The Goat in the Clearing
by Alexander Cockburn, February 22, 2010
That was quick. It seems only yesterday — in fact it was only yesterday — that we had Barack the Populist flailing away at the banks. He didn’t run for office only to end up “helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” he told CBS’s 60 Minutes in December. Early, he’d talked hotly of the obscenity of the bankers’ bonuses. In January he was shaking his fist at the mighty powers of Wall Street: “If these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have.” In his State of the Union speech he dealt the bankers another couple of glancing blows.
But then came Valentine’s Weekend and love was in the air. On Friday Bloomberg Business Week featured Obama telling two Bloomberg reporters he doesn’t begrudge the million-dollar pay-outs made to two of Wall Street’s most powerful men because, after all, “there are some baseball players who are making more than that.”
What about JP Morgan chairman Jamie Dimon ($16.1 million plus a $1 million salary) and Goldman’s boss Lloyd Blankfein ($9 million)? “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” the President said. “I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.”
To ask which is the “real” Obama is to drift towards the illusion of thinking there is one — as opposed to an infinitely mutable organism, endlessly adapting to political circumstance, with an eye eternally cocked to the main chance. People who nourished high hopes for Obama pathetically claim that he’s been taken prisoner by malign forces, by the Chicago mafia — Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and David Plouffe — and if he could only have other counsellors at his side, why then he’d… he’d…
What our two most recent Democratic presidents have yearned to do is take an ax to Social Security and Medicare. “Reform” of entitlements is a core axiom of neoliberalism, urged on Clinton and now Obama by Wall Street’s men, like Larry Summers. Wall Street wants to get its mitts on retirement funds as an investment pool, to drain to their advantage. More generally, any public “entitlement” to enjoy a life free from the threat of immediate starvation and debilitating disease offends their sense of moral propriety. Then, when the axe of “reform” is raised and about to descend, these Democratic presidents discover that Social Security and Medicare are popular programs and it’s politically wise to defend them.
Take Bill Clinton. By 1998 he’d conjured into life a secret White House team, known as the “Special Issues” group, headed by Summers and Gene Sperling, the head of the Council of Economic Advisers.The task of the Special Issues group was to find an installment of privatization that could reconcile “realistic” Republicans and Democrats, and be sold as still honoring most existing entitlements.
“The working group's estimates,” so a participant disclosed some years later at a Harvard conference, “were at the level of detail that it was determined how many digits an ID number [for one of the private savings accounts] would have to be for each fund and how many key strokes would therefore be required to enter all of the ID numbers each year.”
Clinton kept abreast with the work of the secret team. In July of 1998 he even went to one of their work sessions as they put the finishing touches to their plan to hand Social Security over to the mutual funds industry. But then, suddenly, all bets were off. He was subpoenaed by a grand jury and a month later admitted a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. As Robert Blackburn, exhuming this history on CounterPunch.org:
“Had it not been for Monica's captivating smile and first inviting snap of that famous thong, President Bill Clinton would have consummated the politics of triangulation, heeding the counsel of a secret White House team and deputy treasury secretary Larry Summers. Late in 1998 or in the State of the Union message of 1999 a solemn Clinton would have told Congress and the nation that, just like welfare, Social Security was near-broke, had to be “reformed” and its immense pool of capital tendered in part to the mutual funds industry. The itinerary mapped out for Clinton by the Democratic Leadership Committee would have been complete.
“It was a desperately close run thing. On the account of members of Clinton's secret White House team, mandated to map out the privatization path for Social Security, they had got as far down the road as fine-tuning the account numbers for Social Security accounts now released to the captious mercies of Wall Street. But in 1998 the Lewinsky scandal burst upon the President, and as the months sped by and impeachment swelled from a remote specter to a looming reality, Clinton's polls told him that his only hope was to nourish the widespread popular dislike for the hoity-toity elites intoning Clinton's death warrant.”
In an instant Clinton spun on the dime and became Social Security's mighty champion, coining the slogan “Save Social Security First.”
“Under the lash of the Lewinsky crisis,” Blackburn writes, “a President had issued a full-throated endorsement of the Social Security system. Republicans were swiftly moved to insist that they too would give priority to Social Security. Pessimism about the future of the program was replaced by a growing consensus that the program must be — and could be — saved. ”
In 2005 Bush Jr. had his stab at destroying Social Security, announcing it as a major priority for his second term. A fierce campaign organized by the AFL-CIO along with progressive citizen groups crushed the bid and along with it, Bush’s political momentum in the rest of his term.
