military commissions, the suspension of habeas corpus in “terrorism” cases, and the uses to which Guantanamo was put.

Yes indeed, the DLC is back in the saddle or were never out of it. Unless Obama reverses course soon, he is going to face a serious challenge in the Democratic primaries in 2012, just as Carter did in 1980. Hopefully his opponent will not be someone as hobbled by personal conduct issues as Ted Kennedy was back then. Do I have someone in mind? Well, yes, but I ain’t saying who quite yet. If Obama does retain the nomination, then he will face a serious third-party candidate and I am not talking about Ralph Nader or someone from the Green Party. I am talking about someone who would be well-funded and would stand a chance of winning, just as Abraham Lincoln did in a three-way race in 1860. Of course taking that tack could pave the way for Sarah Palin who right now is the odds-on favorite for Republican nomination no matter how many lies she tells. But I believe that is a chance we have to take. Do I have someone in mind for that third-party nomination? Well, no. But he/she better be a grand candidate and better be able to raise lots of money. Otherwise one way or the other we will really be in for it, worse than we already are.