Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Melissa Harris-Perry Thinks I'm A Racist

Quite a hubbub has been sweeping the liberal/progressive media outlets lately regarding a column by Melisa Harris-Perry entitled “BlackPresident, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.”

Harris-Perry attempts to measure the electoral “roll-off” that can be ascribed to racism in the 2004 Senate race between then-State Senator Barack Obama and perennial wingnut candidate Alan Keyes, the 2008 general election, and the 1994 re-election of President Clinton. Her thesis, which is a bit murky, seems to be that by comparing the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, we can conclusively establish that the variable at play is racism on the part of white liberals (which is a political category that fits me pretty well, so I might as well kick someone). 

Astonishingly, my first and most major objection to Harris-Perry's column ("wait, Clinton wasn't a liberal") is contained within the column itself, written by the author as though it supports her point:

The relevant comparison here is with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Today many progressives complain that Obama's healthcare reform was inadequate because it did not include a public option; but Clinton failed to pass any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever.

Notice how the sole complaint that Harris-Perry raises with Obama's health care bill is that it "did not include a public option." Also notice that change is assumed to be a net positive here. Did Clinton fail on healthcare reform? Yes. Did Obama fail too? Yes,he did. Obama, rather than failing to deliver "any kind of meaningful healthcare reform whatsoever," instead gave us an enormous, taxpayer-funded giveaway to pharmaceutical companies -- a form of state intervention I intensely oppose.

If Clinton failed, does that mean that Obama's failures are unfair to point out andor discuss? Has the Democratic party hit the same crazy-button that the GOP has been mashing for years? Do we have a new 11th Commandment for Democrats? 

Frankly, one of the only things I admire about the Democrats is that they aren't as ideologically rigid or intensely partisan as the Republicans. Now Harris-Perry is going to accuse me of racism for opposing TWO Democratic presidents for being awful sell-outs who ran as progressives and governed as conservatives?

Others argue that Obama has been slow to push for equal rights for gay Americans, but it was Clinton who helped establish the "don't ask, don't tell" policy Obama helped repeal.

Obama didn't "help repeal" DADT. Clinton unilaterally instituted DADT, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Obama to repeal. As Kate Dailey at the Daily Beast writes:

"Calling for" the repeal [of DADT] and actually repealing it are two very different things...DADT was such a simple thing to repeal, such an easy way to make good on a promise and reward the progressives who helped vote him in with such a bold mandate.That mandate, they feel, as been wasted on politics as usual, and, for many, repealing DADT now is seen as a cynical ploy by the Obama camp to get back into good graces with the left.

Even in this case a comparison to Clinton doesn't stand up. Harris-Perry continues:

Still others are angry about appalling unemployment rates for Black Americans; but while overall unemployment was lower under Clinton, black unemployment was double that of whites during his term, as it is now. And, of course, Clinton supported and signed welfare "reform," cutting off America's neediest despite the nation's economic growth. 

Again -- the fact that Clinton did wrong does not Obama's wrongs right. Welfare reform has had a mixed effect (and that's the rosiest portrayal I'm willing to support based on the facts I have read).

Today, America's continuing entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan provoke anger, but while Clinton reduced defense spending, covert military operations were standard practice during his administration.

This is such a ridiculous sentence that I'm having a hard time taking it seriously. President Clinton balanced the budget and somehow managed to avoid getting us or keeping us involved in three simultaneous military actions (not to mention countless covert and possibly illegal drone missions).

Many argue that Obama is an ineffective leader, but the legislative record for his first two years outpaces Clinton's first two years. Both men came into power with a Democratically-controlled Congress, but both saw a sharp decline in their ability to pass their own legislative agendas once GOP majorities took over one or both chambers.

Again, examining "accomplishments" as such without examining whether such accomplishments constitute an improvement or a decline is silly. I'll grant Harris-Perry that Obama accomplished a great deal out of the gate. Unfortunately, much of that great deal isn't such a good deal for average US citizens -- the "too big to fail" bailouts and the gutless, toothless "reforms" of Wall Street that followed were quickly executed and pretty substantial: that does not make these weak reforms and murky government-to-bank transactions a positive accomplishment. 

I'm no huge fan of neoliberal or liberal economics, but to cite Frederic Bastiat's famous example, smashing windows is not an accomplishment, even though it technically "creates work." This is part of the larger liberal critique of Obama - namely, that instead of focusing on relief for working families or the middle class, Obama has instead focused on relief for the very sections of the populace (bankers, hedge fund managers, &c.) whose greed and criminal incompetence damn near destroyed one of the largest and most complex political economies the Earth has ever known.

These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises. One president is white. The other is black.

Actually Harris-Perry's essay does constitute an apology for the Obama administration, and what's more I can think of another major difference between Obama and Clinton (go figure). Clinton ran as a moderate; Obama ran as a progressive. Both govern like conservatives. Race has nothing to do with it.

1 comment:

  1. Very very well said. I read that same article and was so frustrated. I have many, many issues with President Obama and his policies, mostly because he ran with a progressive platform that does not match his actual policies since he has been in office. It has nothing to do with his race, but the promises of his campaign versus the reality of his presidency. I was also critical of Clinton - not for the sex scandal, about which I couldn't care less, but because of the drastic welfare cuts, military actions, and Don't Ask Don't Tell. I was offended at being branded "racist" simply for being critical of a president who happens to be half black.