A few days ago I wrote about a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by former Microsoft COO Bob Herbold, who had recently returned from a visit to China. Herbold was enthused by the strides that country is making toward building a modern infrastructure and investing in technology development and scientific research. The lesson he took away from China’s progress is that the US needs to deal with “the burden of entitlements”—no surprise, coming from the Journal’s editorial pages—and elect a unified government capable of emulating China’s five-year plans. He expressed admiration for China’s own government, saying that “[t]he autocratic Chinese leadership gets things done fast (currently the autocrats seem to be highly effective).”
Herbold is far from the only person who dreams of a unity government and has access to opinion pages. New York Times doofus Tom Friedman reliably calls for a gridlock-shattering third party representing the massive Tom Friedman segment of the electorate, although he stops short of recommending dictatorial powers for Michael Bloomberg or whichever “centrist” plutocrat/daddy figure he thinks can crack the whip over a fractious Congress and impose the grownup agenda favored by wealthy columnists across the land. (Particularly entertaining was his insistence that Bloomberg couldn’t be influenced by money because he already has most of it.)
Gridlock, though, is often (and often unfortunately) not as pervasive as it’s perceived to be by those who decry it. A divided Congress gave George W. Bush most of what he wanted, including two wars, a national security state on steroids and massive tax cuts. Despite two chambers full of crackhead Republicans and Democrats with all the authenticity of imitation crab meat, and lacking the scariest vice president ever, Barack Obama secured his corporate-friendly, Rube Goldberg health insurance reform plan, his own national security state enhancements and the repeal of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” (although he now appears reluctant to implement it). He didn’t get immigration reform, but neither did Bush.
We’re not, then, quite where Herbold wants us to be, but we’re getting there. Entitlements are on the chopping block; austerity is waiting in the wings. Obama may not immediately get the opportunity to sign into law the enormous spending cuts he has proposed, but only because congressional Republicans get progressively more demented with each step the president takes toward their agenda. What he has done is embed the argument for significant cuts to social welfare programs into the political consciousness to a degree that guarantees them, and sooner rather than later.
It’s a goal that eluded his right-wing predecessor in the White House for eight years; Obama has managed it in less than three.
His desire to erode social welfare programs isn’t the only arena in which Obama has emulated the Bush administration. Thanks to Jeremy Scahill’s investigative reporting in The Nation, we learned a few days ago that the CIA, under the very thin cover of a failed state’s security apparatus, continues to operate a black site in Somalia where prisoners can be held and interrogated without scrutiny from the Red Cross or human rights organizations; indeed, without any scrutiny from branches of the US government beyond the executive. Extraordinary rendition continues, with prisoners kidnapped from other states by CIA factotums and held under abysmal conditions in facilities operated by Somali agents on the US payroll.
That’s of a kind with the administration’s scorn for the UN Convention Against Torture, both the letter and spirit of which the Obama Justice department continually violates.
The US government has, for instance, an obligation to investigate credible allegations of torture. No more credible allegation of torture can exist than the public admissions—bragging, really—by the most senior officials of the previous administration that they ordered torture. Obama has responded by ignoring those admissions and further, by publicly legitimating the Nuremberg Defense for those who carried the orders out.
The government additionally has an obligation to provide torture victims the opportunity to seek legal redress for the crimes committed against them by the state. The Obama administration, though, has been even more zealous than the Bush administration about invoking national security—so-called state secrets—as a reason to quash court cases alleging torture or other abuses by the government.
Richard Nixon famously answered David Frost’s question about the president’s authority to order illegal acts by saying that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” As vice president, one-time Nixon assistant Dick Cheney openly embraced a modified version of the Nixon Doctrine. The Bush administration announced that anything they did during time of war was legal, and then took their chances in court.
That’s not Obama’s style. For the most part he’s been happy simply to build upon the Bush administration’s national security state advances against civil liberties. When he did introduce a historic innovation in executive branch overreach by neutering the War Powers Act, he wasn’t pugnacious about it. He simply announced that he could conduct drone wars and other more or less risk free air-to-ground exercises of whatever magnitude he wants without consulting Congress, and behaved as though everyone had known and simply forgotten that the definition of “hostilities” excludes situations in which the lives of US military personnel are not at substantial risk.
The executive branch passion for pushing the national security envelope isn’t primarily a left/right issue; it’s just what presidents do. They want more power, and national security is one of the easier cards to play to get it.
Concern for civil liberties has, however, traditionally been a left/right issue outside the White House (and still is for those on the actual left as opposed to the Congressional one). But only nine Democratic party senators voted against the recent extension of the PATRIOT Act, and only 22 Democratic representatives did. No one in Congress has sought to challenge the president’s assertion that he can order Americans executed without due process.
Undermining the New Deal obviously is as much a left/right issue for occupants of the Oval Office as for anyone else. Whether one believes that Obama has been pushed to the right or has simply followed his natural bent—I’m going to mostly disregard those delusional Obama supporters who think he has foiled Republicans at every turn—that’s what he proposes to do. And he’s pulling Congressional Democrats to the right right along with him, heading toward a convergence with what had long been an agenda championed only by the radical right.
Returning to Herbold: He thinks deficits are evil, as does almost everyone with access to the institutional press, and he wants the debt reduced. At the same time, he wants the US government to match China in spending enormous amounts of money on infrastructure repair, scientific research and cultivating new industries.
But the US isn’t China. We don’t have a large, favorable balance of trade and our economy isn’t and never will be growing at the pace theirs has during the past decade. We aren’t raking in the cash, the attitudes of the majority of federal legislators toward massive government projects run the gamut from indifference to revulsion, and we aren’t going to raise taxes enough to fund a Chinese-style modernization binge even if Congress wanted one and even if we dispensed with entitlement spending entirely.
It’s a lesson in “be careful what you wish for.” We’re on the cusp of that gridlock-free Congress, and we’re making great strides toward that autocratic executive. It’s just that it won’t usher in Friedman’s and Herbold’s dream era of economic boom times, infrastructure modernization and industrial growth. We’ll be unified, yes, and we’ll be well and truly fucked because of it.