Snorting Coakley: The Rise of Progressive Nihilism

In a brilliant New Republic article, The Rise of Republican Nihilism, Jonathan Chair skewers the intellectual bankruptcy of the contemporary Republican Party.

Because Chait’s primary focus is domestic policy, he leaves out some of my favorite examples. For instance, late last year, the self proclaimed “Party of National Security” announced its willingness to block the Defense Spending Bill, which contained the funding for continuing the two wars that Party had dragged us into without an exit strategy (and, in the case of Iraq, without any good reason).

It is noted that in 2004, John Kerry was attacked by the Republicans merely for supporting a version of such a bill other than the one being offered by President Bush. In other words, the Democrats had allowed two bills to be brought up for a vote (Kerry voted for one before he voted against the other). Never have the majority of Democrats actually tried to prevent funding the ongoing needs of our men and women in uniform.

Most stunningly, when compared to past Democratic efforts to change such bills, the concerns were not over differences in National Security policy. When asked whether he would vote for the defense bill, Kansas troglodyte
Sam Brownback answered. “No. I don’t want health care.” Delaying support for our troops would delay a vote on health care and was therefore justified in their eyes. Similarly, our nation proceeds to do business without a head of our Transportation Security Administration, because Republicans have put the nomination on “hold” out of ideological pique that the President‘s nominee may not be anti-union.

If the elevation of ideology over the National Security concerns of one‘s nation does not meet the definition of lending aid and comfort to our nation’s enemies, let me suggest that it at least offers them the gift of laughter at our expense.

Yet, none dare call it Treason.

Chait’s analysis of the Republicans focuses not on defense, but instead upon the Republican responses on the issues of the economic crisis, climate change and health care.

Chait notes that “the root cause of the [economic] collapse…is that financial firms have grown so large and interconnected that the risks they incur can bring down the rest of the economy, forcing the government to intervene. After some initial support, the Republican response has been to denounce the financial bailout, without making any case that failing to save the financial system would have prevented a far deeper disaster…To some extent, Republicans are simply exploiting populist anger. But the deeper problem lies in the rigidity of conservative ideology. In the most simple and pure market model, a business must be allowed to fail in order for capitalism to function…As a general principle, this is eminently sensible. Yet it cannot accommodate the reality of a financial industry that, left to its own devices, can bring the rest of the economy down with it.”

The money quote here comes from David Frum, a conservative iconoclast who describes his effort to persuade a group of young conservatives that they had to bend their principles in the face of economic calamity, to which one of the young conservatives responded thus:

“Maybe it was a good thing we weren’t in power then--because our principles don’t allow us to respond to a crisis like this.”


Instead, the article notes, the Republicans offer their classic all purpose cure-all for every ill:

Tax cuts.

No matter what the ailment, no matter what the circumstance, the Republican Party of the 21st Century always offers the same cure, an ideological combination of Hadacol and cod liver oil, albeit tasting far better.

It is axiomatic of today’s GOP that they are willing to, with ample justification, attack the President’s economic emergency program for benefiting those who caused the problem, while its victims pay the bill, but they themselves categorically oppose any and all efforts to prevent those who caused the problems from doing so again, and fight any efforts to make those responsible pay their fair share for responsible efforts to mitigate, pay for and/or prevent such occurrences.

Rightly, the Republicans rail at obscene bonuses subsidized by taxpayer dollars and debt, but they body block any efforts to tax such indulgences.

While Chait does see, and lovingly documents, election-motivated cynicism in the current Republican approach, it is the elevation of ideology over reality that is his primary indictment.

I would like to take Chait’s thesis one step further. As noted, Chait’s critique of the right wing which dominates today’s Republicans is:

“…our principles don’t allow us to respond…”

But, it is not only the right wing which is infected with this illness.

Tomorrow in Massachusetts, the Democrats are set to suffer a stunning defeat in the race for the US Senate; a race that, if lost, will largely be because of lack of enthusiasm by the party base for what a liberal agenda actually looks like when it is forced to abandon its fantasies and instead confront the actual problems our country faces and deal with them using the political process as it exists.

The examples of the crack-up of “progressives” when confronted with the realities of governance are everywhere.

Following President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, attacked Obama for embracing the “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war.

But Afghanistan is not a pre-emptive war; we are in Afghanistan precisely because we were attacked.

Attacked, as I’ve noted before, without provocation.

