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Obama and Boehner's Grand Bargain: Gullible Democrats Are Falling for the Ol' "Good Cop, Bad Cop" Routine

Wednesday, 12 December 2012 11:18 By Michael Hoexter, New Economic Perspectives | News Analysis
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Generally political analyses of the last four years suffer from two main faults:  they either describe an almost undifferentiated environment of complete political corruption or they pinpoint a single main source of our political downfall and attribute most “evil” to that source.  Both of these approaches can at times illuminate but ultimately they leave activists and citizens with prescriptions for a campaign of either unimaginative partisanship or ultimately exhausting efforts to joust at every powerful actor and institution on the political scene.  In other words, we are often left with either on the one hand “they’re all evil” and on the other “evil emanates mostly from this person/institution/party”.

We can probably agree that a completely polarized view of the world sometimes washes out critical details of that world.  It is very difficult to come up with examples of people or institutions that could be viewed as “purely evil” or “all good”.  Alternatively if we view the entire political world as the equivalent of a sewer, we are tempted to turn our backs on it and not do anything.

What is happening now in American politics surrounding the political theater called “the fiscal cliff”, must be understood with the utmost clarity because, in part, the organizers of what James K. Galbraith aptly calls a “scam” are counting on confusion and rash action to complete their scheme.  If we can understand what is going on with greater clarity, we may be able to highlight to more people the import of the events occurring and hopefully short-circuit the efforts of politicians to damage the social safety net and the economy more generally.

The Good Cop, Bad Cop Routine

One of the interrogation techniques developed by captors to extract information from their captives is famously called “the good cop, bad cop” routine (humorously acted out here with some modifications).  In this routine, one of the interrogators befriends the captive, while another interrogator makes threats or, what under most legal frameworks or codes of conduct is illegal or immoral, actually does harm to the captive.  The captive, who will tend to regress to a more child-like frame of mind in captivity, is more likely to eventually trust the “good cop” and the “good cop” will exploit this trust to try to extract the information needed from the captive, appearing to be more caring and friendly than the raging “bad cop”.  In crude psychological terms, the “good cop” acts the stereotypical maternal role, shielding the captive-child from the harsh punishment of an enraged father figure.  If applied in a setting where no one is physically held captive, the same routine can be deployed to extract concessions or compliance from others by the mix of the use of threats and blandishments, “sticks and carrots”.

The “good cop, bad cop” routine draws from such universal themes and impulses that the people involved do not necessarily have to explicitly plan out and discuss the scenario prior to implementing it.  Intuitive judgments and communication with each other, via what’s called “projective identification”, can allot various roles to the people within the “good cop, bad cop” team as well as communicate implicitly with the target/captive to act a certain way, against his or her interest.  Experience and practice can reinforce and “refine” the routine between acquaintances and co-workers.

The metaphor of a captive is unfortunately all too apt when considering the current US electorate in relationship to the Democratic and Republican Parties in the area of social spending and relationship to Wall Street.  As an example, neither major political party represents many Americans’ very positive attitudes about universal social welfare provisions like Social Security and Medicare.  Both Republicans and Democrats accuse each other of damaging these well-loved programs yet at the same time do not offer a consistent and principled defense of social welfare provisions and their continued funding into the future.  Both parties have shown themselves unable or unwilling to act independently of the will of Wall Street and bank lobbyists, with the possible exception of individual figures like Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren.  The same level of collusion can be found in relationship to the politics surrounding reinforcing our already massive national security and surveillance state.

Obama as “Good Cop”

The ascension of Obama to the Presidency, in particular “hems in” the electorate and closes the loop of elite Washington’s hostility to social programs, with the leaderships of both parties in an unacknowledged agreement that these programs should be downsized.   Obama has for a long time signaled that “entitlement reform” is on his agenda, an attitude that endeared him to the donor class in 2008 and onward.  Obama is able to treat economic progressives and a progressive agenda with contempt if he so chooses because, in the American political and media landscape, the deck is stacked against insurgent and left populist political forces.  The cultural semiotics that people associate with him (his African heritage and relatively exotic cultural background) has distracted progressives from the right-wing trends in his economic and political philosophy.  Many progressives continue to treat him as an ally and a friend despite copious evidence that in most crucial situations where he had a choice, Obama chose a non-progressive alternative.

