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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
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Obama's Luck and the Death of American Liberalism

Comment

There's certainly no effective liberal, let alone left, presence in mainstream American politics any more. The political primary season, now in its final throes, has resoundingly buttressed this fact, albeit disguising the process by the crafty expedient of making a black man the all-but-certain Democratic nominee.

Take the scene in Portland, Ore., last Monday, on the eve of a vote in that Northwestern state that sent Barack Obama one step further in formally clinching the Democratic nomination. How did Hillary Clinton try to remind Oregonians of her claims to be the authentic rep of white working-class America, without whose votes no Democrat can ever win the White House?

She held a press conference in the upscale Portland suburb of Beaverton, in a subdivision where $500,000 homes have gone unsold for the past year. She spoke movingly of the pain being experienced by the developer. A few miles north, homeless Oregonians were besieging the offices of Portland's mayor, Tom Potter.

Almost exactly 40 years ago, John F. Kennedy's younger brother Bobby was making a similar last-throw bid in California to win the state and seize the Democratic nomination by a populist campaign. Bobby reached out to California's poor. There's no way Bobby would have hunkered down with a property developer. He'd have been leading the homeless to the mayor's office to demand the homeless be given rent-free accommodation in the unsold mansions.

Bobby Kennedy's younger brother Ted, diagnosed this week with a malignant brain tumor, tried to sell the same populism as Bobby in his run for the nomination against Carter in 1978. Ten years later, Jesse Jackson, the first black American to take a serious tilt at the Democratic nomination, led many a poor people's march to City Halls across America.

Not any more. Hilary's populism has been skin-deep in the literal sense of the term. It's not been about rich developers or predatory subprime loans. It's only about the color of Obama's skin.

The old truism about primary season used to be that Democratic candidates had to run left to capture crucial support from the sort of politically active progressives who vote in Democratic primaries and caucuses. Then, with the nomination secured, the nominee would spend the rest of the year running right to win over Middle America.

But Obama has achieved the amazing feat of being the almost-certain nominee with hardly a phrase on the record with which John McCain can belabor him for "loony-leftism" or even "outdated liberalism" in the months to come.

Bloated Pentagon budgets? This favored target in past primary seasons has flourished unscathed this year, even though the arms-spending to which Bush's former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, committed the U.S.

government promise certain budgetary catastrophe in across the next 15 years. Obama's subservience to the U.S. military has been evinced numerous times, most recently when he confided last week to David Brooks, one of The New York Times's profuse stable of neo-con columnists, that "The (U.S.) generals are light-years ahead of the civilians. They are trying to get the job done rather than look tough."

What about Wall Street, whose leading bankers have devastated middle-income America with the sub-prime scams? Obama has been tactful, meanwhile hauling in hefty campaign contributions from these same bankers. Health care? No relief for America's 45 million uninsured from Obama, who has a program unreservedly deferential to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. What about labor and the right to form a union — something virtually impossible to do in America today, where it's (barely) legal to go on strike but almost entirely illegal to win one. Seldom has a Democrat won the nomination with less IOUs to organized labor than Obama.

But surely Obama prevailed over Hillary in large part because she voted for the war in Iraq and he didn't. This year, Obama's statements on the war have been carefully hedged. McCain will have a tough time painting him into a corner as a peacenik without himself sounding like a crazed warmonger (which he frequently does). The war in Iraq is not popular in America, but the antiwar movement is effectively dead.

The only politically unorthodox item on Obama's record is that he has a black skin. As he runs against an elderly, unstable Republican candidate whose own mottled epidermis raises constant uneasy questions about possible battles with cancer, Obama should thank Bush 1 for making a black man chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and putting Clarence Thomas on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Bush 2 for making Condoleezza Rice Secretary of State. He should thank the Republican Party for nominating a candidate weaker by far than any he might have dreamed of only six months ago.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.



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