If I had to define the core of what separates me from other most other bloggers of the left of center, and has sometimes made me a pariah in those quarters, it is my differences with those who consistently oppose the use of US force anywhere and everywhere, at anytime and every time, for any and every reason. A few examples of my thoughts on these issues appear here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

I had previously thought that that for most (though not all) of the “progressive” thinkers who so zealously opposed any US military action, there was one limited exception.

I no longer am so sure.

While, rhetorically, many “progressives” embrace the “Hitler exception,” “progressive” opposition to our actions in the Balkans, made clear that no such exception existed for many “progressives,” even in the case of genocide. Similarly, the reluctance of many on the left even to embrace sanctions (let alone more persuasive methods) to thwart to the nuclear ambition of a nation which joyfully proclaims its intent to use nuclear weapons, makes clear that the “Hitler exception” does not apply to nations which seek a final solution to the Jewish problem.

What then defines the “Hitler exception?” A bad moustache? Apparently not.

The one exception I used to concede was embraced by most “progressives,“ was that they would countenance the use of force when our nation was attacked. While Move On initially opposed our efforts in Afghanistan, such opposition attracted only one Congressional Democrat (Barbara Lee of Oakland California).

But now, in the wake of so much of the “progressive” left so outraged by Barack Obama accepting a Nobel Peace Prize with a speech embracing the limited use of war, I’m not so sure that we can any longer say that much of the “progressive” left today any longer embraces even the limited exception for when we are under seize by our enemies (as we so clearly are even today).

I am oh so tired of hearing the “progressive” left logic that is contradictory to sometimes embrace the use of arms as a means of achieving peace. This is like objecting to vaccinating oneself with a virus as a means of achieving health (but then again, many on today’s “progressive” left seem to have problems with that as well).

To be clear, I exempt from my anathema here those who oppose continuing the war in Afghanistan for pragmatic reasons. I too share these qualms and support the President’s policy only reluctantly, as the best of our bad options. But, most of the President’s opponents on his left would oppose his plan, even if no such pragmatic objections existed.

But my critique of the “progressive” left is not on national security grounds alone; in fact, it mostly tracts Chait’s critique of the right:

“…our principles don’t allow us to respond…”

Even at the beginning of our economic crisis, many left and liberal Democrats refused to accept the distasteful reality that avoiding the depression meant bailing out the bastards who’d gotten us there in the first place.

This is a continued and growing phenomenon. Liberal heroes who smell the coffee and do what is necessary, like Barney Frank, are vilified as sellouts, while economic illiterates like Alan Grayson and Bernie Sanders fulminate irrationally and refuse to support the President’s appointees to the Federal Reserve Board.

Heroes like Frank try to save capitalism in the manner of FDR, while opposed by ideologues on both sides. Instead of rising to the President’s defense and helping him makes his case, the “progressive” left, in the person of lunatics like Matt Taibbi, makes the case that there is no difference between the democrats and the Republicans.

Is it any wonder that so many Democrats want to stay home?

“…our principles don’t allow us to respond…”


But no issue exemplifies the “progressive” crack-up more than Health Care Reform.

Over and over we hear progressives whining about how the Health Care Reform legislation is a sell-out.

I happen to prefer single payer, or a system containing a strong Public Option. As a pragmatist who understands that the “progressive” idea that we can somehow stop globalization is another left delusion, I also understand that our system of mostly employer-supplied health care is an anachronism that hurts American competitiveness in a world where most of our advanced competitors have a government-facilitated system of universal health coverage which does not burden companies with such costs.

The problem is getting there from here.

As a centrist Democrat, I must acknowledge that part of that problem are “so-called” centrist Democrats. I say “so-called,” because, again and again, their opposition stems not from real centrism, but from parochialism, or from an embrace of special interests they usually pretend to abhor.

I may be a union member, but I understand that unions are special interests. What Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson refuse to acknowledge is that insurance companies are special interests as well.

But that is really a discussion I look forward to having on another day. Let us just stipulate that on health care, the progressive crack up stems from the refusal to acknowledge that the rules of the US Senate and its membership are what they are.

It is a despicable situation, but not one immediately curable. One must either be prepared to attempt to pass legislation under the rules as they exist, or not at all.

President Obama’s Health Care Reform, even as emasculated, is the most significant and sweeping domestic social program to come anywhere near enactment since Medicare, and arguably since Social Security. It would ensure millions of uninsured, prevent the obscenity of refusing the cover pre-existing illnesses, improve preventive care and change the system for the better in dozens, if not hundreds, of different ways.