Because the Republican Party is now such an extreme and often dysfunctional political grouping, Obama has with relative ease presented himself as the “good guy” in contrast to a series of grotesque Republican spokespeople and candidates.  In the contest to win the leftward side of the political spectrum over to his side, he has not had to present many substantive policy proposals that commit him or the Democrats to an economically progressive or populist agenda.  Obama has rarely had to pretend that he is a progressive during his Presidency because he has had willing support from almost every major political actor or pundit from the political center to the moderate left.

Obama’s Courtship of the Right

Despite the grotesqueness of many of his nominal political opponents, Obama has had an embarrassingly worshipful attitude towards the Republicans and the Right.  Rather than attempt to fight for principled progressive or “liberal” causes, Obama has seemed to gaze longingly at political actors and ideas that are substantially to the Right of the concerns of his base.  For instance, rather than take advantage of the financial crisis of 2008 to push through needed reforms of the financial system, Obama has continued to prop up that system, almost to the surprise of the outgoing Bush Administration players.  In other ways, Obama has continued George W. Bush’s campaign of reinforcing the military and quasi-military powers of the US government versus the rights of both non-Americans and increasingly Americans themselves.

Perhaps believing too much that he needs to turn the other cheek and appear to be “above politics”, Obama was relatively flat-flooted in his reponses to the misguided and slanderous Tea Party attacks on him and his health care reform.  The design of health care reform was in some way designed to a be a “love letter” to the moderate Republican right, with its individual mandates and the massive subsidy that it represented to the bloated US healthcare industry, very much like Bush’s Medicare Part D.

Some black commentators in the pro-Obama camp treated Obama’s passivity in the face of right-wing attack as a necessary preservative mechanism for Obama to avoid appearing like an “angry black man”, which would doom his re-election chances.  Obama’s lack of an affirmative defense of his own policies and himself had as most notable victims, the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate with which he was elected in 2008.  Obama didn’t seem to stand for much in terms of an overarching vision and the Democratic Party didn’t either, so the impassioned Tea Party Republicans cleaned up in House races in 2010.  Additionally on the state level, Republicans won in many state legislatures, increasing the grip of the right-wing foundation-funded ALEC legislative initiatives.

Executing the Obama ‘Grand Plan’

Apparently, given recent events and Obama’s continued fetish of the Grand Bargain, a more plausible theory about Obama’s conduct in office and in politics more generally can now be discerned, though this was predicted by Adolph Reed prior to Obama’s 2008 election.  This exposition of a “Grand Plan” will also not be any news to the many critics of Obama from the progressive left who have emerged over the past four years, as they have seen his responses to a variety of crises as well as his tendency to side almost always with the corporate establishment and moneyed interests and against ordinary people.

Obama apparently believes in continuing the neoliberal agenda started by Ronald Reagan, carried on by the Bushes and Bill Clinton, which means a reduction of the social spending of government and a weakening overall of the role of government in the economy.  Instead of government, Obama is continuing the push towards installing corporations as the delivery mechanisms for primary services, including in the areas of healthcare and education.  Simultaneously he believes in strengthening the war-fighting and surveillance abilities of the US government but in a way that is less ideologically-driven than his predecessor, George W. Bush.   Obama can in no way be mistaken for someone who supports or upholds the idea that government can and should directly provide some basic services to the people, which has been a guiding principle for Democratic politics since the Great Depression.

Obama has a fundamental, primary alliance with the “Third Way” wing of the Democratic party which in policy terms has been occupying the political space left by “moderate, Wall Street Republicans” who were kicked out of the Republican Party over the past two decades.  Obama has a fatal attraction to the balanced-budget mantra of Pete Peterson and the deficit hawks and Obama seems uninterested in offering a meaningful alternative to their demands for a government that is hamstrung by meaningless budget rules borrowed from business accounting.  The institution of balanced budget and public debt reduction programs as the fiscal policy of the United States federal government via social program cuts ultimately serves the expansion of Wall Street financial interests into the provision of pensions and insurance for the elderly.

The Obama “Grand Plan” then is to maintain divided government to achieve something like the Grand Bargain, where both parties seemingly unite around an agenda of weakening the social welfare state, and moderately raising taxes on the wealthy.  Obama’s belief in raising taxes on the wealthy is the sole “fig leaf” that keeps him and others from recognizing how far to the political Right the rest of his agenda is.  Some Republicans are now realizing what a good deal it is for them to dump Grover Norquist’s pledge and hop onto Pete Peterson’s balanced budgets mantra:  they get only moderate rises in taxes while social spending is cut differentially (3 or 4 to 1).