The American system is nicely balanced so that foul deeds judged too perilous for Republicans to undertake can be handed off to Democrats, like throwing poor women off the welfare rolls. They put on a better act, tears streaming down their faces as they protest that they must kill in order to be kind. So, when Obama gave an interview to the Washington Post shortly before he took over the White House, saying that it was high time to take an unsparing look at entitlements, the warning shot rang clear and loud. Couple it with talk about bipartisanship, and it sounded as though we were headed straight back to Clinton’s “Special Issues” group, with Larry Summers settling back into his old chair.
But of course general economic meltdown required the rescue of the bankers, the stimulus and other urgent matters. Now, amid the specious talk of a recovery, we’re back into deficit bashing and the wolves are circling the campfire where the seniors are warming their hands.
On February 7 last, the New York Times sounded the tocsin, with a vast editorial calling for entitlement reform. The Sulzbergers, their own retirement cushions nicely plumped up by Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire keeping the NYT afloat, are keen on it. How marvelously efficient is the hidden hand! (That’s the hand in the till.) The NYT calls for deregulation of ailing third world economies and sale of public assets. Mexico auctions off its telecommunication systems, which are duly seized up by Slim, who buys a slice of NYT B stock with a small part of his loot and makes sure the Sulzbergers will have a blanket and a crust amid their twilight years.
But the cries for reform come at a juncture when desperation reigns in the Democratic Party, following the debacle in Massachusetts. We don’t even have to redraft Monica for extraordinary duties, through she would have less ardent a courtier, since Obama seems to have his libido under firm control, which is just as well, since a swing with a lampstand from Michele would probably take his head off.
The game plan, as now advertised, is for the Democrats to allow the Republican ultras to rush into the forest clearing and tether themselves to the bill of Rep Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Sununu of New Hampshire to replace Social Security and and Medicare with Retirement & Medical Savings Accounts and actually make the Reps vote on privatizing these programs. The Democrats can duly mount campaigns similar to Clinton’s in late 1998 and the AFL-CIO’s in 2005 to save Social Security.
Fair enough. But how many times have the Democrats finally swallowed the poison pill so temptingly offered by the Republicans as a tactical ploy? Remember, it was Tip O’Neill and the Democrats who wrote the drug law in 1986 that set different penalties for possession of crack and powder cocaines. Their original motive was to get out in front of the Republicans and the President. Once the camel’s nose is in under the tent, it usually stays there, or barges in, pulling the rest of the camel behind it. Now we have the formation of an admittedly non-binding presidential commission on entitlements and the deficit. Here’s comes an augury of bipartisan compromise on Social Security, blessed by Obama, just in time for his 2012 relection run. The AFL and progressive groups had better get out on the trail, right now.
Assassination As Strategy
In my Diary last week on Greensboro and the decline of the left I should have made the necessary point that it would be wrong, in any account of the left over the past 50 years not to mention the murderous ruthlessness of the government’s response, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. A striking number of Black Panther leaders were assassinated by the FBI or by local police forces working in collusion with the FBI, as happened in the case of Fred Hampton in Chicago. There are kindred compelling suspicions, regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King.
On the other hand, there’s the matter of Lee Harvey Oswald — certainly, in my judgment, the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy. Let a CounterPuncher state what I’ve written about myself from time to time down the years.
In your brilliant survey of achievements and failures of American left from 1960 to 2010 you forget to mention about one signal achievement of left. That of eliminating an American president by one of them.
I have read some of the diary entries by Oswald when he was in the Soviet Union. He was an idealistic left-wing young man, like most the Left which made the Sixties an exciting decade.
I can't imagine how anyone can deny he was a leftist. He was definitely angry that Kennedy was tormenting Cuban Communism and decided to stop Kennedy, a super war criminal like all American presidents, and succeeded.
William Manchester was right, The prevailing right wing anti-Kennedy atmosphere in Houston has nothing to do with Kennedy death. Unlike that rightwing, Oswald hated Kennedy for the right reasons.
It is difficult to imagine Israeli right wing denying Yigal Amir (who killed Rabin) was a rightwinger. They proudly accept Amir was a rightist. But not the American leftists.
Instead of accepting Oswald as their own, American leftists developed sudden compassion for arch criminal Kennedy and started the deplorable cottage industry of his Assassination cult which is still going strong.
— Ajit Hegde