And yet there is the whining.

There is the whining over procedure. Democratic members of the house, like Anthony Weiner (who surely knows better) actually proclaim that Harry Reid should force Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to engage in the old fashioned from filibuster as trial by endurance--even though it has been decades since the Senate rules provided for any such thing. And every time some idiot or opportunist makes such a nonsensical proclamation, the damage done gets multiplied exponentially over the Netroots and MSNBC.

Others proclaim Reid can pass a public option with 51 votes through a procedure know as “reconciliation,” even though such reconciliation applies only to programs which actually already exist (which makes it questionable whether it could be used for such a purpose even if Health Care Reform passes).

Then there are those who argue that Obama and Reid should jawbone Democratic opponents of Health Care Reform into submission.

What are they going to do? Threaten Joe Lieberman with a primary?

Maybe Obama could have promised an intervention to prevent a primary to Lieberman if he supported a Public Option. Imagine how well that would have gone over among “progressives.”

The largest and most defining whine emanates from those who argue that the left should keep holding out for more, and threaten to kill the bill, because all the compromises so far “have been to the right.”


We are trying to pass the most expansive social program of the last half century, if not longer.

Even if we had every last vote of everyone who cares about passing such a bill, we would not have sixty votes in the Senate.

Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson do not care if such a bill passes.

There are no further votes to be picked up by compromising to the left. The only votes to be picked up are by compromising to the right.

Simple math.

Lyndon Johnson wanted a National Health Plan (so did Harry Truman). He also knew he could not pass what he wanted, so he settled for covering the old and the poor. Hence Medicare and Medicaid.

Thankfully, the liberals of his age did not say “…our principles don’t allow us to respond…”

That was, as always, the conservative response. These days, as Chait notes, the conservative response is to scare old people about the end of Medicare as they once attempted to scare Americans about its launch. Today’s conservatives will not even countenance trying to save Medicare dollars they acknowledge are being wasted. The only expansion of coverage conservatives are willing to for those under 65 is for anything which impacts upon the breast.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Perhaps they got the idea from Governor Sanford.

The liberals of LBJ’s age took what they could get and moved on.


But on health care, we have not moved since.

In the 90s, Republicans successfully deployed an attack on the Clinton Health Care Plan. Their major argument was that if one supported the Clinton Plan, we would all be forced into HMO’s.

They were right. I supported the Clinton Plan, and we were all forced into HMOs.

The Republican strategy was a combination of getting everyone to focus on something in the status quo they might lose, instead of upon what they might lose regardless, and what they might gain.

It worked. Health Care was dead for two decades.

The Republicans are at it again, and they have Democratic collaborators. I speak not of Nelson and Lieberman, though they surely do qualify. I am speaking of the “progressives;” for instance, Keith Olbermann screaming loudly against any about mandates requiring people to buy insurance and penalize those who do not.

Sad fact is, that if one does not provide universal coverage, and then mandates things like covering pre-existing conditions, prices go up if those who are willing to take chances and go without coverage are allowed to do so. If one is not providing universal coverage through the government, one needs either mandates or astronomical insurance premiums.

Would single payer be preferable? Undoubtedly.

Tell me how you get there from here.

But with the likes of Olbermann fulminating like Glenn Beck, is it any wonder so many Democrats are so unenthusiastic?

If we do not pass Health Care Reform now, it will be at least another 20 years and probably far, far longer, until some Democrat musters the balls to try again.

Except, by then, the Republicans will probably have enacted some market-based “reform” which multiplies the status quo’s inequities. The only good side of that is that they will probably have wrecked so much other damage upon our polity and our economy that this might not even be the worst of our worries.

The result of the left crack up can be seen in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley’s likely defeat, caused largely by “progressive”-fueled apathy to Obama’s program, will result in one less vote for Health Care Reform, possibly resulting in inserting it with a lethal injection.

Though otherwise objecting to war, the “progressive” philosophy on Health Care Reform resembles that of the Vietnam era general who would destroy the village in order to save it, and with that also destroy any chance that the Obama administration with result in anything more substantive than manning the barricades against the worst of the reactionaries in the manner of a post-94 Clinton.

Arguably, of even more consequence than Health Care, Coakley’s defeat will unleash an avalanche of tsunami-like proportions about Obama and liberalism on the run. And the more such things are said, the more they will become true.

And it is our own damned fault because,

“…our principles don’t allow us to respond…”