Dispatch: The Eye of the Needle at America's Future
This is a dispatch from paleo politics America. The America that pounds in nails at work, and pounds the pavement at election time. The America that answers phones at work, and answers phones at campaign time. The America that takes out the trash at work, and is ready to take out the trash from Washington, if only they can know how. It is the America that teaches school, and is politically schooling a President who has strayed from his base. The Democratic Party is America's labor party, and that party is laboring under a political paradox.
The first thing that happened to me this morning was running to three attendees who are steel workers, the comment "we want to make things in America." The reality is that 20 years of globalization are now reaching a clearly visible end. The benefits of high legacy wages and lower prices are coming to an end, the next generation faces wage cuts, and savage cuts in public services.
The legacy of the global era is having fed the future, to the present. We are that future. That's easy to say, in that criticizing the short sighted decisions of the past, however it is much harder to change the present.
Robert Borosage faced the conflict, and worked to thread the needle: on one hand, he has a President of his own party, and a demographic wave that was rallied by that President, but that President is not of his movement, nor of his ideology. On one hand he must praise the President, on the other hand, he must cast himself as the heir to Martin Luther King Jr. Suddenly a white man is saying that he is playing Martin Luther King Jr., to Barack Obama's LBJ.
It is not a corner that turns easily, in that there is little evidence that Administration is willing to spend an ounce of political capital. It is a reality that Borosage is well aware of. He peppers his remarks with Civil Rights metaphors, because the young activists in the audience are deeply tied to the President as part of their identity.
What lies beneath the festivities here, is that the older activists are angry, they voted for Change, with a capital "C," and they know that it did not happen, and the younger activists, who live in change, and are disappointed at the changes that have occurred. It is the eye of the needle to be threaded, an older base that has a historical ruler to measure against, and a younger group that has not yet lived through a political cycle. It does not feel the same sting, because it has not seen the flurry of activity that a crisis can bring.
This event is then, not really an event, but a cynosure: people are doing what they do, only in the same place. Ryan Grim is pressing people for what they expect, looking for the next snap quote, Arianna Huffington is delivering lines, Borosage is soothing feathers and busy being a kind of uncle to the movement, who retains a respectability even has he gets out the poker chips and prepares to initiate a new generation into the fine art of political brinksmanship. In the exhibit room Progressive Punch's founder is showing people how to use the site, the NEA is passing out literature.
What is creating this cynosure, is organized labor. What is underlying the dynamics of this conference is the reality of the President as wearing many hats. While Obama is indisputably the President, and indisputably the head of the party, his leadership of the party and the country is being challenged, and most specifically, by labor.
This is not surprising. It is labor that has born the brunt of the down turn, it is labor that did not get EFCA, it is labor that saw little from health care reform – and even more so labor unions. It is labor that is being told, again, to wait their turn. It is labor that has a channel, however, of money and muscle, to challenge the political operation of Obama. Obama has handled the press well, which has seldom strayed far from his narrative, and given him a more positive coverage than his high 40's approval might otherwise afford – far better than Bill Clinton received at the same time. However, Obama has not only not delivered on policy, he has had a tin ear politically. That tin ear has translated into stinging rebukes in primaries. These rebukes are of a piece with the moment, where the populist flanks of both parties are angry at the DC core. The small business class has scalped a Republican Senator in Utah, driven Crist out of the GOP in Florida, and Arlen Specter moved from the Republican Party because he thought he had a better chance there than in a rematch against Toomey.
Labor's political positioning problem is the conference's raison d'etre. On one hand labor will not get far by antagonizing Obama. Nor will it recruit new young people by frontally attacking a man who is, or in many cases was, their icon. On the other hand, the undercurrent is a very real anger at the failure of the Administration to directly attack the legacy political economy of the neo-liberal era. It is labor that is putting the heat on Lincoln. It is organized labor that underlines repeatedly their electoral muscle.
More dispatches from AFN later...