The Search for a Bad Cop

If we accept that he is holding to a (perverse) Grand Plan, Obama need to rely on something like “the good cop, bad cop” routine rather than lead a progressive or Democratic majority government for a number of reasons.  Obama’s political appeal is in part because he can veil his Grand Plan behind the projections of progressivity which gullible liberal Democrats cast onto him.  The Grand Plan is not difficult to discern for those who note the decisions Obama has made when “unforced” but it must be interlarded with the appearance of “coolness” and friendliness that his supporters love.  Coolness to them means at least a moderate endorsement of some of the social agenda that is considered “liberal” in the US, though standards for Obama are set extremely low by worshipful Democrats.

Obama’s quest for bipartisanship has been in part the quest for a “bad cop” who would push his agenda in a manner so that his “good cop” image could remain relatively unsullied in the view of the public and perhaps even to himself.  It is likely that Obama thinks of himself as essentially a pragmatist without political allegiance to a fundamental ideology or vision, a man who simply moves society and its constellation of social forces along as they seem to tend rather than push them according to commitments to abstract principles that would bend the trajectory of society.  However to be this pragmatist and also a political leader, he has the need to be perceived by others as representing “larger than self” ideals, even though he himself may not share those ideals.

The Republicans, now led by Boehner, have been fairly consistent in playing the “bad cop” role, as least as regards the Democratic base.  They carry with them so many signifiers of “political enemy” to liberals that they can be easily blamed for whatever is considered objectionable.  We still have left of center bloggers who are attributing to Republicans all of the animus against social programs, thereby exonerating Obama of any of this desire.  Howard Dean’s Democracy for America just sent me a fundraising email in which he attributes the interest in cutting Medicare to Republicans, which is misleading and naïve to say the least.  The current media landscape on the supposed political left in the US results from a triumph of misdirection by Obama and his handlers.  He is experiencing very little pressure at this late date from progressives, in a situation where he has a number of “outs” out of the fiscal “cliff” he has gotten himself into but instead pursues his quixotic “Grand Bargain”.

Another function of Republicans as “bad cop”, is that Obama needs a foil against which to agitate for what ultimately is a relatively lightweight concession of higher taxes on the rich that, in our economy overreliant on high-end good sales, could in isolation do economic harm.  The “good cop, bad cop” routine provides the appearance of conflict and displaces political conflict away from where the conflict of interests really are, between the Washington and Wall Street establishments and the American people and businesses tied to the real economy.  In economic terms, the discussion is at a complete remove from what Modern Money school economists and consistent Keynesians are pointing out: that both cutting spending and raising taxes drains demand from the already-weak economy, slowing it and pushing it back into recession.

Prescription:  Independent Social Movements

Now that the prospect of a President Romney is securely behind us, the Democratic base needs to re-think who are their real allies in Washington and in particular call Obama to task for calling for austerity.  The idealization of Obama should be dismantled and a real assessment of his policies and political tendencies needs to occur.  This will no doubt be a painful process as Obama, as the first black President of the US, is a cherished figure, a talisman of racial wrongs partially righted.  He is also relative to many politicians a relatively “cool” seeming guy, which unfortunately has blinded his base to his actual policy agenda.  However Obama is just the tip of the iceberg: the political infrastructure of the Democratic Party and its relationship to groups like Third Way, needs to be exposed and subjected to sustained scrutiny from the outside of the Party.

Roosevelt Democrats or their modern equivalent are now not well represented in the Party at a time when policies inspired by Roosevelt would have been almost exactly what was called for by the circumstances.  A sustained commitment to building a well-functioning mixed economy cannot occur within the confines of the current Democratic Party.  Every effort to turn to this task will quickly be absorbed into an attempt to elect one or the other Democratic figure who promises reform but comes up short, or simply turns their back on the legacy of Roosevelt and the base of the Party.

Independent social movements should emerge that take as their goal policy goals issues like expanding Medicare, reinforcing Social Security, and pressuring the entire government, Democrats and Republicans, to deal with climate change (the latter movement is already in motion).  If people prefer a programmatic rather than issue-based vision, I would suggest a movement to restore and enhance our already mixed economy with a focus on the main challenges of our day, many of which are bound up with the huge climate and energy challenge looming ever larger.

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